Chantal Akerman’s New York Films

Chantal Akerman’s early films are often compared to the work of Michael Snow.  I do not mean to undermine the obvious legitimacy of this claim when I say that there is also an evident relation to the films of Hollis Frampton.  What these three filmmakers have in common beyond their formalist tendencies is a label bestowed upon them by film critics in the late sixties, structural filmmakers.

As the heirs to Underground film, structural filmmakers sought to pursue the subversive modes of deconstruction that Warhol, Brakhage and Mekas began earlier in the decade.  Out of the three filmmakers I first mentioned, it seems worthwhile to note that only Akerman dabbled in narrative filmmaking.  This does not equate her with Warhol necessarily, but it leaves her work as a whole open to a wider variety of interpretation than either Frampton or Snow.

Regardless, Chantal Akerman cannot escape her debt to Frampton and Snow, nor should she.  For it was with her early films in New York that she demonstrated what a unique voice and mature filmmaker she was in the Underground Film world.  Her “New York” films all utilize the investigation of space that originated in Snow’s film Wavelength (1967).  Each probing different locales with long running shots of limited movement.  La Chambre (1972) recreates the effects of Wavelength quite intentionally, demonstrating the necessity for such filmic investigations of any space.  Hotel Monterey (1972) takes this concept a step further, combining the rigors of formalist filmmaking with the “plastic realities” of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966).  Like Chelsea Girls, Hotel Monterey investigates a number of corridors, rooms and elevators, each single space given the same investigative approach as La Chambre.  But by stringing all of these locations within the hotel together into one film, Akerman has painted detailed tableaux, a living portrait of the building’s interiors.

News From Home (1976) goes the furthest.  Now Akerman has moved beyond the portraiture of place that defined Hotel Monterey and the investigation of space that was the heart of La Chambre into the world of memory and subjective experience.  The place is not a hotel, but New York City as it exists in the memory of Akerman.  The space of the city itself is no longer important, what is important is what the audience is or isn’t shown and how those places within the city are photographed.  In this, each shot of News From Home could be considered the equivalent of one of Hollis Frampton’s burning photographs in Nostalgia (1971).  Where Frampton’s photographs burn, Akerman’s cut away to another image.  Frampton restricts his subjectivity to the realities of objective physicality while Akerman relegates all these concepts to the fantasy of film, pushing the boundaries of what the frame can hold.  Akerman’s is perhaps the most fully realized psychological portrait of memory ever committed to film.  She has arranged the city in shots sculpted from memory and has investigated the contents of these shots with the obsession for detail of La Chambre.

But there is still her voice.  Akerman imbues the soundtrack of News From Home into the experience, which she is now recounting with images to the audience.  The soundtrack itself is composed exclusively of her voice over, reading letters she wrote when first in New York in 1972 to her mother.  This vocal performance of Akerman’s is colored with the passage of time, with hindsight.  So although the text is as authentic as the shot set-ups and the camera moves are in recreating her memories, the voice that reads the text is as removed from memory and the past as the contents of the frame, which have gone on in existence while Akerman was away.

Conceptually News From Home is a continuation of the themes Frampton pursued with Nostalgia, but more heavily internalized and subjectified.  From here, it becomes simply one step to achieve the accolades that Akerman’s narrative work has garnered.

-Robert Curry

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