Seeing California Through Agnès Varda’s Lens, in a Criterion Set


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From left, James Rado, Viva and Gerome Ragni in Agnès Varda’s 1969 feature, “Lions Love ( … and Lies).”

Credit
The Criterion Collection

Agnès Varda is often associated with the French New Wave, but this paradoxical filmmaker, tough-minded yet whimsical, is more a one-woman vanguard. Eccentricity is her norm.

Still active at 87, Ms. Varda began as a photographer and remains one at heart. Her fiction films, documentaries and first-person film essays share a fascination with the fleeting and serendipitous — as demonstrated by the three features and two shorts packaged by Criterion as the three-DVD set “Agnès Varda in California.”

Ms. Varda relocated to Los Angeles in 1967 with her husband, Jacques Demy, after he parlayed the international success of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” into a Hollywood contract. The couple remained until 1969, and while Demy struggled with “Model Shop” (1969), Ms. Varda pursued her own, more modest projects.

Her first completed American films were documentaries, both shot in the Bay Area. “Uncle Yanco” (1967) is a playful 19-minute portrait of a long-lost cousin, Greek like Ms. Varda’s father, living in boho splendor on a Sausalito houseboat. The movie not only celebrates his fanciful fabric collages but also the hippie counterculture then in full flower.

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The subject of “Uncle Yanco,” Ms. Varda’s brief documentary from 1967.

Credit
The Criterion Collection

Conceived and filmed over a long weekend, “Uncle Yanco” was something of a lark; Ms. Varda’s second documentary, the 28-minute “Black Panthers” (1968), was a scoop. Shot mainly in Oakland during the summer of 1968, it is a casually electrifying account of Black Panther Party rallies and demonstrations. The Panthers’ physical bearing and political analysis made them the big story that season on the Bay Area left (or so it seemed to me as an undergraduate new to California with a summer job in the Ramparts magazine mailroom), and Ms. Varda nailed it.

Commissioned, but never broadcast, by French television, her sympathetic, relatively straightforward account — featuring interviews with Eldridge Cleaver, the jailed Huey P. Newton and sundry residents of Oakland — not only documented the Panthers but also preserves a moment in American social history. Ms. Varda’s most ambitious American movie, the 112-minute feature “Lions Love ( … and Lies)” (1969), shot in Los Angeles during the spring of 1968, tried to do the same, with mixed results.

“Lions Love” was made at a time when other Europeans, notably Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard, had embarked on magical mystery tours in search of the great What’s Happening in America. Ms. Varda’s quest was less peripatetic but equally open-ended.

Ostensibly a meditation on Hollywood stardom, “Lions Love” is bracketed by performances of “The Beard,” Michael McClure’s scandalous dialogue between Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid, and features a number of transplanted New Yorkers as movie-land hopefuls. These include the Warhol Factory’s reigning chatterbox Viva and the two creators of “Hair,” James Rado and Gerome Ragni, a show that had just made the leap from downtown to Broadway. The film critic and historian Carlos Clarens is on hand, as well as the independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke, a quasi-stand-in for the director.

Far from the student disturbances convulsing Paris, Ms. Varda takes her camera out to visit Hollywood Boulevard. Most of the action, however, is confined to a rented house and its swimming pool and consists of often insufferable improvised banter — something that, having appeared in a half-dozen Warhol films, Viva alone is equipped to handle. (Ms. Clarke at one point walks off the set and is replaced by Ms. Varda.)

Nestled among posters of Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison, the television is another character. It amuses the cast when broadcasting “Lost Horizon” and confounds them with reports on the assassination of the presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. (Andy Warhol was also shot while “Lions Love” was in production, something alluded to when Viva seemingly re-enacts a phone call from New York.)

Ms. Varda returned Los Angeles a decade later for a project never actualized and stayed long enough to make “Mur Murs” (1980), a documentary of murals painted in East Los Angeles and elsewhere in the city, and its semifictional spinoff, “Documenteur” (1981), both disarmingly modest and closely observed.

“Documenteur,” described in its titles as “an emotion picture,” cast Sabine Mamou, the editor of “Mur Murs,” and 7-year-old Mathieu Demy, Ms. Varda’s son, as a marginally employed mother and her child. A minimally plotted mood piece, it evokes Ms. Varda’s frustration at being unable to work on the movie she came to make. Accompanied by a philosophical stream of consciousness and self-conscious references to “Mur Murs,” her camera ponders Ms. Mamou’s body (as she ponders herself in the mirror).

Less downbeat than “Documenteur,” “Mur Murs” is also more evocative than “Lions Love” in advancing the notion of Los Angeles as a city of image-making devoted to representing itself. Ms. Varda finds murals ranging from elaborate trompe l’oeil street scenes to jungle landscapes to political allegories featuring angels and cowboys. A vast meatpacking complex is decorated with scores of pigs and, according to an artist who painted its walls, the project took 12 years to complete. Other murals are backdrops for various types of street theater. (As always, Ms. Varda is alert to the chance encounter.)

Many murals have been splattered with paint or covered with graffiti. Ms. Varda takes this as evidence of their ephemeral nature and a sign of Southern California’s own sense of impermanence. (Reference is often made to a great impending cataclysmic earthquake.)

Today, it would seem that some murals may only exist in Ms. Varda’s movie. “Mur Murs” ranks with Thom Andersen’s compilation film “Los Angeles Plays Itself” as a photographic monument of what, thanks to the movies, may be the world’s most photographed city.

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