Sometimes people make me hurt.
Scrolling through the reviews for the Criterion release of “The New York Films,” which offers Akerman’s 12-minute La Chambre, her feature-length documentary Hôtel Monterey and the iconic News from Home, I noticed a lot of resentment in the comments section. One of the comments I read does a nice job of summarizing what I often see concerning Akerman’s work, calling it a “self-absorbed, long-winded pretentious bore.”
Of the three New York Films, Hôtel Monterey is most likely to solicit these critiques, but given a little work on the part of the viewer, the meditative documentary offers a unique insight into the acutely painful nature of moving to a different country.
The hour-long documentary starts in the lobby of a New York hotel and works its way up to the roof, occasionally crossing paths with some of the residents but mostly content in the isolation and eery geometry of the hallways. Initially working exclusively with static shots, Akerman introduces motion into her frames midway through the film as daylight starts to stream through the windows.
Hôtel Monterey is the first feature that Akerman made in her first extended trip outside of her native Belgium. The film thus becomes a tool to confront the hardships of that experience. The image of the hotel as a sterile place where people exist on a temporary basis is an adept metaphor for the experience of living abroad, and Akerman’s bare-bones approach to the subject matter feels like a quiet scream into the void.
At the beginning of Hôtel Monterey, we are stuck on the ground floor of the hotel, surrounded by a cast of characters that is either blatantly disregarding the presence of the camera or contemptuously staring right into the lens. We move into the ever-shifting elevator, where there is a pronounced distance even in spite of the intimacy of the tiny space. Akerman then turns to empty hallways, where we find ourselves staring at the glistening walls for minutes on end.
Together these images inspire the feeling brought on by the isolation and distancing nature of living immersed in a foreign culture. Akerman’s formal radicalism allows her to engage emotionally with her audience without the usual narrative contrivances.
Tugged along by Akerman from frame to frame, the viewer is offered the chance to inhabit the psychological landscape of a first-time traveller. We are invited to enjoy a break from our everyday reality, but we are confronted with the fact that sometimes other realities are just as challenging as our own. Akerman refuses to play along with the notion that film is an escapist medium, forcing her audience to come to terms with her situation and learn something in the process.
It didn’t take much for me to get pulled into Akerman’s universe–I recently came back from an extended trip to Quebec, where I experienced a dynamic very similar to that which is constructed in Hôtel Monterey. I found myself confronted with a culture and a language different than my own, an experience that I found to be incredibly isolating. My apartment building even resembled the Hotel Monterey in many respects, with its long Shining-esque hallways and the depressing lack of windows.
Coming back to the United States, my impulse was akin to that of Akerman–I wanted to explore the less-romanticized aspects of travel by making a short film about my experience. I wanted to take the stereotypical YouTube travelogue and turn it on its head, offering stillness and silence in the place of the normal stock music montage. It turns out I wanted to make Hôtel Monterey.
Watching the documentary for the first time a couple weeks ago, I was amazed at the consistency of approach that two people in similar situations can dream up 50 years apart from one another.
It suffices to say that I have my biases toward this film, and that I am a partial judge of its worth to an “average” audience. However, I will say that even with such a personal connection to Hôtel Monterey, I had to watch it with music blaring in my headphones to keep me engaged through the minute-long shots of empty hallways in the midsection of the film. I even split the screening into two different chunks, so that I could maintain the level of attention that I felt the film deserved.
I invite everyone to try a similar approach. I think the important part is seeing the images in all of their haunting glory–their strength far exceeds that of the music that I haphazardly chose to accompany the screening.
Perhaps for some, the film will be a “long-winded pretentious bore,” but personally I found a large amount of relief in watching the documentary. I was finally able to acknowledge that the emotionally-exhaustive five months I spent in Canada were not a result of my own incompetence as a traveller, but that pain and discomfort are an essential part of living abroad.
It is worth noting, however, that the film concludes on a positive note. I found the roof scenes at the end of Hôtel Monterey far more hopeful than the shot on the ferry which marks the end of News from Home. The gracefully panning shots of the New York skyline hold a sense of admiration and wonder. It seems as if the film is a step from the hotel into the streets of New York City, where Akerman finally sees a semblance of comfort and home.
As I move forward with the making of my short film and my life living abroad, Hôtel Monterey will serve as a constant source of inspiration in my journey. Though I have only seen the documentary once, I am sure I will return to it again in search of solidarity, solace, and wisdom.
This is a film that has truly marked my life in a positive way, and I recommend it to all who have experienced the isolation and eerie geometry of life on the road.