30 March 2010

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"Queen of Hearts"
Arroyo Grande, CA
May 2008

25 March 2010

The Beaches of Agnès

 Granted, I am a huge fan of Agnès Varda’s work—and persona. And granted, one of my favorite moments as a journalist came when I was standing in the newsroom at the Santa Fe New Mexican and picked up my phone to hear the “Godmother of the French New Wave” calling me from Paris. (I was writing a long retrospective of her career when she received a Santa Fe Film Festival award.) I’ve seen most of her American releases, which are, unfortunately, far fewer than the 46 films she’s directed. Sorry to report that even Netflix only stocks 8 of her films; my local video store and library system, not even 1. Then again, the latter failed miserably in the catalog of Jean-Luc Godard as well (0), making me wonder if the French New Wave was simply a figment nested in the imagination of my film school peers.

Eighty-one-year-old Varda is, first and foremost, a poet who happens to be holding a videocamera. And with The Beaches of Agnès, her autobiography, she quickly brings us into the stream of consciousness of her brilliant mind, regaling us with both fantastic images, filmic experiments, and words rendered so quietly and sweetly that it belies their utter veracity. With the fluidity of a Russian ballerina, she weaves still photos, clips from her films, present-day documentary footage, and fictional re-creations.

A viewer with a familiarity of her oeuvre will obviously take away greater understanding and enjoyment of this recounting of her life and work. Yet, I believe it’s accessible even for the uninitiated, as a tribute to an artist and iconoclast who sustains a strong vision and keen insight into life and art. And a great big heart.

“ ‘If we opened up people, we’d find landscapes.’ If we opened up me, we’d find beaches,” she begins, an apt conceit for the half-Greek filmmaker who has lived her life near the sea--even living aboard a boat during WWII. And thus, in the film’s opening shots, she constructs a web of mirrors propped on easels in the sand, reflecting the incoming waves. These are fancy, gilded, furniture mirrors, large and small, capturing both la plage and Varda’s reflection as she begins the narrative of her childhood. In and of itself, it’s a beautiful installation piece—greatly enhanced by the reflexive quality of a sea of cameras filming themselves. 

Moments later, she sets up family photos on blades of grass in the sand. While discussing an image of herself and her sister in their bathing suits, two little girls appear in current time, wearing the same sorts of suits. “I don’t know what it means to re-create a scene like this. Do we relive the moment?” Varda wonders. But her answer seems less about reconstructing the past (this is not a wistful film like Bergman’s Wild Strawberries), but more about delight in her powers as a magician with a camera. “For me, it’s cinema, it’s a game,” she says.

Some of the film’s sweetest moments derive from shots of her family—her two children and late-husband, fellow New Wave auteur Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). She obviously has great affection for the “peaceful island,” as she describes them. In one lovely scene, the extended family is dressed in white gauze, frolicking with the sea at their backs, while she is attired more formally, in a black dress and jacket. “Together they're the sum of my happiness. But I don't know if I know them, or understand them. I just go toward them.”

Varda employs an unusual technique of re-creating the major moments of her life/films while bringing her current self into the proceedings. In the age of social networking a la Facebook, with gambits toward entering the past as we simultaneously dwell in the present, this seems a very contemporary notion. With the gift of memory, we both do and don’t inhabit all of the times of our life at once. As she states, “I live. And as long as I live, I remember.”

One of La Varda’s most lovable traits is how utterly herself she can be. Her 8-decade-old hair sports its trademark bowl cut, yet in some scenes is colored almost parfaitlike (sans cerise) with white on top and deep red around the ends—gloriously unconventional, and wry. And indeed her sense of humor is continually present. (Watch for the naked old lady.) She also has the good sense not to take herself completely seriously. After revisiting her early home in Brussels and discovering that it is now inhabited by an avid train collector who prattles on about his collection, she concludes, “The ‘childhood home’ part was a flop.”

In 55 years of making films, the director has clearly spent ample time pondering the art of her craft. As she notes, “I think I've always lived in it.” This is obviously so, and without traditional tutelage. She claims to have made her directorial debut, La Pointe-Courte (1955), after having taken in just 10 films in her first 25 years. “I used my imagination and took the plunge.” This greatly flouted convention within French filmmaking of the time, in which training and credentials were paramount. Much of the film concerns images and the context of their creation— the process of birthing, what prompts images into being, the results of their existence, the ripple effects of the filmmaker’s art, and the inextricable link between maker and film.

Although Varda includes reenactments in this walk backward, she also allows the viewer to be in on their making. It’s as if she hopes to underscore the artifice and revels in the fact that we will knowingly suspend our disbelief anyway. In one scene, she sets up a production office atop sand dumped on a city street.

In addition to her calculated manipulations, however, Varda has also wracked up a good deal of documentary work. Early in her career as a photographer, she traveled to China to document the first stirrings of the Cultural Revolution. Later, she and Demy lived in Cuba, where she shot 4,000 stills, which she later animated for her film Salut les cubains. During the 1960s, she and Demy lived briefly in Los Angeles, where she shot a documentary about the Black Panthers and also the hippie-themed Lions Love. Having worked in the realms of both real and fabricated, she seems to beg the question, What is the true nature of reality?

The movie’s final scene reveals Varda’s “shack,” a studio she’s recently built on the beach. The filmmaker-as-architect metaphor made real, its walls are constructed of strips of celluloid from a 1966 film in carefully chosen colors, bathed in light. The structure is fragile yet appears solid. This is a wondrous metaphor, one that seems to encapsulate the artist’s spirit and life. "In here, it feels like I live in cinema," she notes. 

In a 6/25/09 New York Times interview, Varda recalled, “At one screening, there was a young man, maybe 22-years-old, who said about this film: ‘It gives you the desire to grow old.’ ”

Agreed.

Photo of the Day

The Dresser
Arroyo Grande, CA
May 2008

24 March 2010

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"Memory in the Key of White"
Arroyo Grande, CA
May 2008

23 March 2010

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"chaumière de cimetière"
Ferndale, CA
September 2009

22 March 2010

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Watching the Waves Roll In
SeeVue Motel
Yachats, OR

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Bodhi Tree
Newport, OR
February 2010

20 March 2010

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leaning in
Newport, OR
February 2010