A Journey Through The Eclipse Series – Chantal Akerman’s New York Films

People here are surprised. They say New York is terrible, inhumane. Perhaps they don’t really know it and are too quick to judge.

This past weekend’s anniversary observance of the 9/11 terrorist attacks led me to browse through my collection of Eclipse DVDs, wondering what would be an appropriate selection for this week’s column on such a solemn occasion? I considered a couple of titles from the Ingmar Bergman set: Crisis and Torment seemed like intriguing possibilities to at least match the mood of that terrible day. But I took a look at Eclipse Series 19: Chantal Akerman in the Seventies and noticed a disc titled ‘The New York Films.’ Though Washington DC and Shanksville, Pennsylvania also bore the brunt of the carnage, it’s always the mental image of New York City, specifically lower Manhattan, that gets summoned up when I think about 9/11. So based on the rather tenuous connection, I decided to give that DVD a look and share my thoughts about it with you here.

The three movies that comprise the New York Films are early works by Chantal Akerman, a Belgian director whose most famous film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, was published last year by Criterion around the same time as this Eclipse set. That continued their occasional trend of synchronizing complementary releases of those two product lines, reserving their deluxe treatment for the major works and letting the minor films stand on their own in relatively inexpensive box sets, without supplemental features beyond the liner notes. From a strictly marketing perspective, this makes a lot of sense. None of these three films would sell enough on their own to warrant major distribution, not even as a standalone disc with all three included. They are presented primarily to document significant stages of development in the career of a woman who became a major figure in contemporary avant garde cinema, and my hunch is that if she had not gone on to bigger things in that scene, the formal experiments found here would not generate that much interest nowadays. Even though my response to these films is ultimately favorable, especially in light of the climax they build up to as a set, it needs to be said, this collection is probably best sampled first before purchasing. Akerman takes her cinema in directions that many viewers are not prepared to appreciate.

La Chambre

The first film in this set is an 11 minute short subject that is almost laughable in its simplicity, the kind of High Art Conceptual Piece that generates scornful disdain or mocking dismissal from your average popcorn-munching movie fan. Basically, a camera is mounted on a tripod and pans around a small, cramped apartment a few times. All the objects in the room (ordinary ‘stuff of life’ like second-hand furniture, a tea kettle, fruit on a table, an umbrella, a dish rack, a calendar, discarded garments and so on) remain stationary except for a person, Ms. Akerman herself, 21 years old at the time, who lays on a bed in her nightgown (nothing revealing, don’t get excited guys, no precursors to YouTube-era exhibitionism on display here) and shifts her position each time the lens passes her way. First she’s just glancing sideways into the camera, then she’s rolling around under the sheets, then she’s fondling an apple, then she starts chewing on it – kind of seductively, perhaps, but mostly just eating an apple. The camera pauses briefly a couple of times and changes direction. That’s the dramatic suspenseful part! There’s a human hand guiding the camera, and you can get a quick glimpse of the operator in the bottom of a circular mirror between the two windows. That’s just one of the details that stood out to me after watching La Chambre a couple of times without noticing it the first time around. The film is a formal exercise; there’s no ‘a ha!’ moment of surprise discovery hidden in the film that I’ve been able to discern either in my viewing or by reading about it. Akerman just built on her contemporary influences, came up with the idea and executed it. One’s initial reaction to La Chambre (and to a certain extent, the other films on this disc) could be along the lines of ‘What the hell? I could film that! Anybody could film that!’ But the point is, Chantal Akerman already did film it, and she built from that experiment, applying her technique in creative and original ways as she perfected her cinematic vision.

Hotel Monterey

The complexity factor increases a bit here in this hour-long silent film, shot the same year (1972) as La Chambre. The subject expands beyond one room and one rotating point of view to an entire building, which happens to be a nondescript single occupancy hotel located somewhere on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (we learn that at the end, when the camera finishes its ascent from the lobby, where Hotel Monterey opens, to the roof, with concluding shots that peer up to the sky and to the hills across the Hudson River.) Beginning without any credits or titles, the opening two-minute shot, of a wall and corner column, is enlivened only by a small mirror reflecting a pair of men, probably desk attendants, in conversation. One of them is smoking. Two other men briefly flash across the screen, then an old woman walks the other way. Cut to an empty reception area. Again mirrors reveal people who are standing off camera. The shot tilts upward slightly. Nothing is happening. A gentleman strolls by. You might ask, What is the point of all this?!?

You the viewer are left to draw your own conclusion as the next 58 minutes of Hotel Monterey roll off the spool. Are we supposed to contemplate the plight of the elderly tenants who amble their way across the screen from time to time? Is this a critique of the social and economic conditions that drove these folks to live in such shabby conditions? Is Akerman trying to refresh our perspective on the functions and possibilities of film as a medium for capturing the mundane moments of life as it’s actually lived, as opposed to the fictionalized intensity of popular cinema? Why does she insist on leaving the film silent?

Some of the shots carry hints of intrigue. Situating her camera inside a small elevator elicits momentary reactions from people stepping in who presumably wonder, ‘Is that thing turned on?’ or ‘Who’s taking my picture and what’s going to happen with that film?’ But the focus is as much on the mechanics of the elevator’s operation as it is on the people riding it (or choosing not to get on once they see the camera.) The doors close, we count the floors going up… and coming down… five or six stories, so it appears.

The most famous, even iconic, image from Hotel Monterey is of a bed, centered between two lamps, framed by drapes above it, probably the most striking and elegant composition in the entire film. You can see it in this clip, which offers a sample of six minutes length (though whoever uploaded it committed a serious cop-out by dubbing in some Glenn Gould solo piano music to liven things up. I recommend you mute the volume and watch it as Akerman intended.) Consider it a handy guide to help you determine if this box set interests you or not.

Some of the shots are frankly quite dull: Dimly lit hallways, dingy yellow-hued corridors exuding a grimy, worn-down aura, a toilet seen through an opened door, the slow alteration of ‘going up’ and ‘going down’ lights on the elevator. You can stare intently at them for the full duration of several minutes without finding something unusual that rewards such diligent attention. Or you might find the sustained encounter with these images stimulating, maybe even enlightening. I won’t venture to speculate either way. There could be an element of mystery in some of the compositions, or you may find the structuralist rigor appealing and fresh. It really depends on how willing you are to follow Akerman’s conceit that the tableaux offer something compelling enough to join with. But the demands she makes on viewers are easily enough to tax the patience of anyone used to livelier, engaging, readily accessible fare when they sit down to enjoy a movie. Akerman could have held up a still photograph of some of the scenes she filmed for the several minutes duration of her shots and we might not have known the difference.

Nearly 45 minutes into the process, we finally get to enjoy what amounts to an ‘action sequence’ – that is, a forward tracking shot toward a darkened window, which then turns in reverse, pulling away back down a corridor lit by a single overhead bulb. One wonders if the long slow dramatic tunneling motion had any influence on Stanley Kubrick when he made The Shining. And then forward again down the hall, up to the window. From the upper floors, looking down to the lamp-lit street below, we see a lone vehicle driving at night. Then we pull back again. Cut to the same hallway, hours later, back to the same window. Now we see daylight. Time is passing – despite a dearth of evidence on screen, the world continues its spinning, movement occurs. Moments later, the camera steps on to the roof of Hotel Monterey. We are liberated (and relieved) to move into the open air, to contextualize the space where we’ve been visually enclosed over the past hour by viewing the surrounding buildings and feeling the dawn of a new day that is now nearly four decades past.

News From Home

The third entry in this undeclared trilogy is the one that delivers the knockout punch, a film that takes us on a strange cinematic tour of mid-70s Manhattan and rewards (at least in my opinion) the deliberate work that went into viewing the previous two. In News From Home, Akerman allows her camera to roam broadly across the city, along its streets, inside its subway stations and trains, and with the benefit of a spoken word and natural ambient soundtrack. Though particular care is taken for the set-up and contents of each shot, it’s clearly not a typical tourist-oriented or even documentary-style travelogue. If prominent NYC landmarks show up on the screen, it’s only because they incidentally happen to be sitting where the camera is pointing. But its eye never lingers there in any case. Instead, we pick up and focus on people going about their lives – passengers, drivers, pedestrians, clothed in the 1970s attire that sometimes looks so silly and charming to us now, but really just ordinary everyday folk who blend easily into the similarly dated environments of now-classic cars and squared off, functional urban architecture.

Current and longtime inhabitants of New York are much better equipped than I am to comment on how much the views along 10th Avenue have changed. Does the Times Square subway station still host booths that sell generic ‘Doughnuts’ and ‘Frankfurters’? (I figure those businesses must have been franchised out for a long time now.) Do kids still play stickball in the street? I can’t help but wonder if the trains are as completely overwhelmed, inside and out, by graffiti nowadays as they were back then. And I’m also curious to know if such a project as Akerman undertook here would ever be allowed again. She appears to have just set up a 16 mm in prominent public locations and recorded the images of everyone who passed by. I doubt she had the means or inclination to get signed release forms from everyone immortalized by her camera! Could she get away with that in New York City, circa 2010?

I love watching old film of big cities and can only wish that access to bulk historical footage like this, shot in the world’s major metropolitan areas, without intrusive editorial overlay, were easier to come by. In 1976, when this film was shot, I worked (as a teenager) in Oakland CA, riding the municipal buses and BART trains in and around the Bay Area, so I had no shortage of mental reference material to connect with News From Home‘s many images of people in transit, passing the time between connections. Simply capturing these moments lends them a poignancy that moved me into a calm and reflective state of mind.

The soundtrack (aside from the sounds of traffic and other sonic events occurring on film) consists of Chantal Akerman reading letters that her chronically anxious mother had written to her a couple years earlier during her first residence in the city, where she had moved to study film (and one gets the sense, to escape the claustrophobic grip of family ties.) News From Home was actually filmed during her second trip to the Big Apple, after Akerman had gone back to Belgium to shoot Jeanne Dielman. Her juxtaposition of the plaintive requests from Mom to write more frequently (which turn into demands when the intervals between Chantal’s letters got too long) with local scenes of frenetic human activity that suggest the absorption one experiences in such a stimulating environment, gives us a peek into Akerman’s psyche. She was a young and independent woman, an artist carving out a niche for herself in a highly cosmopolitan culture, where excessive preoccupation with domestic matters so far away seemed both irrelevant and distracting to the more important business at hand. Again, I was reminded of my own process of moving away from home and establishing an identity beyond ‘my parents’ son,’ and I suspect the sentiments expressed in those letters will resonate in various ways with people on both sides of the parent-child equation.

But the payoff to the discipline that it takes to stick with News From Home is found in the film’s final extended scene, which begins with one last subway and car ride that connects us to the outbound Staten Island Ferry. A camera mounted to the stern of the boat tracks the movement as it pulls away from Battery Park, gradually revealing a fog-shrouded cityscape, with the Brooklyn Bridge popping up briefly on the right side of the frame, and a few minutes later, the towers of the World Trade Center emerging from the left. It’s an amazingly tranquil and contemplative shot, Manhattan Island receding in the distance, a few seagulls floating and squawking behind, seeming to float in the air as they accompany us out of the city, destination we know not where. The tops of the World Trade Center buildings intersect the bottom of the cloud layer, functioning as pillars that hold up the sky, while the engines churn on mindlessly, interrupting our reverie, or adding to it, as our ears receive their mechanical noise. This clip shows the final moments of the film, but it’s really more powerful to see the whole sequence. Trust me on that.

Watching these films, in the comfort and convenience of my home on my HDTV and my computer, whenever I feel good and ready for them, sped up or freeze-framed according to my whim, is clearly quite a different experience than whatever Chantal Akerman had in mind for her audiences when she first crafted them. Of course that statement applies to all the other old movies released before the home video era had gotten underway, but it seems especially appropriate to note that here. I have little idea how these films would play out in a public setting, though I figure they’d be admired because of Akerman’s status and her subsequent body of work. But I doubt that a theatrical presentation or gallery exhibit of the New York Films in 2010 could approximate what it must have been like to see them when they were first released, before Akerman had solidified her reputation, when she was just another semi-anonymous artist struggling to have her work seen and noted. Whatever verdict we ultimately draw as cinema aficionados on these three particular films, I think there’s a lot to admire in what Chantal Akerman accomplished as a very young woman in these films as she conceptualized and established a clear aesthetic vision that became and remains her instantly recognizable style – the mark of a true auteur.

David Blakeslee

David hosts the Criterion Reflections podcast, a series that reviews the films of the Criterion Collection in their chronological order of release. The series began in 2009 and those essays (covering the years 1921-1967) can be found via the website link provided below. In March 2016, the blog transferred to this site, and in August 2017, the blog changed over to a podcast format. David also contributes to other reviews and podcasts on this site. He lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan and works in social services. Twitter / Criterion Reflections

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