30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 22: JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (1988)

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Day 22: JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (Agnès Varda, France, 1988)

“When you show it all you reveal very little.” So pronounces Jane Birkin as she sits perched on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, the Eiffel Tower just behind her, the contents of an iconic Birkin bag strewn around her. And much like the jumble of paper, photos, and other ephemera strewn about Birkin’s feet, Varda’s image creates a striking moment of converging symbols—involving stardom, identity, nationality, race, social status, cultural currency, and material privilege—that she mingles together, briefly allowing us to savor their evocative juxtaposition in a single frame. For definite meaning, as is usually the case with Varda, proves elusive, left open for expansive consideration and interpretation. Birkin herself is a fascinating phenomenon—a model whose distinctive image epitomized her generation before transforming herself in a singer, actress, muse, mother, and political activist—and Varda is clearly intrigued by all of these various personas and public perceptions; in that way “Jane B” unexpectedly resonates with Cléo de 5 à 7, continuing and expanding the earlier film’s interest in the performance of identity and the slippery divisions between public and private selves. In many ways “Jane B” is an even more conceptually intricate than the now-classic Nouvelle vague film, with the title’s “par [by] Agnès V” foregrounding not only the filmmaker’s literal presence within the film, but with the acknowledgement that Varda herself is generating yet another “Jane Birkin” (or two or more) to Jane Birkin’s already-expansive collection of selves. But it becomes clear Varda is less interested in locating a “true” or “real” Birkin and is instead eager to enter into a more ambiguous—and potentially fraught—space of active collaboration. “I’m filming your self-portrait” Varda intones near the beginning of the film, “but you won’t be alone.” “I might appear in the mirror in the background” she continues, and then in a beautifully coordinated pan she does exactly that and materializes in the mirror behind Birkin, immediately complicating the stable-seeming concept of “self-portrait” (to say nothing of authorship, subjecthood, the gaze, etc).

Getting so wrapped up in the theoretical intricacies of the film only accounts for one aspect of it, however, and perhaps does a disservice to other, even more immediate pleasures. This is absolutely one of Varda’s most visually gorgeous films—something showcased by its recent restoration—both in regards to her elaborate tableaux vivant as well as location work and the fictional/fantasy sequences. The film also serves as a lovely showcase for Birkin herself, who Varda clearly admires as a unique presence—she’s required to do a lot of acting, and like her singing it can’t exactly be called “good” in a technical sense, yet it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her just electrifying to watch and listen to. Varda recognizes that Birkin is at her very best whenever she presents simply as herself, talking about her family or her past or her ideas or even her insecurities of undertaking a project such as this. In a way she’s ideally suited for Varda’s cinematic sensibility which is inclined toward the tangential and whimsical and unexpected. I’ve yet to see the women’s other collaboration Kung Fu Master, also long unavailable and recently restored, but I’m more eager than ever to watch it now (it’s also on Fandor!).

[Watch Jane B. par Agnès V. on Fandor here.]

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week in review – 07/02 – 07/09/12

Theatrical Viewing

Magic Mike (Soderbergh, USA, 2012) – AMC Century; Digital Projection

Le amiche (Antonioni, Italy, 1955) – PFA, 35mm; 2nd viewing

This Is Not a Film (Panahi, Iran, 2012) – PFA, 35mm

Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off (short) (Blank, USA, 1960) – PFA, 16mm

Dry Wood (short) (Blank, USA, 1973) – PFA, 16mm

Always For Pleasure (Blank, USA, 1978) – PFA, 16mm

Home Viewing

Toute la mémoire du monde (short) (Resnais, France, 1956) – Digital Projection, DVD; 2nd viewing

Plaisir d’amour en Iran (short) (Varda, France, 1976) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Upcoming Possibilities

Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) (Fellini, Italy, 1957) – PFA, 07/11

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is almost here!!! – Castro Theatre, 07/12 – 15

week in review – 06/25 – 07/01/12

Better late than never!

Theatrical Viewings

Barbarella (Vadim, France/Italy, 1968) – Castro Theatre, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Roman Holiday (Wyler, USA, 1953) – Stanford Theatre, 35mm; 3rd viewing

Sabrina (Wilder, USA, 1954) – Stanford Theatre, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Home Viewing

Les dites cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids) (short) (Varda, France,) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Elsa la rose (short) (Varda, France, 1965) – Digital Projection, Fandor

The Girl’s Nervy (short) (Reeves, USA, 1995) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Upcoming Possibilities

The Connection (Clarke, USA, 1962) – Roxie, 06/29 – 07/05

Beyond the Black Rainbow (Cosmatos, Canada, 2012) – Roxie, 06/29 – 07/07

Le amiche (Antonioni, Italy, 1955) – PFA, 07/06

Always For Pleasure (Blank, USA, 1978) – PFA, 07/07

the gleaners and me

I was recently asked if I was interested in submitting some thoughts on Agnès Varda’s Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) (2000), and as it is one of my favorite films by my favorite director, I jumped at the opportunity to do so.  I ended up being very pleased with the results, and you can read “10 Things Gleaned from Agnès Varda’s Gleaners and I on the Fandor blog, Keyframe.  You can even watch the film on the site by logging in through Facebook, if you’re interested.  You won’t be disappointed—cinephile or not, it’s among the loveliest of any film I know.

Varda as Posing as a Gleaner

The process of writing this piece was an unexpectedly fraught experience, but in retrospect it also turned out to be rather insightful.  And since it’s connected to Memories of the Future to some extent, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.  Anybody who once read this blog (I have no idea if anybody actually does anymore) knows it experienced a period of abandonment over the last few years, a time which has more or less coincided with my decision to pursue a graduate degree in Cinema Studies.  But what I quickly found was that turning a hobby into a “serious” academic pursuit made it nearly impossible for me to muster up the enthusiasm to write about film “for fun,” and as such this blog became more of a repository for occasional book reviews and blogathan contributions.

Now finished with my degree and in the process of shifting my academic energies back towards literary pursuits, I eagerly took up the opportunity to write about a film as “reviewer” instead of “film school student.”  I was fully expecting some bumps along the alway, but I admit I had not anticipated the minor existential crisis it turned out to be.  In short, I realized I had completely lost my “reviewer” voice somewhere along the way.  My short review quickly mutated into a much-too-long essay, and it’s quite good in its own way.  But it was not at all what I had wanted or intended to write, and not at all what I needed to write for this particular venue.  After spending a day (inevitably, the day of my deadline) frantically trying to revise the essay into something suitable, I finally gave up and pulled out a piece of paper and simply began to list all of the reasons I could think of as to why I love this film as much as a I do, and why I had wanted to write about it in the first place.  That gave me the idea for the fragmented structure it eventually took, and things just went from there.

I’m hoping that this experience has reignited some enthusiasm for writing about film again in the capacity of reviewer and film lover, and that spills over into Memories of the Future.  We’ll see, but I think this is, at the very least, a good start.

emotional spaces via physical places

At first glance Agnès Varda’s La pointe courte (France, 1954) seems much more an Italian film than a French one, for if the acute observations of the villagers of the small, traditional Mediterranean fishing town seems deeply indebted to Italian neo-realism, then the alternating story and scenes with the conflicted married couple seems to anticipate with uncanny accuracy the films Antonioni would begin making in the succeeding several years (Il Grido in particular springs to mind). But it’s not an Italian film and furthermore Varda, merely (gulp) 25 at the time, claims to have not seen more than that number of films at that point in her life. Without that bit of information La pointe courte is a rather remarkable film; taking its backstory into account, it’s simply phenomenal.

Probably more than anything La pointe courte a film about spaces and place, and not just in the obvious picturesque sense of setting, but analyzing spaces on a number of levels, whether they be public or private, female-dominated (the home, the laundry lines) or male-dominated (the fishing boats traversing the wide expanses of water), or even in the way the rigid narrative structure sharply demarcates the scenes of village life and the couple’s solitary wanderings. But Varda isn’t content with simply letting these perimeters well enough alone; if anything, the bleeding together of disparate spheres of activity provide the impetus for the film as boundaries as subtly criss-crossed. A good example, and probably my favorite sequence in the film, takes place at the shared laundry lines where Varda’s camera lingers on the crisp, white sheets and shirts that billow sensuously in the wind as two local women cheerfully wrestle their washing from the lines—a brief, beautiful snapshot of friendship and female camaraderie that is interrupted by a solitary man walking through and disappearing (as such, it serves as introduction to the couple’s story in the film).  This is mirrored and inverted later when the same woman (who strongly resembles my Portuguese great grandmother) interrupts the “boys club” post-joute dinner party to kick off the community-wide dance.

The alternating sequences revolving around the couple, played by Silvia Monforet and Phillippe Noiret (who I didn’t even recognize—he’s the old man in Cinema Paradiso), deal with similar issues, but goes about doing it in a more abstract way. Actually, it’s mostly delineated via Varda’s camera where she displays a preoccupation with the distances that separate her two subjects. When not carefully divided by the mise-en-scene

the faces and the profiles of the couple are often shot merged

making the physical and very visual separations between them all the more potent, even painful, a visual rendering of the emotional spaces being explored.

If I started out by saying that La Pointe Court seems like an Italian film, well, it was her fellow French who took the film to mind and heart (in the Criterion interview Varda recounts how only one small theater in Montparnasse would bother showing the film, and all the Paris intelligentsia—from the young New Wavers to the literary elite—flocked to and rallied around it). Surprisingly or unsurprisingly Alain Resnais served as the editor of the film, and a lot of the elements Varda introduces—ranging from the monotone intensity of the couple’s conversations to the preoccupation with memory and place—later shows up in his mature work, most particularly Hiroshima mon amour (Varda also specifically names Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima’s screenwriter, as one face to be seen among the Montparnasse audiences). If Varda had never made another film (or had chosen to stick to photography, her original love) La pointe courte would be enough to seal her reputation as an important cinematic artist, happily, it was just the beginning of a remarkable, still underappreciated career that stretches to this very day.

[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Others are welcome to use the images, but please provide a link back!]