News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

News From Home

When we finally moved out of a trailer park lot and into a small house that made us neighbours with our grandparents it felt like we were going to be a normal family.  Wasn’t long after we moved in that the men in my family started laying down gravel so all of us could park or drive out to work easier. It always kicked up such awful dust clouds that obscured vehicles on the way out. It was almost cinematic to watch things fade off into the distance. They never figured out why it kicked up so much debris, but it became a character trait of where we lived. I always liked it. I felt like it gave our mundane tasks something more. I was obsessed with Westerns at the time we moved in so I always liked to think of it like the end of all those classic movies where cowboys would ride off into the sunset. The last my mom ever saw of me was probably that same dirt cloud when I drove my truck away from home in 2014. I was finally free of the burdens of Kentucky. Of masculinity. Of my abusive father. It was one of the best days of my life. It was one of the worst for my mom.  

I have you on my heart this morning. I miss you more than you know. I wish you could come home, if only for a little while”.

-my mom

In Chantal Akerman’s, News From Home (1977) she stitches together in voice over, letters from her mother, and images of New York City. Her images are often mundane, stretched out for an extreme amount of time, as people go about their daily jobs/habits/hobbies. Akerman is a rigorous filmmaker who believes that time must be felt when telling a story, and she usually manages this by forcing viewers to really sit with an image so they consider everything in her frames. During the 1970s she moved to New York City and made a few films that would help cement her as one of the most important filmmakers of her generation. News From Home is likely the most significant of these, and may very well be the best film she’s ever made. In these images of New York City she isolates everyone and everything by merely showing what others do in their day to day lives. Here’s this city, a total hub for art and life, at least that’s what they tell you, and everyone is cornered off in their own little world. This has the effect of tinging her version of New York City with a melancholy that is then amplified through the voice over of the director who is reading letters from her mother about what is going on back home. Akerman’s mother aches for her child and is in grief for the loss of having access to her daughter, the fracturing of her family unit and her normal. Chantal, on the other hand, is considering what she had to give up to follow her artistic impulses, and the images of New York are used as a fulcrum for her negotiation of how individuality and family can be in conflict with one another. But individuality is always a lonely road. Chantal Akerman had to move to New York, but breaking the heart of her mother was the cost.

Chantal Akerman has always been interested in the ways subjectivity can be made artistic. All of her movies intertwine elements of memoir, narrative and experimentation, and one of the biggest over-arching themes of her work is that her mother is her home. In her very last film, No Home Movie (2015) she skypes with her mother, and asks her questions about her life, her family, and her upbringing. It’s a final gift to her mother whose words in News From Home are now made physical into an image. Her mother was sick at the time, but she was still passionate about her daughter’s interests; always probing as mothers tend to do. In long sequences of conversation the distance between Chantal and her mother seems completely non-existent. They’re attached, like all mothers and daughters. They converse in a rhythm and language that only belongs to them. Chantal’s mother lives in her movies, and there is an immortality that came with that instinct that means it’s impossible to think of the work of Chantal Akerman without considering her mother Natalia. Akerman’s dedication to chronicling her relationship with her mother as it evolved through the years is a defining quality of her work. They are these brief glimpses of beauty across decades and they told us everything about her mother and herself.  

Sometimes Akerman’s titles will tell us everything we need to know about the movie. In the closing moments of No Home Movie, after Natalia Akerman has passed away, Chantal ties her shoes, pulls a curtain closed, pushes her hair back, out of her eyes, and walks out of frame in silhouette. There is then a cut to an empty room, adorned meticulously in familial symmetry and the film ends. It’s a fitting final image to the career of a pioneer: a woman known for asking audiences to observe women in spaces now showing audiences an empty one—one without Chantal, one without Natalia Akerman. An image to tear a hole in the fabric of cinema like she did with her entire career. A hole that will never be filled by another director. In one last gift to the world, Chantal Akerman gave us a portrait of her mother—a woman she loved, a woman who was home for a director who often felt like she didn’t have one.

There’s context in these titles: News From Home. No Home Movie. They’re the Genesis and Revelations of Akerman’s work and form a complete picture of the relationship that she had with her mother. In News From Home she juxtaposes these aching stories of summer, in the deep romance of family with these images of a hollowed-out, lonely, New York City. It’s a filmmaking decision that still floors me to this day. There are two stories happening side-by-side in News From Home, and they are both illuminated through Akerman’s dedicated experimentation. As the film goes along we hear from less from Natalia, and she fades while these images of New York become more stark and take on a dominant effect. New York becomes over-powering and it only amplifies the restless displacement of Akerman’s form. Akerman’s mother begins to transform into memory, and distance becomes the defining factor in their relationship.

My mom sends me letters about once a week in the form of a prayer card with slogans like “a home is hope and joy” printed across the front. Over the years I’ve received hundreds of these cards, and before I open them I know what they’re going to say, because they always say the same thing. She misses me. She’s praying for me. She wants me to come home. My mom knows I have to live my own life, but she’s never gotten used to the idea that she’d have to live without me and my brother. It’s severe empty-nest syndrome and I should have probably seen this coming when I was a child. She was never happier than when she was telling me of her experiences during pregnancy, which I was always eager to absorb. She used to always say things like giving birth to me was the best day of her life. She put all of her stock into being a mother. It’s all she ever wanted to be, and now that she’s left to her own devices she is lost. The urge for motherhood is something she passed this down to me in some ways. And as I get older I begin to feel more like her. I can’t get pregnant, but being a mother is a desire that I have that I cannot act on directly so I have to let it drift away until the moment where it could feasibly become a reality through something like adoption. I don’t want to make some of the same mistakes I know she made by being overbearing and too protective of my brother and I, but I know I’m made of the same stuff. I can see her in myself, and it is a struggle to know that I can’t talk to her about these things mother to daughter, because my transness is never something she’s fully accepted. Despite this, I still love her, and I am sometimes burdened with the thought that in order for me to survive I had to leave, but doing so broke her heart, probably forever.

It’s difficult for me to rewatch News From Home with this new, real life, context. I’m far away from my mother, the same as Chantal and I wonder if she felt guilt too, leaving when she did. I can’t watch without thinking of my own letters from home. Some of Natalia’s words echo my mother’s. Sometimes word for word. It has this scary effect of feeling too close to the spirit of my own life as it unfolds in front of my eyes, and I struggle knowing that there was no easy way for my mother or I to get out of this situation without wounding one another.

The final image of News From Home is a static shot of New York City drifting away, getting smaller and smaller from the perspective of a boat leaving port. It plays like a reverse Ellis Island. There’s no voice over in this scene. Just the size of a city shrinking, and fading. I wonder what my mom thought when she saw my car drifting away behind that cloud of dust. In her heart, I think she knew she wasn’t going to see me for a long time. I think she knew that this was goodbye.

I wish I could see her, but more than that I wish she could see me.

this essay was originally published on my patreon in 2019. It was re-edited and re-published on May 5, 2020

Missing the Cinema

David Bowie in “Labyrinth”

I was browsing twitter late one evening on the night David Bowie died. No one really believed that he had passed away when the faint whispers of death began to get louder. I thought it was a hoax. Everyone did. But it wasn’t a cruel prank, and when the weight of his death settled in it felt like some of the magic in the world had slipped away. That great album he had released only days prior changed dramatically with this news. It now carried the weight of deaths and goodbyes behind it, but it also reaffirmed the belief his fans had in the shape shifting and bountiful creativity that Bowie always possessed. Needless to say we were all hurting when he passed away. Fans of his went out into the streets and sang “Starman”; a kind of public grieving and shared togetherness that feels impossible now. I never want to forget the image of hundreds reaching out together to say goodbye to someone who mattered in their lives. It helped us all at once move on together. That morning my husband, my best friend and I sat on a bedroom floor listening to Bowie as the sun rose and in between crying fits of disbelief we talked about how much Bowie meant to all of us.

A few weeks before David Bowie passed away our local cinema had announced a screening of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986). Bowie stars in the film as the Goblin King. He’s a sorcerer of sorts, seductive in his tight fitting onesie, cod-piece and all, with billowy anime hair. He scared me in this movie when I was a child, but I was also attracted to him. I fell in love with the danger that his sex offered before I ever gave a damn about his music. Years later I’d be drawn to his muddying of gender and the latent homosexuality of the simulated fellatio that he sold with Ziggy Stardust era guitarist Mick Ronson. Along with Lou Reed he was this totemic figure of queerness when I came out of the closet as a trans woman in 2011. It was so easy to get swept up in songs like “Walk on the Wild Side”, “Candy Says” or “Rebel Rebel”. These songs suggested a world I wanted to live in, like a yellow-brick road to self-fulfillment and existence. But before David Bowie could be a guardian angel for a trans girl with broken wings he was a goblin king.

My David Bowie story isn’t unique. Before the screening fans of Bowie were showing up to the theatre dressed as the man, or wearing t-shirts that adorned his face. Some wore Ziggy facepaint. It was very clear that the two-hundred or so people that were there for Labyrinth were there for David Bowie. When the movie began I wondered what kind of energy the screening would have, and I learned very quickly that this was not going to be a funeral dirge. Everyone there was tired of crying and when David Bowie made his first appearance in the film the audience exploded in applause and cheers. I’ll never forget that moment. The weight of Bowie’s passing was still there, but we didn’t come together on that day to say “goodbye”. We were there to say “thank you”, and it would not have been possible without the communal experience that cinema offers.

There’s really nothing else like going to the movies. After all these years I still find something infinitely magical about the experience of the lights going down. It’s the only place where you can be alone and with others at the same time. I love the experience of walking out of a movie after the credits have rolled. The world is a different place after a truly captivating movie, because the great ones will hang in the atmosphere. You can physically feel the movie when they’re special or if you’ve had a memorable experience with the crowd. With all the restrictions in place right now due to COVID-19 I’ve worried about the life of the cinematic experience going forward. If going to the movies isn’t viable anymore or if it changes to alienate us with more distance then a moment like the one I had with Labyrinth will struggle to exist, and I find that immeasurably sad. I’ve often compared the cinema to church. I’ve told friends of mine that I go a little batty if I go a long time without going to a movie theatre. I haven’t been to one in two months, and I find myself missing the cinema more and more, but I’ve also been thinking of all the great memories I’ve had at the movies like watching Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019) with my best friend three times in one week when they visited or when an older woman told me and my husband that she was happy to see young people appreciate the classics after a Sunday matinee screening of City Lights (1931). I think more than anything I miss people, and the possibility to share the experience of movies with them. Watching over Zoom or Skype or through streaming is not the same thing, and we all know this to be true. I don’t know when it’s going to be safe to go to the movies again, but I hope that they’ll be waiting for us when we come back.

During this pandemic my childhood theatre that I considered my real home closed up shop for good. The place wasn’t taken care of and hadn’t been renovated since my mom saw it open in the 1980s. She used to talk to me about sneaking out to see Purple Rain (1984) on opening night with her best friend. She wore these purple boots with jewels encrusted on them, teased her hair with an entire can of aquanet (not really an exaggeration) and wore a baggy Prince t-shirt. After Prince passed away in 2016 I got the chance to see Purple Rain in a cinema as well. I drew his symbol on my left arm and wore purple. It wasn’t as celebratory as Labyrinth, but with the screening I had the chance to be sad and say goodbye and see him full of life performing his music. I felt connected to my mom when I watched the movie. I haven’t seen her in years, but when I heard the cinema back home had closed down I thought about her time there as a teenager, and my time there as a teenager. Because it hadn’t been renovated I felt close to the stories she told and the history of the place. They were even slow to switch to digital, and projected on film up until 2010. That place is now empty and I assume it’ll be torn down as my home-town begins to look more and more like a place with history, but not one with a future.

The cinema has this spiritual magnetic quality to it, and I miss it more and more by the day. I’ll probably weep the next time I walk through the doors of a movie house for a screening, but I wonder if it’ll come with a sense of relief that some of the old ways of life can be preserved or if it’ll feel like a boxer standing up for another round when he should have just stayed down. I don’t know what the future holds for any of us, and I’d be naive to say that what we’re experiencing right now will be the only massive shift in our day to day lives with things like climate change needing to be addressed, but I hope the cinematic experience can survive. I long for wasted days of a time gone by filled with the simple pleasures of catching whatever is playing next and then getting a coffee and chatting about what I saw with a friend.

And if the cinema I remember is gone or has been changed irrevocably from this virus then I will remember the times I spent in the theatre as the most wonderful thing I ever had the chance to experience. and I’ll probably never be quiet about how much I loved going to the movies.