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Talk about a breath of fresh air. Seven years ago Criterion put out a disc set called 4 by Agnès Varda, containing several of her better features. Now Eclipse gives us a selection of Varda's later '60s and early '80s work, short subjects and short features. She's as original as ever, following nobody's example; as an ex- film student I must say that I saw very little undergraduate work at UCLA that can touch her. Her personality and point of view come through in everything she does. Varda is a feminist filmmaker, but not because of political will -- her essential outlook questions the fairness of all human relationships, without a hint of anger. Her first feature La Pointe Courte from 1954 has attitudes we associate with films of the 1970s.
The Eclipse Series 43 set Agnès Varda in California gives us five films on three DVD discs. Don't get the Idea that these are 'student' productions. All but one is filmed in 35mm and all are in brilliant color. 2
From 1967, Uncle Yanco (19 minutes) is a little wonder-movie tossed together literally over a weekend, in Sausalito, California. She came to the States when her husband Jacques Demy Varda was contracted to make Model Shop for Columbia. Creatively speaking, it's arguable that she was every bit as active in California as he, making movies about the just-then blossoming West Coast vibe. Uncle Yanco sees Varda seeking out a relative, who turns out to be a Greek multi-media artist living on a houseboat in the then-bohemian / now-gentrified boat tie-up community of Sausalito. Varda plays with the film form in that what she's presenting is a documentary, yet almost everything we see is staged. Chattering happily in French, the gregarious Yanco discusses his work and his lifestyle, He introduces us to the frequent visitors to houseboat, as game a bunch of (authentic-looking) early hippies that we ever saw. Aware of the artificiality of such scenes, Varda gives us several takes of her gangplank meeting with her 'Uncle,' edited with slates included. With her collage editing style, it doesn't seem in the least affected.
Film in 16mm, 1968's Black Panthers is a straight documentation of a Panther rally in Oakland, to protest the jailing of Huey Newton. Varda's camera simply records what she sees and what people have to say. It's a snapshot of the time from a neutral perspective. We hear fiery speeches, but also less provocative conversations with members and onlookers, including kids. There's quite a bit of music and chanting of "Free Huey," plus plenty of rhetoric and oratory aimed to inflame the police. A shot near the end sees some white cops observing the peaceful rally from behind glass doors. Other newsreels of the time concentrate on scary details -- angry faces, raised fists, weapons -- while vintage American underground films almost all take as a given that the Panthers are righteous victims of the system, that the revolution is nigh. Varda's film is the first Panther Rally coverage I've seen that makes them appear to be a real community.
1969's two-hour Lions Love (often not written with its sub-title, "...and Lies") is the flashiest but least interesting movie in the pack. As an internationally known filmmaker Varda was more than well enough connected to attract a selection of celebrities for a film; here she gives Hollywood a too-superficial glance by contrasting its faded glamour with some campy denizens of the New York scene. Varda invents a series of 'happenings' to occur in a rented Hollywood Hills house. It's occupied by Warhol star Viva and her two supposed lovers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the flipped-out creators and stars of the musical Hair. The trio cavort in hippie fashions or lounge around the pool and their bed in the nude, giving us over an hour of faux-poetic ramblings and hip-talk. After an idle mention of 'family', they bring in a pack of nice kids and cavort with them too (only dressed). They put on a play in an ugly drained swimming pool. A lot of talk is about the imminent destruction of Hollywood by earthquake, as if all concerned have been reading too much Nathaneal West.
The most interesting aspect of the 'plot' is the arrival of another New Yorker, credentialed Avant-garde filmmaker Shirley Clarke. When she drives across town we're amazed to see familiar streets as they were in 1968, in brilliant color and widescreen. Voiceovers talk the usual talk about the real Hollywood being long gone, the 'there's no there, there' speeches. Clarke joins in the play-acting as well, but only up to a point. As happens with New Yorkers stranded on Sunset Blvd, the light and space seemingly put the zap on Clarke's brain. He hoped-for Hollywood deal won't come through, causing her to have an emotional crisis and take some pills - a development that seems very contrary to the Ms. Clarke I met ten years later. At one point Clarke 'quits' the movie, so Varda changes blouses with her and takes her place for a minute or so. It's a cute reminder that the non-drama being presented is just a dress-up act. The film's nudity and other efforts to be edgy are pretty limp. Better for nostalgic reveries is a visit to Larry Edmunds' Hollywood Blvd. bookstore, then at the height of its legendary status. Newly arrived at UCLA a year later, Bob Birchard took Randy Cook and I there, and I bought my first poster. We see Peter Bogdanovich for half a shot, prompting me to guess that he helped Ms. Varda get around town. The show ends with a Warhol-like moving portrait of Viva, who talks very plainly to the camera about her frustration with her screen persona. With her large eyes and angular looks, Viva could have been a glamorous movie siren.
Filmed a decade later, the last two films really hit home. 1980's Mur Murs (82 min) is a comprehensive, definitive look at the Los Angeles mural scene, from the work of noted white artists to the vibrant murals in the black and Mexican-American parts of town. Again, Varda's outsider status is a plus. She clearly has the input of artistic experts, as she hits most of the legendary works we in L.A. have been looking at since the 1960s. Many are now gone due to fading, or as we see happening in Venice, California, because development has wiped them out. One famous mural is now hidden from view because a new building blocks the entire side of a wall. Varda interviews the muralists and stages little happenings around some of the murals. The owners of shops come out to explain why some of them were commissioned, which in one case becomes rather cute when a bar owner and his b-girls appear in an alley parking lot. We see the old colonnade street in Venice, made famous by Touch of Evil. We see dancers and a marching band, and a setup in which the models for a mural stand in front of the giant images of themselves. We see graffiti artists' work, and hundreds of feet of murals painted on flood control channels, often with a revolutionary theme. We even see a mural on the side of the long-gone La Barbera's Italian restaurant, on Wilshire in Santa Monica. Any UCLA student can vouch for the superiority of La Barbera's pizza. The star artist Kent Twitchell describes his work in detail, while the great Terry Schoonhoven opens and closes the show with his comments on the transitory nature of murals like his "Isle of California" masterpiece in West Los Angeles. People are seen marveling at an enormous mirror-like mural of Shoonhoven's in Venice, with perspectives that make it function almost like a scenic backing for a movie. 1
The final film Documenteur from 1981 is a short feature (65 min) said to be inspired by Mur Murs. Impressed by the cultural diversity of L.A., Varda made a little drama about a divorced Frenchwoman setting up a home in Venice for herself and her ten year-old son. A couple of murals figure into scenes but otherwise we simply follow Emilie (Sabin Mamou) as she rents an ugly little box of a bungalow. She takes her son to school and tries to keep him from being bored; she works as a typist at what seems to be a film office/private residence on Venice Beach. The show is charming. Emilie's son is played without affect by Varda's son, Mathieu Demy. Emilie has one friend and meets another, a waitress. They find and wash some old discarded furniture together. The glimpses we see of Venice and environs are completely familiar, with the divided end of Venice Blvd standing out. Into this day-in-the-life ordinariness Varda injects visions from Emilie's inner thoughts -- a nude image of a lover, and scenes of her making love with him. When her employers call from far away, she undresses and relaxes in their bed, seeking some peace and quiet of her own. A partial narration written by Varda is read by Delphine Seyrig. It's a touching, poetic little movie.
Eclipse's Series 43 disc set Agnès Varda in California is a stunningly restored set of great films. We've become too accustomed to accepting vintage short subjects and avant-garde films in less than optimum condition. All of these are completely revitalized. We're especially impressed by the excellent cinematography on view. Most of the technical talent is French.
Eclipse offerings don't have extras but they do have Michael Koresky's expert, concise liner notes. They add greatly to the appreciation of the films, making connections not readily visible and providing needed context. The biggest component in all of these pictures is Varda's playful and sympathetic attitude. Her voiceover scripts are often very poetic. It is said that foreigners are the best people to capture the essence of a place, a sentiment that Agnès Varda in California would seem to bear out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Mur Murs had me gasping a couple of times, when Terry Schoonhoven appeared on screen. He was a personal friend here in Larchmont from around 1980 to 2001, but I never knew he was in a movie by Varda. In the last few years of his life, Terry worked to find a way to do murals that wouldn't fade in just a few years. He invested heavily in the R&D to make murals out of ceramic tiles, with painted images in the glaze. He did a lot of work to develop a permanent glaze process. He completed a number of public works with his system before he passed away; for all I know, the benefit of his research was lost. Terry was an amazing fellow, a genuine world-class artist who didn't promote himself with trendy art-speak. He is greatly missed.
2. Talk about an authoritative correction: correspondent David Dobson informs me that Mur Murs and Documentur were filmed and edited in 16 mm and later blown up to 35 mm. David ought to know; he did the negative matching for both films. (8.04.15)
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