News from Home ★★★★

Akerman's camera produces the distinct sensation of otherness throughout, the phenomenon of being in New York, but not of New York. More than what's in the frame, the camera seems to always be filming the distance between it and what's being viewed. We see drivers, pedestrians, and straphangers respond to her camera with wariness; it's hard for anything to draw especial attention in New York, but Akerman's camera manages the feat. As if attempting to integrate herself more into the city, Akerman's shots are mostly as rigorous in their angles as the grid of the city she's documenting. As much of the movement is along one of two axes as in a Wes Anderson picture, and the use of vanishing-point perspective is as conspicuously omnipresent as in a Kubrick. But there's a sense too that she's not unable to be assimilated into the city, but unwilling, so as to maintain her impartiality; the New York she films is not Woody Allen's loving portrait in MANHATTAN two years earlier, nor Travis Bickle's loathing POV of the previous year's TAXI DRIVER. Akerman is still able to balance the attractive and repellent qualities of the city. She captures the sensory overload of the city; in the first shot, a car drives past the camera and when it's passed pedestrians are visible in the distance, having entered the frame mostly obscured by the car's chassis. Their appearance is both startling and epic, almost reminiscent of Omar Sharif's entrance in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. She does not privilege her own voice as it reads her mother's letters; it's low in the mix, like Murmur-era R.E.M., with the background noise of the city mixed at the same level as her voice and the brown noise that accompanies both.

The structuring absence of this film is Akerman's return correspondence to her mother. Even though her responses are periodically referenced, the film is made as if it's the only kind of response she could offer. The implicit rhetorical question asked alongside each shot is, "How could I put this in a letter? How could I do justice in summing up this beautiful, ugly city? How could I capture all the possibility and opportunity that is captured in the non-specificity of the lives on camera?" Even the title of the film is capitalized not like a title, but like the beginning of a sentence, or a paragraph, or a letter. The irregularity of Akerman's voiceover, and the time jumps reflected in the letter, all contribute to producing a piecemeal reply; each job and apartment change is like a cut from one shot to another that we absorb and appreciate without being able to fully understand the context of.

Not quite perfectly linearly, but in an obviously trending progression, Akerman's shots become more active toward the end of the film; she integrates more camera movements and films from moving vehicles. There's a desperation, a sense that her time in the city is getting short and seemingly accelerating more quickly. As her shots became more intricate and faster-moving, I found myself longing for the stationary shots of earlier, in order to be able to get better glimpses of what I was missing. In order to capture more of the city, to travel farther and faster in an attempt to capture a glimpse of everything before moving on, she was forced to sacrifice some of the stillness she imbued earlier on, giving the memories conveyed less time to solidify and develop. The impressions made are much less strong, less visceral, and convey the sense of time running out for both Akerman and the film. I grew to appreciate even the small moments where the camera would stop and linger on a streetscape, despite its being unplanned; in one shot, the car being filmed from stops in traffic and the camera lingers on an intercity bus as if considering the means of escape. At a different stoplight, the camera angle is uncharacteristically changed very slightly, and you get a sense of restlessness, of a wish that the camera were not confined to the vehicle and could explore more freely what caught the camera operator's eye.

And that last shot. One of the best ever captured on film. The city skyline blooming from close-up abstraction of detail and then finally flattening back out behind a scrim of fog, all detail gone, the city once more an abstraction, merely an idea once again, a vessel for dreams.