In 1971, at the age of 21, Belgian-born filmmaker Chantal Akerman, after stints in Paris and Jerusalem, moved to New York because, as she explained when I interviewed her in 2009, “I had a strange but realistic feeling that things were happening here.” Introduced to Jonas Mekas and the work of the avant-gardists such as Michael Snow who were part of his regular programming at Anthology Film Archives, Akerman, who had made two shorts by the time of her arrival, “discovered another way of looking at things.” Her formalist portraits of New York—two of which were made during her 18-month stay here, the other during a brief return to Manhattan a year after the premiere of her masterwork Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)—stand as some of greatest contemplations of the city ever made.
These invaluable chronicles are also, unfortunately, rarely screened. Which makes the presentation of this triptych—La Chambre (1972), Hotel Monterey (1972), and News from Home (1976)—as part of MOMA’s “To Save and Project” series on October 25 and 30 a not-to-be-missed event. (All three were originally filmed on 16mm; they will be shown at MOMA in the digital preservations supervised by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium.) Shot by Babette Mangolte, the cinematographer for all of Akerman’s New York films as well as Jeanne Dielman, the silent, 11-minute La Chambre is as simple as its title (“The Room”) suggests. Slow, 360-degree pans around a tenement apartment on Spring Street, one of the director’s many crash pads, reveal not only the furnishings and appliances—a red upholstered chair; a table with fruit, teacups, and a pack of Marlboros; a bureau; a sink; a stove—crammed into such a humble lodging, but also Akerman herself, lying on a twin bed. Bathed in sunlight streaming in from the window behind her, she alternately stares coquettishly into the camera, looks distractedly downward, or lustily eats an apple. The film’s languid tempo allows for the most intense scrutiny from the viewer, as each quotidian object is transformed into something nearly talismanic. Akerman, reclining with the regality of a grand odalisque, confidently stakes out her place, both as an artist and as a survivor of the chaotic city just outside this nook. (As proof of her determination, Akerman financed her first two New York films by stealing money from the gay porn theater on West 55th Street where she worked as a cashier.)
The director’s fascination with interior spaces, obviously the organizing concept in La Chambre, as it would be in Jeanne Dielman and many other films, was already evident in her first short, 1968’s Saute ma ville (“Blow Up My Town”), in which the 18-year-old Akerman detonates herself and the cramped kitchen where she madly makes pasta. It’s also key to Hotel Monterey. At a little over an hour, this hypnotic work, also silent, consists of a series of long shots—mostly static, a few tracking—documenting the corridors, elevators, rooms, and residents of a rundown welfare hotel on the Upper West Side, since torn down. (Akerman would sometimes sleep on the sofa in one of the two rooms rented by a friend living there.) Elderly lodgers, some perplexed, others annoyed by Mangolte’s camera, shuffle through the lobby, passing in and out of the frame. Smiling slightly and staring gently into the lens, a middle-aged man in jacket and bow tie sits in a chair in his room, newspapers at his feet; a pregnant young woman, filmed from a greater distance and in three-quarters profile, evokes one of Vermeer’s subjects. People, though, are a fleeting presence in Hotel Monterey, a film devoted to the illumination of red or white elevator buttons, the glow of fluorescent lights, the entrail-like formation of an emergency fire hose. Yet just at the moment when we begin to feel claustrophobic, the impossibly narrow hallways closing in on us, Akerman slowly takes us outside, the camera tilting up to the sky then down, unveiling the film’s greatest special effect: the Hudson River, never more majestic.
The closing minutes of Hotel Monterey anticipate the even more breathtaking finale of News from Home, a sublime, if doleful, city symphony shot in the summer of 1976. Its soundtrack consisting of an off-screen Akerman reading aloud from the letters sent by her mother from Brussels during the filmmaker’s ’71–’73 stay in New York and the ambient cacophony of the metropolis, News from Home allows us to luxuriate in the meatpacking district, Tribeca, and Hell’s Kitchen, shown here decades before their gentrification. As Akerman mère’s dispatches grow needier, more importunate, the camera rests on the fantastic choreography unfolding at the Times Square subway station (which the director likened to “Dante, but organized”): bodies, resplendent in Bicentennial summer ready-to-wear, exiting and entering the arriving and departing graffiti-bombed trains. It’s an extraordinary archive of the city, as distant and strange to us now as it must have seemed to a young European filmmaker who followed an instinct to be where things were happening.