Color Snapshots: Agnès Varda in California

Michael Barrett

Six hard-to-find films are now available in brightly colored restorations.


Director: Agnès Varda
Cast: various
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1967-1981
US release date: 2015-08-11

This three-DVD set conveniently gathers six hard-to-find films that French filmmaker Agnès Varda made on California visits in 1967-1968 and in 1980. Beautifully restored, they look sunny and gorgeous, and bear her distinctive sense of curiosity, intelligence, color, and craft.

In 1967, Varda arrived in America with her husband, Jacques Demy, who was making the film Model Shop for Columbia. The first disc has two short documentaries she made in Northern California. Saturated with color, light, and whimsy, Uncle Yanco (1967) is an impromptu profile of her father's cousin, an artist in a houseboat colony of young bohemians in Anaheim. By re-creating and filming their "first meeting" several times, Varda calls attention to the artificial aspect of the project. We have the option of hearing a largely French soundtrack or an English one narrated by Yanco and Varda.

The second film, Black Panthers, shot for French TV in the tumultuous year of 1968 but not broadcast, interviews various people at an Oakland rally for the release from arrest of the organization's leader, Huey Newton, accused of shooting and killing a police officer. It's an immersive snapshot that encourages the self-described revolutionaries, who say they're influenced by Mao and Castro, to speak for themselves on topics such as police fascism, women's equality, and black self-direction.

The unidentified American female narrator seems to substitute for Varda's voice. Varda wanted always to make films engaged with her time and place, and in this case she's made a snapshot that resonates with today to a striking degree. For example, she explains that Panthers' armed patrols of their neighborhoods took advantage of gun laws that permitted citizens to carry weapons openly and that they used this power to monitor police movements, which resulted in official rethinking of gun laws.

Next is one of Varda's most obscure features, Lions Love, for some reason now labelled Lions, Love (...and Lies). Shot with liberty in place of money, it's a candy-colored avant-garde meditation she made after negotiations with a Hollywood studio fell through on another project. The stars are the willowy Viva (one of Andy Warhol's finds) and the two men who wrote the musical Hair, James Rado and Gerome Ragni. They're depicted as living in a bisexual Hollywood menage of frequent nudity. They offer space to New York filmmaker Shirley Clarke during her disastrous meetings for a Hollywood project. In other words, the world's most famous woman filmmaker asked America's most famous woman filmmaker to stand in for herself, and there are a couple of moments when Varda switches with Clarke.

The whole project is framed in reflexive gestures, from the call to "Action" to glimpses of the camera to living reproductions of Magritte paintings to post-game interviews, not to mention the opening scene from a play about Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid (with the real Jim Morrison in the audience). Improvised scenes of whimsical pretension among the main trio, as they flippantly cavort through their fabricated ideal, contrast darkly with the events of Robert Kennedy's assassination (and the attempt on Warhol's life) on TV. Writer-critic Carlos Clarens plays himself, while Eddie Constantine drops by as a link between pop cinema and the French New Wave. Look for Peter Bogdanovich covering his face with a book on John Ford.

This catnip for auteurists and sociologists will turn many off, but it's not bad, especially when the violent events enter by synchronicity, and lend a tonal complexity and auto-critique. Also, Varda is as fascinated by Los Angeles as her husband, as both of their L.A. features offer extended sequences of driving around with the camera pointed out the windshield. Her sense of color and composition is never less than eye-catching. Fortunately, these qualities haven't flagged in 1980's Mur Murs and Documenteur, shot when she was again stranded in L.A. after yet another project fell through.

The former is a straightforward doc of the lovely street murals and those who paint them, sometimes expressing racial pride or anger, sometimes commercial commissions. The second film, whose title again calls attention to lying and that picks up from the final shot of the first film and incorporates elements from it, is a chamber drama of a newly separated woman's loneliness as she raises her son (played by Varda's son Mathieu Demy). Surprising, precisely motivated moments include voluptuous nudity of both sexes, while wistful and serene beach shots foreshadow The Beaches of Agnès. Both films offer French or English soundtracks; we prefer English on the first (though some puns don't translate) and French on the second.


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