July Theme Month

News From Home and the Curse of an Early Masterpiece

At times, Orson Welles was known to express that he felt Citizen Kane, though proclaimed by many as the greatest film of all time, had been a hindrance to his filmmaking career. Putting out his so-called masterpiece to such acclaim while only in his mid-20s, nothing could ever live up to the expectations it set, even as most of Welles’s films in the following decades continued to experiment with cinematic form in new and astounding ways. It’s a curse that extends far beyond Welles though, with many directors who managed to create a masterpiece early in their career never reaching anywhere close to that level of recognition again. One such director is Chantal Akerman, whose Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, made when she was just 25, has firmly entered the cinematic cannon as a classic while the rest of her work still receives significantly less recognition despite displaying a greater maturity and control of style that naturally followed another nearly forty years of filmmaking. In fact, even a year after Jeanne Dielman, in her follow up, News from Home, Akerman was already taking the techniques used in that film to a more extreme endpoint worthy of just as much study and appreciation.

In News from Home, Akerman’s second foray into documentary filmmaking, she reads letters she received from her mother while spending a year living in New York City while the images show various parts of the city. As in her previous films, the photography is often slow moving, showing everything in real time and allowing everything to be absorbed without much dialogue or story to distract. There’s no formal plot development but instead a story emerges through the deliberate pacing and the slowing down of the narration. The slowness of the imagery forces the viewer to become aware of the passage of time, becoming attuned to the monotony of daily life in the city. Meanwhile, the narration gives us messages from Akerman’s mother about her own daily life, her concerns for her daughter, and a passive aggressive attempt to guilt her daughter for failure to write back frequently. As the film progresses, the narration becomes less and less frequent and the imagery becomes the full focus, signaling a fading connection to home with the greater integration into life in New York City. Akerman often spoke of her closeness to her mother, later making further films about their relationship, and News from Home seems to show this fading connection was a reason for her move back to Belgium where she would make her most acclaimed works.

Though the film is formally exceptional, its greatest appeal to me is that it elicits the feelings of a life sometimes not so unlike my own. I’ve lived across the world from my family before and had conversations that aren’t terribly different from the ones contained in Akerman’s letters, anticipating returns to the other side of the ocean and trying to remain apprised of the lives back home. Now, like so many other aspiring filmmakers, I currently live in New York City and the city has become my life. The city is like nowhere else and contains a new story on every block, just waiting to be captured by some intrepid artist, but most of the time seems to slip into routine. Just as in the film, the subway train barreling down the track or the hum of traffic down the street are constant fixtures in my life and, along with so much else, let the rest of the world gradually slip away, allowing for a feeling of isolation in the hustle and bustle. But somewhere in it is some deeper meaning waiting to be discovered. Someone among my contemporaries must be just as Akerman was when she lived here, just on the verge of that breakthrough and the creation of a masterpiece. 

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