A dialectic commentary of personal history is presented in Chantal Akerman’s News From Home (1976-77); a feature length cinematic experiment that seems born of cathartic necessity rather than simply creative ambition. Akerman had been working her way up throughout the 1970s and News From Home was made after her critical appreciation had grown, largely thanks to the impossible-to-ignore vigour of her 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles as well as her coldly erotic Je Tu Il Elle (1976). This seems like a project from someone who was very earnestly haunted by certain memories, perhaps even guilt at the trajectory necessary to achieve her overall creative goal.
News From Home is first and foremost a visual and ethnographical document of 1970s New York. The film has no strict narrative but instead spends time capturing and creating a sense of place; one that is surprisingly sparse for a city that supposedly doesn’t sleep. Akerman frames New York with a beautiful sense of light, brought over from the earlier Hotel Monterey (1972) to create an Edward Hopper aesthetic of low-lights for low streets. The Hopper comparison is one often trotted out but Akerman’s films here seem genuinely to manifest his aesthetic ideals with the two artists sharing a general interest in the geographical interpretation of spatial time. These are the shadowy lights that place a sheath of normality over the subversive throbbing of American city life.
Hopper was famous for stating the following: “Maybe I am not very human – what I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Akerman channels this idea and also answers the question that Hopper rhetorically poses through the natural juxtaposition presented in News From Home. The director famously moved over to New York in the early 1970s to become a filmmaker though not before working numerous low-paid jobs, infamously selling tickets at a porno theatre to buy her celluloid. Akerman’s film argues that it is human to want to document these aspects, the sun on the house, the Nighthawks-esque hotel, the empty streets, and the bustling train station but she also argues that it is only humanistic to do so if shot through with a personal reflection or perhaps even inflection.
New From Home is connected to Akerman’s personal life through the aural presence of a voice, supposedly her mother’s, as she reads out genuine letters sent to the young director when she first moved away. This is another answer to Hopper’s rhetorical question; in other words “I’m living in this city to make my work and to do so, I’m having to have a more sparing relationship with my parents.” It’s still humanistic but, in returning to an idea and an aesthetic of her work before her first successes, Akerman is clearly attesting some form of self-accusation lingering on from her days of creative struggle. It’s a natural phenomena but one that links over from the sense of growing distance in the letters themselves.
The viewer never hears what Akerman sent back but it’s obvious that her replies became less frequent, less personal, and chooses to hide the life she was having to lead in order to stay true to her own creativity. The mother’s voice becomes cloying and increasingly desperate to know what her daughter is doing to sustain herself. Akerman doesn’t even tell her when she’s moving apartments until far after the event in spite of receiving a steady flow of money, support, and even occasionally clothing. This sense of love and a longing for the family unit (desired chiefly by the parents) is simultaneously at odds with the Hopper philosophy and supportive of it.
Akerman has to walk the beautiful but nervous streets in order to create her work (both in the sense that she worked her jobs in the city and in the physical sense of actually making the film itself). By doing this, she must throw off the loving comfort and shackles of her home life (at least at that point in her career), therefore fighting the more human-side of her existence to replace it with a probably empty form of low-wage hour dragging. Yet it also seems like a pertinent sacrifice; if she had not succumb to this Hopper ideal, painting her city with the same moody pallets and philosophy as the painter, then perhaps Akerman would not have made her other films and become the creative success that allowed her to return home (a theme she would also cover in Les Rendez-Vous D’Anna (1978) which hints at a negative outcome) .
This sums up why News From Home is one of the most affecting critiques of the creative process. The film shows the potential loss of comfort, the loss of humanity, and the dive into the great pool of a living, pulsating city needed to fully grasp the creative spark. Akerman’s film suggests that this is a loss of humanity, not in a negative way but in a transient sense; for while her sense of distance and almost selfish determination to create would flower into a startling artistic talent, the journey was one that was always circular rather than simply linear, the need to address her own self-depreciation eventually quashed by the fruition of the successful artist.