Thursday, October 4, 2018

Histoires d’Amerique: Food, Family and Philosophy (Chantal Akerman, 1988)

The title of Chantal Akerman’s Histoires d’Amerique: Food, Family and Philosophy points at the film’s duality – a promise of conviviality, served up by an outsider. The film isn’t conventionally warm - the camera serves throughout as a fixed, direct spectator – but Akerman’s humanism prevents it from morbidity or oppressiveness. For the most part, the film consists of direct-to-camera English-language testimonies from American Jews: they’re not identified by name or period, but appear to belong at least primarily to the 40s and 50s, to lives recently brutalized by relatives lost in the camps or otherwise separated by exile, and before that by progroms and upheavals: even when the stories are primarily accounts of happiness and success, they always incorporate lurking shadow, the impossibility of ever traveling entirely into the light. Akerman intersperses these with humour of the “the food here is terrible and such small portions” variety – the often-mournful quality of the punchlines all the more plaintive for the surrounding figurative darkness. Not just that: Akerman frames her participants (actors doesn’t seem like the right word somehow) against urban nightscapes, only yielding to hazy daylight in the final scenes, as the film starts to play with its own artifice, bringing its people together and reshuffling their assigned identities. For the most part though, it's suffused in profound loneliness even as it illustrates the power of community – it examines memory both in its glory and its burden. One of the closing testimonies, by a young man preparing to kill himself, is additionally chilling now for the knowledge of how Akerman ended her own life, after a last film – No Home Movie – which while being closely aligned to this one, sheds its elaborations and mannerisms. It gives Histoires d’Amerique an eerie quality of premonition, as if to finally confirm its recurring sense of how events may become hopeless, even if not entirely serious.

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