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The Other Akerman : The Essay Film in News From Home (1976)

 | Director Profile |

  BY Devdutt Trivedi

While most readings of Chantal Akerman emphasize feminist or queer readings of her work, I will avoid these representations. Feminist and queer assemblages that attempt at decoding Akerman’s oeuvre tend to emphasize the space. As I am a student of Henri Bergson’s concept of duration (‘durée’[1]) I will try to emphasize how the notion of time creates an othering of representation in her work.

Jean-Luc Godard argues that amongst all the elements in film he is unable to tell stories. [2]I will argue that in a discourse relating to cinema, it is representation, which is the least interesting and also, that I am unable to view a film in terms of representation. Representation treats the space as homogenous and does not allow the true nature of difference, within a construct to emerge. It also assumes the intentionality of the auteur filmmaker, a notion which duration makes redundant. Duration captures the inner state of being of a thing, that which lies beyond the control of the organism.

In his study of Bergson in Cinema 1: The Movement Image[3], Gilles Deleuze argues that there are two durations within a given duration: the part-duration and the interval between two durations[4]. I believe an othering of cinema would privilege the notion of the interval and stretch it beyond the significative and denotational boundaries of representation. In this way duration is outside the domain of intentionality and cannot be analyzed through causal or intentional assemblages.

The notion of documenting the space, in the case of Chantal Akerman’s essay film News from Home (1976), my study for this paper, is engaging with the nature of the unknown, the unseen and the unintentional. In her words, Akerman states, “in a documentary I never know what I will do. I go there with no plan. In a way it’s terrifying…It’s frightening because you don’t know what is going to happen. You have to be attentive to yourself…You have to be totally open like a sponge.”[5]

Cinema is a social construction and different to its material construction - film, video and recently digital. Starting with Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers (Louis and Auguste) cinema can either be rumination on the world outside (the Lumière Brothers’ early documentaries) or the world inside (Méliès’ magic tricks).

It is precisely within this construct that we can explore not the world outside but an inner condition, which the camera is a part of but does not necessarily capture. The camera represents a state of consciousness, which can dilate or expand to capture duration.

The construction of News from Home is fairly simple. Images of New York are captured emphasizing a non-denotational approach to space. Overlaid with these images is the voice of Chantal Akerman as she reads letters from her mother, inquiring about her condition in New York and concerned about her as well as updating her about events that have occurred back home in Brussels, Belgium.

The essay film is precisely this construct in which duration and empiricism merge to create a mélange emphasizing subjectivity, authorship, non-denotational use of language (more like rhythms); which is an assault on the Kantian limits of representation. It is curious to analyze that the voice on the soundtrack is Akerman becoming her mother. Speaking like Sigmund Freud the ego or the becoming-self’s first engagement with a becoming-other, is through the mother.

The different vignettes of New York serve as different sides to the same event much like a Cubist painting in order to destroy the object. This destruction of the object through variable location-machines on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s mechanosphere[6] is precisely what the psychologist André Green, a keen influence on Akerman, would call the psychic death of the mother. In Green’s seminal paper, “The Dead Mother" instead of the missing mother, the one who has died, Green’s mother is psychically dead while physically available, thus confusing and terrifying the child. [7] Instead of terror, in News from Home we have the monotonous voice of Chantal Akerman as she reads the letters from New York with variable rhythms.


These variable rhythms could be of various types. Akerman is either recording space moving outside of her, or is physically moving inside a vehicle like a train or a car recording static space, or both. The space being recorded is what I would call post-elliptical, a space which captures the in-between image between two images that comes after a key event has been left out through the ellipse.

While thinking of all of Akerman’s work and the notion of the othering of space I cannot help but think about the work of Yasujiro Ozu. In Ozu’s film the camera is placed at a height of roughly 3 feet above the ground,capturing what Noel Burch would term “pillow shots”[8]: everyday images of corridors, or landscapes with structures, in between narrative-becomings. The narrative becoming centers roughly around one event: the death of the father or the daughter’s marriage.  The main event, usually a death or an acceptance of the proposal, is left out through the ellipse. The same pillow shots are taken after the resolution in order to report one event in the cosmos that will never repeat.

Therefore instead of thinking of the Lumière Brothers as filming and Méliès as fictionalizing we must do the opposite: it is the Lumière Brothers creating space for a projection of thought and Méliès documenting his fiction. According to Jacques Rancière “[t]he real must be fictionalized in order to become thought.”[9] Both Lumière and Méliès create different conditions of possibilities for thought. Méliès creates thought and the Lumière Brothers create a condition of possibility for the projection of thought. Ozu allows for the projection of thought in a fictional film, closest to the real but different from it through thought.

Akerman is much more conventional than Ozu. She creates a condition of possibility for projecting thought on her documentary: a meditation on movement within and without to capture the internal state of things. Following on from Godard she is a phenomenologist trying to find a space between an idealist and a realist to capture the material functionality of things, which are once again outside the domain of intentionality.

In this way she captures a key element of the essay film, which is the use of theory: making theory into art and art into theory. This theory meditates on an in-between temporality, which Deleuze attributes to the interval. However it is precisely this “interval (which) is emotion.”[10] The artwork is not cerebral it uses theory, careful calculation to capture the new through an accident which is precisely the nature of emotion. An emotion is the new, it can be planned but something must go wrong in the planning to open us out to the unknown.

It is curious to analyze the function of the cut in the making of an essay film. The editing of an essay film is closer to Robert Bresson’s use of discrete chunks than it is to Sergei Eisenstein’s use of continuous building blocks (shots).In Akerman, each shot has two halves: a location-space half (which is becoming fictional) and a narrative-space half (which is becoming-real).The shots function like a machine, and create a multiplicity consisting of various senses of speed and various senses of slowness.

Intentionality 2 - The uncontrolled play of Light and Shadow

Intentionality 3 - The uncontrolled play of Light and Shadow

I have argued as to how Akerman takes the film outside of the domain of intentionality. Filmmakers would disagree. They would argue that every shot has some degree of construction if not a very precise degree of it. I would therefore argue that there is a double intentionality in Akerman and Ozu where one process constructs the image: its fictional and “real” setting and another half which folds the intentionality back onto itself so that the new may be accidentally produced.

A question arises. What is Akerman’s construction of duration or its becoming-temporality? I believe that it is to go deliberately slower than the real. It is only when you go deliberately slower than the real that you at once come in contact with duration. Karl Marx argues that the temporality of capital is slightly faster than the empirical temporality of the everyday. This is precisely the opposite: i.e. going slower to at once place ourselves in duration. The film moves deliberately slower and then slightly faster.

This is precisely the construction of Indian classical music where the introductory part of a raga: known as alaap goes deliberately slow so that absent notes in the raga or the new is approached through an accident which is deliberately planned (intentional) but cannot be planned. Once Akerman is in the fast moving train we are in the phase of jod where movements within the body of the film (Eisenstein), and movements in the camera connect a flow of notes or a fast run of notes known as taan. Taan comes from the word ‘tan’ [θʌn-IPA], which means body. The fast run makes the body have a sense of speed. The absent notes do not constitute its organs: we have Deleuze and Guattari’s Body without Organs or BwO.

In my conversations with my professor Daniel Eisenberg I was told to avoid Deleuze’s theories in this paper. I have avoided them as much as I can but have only used them to underline my fairly original ideas.

The consciousness of the unfurling film is that of the waking state, the state in which we confess our inner most psychic states to the psychoanalyst. Akerman is the other because she negates confession for the absent event, possibly in the dream state, which is the death of an other. As argued above this death is the psychic death of the mother whose absence is replaced by the dominance of the voice: this voice has no body and can be compared with Hervé Guibert’s studies of absence in Ghost Image[11]. The other is precisely the presence of an absence, which is the feminine condition.

A man plays the raga: the instrument is feminine: it gives rise to a feminine energy. However occasionally Indian classical music does have female ragas known as raginis where the unfurling is feminine and the energy generated is also feminine. This is precisely what Akerman attempts to create a feminine energy through the feminine including her own other intentionality as well as the psychically dead voice of her mother.

The images of New York do constitute the world outside: they come from experience. Akerman’s News from Home is a city film as much as it is an essay film. They obviously represent a deterritorialization of the Belgian Akerman in possibly the most important city in the world. However this representation is also other, it begins with unexplored areas of New York: its cruel underbelly. We are only shown the archetypal and almost clichéd Manhattan skyline at the end of the film.


A final question. How does Akerman combine these attempts at internal states with her representation of New York? It is through the feminine quality of emotion. Women are much more sophisticated than men in their handling of emotions amongst other things. Akerman takes the seemingly masculine construct of thought through philosophy and tempers it to a feminine vein.

The repetition of the voice gradually dissolves the waking state of the film into a nascent sleeping state where the images are closer to dreams and the voice wakes us up from our slumber. There is a covering up of the objects through the voice, which makes the split between sacral and profane space redundant and makes the profane sacral and vice-versa.

Cause is also destroyed, as it is instead symptomatic of change, which produces the new. The new is different from the ever same and breaks the distinction between de Saussure’s distinction of langue or language and the speech-act or parole. The parole or the utterance opens up the fixed frame images to the new.

In conclusion one can only think of the notion of liquefied images where all that is solid is in-between it’s melting into the air. These liquefied images are decentered i.e. they do not have a fixed point through which we can pivot the image representing Akerman’s othering of subjectivity. These destroy the notion between sacral and profane and open the whole into the subjectivity of the interval, or emotion.


1. Burch, Noël. To The Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979 - Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, The Athlone Press London, 1986. Original edition Les Éditions de Minuit, 1983 - Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism,Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Zone Books, 1990 - Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix.A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota, 1987, Ed:Continuum,2004 - Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, State University of New York, 1997 - Guibert, Hervé. Ghost Image, Translated by Robert Bononno, Green Integer, 1998. - Kohon Gregorio. The Dead Mother: The work of André Green (book review) on - Monaco James. Unknown interview with Jean-Luc Godard, Pg 396, 1988 - Rancière, Jacques. Is History a form of Fiction? “Interview in The Politics of Aesthetics”, translated by Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum 2004 [i]Bergson’s notion of duration known as durée.

2. In unknown 1988 James Monaco publication Pg 396 in Dixon, Wheeler, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, State University of New York, 1997 Pg 73

3. Deleuze, Gilles Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, The Athlone Press London, 1986. Original edition Les Editions de Minuit, 1983

4. “…On the one hand, time as whole, the great circle or spiral, which draws together the set of movement in the universe, and on the other time as interval, which indicates the smallest possible unit of movement or action”, Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 1:The Movement Image, Page 33

5. On absence and imagination in documentary film:An open discussion with Chantal Akerman, June 2001, European Graduate School

6. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota, 1987, Ed:Continuum,2004. Pg 77: “There is no biosphere or noosphere but everywhere the same mechanosphere.”

7. Kohon Gregorio, The Dead Mother: The work of André Green, Routledge, 1999

8. Burch,Noël, To The Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979.Pg 160

9. Rancière, Jacques, Is History a form of Fiction? Interview in The Politics of Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum 2004.Page 38

10. Deleuze, Gilles, Bergsonism,Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Zone Books, 1990 Pg 110

11. Guibert, Hervé, Ghost Image, Translated by Robert Bononno, Green Integer, 1998