Agnes Varda Retrospective, Part IV:
The Agnes Varda symposium began earlier today with early afternoon screenings of her films Uncle Yanco
and The Gleaners and I
, which I missed due to work (though I did see The Gleaners and I
with McBain, at the 2001 WFF); instead, I had to wait for the evening screenings of Agnes Varda’s 1982 short, Cesar-winning documentary Ulysse
and her 1969 English-language feature, Lion’s Love
. Agnes Varda herself popped in to introduce her films, but between the guy in front of me, making too much noise, and her accent, I caught little of what she said (though I did get to hear her freak out over “too much treble,” when the screening of Ulysse
began and the title music was out of whack).
is a short documentary essay, a rumination on time, memory, history, and decay, with it’s jumping off point being a photograph that Varda took herself (the picture to the left)
, with a hooded camera on May 9, 1954 (the date would later prove to be very important). The photograph depicts a young, nude man in the background, standing upright while staring into the sea; in the middle ground is a young boy, also nude, sitting on the beach looking back towards the camera; and in the foreground is the carcass of a goat that had recently died. Varda muses over the photograph in voice-over, telling us about the people in the photo, who she confesses she has not seen in about 30 years. Varda proceeds to interview the young man, now a middle-aged photo editor at Elle
magazine; bizarrely, like in the photograph, nude, but in his office. An Egyptian immigrant named Fouli Elia, the man now refuses to remember that summer. Next, Varda interviews the young boy, now a Parisian bookseller with a family; his name is Ulysse Llorca, the son of Spanish Republican refugees who lived on Rue Daguerre, neighbors and friends with Varda in the mid-1950s (we get many photographs of Varda and her neighbors; the film is replete with other still photographs depicting Varda, the people around her, and lot’s of her artwork)
. We learn that Ulysse was a sickly child and was taken to the beach to recuperate one summer, and that summer he posed with Fouli Elia in a series of photographs, sometimes with his mother Bienvenida. Ulysse only remembers being at the beach and the pain he was in, he doesn’t remember taking the photographs, even though he reproduced it in a painting that Varda still owns; his mother on the other hands, breaks down in tears when she is interviewed. Varda even manages to find a similar goat to “interview,” but all it does is eat a copy of the photo.
Memory is a tricky thing, it’s selective, it fades, it’s often too painful to remember; sometimes images are the only record of our memories. Some children on the street pour over the photo and Ulysse’s painting, comparing which one is more “real” and which one is more “beautiful.” (they choose the photo). Varda then begins a monologue telling of her own personal history with the photograph and the time it was taken. It was taken during the preparation for her first feature film, La Pointe Courte
, and the date that the picture was taken, May 9, 1945 not only coincided with Victory Day, but also the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Conference. Varda confesses that she forgot these facts, and was only reminded of them while sifting through old newspapers and newsreels (one of the final segments of the film is a montage of newsreels, headlines, and photos from the Geneva Conference and Vietnam). It is interesting that one would forget such important events, only to be reminded of them via the image. But does being reminded by an image ultimately make the memory real, or less real?
Now on too Lion’s Love
, er, well, hmmm....An interesting movie, quite different from Ulysse
, though it also shares an intersection of the personal with historical events (according to Varda, she was inspired to make this movie by the televisual pageant of Robert Kennedy’s funeral; she also said that the film probably played better under the influence of marijuana). Varda came to make Lion’s Love
while her husband, Jacques Demy, worked in Hollywood on the film Model Shop
, and in many ways it doesn’t really resemble a French film from that period; the programs notes compared the film to “the late 1960s and early 1970s histrionic melodramas of George and Mike Kuchar, Curt McDowell, and Paul Morrissey, the Ronald Tavel-scripted films of Andy Warhol, or possibly John Waters.” It’s an apt comparison, though Lion’s Love
benefitted from a higher budget, better cinematography, and a more accomplished formal director. The film itself is a rambling, formless, semi-improvised tale following a bunch of “actors” playing versions of themselves (it certainly played like many versions of the New American Cinema movies that I’ve seen, and it had just as many walkouts).
The film stars Warhol Superstar Viva, a wispy blonde who was apparently second banana to the other Superstars (I’m not too familiar with Warhol and the Factory scene; I’m kind of kicking myself for missing all of Warhol retro the Cinematheque held a few years ago), and Jim Rado and Jerry Ragni, the creators of the quintessential 1960s musical Hair
Plot? Don’t even ask me what the plot was? Essentially, the three of them share an apartment, wildly decorated for maximum camp, even adding some mirror-covered, cardboard columns, placed, as Viva says, by the “director...I mean the decorator.” Just a note, they all pretty much acknowledge that this is a movie, and that they are playing and vamping for the camera; several times in the film you catch glimpses of Varda and her crew in the mirrors or one of them will address the camera. Well, anyhow, the three of them live in a blissful, menage a trois relationship, rambling in that so incoherent, bohemian way (example dialogue “We hate decadence, we fight decadence with decadence, sex with sex....if we stopped fucking, and wore burlap, we would be guided by voices???? What the fuck!). At least it’s kind of funny, and Viva looks really good naked. The film actually begins at a horrible rendition of the play “Beard,” staged by Rip Torn; and it begins in early June (we repeatedly see the days advance on a rip-away calendar; and the occasional TV report about the progress of the RFK campaign in the California primary).
A subplot develops when New York Underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke (The Connection
, Cool World
, which I’ve actually seen, and Portrait of Jason
) arrives in Hollywood, she plans on making a movie in Hollywood by taking real stars and treating them like real people; she enters the picture because she is going to stay with Viva and the boys. Some of the most interesting parts early in the movie occur when Varda moves away from the bohemian rhapsody, and follows Clarke, as she is guided through late 1960s LA in a taxi, allowing Varda’s documentary instinct to kick in. The shots, all taken from a camera in the rear seat of the taxi, looking out through the windshield, are very reminiscent of similar shots of Paris in Cleo from 5 to 7
, and I was very interested in the urban geography and aesthetic of these parts of LA that either don’t exist anymore, or are never shown (another interesting scene, is when Varda captures a beachside riot between the LAPD and lots of hippies, kind of reminiscent of Medium Cool
). While Clarke buts heads with producers and studio executives (of course, depicted as squares worried about money vs. artistic freedom), Viva and her boys experiment with a family by borrowing a trio of moppets who look suspiciously like much younger version of the Three (as they call themselves); the experiment turns into a disaster, as the kids exhaust the adults (who resort to drugging the kids).
While the three party the night before RFK is shot, the funniest and most interesting scene of the movie occurs. Shirley Clarke returns home stressed out and tries to kill herself. But she breaks down and begins arguing with Varda from behind the camera, saying how she isn’t an actress, and that she would never kill herself over a movie. Clarke gets up and goes off camera, and the camera pans to the left, but Varda and Clarke are still out of frame as they argue. All the while, the DP and the camera operator are arguing whether they should cut or not. Eventually, Varda takes Clarke’s shirt and plays the part herself, until Clarke calms down, and plays her part, scarfing down the whole bottle of pills (the film becomes seriously reflexive four times: when Varda and her crew are captured in a mirror, and they pause to film their reflection; in the above scene; in another scene Viva says something is silly to Clarke, who is reclining on the couch in a yellow bathrobe, in voice-over Viva says “Not as Silly as the movie you’re making Agnes,” and Clarke is replaced by a quick shot of Varda reclining on the couch in the yellow bathrobe; and fourth, when the Three are naked and eating TV dinners in front of a picture window, they turn around to taunt the crew because they have food).
The Three’s blissful and weird, existenceis dampened by the Kennedy Assassination and the shooting of Andy Warhol, which apparently occurred on the same day (also, they do find Shirley and take her to the hospital). The next part of the film downplays the Three’s antics and instead shows TV news clips from that era, displaying numerous press conferences, TV interviews, speeches, and images from those few days in early June 1968. Varda creates a compilation-like film, charting the rise and fall of RFK and a portrait of American politics in the late 1960s, providing a socio-cultural backdrop to the vapid, rebellious ramblings of the main characters. Varda’s usage of real life TV clips and newsreels adds a considerable darker touch to the formerly lighthearted and goofy film, especially as it marches to the inevitable inspiration for the film, RFK’s funeral. However, before that happens, the film switches gears again, turning into a mini-documentary on Hollywood narrated by Carlos Clarens (oh yeah, Eddie Constantine also shows up and tries to get back together with Viva, but I have no idea what that was all about). By the time RFK’s funeral happens, the Three have pretty much tuned it out, spending most of the funeral cleaning up their apartment (though we get glimpses of the elaborate funeral on the omnipresent TV).
After that, the Three pretty much slide back into their old routine, eating TV dinners in the nude (or as they call it “portrait dinners,” since they are watching a landscape portrait), and reprising “Beard,” in an empty pool for the neighborhood kiddies, who sit on the lip of the pool drinking Dr. Pepper and passing joints. The film ends with three successive close-ups, one of the guys drinks milk and toasts various ugly facets of the American way of life; the other removes his wig; and Viva tells the camera that she took the role because she thought she would have a script, and that she was tired of making up her lines and getting naked, so she would just like to sit their and breath. After about 30 seconds of Viva breathing and sighing, you can hear Varda and her assistant off camera talking about how long this is going on. Eventually, Varda says “cut” and the film abruptly ends.
What the hell was Lion’s Love
about? I have no real idea (hey at least I'm honest), at times it seems like a jokey, home movie with a bigger budget and a love for self-reflexive humor; at other, more interesting times, the film is more like a documentary portrait of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and American politics. Do these two strands every really intersect? Not really, at least not that I really could surmise, and it’s all fairly ambiguous anyways. It’s clearly an experiment, most likely a failed one, but an interesting one nonetheless, mainly because of the film’s sense of humor and Varda’s skill as a director, even if her subject matter sometimes prove less than thrilling.