Eclipse Series 43: Agnès Varda in California

On Film / Essays — Aug 13, 2015
Agnes Varda in California

UNCLE YANCO AND BLACK PANTHERS: INTO THE WEST

Standard definitions of cinema tend to go out the window when discussing Agnès Varda. Throughout her career, she has made works of fiction, works of documentary, and frequently works that dissolve the boundary between the two, something she was doing as early as her debut feature, La Pointe Courte (made in 1954 and released in 1956)—long before such hybrids became a subgenre unto themselves. With that independently made film, which nests a scripted love story within a casual depiction of existence among the real-life denizens of the Mediterranean port town of Sète (where the director had lived as an adolescent), Varda established that hers would be a cinema of personal exploration, as intrigued by the specifics and peculiarities of everyday life as by the drama it is possible to create from it.

La Pointe Courte is now acknowledged as a precursor to the free-form films of the French New Wave, but although she would also make one of the most heralded pictures of that movement, 1962’s documentary-influenced drama Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda never considered herself a true member—more evidence of her individuality. This is apparent in all her work, from the best-known—like Cléo and Vagabond (1985)—to the less-seen, which includes the splendid, sun-dappled films she made while living in California, first in the late sixties and then again in the early eighties. In these five movies, Varda, delighted and inspired by the unfamiliar terrain, created studies of people, politics, and landscapes that encompass nonfiction and narrative and tease the tantalizing spaces in between.

Varda moved to Los Angeles for the first time in 1967, after her husband, director Jacques Demy, coming off the international success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, was contracted to direct a film for Columbia Pictures (this would be the poignant, now rarely screened oddity Model Shop). Though they had not intended to stay in the United States for long, Varda and Demy were both so taken with late-sixties West Coast life that they ended up living in California until 1969. During this time, Varda found herself galvanized by the pervasive progressive politics and burgeoning youth movement—not to mention the weather—and struck out to work on her own projects. So while Demy was busy dealing with the demands and restrictions of directing for an American studio, Varda was working with great autonomy.

Soon after they arrived in Los Angeles, her curious eye took her to Northern California, where she made two short, very different documentaries. The first of these, 1967’s Uncle Yanco, is a charming expression of Varda’s artistic freedom. This cleverly constructed nineteen-minute work features the filmmaker looking up a cousin of her father’s whom she has never met, a man who was born in Greece but left in 1913, first for Paris and eventually to settle in the Bay Area city of Sausalito in 1939. “I thought I was going to find a rich American uncle,” claims Varda in voice-over. Instead, she finds the mustachioed, seventysomething Jean Varda, getting by in a houseboat in a part of the city he refers to as an “aquatic suburbia.” Here, in this neighborhood of floating homes, some ramshackle and others ingeniously designed, people are living “against the system,” Jean tells us. He is a painter and collage artist who ensconces himself in a world of heavenly pink, yellow, and green pastels, and an avuncular philosopher figure to the counterculture youths who’ve nicknamed him Yanco and flock to his weekly open houses to discuss art, music, and love. He and Agnès seem to bond quickly, and he encourages her, in voice-over, to call him Uncle Yanco.

Whimsical and loose (Varda conceived the film on a Thursday, after meeting the man, and completed filming by the following Monday), Uncle Yanco is the cinematic equivalent of a breeze blowing through gossamer curtains. Varda’s delight at meeting her relative can be felt in every frame, yet this is more than just a document of the coming together of two kindred spirits. With its fragmented opening visuals and sounds, bursts of psychedelic color, and images of the San Francisco area, it’s as much an experimental evocation of a place and time as a portrait of a person, with Jean Varda serving as an emblem of a particular bohemian strain of late-sixties California life. The director also foregrounds the film’s constructed nature by showing her “first meeting” with Yanco, as she approaches his houseboat, in one take after another, his apparent astonishment at making the acquaintance of this diminutive French relative (“Agnès?! You are the daughter of Eugène Varda?” exclaimed in French, English, and Greek) revealed as a rehearsed, perhaps even scripted, cinematic moment. Varda then composes a static shot of herself and Jean, with two youngsters holding differently colored transparent plastic hearts in front of them—an image that further stylizes their initial encounter while also paying tribute to Yanco’s own tactile, mixed-medium artwork.

There is an obvious kinship between the two artists. Even their voices sound remarkably similar. Especially when Yanco muses about art and beauty (“Man feeds on the marvelous, the marvelous his soul’s nourishment, like chlorophyll sustains the tree”), his feathery timbre, intonations, and cadences may strike a contemporary viewer’s ear as being akin to a Greek-accented version of Agnès Varda’s poetic narration in such later films as The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008). In this way, this deceptively slight, very personal film has the power to speak across generations.

Uncle Yanco

Sausalito is a brief ferry ride from Oakland, where Varda would film her next movie. Her sympathetic fascination with the African American radical movement resulted in the more straightforward documentary Black Panthers (1968), a half-hour short funded by and originally intended for a French television network, but whose broadcast was canceled at the last minute. (It was just a few months after the events in Paris in May of that year; “We weren’t supposed to ‘reawaken the students’ anger,’” the director later said.) Varda had proven her adeptness at socially progressive documentary work with her vibrant half-hour film Salut les Cubains (1963), a cultural celebration made up of rhythmically arranged still photographs that Varda took while vacationing in Cuba a decade after the beginning of the revolution there. (She had also contributed to the politically charged 1967 omnibus Far from Vietnam, alongside such filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, and Alain Resnais, though her segment was cut before release.) There’s a political line connecting Salut les Cubains and Black Panthers, as the Panthers modeled themselves in part after the Cuban revolutionaries, which Varda’s narration—read by an unidentified female American voice—points out. The film opens with a close-up of a sign reading “Black Is Honest and Beautiful,” an authorial statement as much as an observational documentary touch. With Black Panthers, Varda was further aligning herself with marginalized communities and people without a voice.

The event that drew Varda and her film crew to Oakland was an outdoor rally protesting the imprisonment of activist Huey P. Newton. A founding member of the Black Panther Party, Newton had been arrested for the shooting death of an Oakland police officer who had pulled him and a friend over for a driver’s license check; the circumstances of how the situation turned violent remain unclear to this day, though no one—including a second wounded officer—saw Newton holding a weapon. (Despite the lack of evidence, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter by an all-white jury in 1968; his sentence was overturned two years later.) At first, Varda captures the scene of the protest—its musical performances, its congregating families, its fed-up youth—from an observational remove, but the film gradually reveals itself as something more intimate, featuring a close-quarters prison interview with Newton and an increasingly subjective voice-over (“White racists . . . consider them black fascists,” the narrator says of the Panthers, before adding, “They are much less dangerous than the police and much less fascist”).

Newton’s imprisonment was the project’s catalyst, but, as the title suggests, Black Panthers is concerned primarily with the organization as a whole: the social changes it demands—an end to police brutality, exemption from military service for black men, just trials for black people by juries of their peers, education reform—and the shifts in African American self-identification and individuality it evinces, as exemplified, for one thing, by the natural hairstyles worn by many of the film’s subjects. Though one could see the white and newly-arrived-in-America Varda as a detached observer, there’s a universality and an empathy to her film that keep it from exoticizing its subjects. As she revealed in a 1977 interview, she considers Black Panthers to be a crucial moment for her political thinking, one that revealed for her parallels between the black power and feminist movements: “The Black Panthers were the first to say, ‘We want to make the rules, the theory.’ And that’s what made me aware of the woman situation. A lot of good men had been thinking for us.’” As her career continued, she would make more overtly feminist films, such as One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977). So even Black Panthers, a film seemingly far removed from the filmmaker’s own experience, is a personal statement, fitting well into the pattern of a multifaceted movie career.

Black Panthers clip

LIONS LOVE (. . . AND LIES): LADY LIBERTY

During her first California sojourn, Agnès Varda was at one point in negotiations with Columbia Pictures over a scenario she had written called Peace and Love. When the studio refused to grant her final cut on the project, though, she abandoned it. She funneled her disappointment and creative energy into her next film, the 1969 feature Lions Love (. . . and Lies). Varda has called this amorphous meditation on late-sixties American counterculture and politics a collage (recalling the chosen métier of Uncle Yanco). Lying somewhere between fiction and documentary, comedy and tragedy, narrative and abstraction, Lions Love is Varda’s ultimate California film, an alternately caustic and guileless but always sun-drenched portrait of the gratifications and limitations of free living.

Lions Love stars an aesthetically striking bunch of emissaries from the New York art scene, transplanted to L.A. The actress Viva, known primarily as a regular in Andy Warhol’s experimental films, is the movie’s drowsy-voiced, frizzy-haired center, flanked by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, whose equally abundant locks function as an extratextual reference to Hair, the iconic 1967 musical Rado and Ragni had created and starred in. In a rented house in the Hollywood Hills, Viva, Jim, and Gerry—playing versions of themselves—lounge around in bed and in the pool, extolling the virtues of classical art, movie stars, and free love; soon they are joined by a visiting New York underground filmmaker (played by New York underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke, in sunglasses and a marvelous, out-of-place leopard coat) who has been summoned to make a movie in town. “Which comes first, the movie or reality?” Clarke wonders, clearly speaking for Varda.

Lions Love is constantly questioning its own reality. In one scene, we see Varda in a mirror behind the camera, a “mistake” that enhances the sense that we’re at once watching a film and a documentary of its making. For much of the running time, Viva, Jim, and Gerry, nude or androgynously clothed, cavort with sensual abandon while Varda’s camera watches patiently, allowing the performers’ physicality to dictate the shape of scenes. At other times, Varda chops the film into superstylized interstitial sequences, such as a montage of street signs with movie stars’ names or a musical inventory of the rented house, sung in absurdistly reverent fashion by an offscreen chorus. The tone grows increasingly dark: the stars’ lazing begins to seem like apathetic rotting (during one extended scene, they can’t figure out how to get out of bed and get coffee), and Clarke’s director loses faith—she breaks down, says she’s not an actress, and walks off camera (prompting Varda to temporarily take her place). Furthermore, television news coverage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, which occurred while the film was being shot, becomes a motif, tethering Lions Love to a harsh reality.

Augmenting the self-reflexivity, Varda includes cheeky scenes of suited American studio men in a cramped office, discussing the budget of Clarke’s film and whether its director should have artistic control over the final product. “This girl is used to having final cut,” one of them says, clearly also talking about Varda. Their ultimate decision not to give “this girl” creative freedom is slyly subverted by what we see on-screen: complete cinematic liberation.

Lions Love 2

MUR MURS AND DOCUMENTEUR: INSIDE AND OUT

Agnès Varda spent the 1970s back in France, making films like the documentary Daguerréotypes (1975), about shopkeepers on her street in Paris, and the drama One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1976), set against the women’s movement. She returned to Los Angeles in 1979, to make a film for a French production company based on a real-life case in which a policeman had shot a man on an L.A. street, evidently for being naked. But the project fell through, leaving the filmmaker frustrated and unmoored, and living in a Venice Beach house with her seven-year-old son, Mathieu. Compounding her sense of isolation was the fact that she had temporarily separated from her husband, Jacques Demy.

Fueled by these disappointments, she made Mur Murs (1980) and Documenteur (1981), a documentary and a work of fiction that are radically interconnected. These tiny-budgeted films show Varda at the height of her intellectual and aesthetic powers, each reflective of her unflagging inquisitiveness and the alienation she was experiencing. Mur Murs elegantly surveys the colorful large-scale murals that make Los Angeles into a playful, multicultural outdoor gallery; as the film progresses, though, it reveals itself to also be a topography of the sprawling city’s racial and sociological landscape—many of the murals are located in Mexican American and African American communities and function as public expressions of their marginalization. Documenteur, on the other hand, is an abstracted drama with a calmly observant documentary feel. It concerns a divorced mother, Emilie, and her young son, Martin, who lead a secluded existence in a house by the beach; as if that weren’t personal enough, its lead actor, Sabine Mamou, was the editor of Mur Murs, and Martin is played by Mathieu Demy. (Making the film still more self-reflexive, Emilie, a secretary for a film company, is asked at one point in the story to record voice-over narration for a movie that is clearly Mur Murs.)

As Varda has explained, Mur Murs is “a portrait of the city through what is shown in the street—palm trees and sun and all these murals and everybody expressing themselves”; Documenteur is “the shadow of the first one . . . what you don’t see in Los Angeles, the nowhere city inside the city.” What you don’t see, then, is interiority. Mur Murs is about the power of images; Documenteur, which Varda subtitled An Emotion Picture, is concerned with thoughts and words, often expressed in its main character’s meditative voice-over. While the former offers a strong sense of entrenched communities, in the latter the city is a world of foreigners and transients. Mur Murs is rich with vibrant color; Documenteur’s most recurrent image is a placid, lonely beach seen through a window.

As Documenteur’s punning title suggests (in French, menteur means “liar”), a filmmaker is never entirely telling the truth, even in a documentary. Truth may be elusive, even impossible, but Varda has nevertheless always sought it as an artist, and her California films are evidence of how far afield that search can take one. In 2013, Varda used strips of celluloid from an old print of Lions Love (. . . and Lies) to construct the walls and ceiling of a cabana for an installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Artificial light streamed through the translucent walls, evoking the sometimes harsh quality of the California sun—an illusion of reality, like so much in her films.