Friday, July 13, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Agnes Varda

This is the sixth in my 2018 monthly series concentrating on cinematic auteurs whose work I haven’t seen before. Two films per month.

Getting this in a bit early this month, just a bit more than ten days after the June Audient Auteurs, for two reasons: 1) It’s not fun to leave it until the last minute every month, inducing stress to meet a deadline that no one cares about but you; 2) Agnes Varda was once going to be my June subject, and her movie I rented from iTunes was expiring in the first half of the month. So, you Audient Auteurs junkies will get an early fix this month. (Note: There is no such thing as an "Audient Auteur junkie." I don’t believe I’ve gotten a comment on a single one of these.)

Varda has indeed been hovering around this project since its beginnings, when I considered seeing Faces Places in the theater in February and watching one of her other movies that same month, which was the first of the series. But the same roadblock I hit then has finally beaten me now. I felt beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted Cleo from 5 to 7 to be one of my two Varda films, but in six months of looking, I have just not found it available outside of piracy. I’ve only torrented one film one time in my entire film-watching history, and in that case it because I was scheduled to talk about it on a podcast, and not watching it simply wasn’t an option. My desire to fit Cleo into this project was not enough for it to become #2.

So I’ve reluctantly had to usher Varda into the series not only without Clea from 5 to 7, but without a fiction film at all. I unexpectedly ended up watching two Varda documentaries, which should not be all that surprising as she did seem to direct more documentaries than fiction films. I would have ideally had one of each, but in this day and age of difficulty sourcing movies, you take what you can get.

As with a number of those I’ve looked at in this series so far, Varda did a little bit of everything. Still does, I should say, as she has just turned 90 and in some respects is still going strong. (As a proof either that women live longer than men, or that women did not get the opportunities men got until recently, both of the women I’ve watched in this series are still alive, while all of the men have been dead.) She works in film, photography and art installations, and usually grapples with issues related to realism, feminist issues and social commentary in an experimental style, per Wikipedia. She was also married to French filmmaker Jacques Tati, and had a close friendship with Jean-Luc Godard, as we learn in Faces Places if we did not already know.

I just made the rather obvious statement that women have not historically gotten the same opportunities in film as men, and Varda would have been considered a trailblazer in overcoming that divide. She made a movie when she was only 25, nearly 65 years ago, with 1954’s Le Pointe Courte. Fiction films seemed to interest her in the beginning of her career (Cleo from 5 to 7 followed in 1961), but at some point she shifted over to documentaries and has more or less stayed there. In fact, for someone with such a long career, it seems strange that both of her films I watched would be in the 21st century. Varda was also considered a pioneer in the French New Wave, another claim to fame she shares with the also still-living Godard.

The Gleaners and I (2000)

The reason I got to do Varda at all was that this movie, which was also part of a recent Filmspotting marathon on Varda, was available through Kanopy. However, that also made it a bit of a challenge, as watching the movie reminded me of my only complaint with Kanopy so far. Namely, I’d tried to watch Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come a couple months ago, but I had to stop less than ten minutes in because the resolution was going in and out. If it were only the image affected, I wouldn’t have cared, but when the film is in a foreign language, you need to see those subtitles clearly to understand what’s going on. I couldn’t, so I had to stop. (Lovely people that they are, Kanopy refunded me my credit when I reported the issue to them. You don’t pay for the service, but you only get five viewing credits per month.)

The same issue was present, to a lesser extent, in The Gleaners and I. And like Things to Come, The Gleaners and I is in French. This time I could not adhere to a desire to stop the movie, though. After she’d been given the miss at least twice before, Varda was going to be my auteur for July, come hell or high water. Fortunately, French is the foreign language I speak best, and I can understand it a lot better than I can speak it. So I got the gist of it even when I could not read the subtitles as clearly as I would have liked.

Gleaners is just the type of documentary I love, because it reminded me kind of an academic paper. I’ll explain. My favorite papers that I wrote back in the day were the ones that sallied forth with a central theme, then found examples to support that theme, far-flung though they may be. Gleaners is like that. It involves Varda traveling around France and meeting all variety of “gleaners,” who are characterized as people who glean the value of things that other people don’t. Whether it’s reaping the parts of crops the other people don’t care about, or finding useful bits among refuse, or making art of recycled material, or even just capturing the material in people’s stories that might otherwise go unnoticed (Varda’s own personal form of gleaning), it’s a very useful central idea that’s easily graspable and allows Varda to document a lot of disparate people and circumstances.

As is common for Varda, she is a subject in the film herself. One of the film’s defining images (which actually appears later in Faces Places) is her driving on French highways and capturing the images of 18-wheel trucks that go by. The way she chooses to visualize this capturing is by curling her hand around the image of the moving vehicle, her fingers making a C that joins together into an O. Her hand, then, is in the foreground of the shot, with the truck “captured” behind it. It hearkens back to something she used to do as a kid, her formative gleaning period, and serves as a wonderful metaphor for the ways filmmakers capture the world around them. I also loved it because it was the moment I realized Varda does not take herself too seriously. She may have her origins in the occasionally humourless trappings of the French New Wave, but she’s a whimsical, sprightly type who can’t be pinned down.

The Gleaners and I reminded me of the type of film Werner Herzog might make, with its jumping off of a central theme to places you would not expect, as Varda also interviews a restaurant owner who was the descendent of gleaners, and even, unexpectedly, a psychoanalyst. The difference between Varda and Herzog was that there was never a moment in this when I doubted whether it all held together. I think specifically of Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, which spun apart as it tried to unite very disparate perspectives on the internet and modern means of connection. Varda may seem to meander from time to time, but she has an ineffable way of bringing things back to the central theme, an unidentifiable grace that delights you rather than frustrating you. I kind of adored the movie.

I think one of the reasons it resonated with me is that I consider myself kind of a gleaner. I am always finding useful things on the ground, be it money, someone else's lost valuable, or even just some widget that I can put to practical use. My wife has to stop me from poring over desks and chairs left by the side of the road. Maybe it's the hoarder in me, but I like to think it's something more valuable than that. Anyway, Varda and I are likeminded in this area I think. She may share some of my sentimentality as well.

Faces Places (2017)

Things only got better with Faces Places, on which she shares the directing credit with the artist JR, and which makes an excellent companion to The Gleaners and I. I selected them based on opportunity rather than thematic cohesion, and I never could have guessed how much they would complement one another – except of course that they are made by the same person, and the similarity is kind of what we would expect if we subscribe to the auteur theory.

Faces Places also entails a journey around France to capture, in a rather literal way, ordinary French people, the more ordinary the better. The means of capturing is not by gleaning this time, or by Varda encircling them with her hand. Rather, they drive around in a mobile photo booth that is JR’s calling card. See, JR is a photographer and muralist who specializes in oversized photos that he prints right out of the side of his truck, a bit like a Polaroid camera spitting out its finished product. He then pastes up these oversized images on walls. It may sound gimmicky but it’s profound.

So Varda and JR, recognizing a kinship in their approaches and being huge fans of each other’s work, team up to travel in this truck and to film people as they see supersized imagines of themselves pasted to walls in their towns. Before you go wondering how they got the permission to “deface” all these walls, it should be pointed out that JR’s art is ephemeral, as it washes away with the rain, or the wind, or whatever the first thing is to challenge its paste backing. One profound example of this comes when he pastes a photo on a rock in the ocean, and it’s already gone a short time later with the rising of the tide.

So many things about this movie are lovely that I don’t even know where to start. The relationship between the two directors is one. While some of their scenes feel a bit “written,” that’s okay, as Varda has never been the type of documentarian who thinks of herself as a fly on the wall, watching life go on unmolested. She inserts herself into her art and her art is specifically about the influence of the artist on the art and the crafting of the accompanying story. Besides, there’s a genuine affection between them that just cannot be faked. It’s wonderful to watch them drive around in this goofy truck designed to look like a camera. JR meets the traditional definition of cool, but Varda, no longer meeting that definition, is cool in her own distinct ways. She has of course a very credible history, but now she’s cool in the way of a late 80-something who is still connected and still has ideas how to make vital cinema, but is otherwise not precious about her own self-image. One testament to that is her oddly two-toned hair, which is probably the result of failing to color her hair recently, leaving the roots white and the rest red. She calls it an intentional choice, the result of her liking color, and it doesn’t seem to matter one whit to her that it makes her look kind of like a monk.

The film's other big delight is the subjects' moving responses to seeing themselves larger than life on the side of a building. Yeah, there's one woman with an umbrella who seems embarrassed and a little bit annoyed by all the attention, but she's the exception among a series of other reactions that also just cannot be faked. While these are ordinary citizens in most respects, some had extraordinary histories, involvements in important social and labor movements. In almost all cases they are people who have not been sufficiently appreciated for things they've done, or maybe they were years ago but now they are well on in years. You can see the emotions in their eyes as they are given a kind of grandiose stage, in part because it is not in their nature to seek out such a thing themselves -- which is not to say they don't want or need it.

Okay, August is wide open for the moment. I have leads on a couple people where I can source at least one movie. But as we are getting toward the back end of this series and I've picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit already, things figure to get tougher and tougher. Then again, there are a lot of filmmakers whose work I haven't seen -- as long as I am willing to bend my definition of "auteur" a little. 

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