Split Decision: Remembering Agnes Varda
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This week’s question:
What will you always remember about Agnes Varda?
I'll always remember Varda's ability to deftly juggle scrutiny and empathy. It's a truly uncanny gift, allowing her to portray subjects and characters in a manner which affords equal amounts of both and, fundamentally, circumvent the realms of easy condescension and rose-tinted reverence. She saw something more than mere vanity in the eponymous pop-star of Cleo from 5 to 7, investigated the personal rebellion and existential angst of an elusive hitchhiker whose travels climaxed in a lonely death in Vagabond (possibly her best film), and even helped audiences comprehend why a widow in her 40s might pursue romance with a 14 year-old without ever letting the protagonist off the hook in Kung-Fu Master! (her most underrated). Many filmmakers today gravitate toward that ever-alluring aesthetic of clinical detachment, but Varda's forays into this mode are distinguished by flourishes of humanity, beauty, and, in some films, characters overwhelmed by joie de vivre or a personal mission, all while steering clear of the feigned or obvious. (In an extreme case, the deceptive visual opulence of Varda's Barbie-Ken-meet-cute Le Bonheur spellbinds some audiences to the point that they miss the acidic irony.) Naturally, these half-digested thoughts fail to convey the magnitude of her talents in toto, but perhaps provide a window into one of the many ways to read her films. Throughout her career, Varda pushed against those rigid designations of good-and-bad, right-and-wrong, or black-and-white, ultimately forcing viewers to question the choices and ethics at hand and not just give in to routine judgement.
I first met Agnes Varda when she came in for a screening of The Gleaners and I at the Roxy back in 2000. I was so moved by her film and she was a force of nature. I had the chance to interview her at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles in 2013. She was the festival's Artistic Director and when we met, she was still a polka-dotted dynamo. She directed the publicists on who and how she would talk with each journalist, and there was just no denying her. I am still grateful: Interview with Agnès Varda, AFI Festival. It was impossible not to be enchanted by her impish energy as well as her enthusiasm for film. Four years later, I got to interview Varda again, with JR for their film Faces Places, Collective Enthusiasm: An Interview with Agnès Varda & JR by Gary M. Kramer - BOMB Magazine, and the experience was just as magical. She and JR were amusing together, and because the film was about photography, we took a photo (attached) that makes me smile. In addition to the above titles, I love Varda's films Vagabond, The Beaches of Agnes and Documenteur.
I've seen Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7, One Sings, the Other Doesn't, and Faces Places, all of which I love. In Cleo and One Sings in particular, I really enjoy how Varda depicts relationships between different kinds of women, not as antagonistic to each other, but working in tandem to garner a greater appreciation in the other person. It's something we can, and should, all aspire to. From what I gather she also really liked cats, so honestly, that's proof enough that she is good people.
I also hope she was able to reconcile with Jean-Luc Godard. That was hard to watch in Faces Places.
We’ve covered Agnes Varda twice for the Shame Files Podcast so far, with both Cleo From 5 to 7 and One Sings the Other Doesn’t both getting their own respective episodes. And while I strongly preferred Cleo as a film, what I love about Varda’s approach to art is that she seems like the balance point between Orson Welles’ “happy accidents” and Kubrick’s meticulousness. Everything in her films feels deliberate and well-thought out, but at the same time, it feels like she is making those decisions in the moment. There’s no stiffness in her films, they are alive while also having a strong vision behind them.
I've only ever seen Faces Places, but I will never forget the way that movie brought art back down to earth, to "the people." The way she was able to make regular folks see the power of art, almost like a French New Wave Queer Eye, is something I will never forget.
I know next to nothing about Agnes Varda, but anyone who can rock hair like that into her 90s is cool by me!! I hope she eventually convinced Toolbag McToolbelt to take his damn sunglasses off.