by Marta Matvijev
“Anyone observing this hubbub will have no choice but to declare it exceptional. He then walks along like this and is almost taken up by a compulsion to join in this running, this gasping haste, swinging his arms to and fro; the bustle and activity are just so contagious – the way a beautiful smile can be contagious. Well no, not like that. ”
– Robert Walser, Good Morning, Giantess!
“They say New York is terrible.”
– mother’s letter, News from Home
The vast and contradicting imagery of the modern cities reflects the ebb and flow of our fascinations and vexations with urban sprawl. The awe with its immensity, dazzling abundance and infinite opportunities is inextricable from anxieties about the ceaseless flux and unrest, its ungovernable population and inscrutable network of streets. The two-faced nature has made the city a convenient backdrop for stories of aspirations and disillusionment, progress and decline.
In News from Home, Chantal Akerman takes the most iconic and notorious city of the 20th century, and gives us vignettes of the routine and ordinary of New York in 1976. With a gaze that levels man, machine and building, she diligently records a dingy back lane, a subway station, and a neighbourhood baseball match. She observes, patiently, dusk washing down cobbled streets, children playing around a fire-hydrant, and catches the rhythms of concrete slabs. The 90-minute snippets of the city’s quotidian ends with a fading image of an ever more distant, New York, gradually swallowed up by a mist.
As a gleaner of instances and images of the urban, Akerman inscribes herself in a tradition of flaneurs that have relished in recording the city’s nooks and crannies since the nascent of modernity. We’ve come to identify the figure of the flâneur with Baudelaire, thanks to Walter Benjamin’s essays on 19th century Paris. But under his towering shadow there is a plethora of sprightly peripatetic poets. The vibrant and ludic Berlin miniatures by Robert Walser spring to mind. Virginia Woolf’s London walks left a mark on in novels like Mrs Dalloway. The range of diverging sentiments around modern cities – from Baudelaire’s focus on poverty, degradation, through Walser’s relish in the mishaps and idiosyncrasies of city-dwellers, to Woolf’s vision of a deep connection with city folk – has over the century proven to be a contradiction that has stuck around.
In the inquisitive spirit of flânerie, Akerman traces New York’s various sides, from the alienating and frigid metropolis where human voices are drowned out by a ubiquitous hiss of traffic, to avenues inundated with beaming city strollers and casual cornershop chats. The city sights are coupled with a voiceover reading letters Akerman’s mother sent during her stay in New York. The purely verbal accounts from home are juxtaposed with the physicality and visible presence of the city. Letters tell of the quotidian events in the family, from their worries around finance and health, laconic remarks about the tedium of work, to reproaches for paucity of replies, observations on weather. Are you too warm? Are you too cold? Why don’t you write more often? Replete with affection, doting parental concern, encouragement, these traces of intimacy exacerbate the disparity between home, distant and minuscule by comparison to the impassive city.
The contents of letters are also the only information about Akerman’s transient existence in New York we will get. The daughter (traveller/flaneuse/filmmaker) never appears on the screen, never utters her own words, or gives shape to her thoughts, which adds a nebulous quality to the otherwise and factual records of the journey. And despite this lacuna, the juxtaposition of the sights of the city and letters of home give rise to a story. Without a showing of events or dialogues, but it a tenuous indication of narrative structure telling of a journey, a travelogue.
The mute, unimposing observer of News from Home benefits from an anonymity provided to flâneurs and travelers. They invariably want to study the crowd while remaining unrecognized or unperceived – and the cloak of anonymity will be particularly valuable for women. Ruth Beckermann’s A Fleeting Passage to the Orient, a documentary retracing the steps of Austria’s empress Elizabeth during two trips to Egypt in 1885 and 1891, serves as a springboard for reflections on women’s desire to join a public milieu free from social constraints imposed in their usual environment. By being unknown to the locals, the Empress could stroll down Egyptian streets, having the “luxury of watching”, as well as a respite from the confines of the oppressive family relations and demands imposed on her as a public figure. The Austrian Empress feels at home in Egypt, and less oppressed than on a ball in court – for her it is an escape from social obligations, from socially imposed roles and rules.
Yet there is a gaping chasm between an Empress on her tourist visit to Egypt and a filmmaker scrambling to make a living in a Western mega-city. Even during Beckermann’s trip to Egypt, she finds it’s impossible to stay incognito, to be swallowed up by the crowd, because she stands out as a foreigner. Some differences disappear and some reappear – in Egypt you are just a European woman, Beckermann comments, it doesn’t matter if you are an Empress or a film-maker.
Silence, disappearance and lack of a clear subject are a common thread among women travelers. Empress Elizabeth did not want to be photographed after 31 years of age. Her thoughts are reported to us only via observations of other people about her. The filmmaker reports her mother’s letters, but is mute on her own feelings. The silence gives the figures a nebulous nature – they are inscrutable and elusive existences, and white boards on which one projects their own thoughts.
For all its anonymity and novel experience, foreign land can be perturbing. The soothing maternal voice of the letters in News from Home flatters and comforts. Home can be oppressive and confining, but there is also the comfort of a familiar place, of stability. The familial nest and abundance of personal connections to home becomes ever more alluring by the contract to the austerity streets of the concrete city – until finally a return becomes imminent. The final shot of New York disappearing draws a clear conclusion of the exploration of the city.
The white screen is a reassuringly clear signal of the end of the experience. Yet the figure of the filmmaker, the flaneuse, remains hazy, and completely intractable. On this we are left to speculate. For all the daughter’s obstinate silence, we know with each journey, a metamorphosis is taking place. One’s inner world swells with new knowledge, their perspective shifts – and now the traveler sets eyes on his home, and senses a faint tinge of estrangement.
when I return home with my sullied suitcases
what am I to do?
I linger at the doorstep and wonder
why all paths lead not to Rome or Moscow
but to this very room?
Fragment from “Soba svjetske putnice” by Dorta Jagic