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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Movie Review: News From Home (1976) d. Chantal Akerman

Scene from News From Home, directed by Chantal Akerman
Movie Review:
d. Chantal Akerman
Eclipse Series 19: Chantal Akerman in the 1970s

   I was sitting in a downtown Los Angeles cafe last month with Alex.  We try to touch base each month, if only for me to give him a royalty check and I always ask what he is up to, artistically speaking, dreaming of the day when he completes a project he deems sufficiently "commercial" to spend his own money promoting.

  So when he mentioned he was considering to a live score to a movie at Cinefamily in January I said, "Great!" because that is exactly the kind of thing I imagined him doing when I encouraged him to move to Los Angeles.  I wold argue that Alex, like many other artists, is moving towards so-called "program music"   The definition of program music is, "a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative."  Program music has roots extending back to the Renaissance and probably the high-middle ages before that.  Today, the most popular genre of program music is the film soundtrack.

  You can see where Alex, with his catalog of Dirty Beaches albums and instrumental records, fits squarely within the program music tradition, and you could argue that he is one of the most exciting young practitioners of the form.

The funny part is that when he told me he was scoring News From Home, directed by Belgian film maker Chantal Akerman, I drew a blank.  Despite my own near obsessive viewing of Criterion Collection titles ON THIS VERY BLOG, I'd never before heard of Chantal Akerman, let alone the film.   The subject dropped over the holidays, but yesterday I saw the Cinefamily event page for the VideoSonics: LAST LIZARD (fka Dirty Beaches) VS News From Home—A Meditation on Chantal Akerman's 1977 Masterwork show on January 14th and I was compelled to watch the underlying film on Hulu Plus, where all of the films from Eclipse Series 19: Chantal Akerman in the 1970s, are available for immediate viewing.

  News From Home is accurately described of "long takes of New York City, with some letters between the filmmaker and her family read every so often."   Some of the long shots are static, others, the most memorable in my mind, move across city streets or even take place in a moving subway car.  The letters are read in French, with subtitles, they come infrequently enough that you really have to make an effort to be paying attention, as otherwise it is almost impossible to not lose focus on "what's happening" on the screen.

 Obviously, News From Home doesn't have any kind of popular appeal, being squarely an "art film" in the territory explored by Andy Warhol in his experimental films like "Skyscraper."     Chantal Akerman died in October of last year, under troubled circumstances, but obituaries hailed her as one of the finest filmmakers of her generation. The audience, for News From Home is both film buffs and those who work in the media-industrial complex, particularly at the intersection of filmed entertainment and music.   This Cinefamily event, regardless of any particular issues one might have with Cinefamily, is taking place on the home turf of this industry, the main locus, so for Alex, it represents an ideal return on the effort he is taking to come up with music for the lengthy "silent" parts of News From Home- I would say over 90 percent of the actual run time of the movie, the other 10 percent being the letters.  It could well be 95/5.

  Much of News From Home is entrancing, and I spent much of my time looking at the details of each tableaux.  For me, the stand out scenes where the one inside the subway car and scene where the camera is carried on a truck "across town" in Manhattan.  It is tough to maintain focus for the full film but the time you spend focused isn't wasted.

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