Sunday, August 07, 2005

Film Review #27: The Gleaners and I
Director: Agnes Varda

Here's my favorite scene from Agnes Varda's 2001 documentary The Gleaners and I. Varda, who's been making films for over 50 years, rolls down a French highway behind a truck, glancing at the passing landscape and fiddling with her new hand-held digital video cam, the instrument which has allowed her to embark on this trek. With one hand she films the other, reaching up with thumb and forefinger, playfully framing the image of the truck.

Many filmmakers might throw away this grainy, unsteady shot, but it pulls together what's come before with such economy and good spirit that I'm not surprised when other people love it too. Writer Jake Wilson says "this most lyrical shot virtually negates the difference between grasping an object with one's hands & approaching it with a camera."

Gleaners is about throwing things away, about the ancient, once-communal practice of gleaning, about how art and scavenging are alike. In 1554 a royal edict established the French people's right to glean. Varda titles her film after Jean-Francois Millet's 1867 painting of three women bending down to gather leftover wheat. She also films herself costumed like the painter Andre Breton's upright gleaner, and pointedly lays down her sheaf of wheat and picks up her camera. From the fall of '99 to the next May, she traveled France with a tiny crew, filming those who scavenge potatoes, sheep's wool and grapes in the countryside, oysters at the shore, appliances, eggs and vegetables from city curbsides and markets. There's actually a French Hip-Hop song about gleaning, and gleaners among gypsies, literacy teachers, the very poor, the very political and one highly-rated chef who doesn't trust the grocer.

I happened across Agnes Varda fresh, thanks to the painter Susan Roth, whom I'd just met and who liked a lot of the same films and directors I do. What a discovery! Afterward I read what Australian filmmaker Helen Carter wrote after the 2001 Sydney Film Festival, that "somehow the grandmother of the French New Wave had escaped my attention – she wasn't mentioned in any of the documentary classes."

So for me The Gleaners makes a start in answering how one might experience good art if encountered out walking the world anonymously – stealth art, if you will. Sometimes you're lucky enough to meet an artist's work clean like this, which is not to say that she herself did her work unmindful of other art. Now, Varda's had a renaissance over the past five years or so. In its first two years on the circuit, Gleaners screened in about 350 film festivals, and was named Best Documentary of 2001 by half a dozen film critics groups. Varda began getting bookings for retrospectives of the nearly 30 films she's made. Three weeks at Film Forum in New York City, then the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the 2003 Venice Biennial, among others. There were special awards in Thailand, Mexico, and this year's Singapore Film festival. In her late 70's, Agnes Varda now teaches an intensive summer course at the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland.

She came to filmmaking from studying art history and working for a decade as a photojournalist. She'd seen fewer than 20 movies when she made her first one in 1954. She's tried them in many lengths, as features and documentaries, on an enormously wide range of subjects. In the last several weeks, thanks to Emerald City Video and Netflix, I've been able to get my hands on several.

In 1961 Varda made Cleo from 5 to 7, about a pop singer awaiting cancer test results. She walks around Paris, plays her own songs in jukeboxes, fears her beauty won't save her. Traces of elements present in Gleaners showed up early. Cleo uses the human hand as the image and instrument of making one's own fate, starting with a God's eye color shot of hands laying out Tarot cards. The rest of the film, in black and white, is played in "real time," as a journey. Varda began disassembling the artistic process early too – Cleo meets up with an artist's model who literally steps out of her pose so they can go driving & talk.

Any gathering of women's buddy films should include One Sings, the Other Doesn't,made in 1977, which traces a 14-year friendship. As men come and go, Suzanne establishes a women's clinic and Pauline – who later takes the stage name Apple – tours the provinces with a women's band. Whether art nurtures its makers and the people near it is up for grabs in this film, and there's constant reference to films of that era and the turning point of the 1968 Paris student riots in which cinema figured as a political force.

Vagabond, made in 1985, foretells Gleaners too. Though fictional, it has a documentary's look and Varda used many non-actors. Sandrine Bonnaire plays the ill-fated Mona, a low-end loner whose aimless road-trip unravels during the coldest winter on record. Described as "painterly," the film's opening shot of a serene country field comes finally to rest on Mona's dead body – much as Breughal's painting "The Fall of Icarus" finally reveals an almost overlooked foot in the waves. Again, hands – Mona's grubby ones and a woman professor's beautiful manicure. Like the British director Carol Morley's Alcohol Years, Vagabond is as much about how others remember us as how we were. Mona's unstable "place in the picture" matches her unsteady walk in and out of the screen's frame, shots like Scorcese used in Taxi Driverto signify not fitting anywhere.

In 1995 The World of Jacques Demy was Varda's second film about her husband, the director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990 and had made Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Lola, and Bay of Angels. It says much of Varda's view of art's function that she treats the rude and smelly Mona as tenderly as her husband. She has described her relationship with movie-goers to Andrea Meyer of Indiewire this way: "They do behave like an intelligent audience with me. They raise beautiful questions, speak to me after screenings, and tell me personal things."

This weekend is a flood of opening new films, with The Island, Hustle and Flow, March of the Penguins, and Miranda July's You and Me and Everybody We Know. But with Varda you can see something that's new in a different way.
Aired on 7/21/05 in regular film comment slot on "Women's Voices Radio," WAER FM 88.3, Syracuse, New York.