Old Haunts – Masha Tupitsyn
I nearly melted when I watched Chantal Ackerman’s News From Home, having never heard of it, and it turned out that “home” was actually my home. Not just New York, but a pre-gentrified, desolate Tribeca. The movie”finding it”felt like a gift from and to home.
While News From Home, a gorgeous time capsule, was shot in 1976, Tribeca still looked like that when I grew up there in the 1980s. I still live only a few blocks from where I was raised on Chambers Street. Mark Rappaport has a film (maybe Chain Letters?) that opens with a shot of Chambers Street. You can see my childhood building in the scene. The opening shot of News of Home, a beautiful alleyway off Harrison Street, is across the street from where I live now.
In News From Home, Ackerman reads the letters her mother writes to her from Brussels over long-shots and long takes of cityscapes. Some of the letters go unanswered, and when this happens her mother worries, asks Chantal why she doesn’t write back, misses her, sends her a little money in cash. They dutifully read her screenplays and watch her films. Ackerman’s parents remind me of my parents. Loving, supportive, devoted, proud.
My mother and I write to each other all day, every day”her from her Blackberry and me from my Iphone. It is a love that never wavers or ceases or declines in enthusiasm. It is the only love that I have be able to hold onto and sustain.
Yesterday, still pondering the comedy of Louis C.K., I watched a recent interview he did with Howard Stern (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F493-IjBr58). At one point C.K. talked about how close he was to his single working-class mother, who raised him in Newton, Masachussettes after his parents got divorced. He talked about how much they always “loved talking to each other.” I love that he says this”that he loved talking to his mother, as people who love talking to anyone, much less their family, are rare”but it also makes me wonder where C.K. gets all his chauvinism from, which is especially rampant in his early crude standup. Is sexism just cultural cache”you have to participate in misogyny, make dumb “wife” jokes, if you want to become successful? Do most men simply choose to perform sexism because it is more viable and entertaining? The first version of C.K.’s mother in Louie (there are two, played by two different women, one of whom also plays a date in a earlier episode) is a completely narcissistic and emotionally withholding caricature of a woman who has never told C.K. or his brother that she loves them. But, as C.K. has revealed in various interviews, it turns out that the selfish, withholding narcissist was, in fact, his father, who left the family when C.K. was a boy. So why does C.K make his mother the “comic” villain on Louie when his mother had such a profound and positive influence on his life, and when it was his father who bailed both emotionally and literally? It was his mother, a “beacon,” C.K. states, who taught him how to talk and think and love. In the season three episode about his father, Louie can’t even face him, so we never see him or their reunion on screen.
I have also spent my whole life talking to my mother, which I never get tired of doing. We always have things to say to each other, things to tell each other, and my parents are like this, too. Through my parents, I learned that passionate conversation is the ultimate act of love and intimacy. That talking is hot and passionate. That the brain is a sex organ.
In News From Home, Ackerman has run away from home. She is missing even though her mother knows where she is. New York is a psychodynamic desert for wandering, for exile, for search. At least it was then. The letters keep track”of Ackerman, of time, of desire, of love, of emptiness, of separation, of geographical space. Love between people is also love between spaces. The way a place can make you miss a person more or miss a person less. Home is Brussels and home is New York. Home is there and home is here. Not there, not here. Home is mother and home is daughter. Home doesn’t exist. “I think W.G. Sebald knew that only children have homes,” Adam Phillips says in Patience (After Sebald). Home has always been more a person than a place for me, so where someone isn’t is also what a place can’t be. Linked to nostalgia and the uncanny, home is something I desperately need but can’t find. At the end of News From Home, the sounds of the city overtake Ackerman’s mother’s final letter, and her voice drowns in the background.
The film’s final Staten Island ferry departure sequence is like a negative mirror image of Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, which has Griffith “arriving” at the American Dream machine of corporate success every time.
I wish I could drain all these festering Tribeca finance yuppies like water from a tub. To get these streets back, to have them wide and rugged and empty again. To uncover the skyline, which has been plastered up with endless condominiums and skyscrapers. What I wouldn’t give to get this raggedy, dark city back, which I still miss, but used to miss so bad I had to leave for a decade. Now I’m back and it’s just here and so am I.
At least the World Trade Center towers were iconic. The two towers had stage presence in a way that 21st century architecture never does. This has almost everything to do with the fact that there were two of them. Because they were twins, because they looked identical, because one was a double of the other, and because repetition is always uncanny. The start of something awful, the two rogue edifices were eerie and sprang up in the wilderness that was Tribeca then, dwarfing all the tiny, old 19th century buildings around them. Surrounded by a barren Battery Park landfill, they were a symbol of the future and arrived during the oil crisis and an economic recession. Only blocks away from where I grew up (I wrote a long essay about the twin towers last spring called “A Time To Fall” http://mashatupitsyn.tumblr.com/post/19456675897/a-time-to-fall ), the towers were so laconically intrusive, such bizarre mirror images of corporate architecture, I always knew they would come down, even as a child. My mother and I would sometimes look up at them and talk about them. They were such a risk to build, so unprecedented. Before I moved down to Tribeca, I had seen the towers on TV in Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 (the same year Ackerman shot New From Home) remake of King Kong. Now buildings like that—never quite like, the towers were test drives for disaster capitalism—are built every day. The glass shapes no longer as severe in form, skyscrapers today are decorative, rotund, twirling, ostentatious, as if to show off what could only at that time be austerely and primitively structured. After all, the 70s was an austere decade and the 1976 King Kong even has Kong swim to the towers (which he later climbs to his death), across the Hudson River because they remind him of the primitive rock formations on his native Skull island. The almost-complete World Trade Center 2, as it is being called, is a shameless crime-scene double of a double. As Jarett Kobek asks in his novel Atta, “If a building embodies certain unkillable ideas and angles, will the building then never die?”
Capitalism has become so seamless that its monsters no longer shock us and its shocking edifices can no longer be misread by monsters longing for home. Everything blends in. The photo of the Battery Park landfill below is so apocalyptic, it reminds me of the Staue of Liberty crown that pokes out of the sand at the end (or is it the beginning?) of Planet of The Apes.
Ackerman films New York like a collection of old haunts. In an interview about why she chose to film the areas and streets she did, Ackerman explains:
“Well, it’s probably the places I knew the best. The film starts close to here, but a little more southwest. I knew that place very well. When I came in ‘71, I had no money, so I walked a lot. Up to the time when I found my place on Spring Street, I was always [staying] with people, and I did not want to annoy them. So I left the place all the time and walked and walked and walked. And I visited, I saw everything, and it was fascinating. And everybody was telling me, “Don’t go there!” It was a very paranoid moment; there were a lot of junkies, a lot of crazy people talking in the streets, a lot of bag ladies. New York was bankrupt at the time, but that bankruptcy had so much charm, and so much strength. Now it’s a city for rich people. But at the time, New York was very cheap; you could have a big breakfast for 49 cents. That was enough for me to survive the whole day. That’s all you need. Then you walk. I was with my Pentax camera on Avenues A, B, C. I was not afraid, so nobody annoyed me. Things were striking for me.”
I tell myself New York is never coming back. It’s too far gone. At times this reality hits me harder than others. In 2011, still reeling from a major breakup, I wrote a video-essay about the 70s called “Love Story” http://ryeberg.com/curated-videos/love-story/. A love letter to New York and to the decade, a decade that although I wasn’t born in has shaped me in definitive ways. I wrote “Love Story” because heartbreak is both personal and cultural. It has to do with the loss of people and the loss of places.
“But what if the stores, the bars, the streets, the people became so new, so perfect, so polished that everything”places, streets, people”became even lonelier than they were when they were poor, messy, broken, split. Empty. Because empty doesn’t always mean empty.”
Every time I think I or the place I lost will never be the same again”joyful, full of life”I think of this line from Renata Adler’s great fractured 70s New York novel, Speedboat: “My capacity for having a good time exists.”