Agnès Varda shorts

Plaisir d’amour en Iran (1976)
An expanded version of Pauline and Darius’s trip to Iran in L’Une chante, l’autre pas. Pauline and a narrator comment on the sensuality of Persian architecture. I would’ve liked it if the feature had been edited more rhythmically like this short (or if the picture quality had been as good).
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Du Coté de la Côte (1958)
Fun, half-hour exploration of tourism along the coast, more gentle than Vigo’s À propos de Nice and simpler than a Marker travelogue.

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“These parks, overpopulated with merry people attracted by the Latin shore, foreshadow the dead people seeking eternal rest there. In both cases, space is limited because of its good quality. It is a well-rated coast.”

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Les Fiances du pont Mac Donald (1961)
The short within Cleo from 5 to 7 is apparently considered its own little film. “I wanted to provide a little relief for Cleo. … So I thought at the beginning of the third part of the film, where films often have a lull, a weakness, a slow-down … I would introduce something uplifting. My other goal was to show Jean-Luc Godard’s eyes. At the time, he wore very dark glasses. We were friends, and he agreed to this little story about glasses in which he must take them off and reveal his big, beautiful eyes, like Buster Keaton’s.”
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Ulysse (1982)
This was fantastic. Varda finds an old photo of hers, taken in 1954, and investigates. What was she thinking about at the time? What were the models in the photo thinking? She looks them up and asks. Agnes: “This almost painful investigation taught me so much about what an image says, what it says to each of us, and what it cannot say. It merely represents.”
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AV: “How does she see her own goat image? Without making animals talk, like in American cartoons, or defining memory as a rumination of mental images, may I suggest that there is an animal ‘eatingmagination,’ a self-predatory imagination?”
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Salut les cubains (1963)
Months after Cleo from 5 to 7 opened, Varda went to Cuba to photograph the country’s inhabitants for an exhibit which opened in Havana (introduced by Raul Castro!) before it moved to Paris. She also made this film out of the photos, narrated by Michel Piccoli. Subjects include the Castros, famous national artists, workers, dancers, posters and drawings and artworks. She creates action sequences, animating the photos, best of all with this guy dancing for the camera.
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Mentions Marker’s Cuba Si, which came out a couple years before. In her introduction, Varda says twice that “we must place it in the context of 1962,” since the Cuban dream society didn’t turn out the way the French leftists hoped it would. Interesting that she made such a happy, idealist film as this, then her next feature would be the happiness-breakdown of Le Bonheur.
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These last two were reissued in the 2004 collection Cinevardaphoto with a third, current short about a teddy bear collector, but somehow I didn’t have subtitles for that one. If Cleo from 5 to 7 and L’Une chante, l’autre pas revealed Varda’s kinship with the filmmaking of husband Jacques Demy, these shorts represent a definite (and oft-mentioned) kinship with Chris Marker, and either of them could stand alongside his best documentaries. The commentaries are more personal, less consciously witty. The images are wonderful, and the sense of investigation, of images and memory, the psychology of the films puts them on the Marienbad and La Jetee side of the new wave fence… my favorite side.
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Elsa la rose (1965)
A portrait of Elsa in the words of her husband Aragon, who has spent their entire relationship writing and publishing poems about her. Varda calls them a “famous couple and fervent communists.” Elsa is filmed as Aragon imagines and remembers her, says she repeated the exercise with her own husband for Jacquot de Nantes. In voiceover, Piccoli reads the poems as fast as he can, a hilarious idea. First movie Lubtchansky and Kurant shot for Varda.
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Elsa: “The readers of these poems expect me to be 20 years old forever. As I cannot satisfy this need for beauty and youth that the readers have, I feel guilty and it makes me unhappy. That’s what’s terrible, they’re not just for me.”

Réponse de femmes (1975)

“Women must be reinvented.”
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Agnes has a few minutes to state the case of all women, socially and politically. Lots of nudity, which she points out is not exploitative unless used to sell a product or titillate viewers.

Coming attractions (when I’ve got subtitles): Black Panthers (1968)
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Guimba The Tyrant (1995, Cheick Oumar Sissoko)

Both this and Genesis required all my concentration to figure out who was who and what was happening.

A girl and her dad:
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Magic man Mambi has a daughter Jangine, and he promises her in marriage to the son of powerful leader Guimba. Twenty years later she is beautiful and Guimba’s son is a perverted dwarf, so she wants to marry a hot dude instead. So Guimba, a scary, easily-angered man who hides from sunlight, drives her father and all hot dudes from the village and demands she marry the son as planned.

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But the son doesn’t want to marry Jangine – he prefers his women more full-figured. This is fine with Guimba – he’ll let the son marry his large mistress while Guimba takes the girl for himself. The father sends some magic boogedy into town, Guimba kills his son then exposes himself to capture and ridicule by the townsfolk, and presumably kills himself.

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Jangine would star in Moolaade (Katy recognized her; I didn’t). The griot appeared in Bamako, and the daughter’s father has been in everything: Finye, Yeelen and Genesis among them. We liked it alright – Katy says it was more confusing than Genesis, because at least she’d read the book of Genesis and seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat but with Guimba we had no frame of reference.

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R. Ames in his African Filmmaking book:

Sissoko turned away from the basically realistic approach of his first two features with Guimba The Tyrant. Already, in Finzan, Sissoko had drawn on the popular Malian koteba theatrical tradition in the portrayal of Bala, the village idiot. Now in Guimba he moved further in the use of African oral traditions to shape the whole film – creating a narrative full of abrupt shifts in time and place and unexpected digressions – the shift in style typified by the appearance of a griot at the beginning and end of the film, introducing the tale and commenting on its aftermath. The inset story, which focuses squarely on tyrnny and the need to oppose it, has obvious contemporary relevance, as many commentators have noticed, to the overthrow of the Malian dictator Moussa Toure in 1991. But the film is shaped as a fable mixing elements of farce and the supernatural and with constant shifts in mood and direction. It chronicles the rule of Guimba and his dwarf son Jangine, putting emphasis on their brutality, on the constant praise-singing of their eloquent but two-faced griot, and also on their ludicrous sexual desires: Jangine rejects the beautiful Kani, to whom he was betrothed as a child, in favor of her more than amply proportioned mother, Meya. The exile of Meya’s upright husband by Guimba, who covets Kani for himself, trigers the ruler’s eventual downfall, chronicled in an often confusing sequence of confrontations played out in splendidly evocative costumes within the visually impressive setting of Djenne, one of Mali’s ancient Saharan trading centres. As Sissoko has rightly said, Guimba “opens the door to audiences for understanding our history through our cinema. Obviously, some aspects will seem odd or not readily comprehensible, but the door to dreaming and discovery is open to those who wish to enter it.”

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Junkopia (1981, Chris Marker)

Static (mostly) shots of outdoor junk sculptures near San Francisco, 5 minutes long. Shot with a guy who IMDB knows nothing about, and a guy who worked on Wenders’ Hammett as well as Ice Cube actioner xXx 2.

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This was titled “Shorts watched September 2009 (on land),” as opposed to “on the plane“, but I only ended up watching the one.

Dude who named his domain after the film says: “The film was shot in Emeryville, near the east section of the Bay Bridge, but unless I’m mistaken the co-ordinates in Marker’s intertitles appear to be for somewhere in Redwood City.”

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Bizarro Saturday Morning

Another great set of Clay’s 16mm cartoons, and it’s been too long since the last one.

Mysterious Mose (1930, Dave Fleischer) is a proto-Betty Boop (she looks like a dog; a sexy dog) cartoon in which she is haunted by a sorta ghost casanova. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946, Robert Clampett) is a weirdly violent Daffy Duck gangster parody. Since his “Duck Twacy” fantasy is spurred by a knock on the head while reading comic books, it’d be a good short to play before Artists & Models. It’s Tough to Be a Bird (1969, Ward Kimball) is a Disney doc about birds and watchers with musical cartoon segments. And We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us (1973, Walt Kelly) is an unfinished Pogo cartoon with a harsh environmental message. I think all the voices were done by one guy.

Bunch of TV stuff. Spiderman fights a bank robber in a mole-man costume. There’s a Casper cartoon (in which Casper does not appear) about a watch repairman who gets attacked by an eagle at the end. Ralph Bakshi contributes an episode of Captain America. A horrible show called Hoppity Hooper (set in Wisconsin) with a Rocky-and-Bullwinkle-repetitive bit about “the traffic zone” was the low point. The high point was the hilarious 60’s-70’s commercials for Mr. Wizard, Hot Wheels, Cheerios and the like. Real fun program… too bad the next one is scheduled for the same night Art Brut is playing.

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Go West (1925, Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline)

Not full of great gags. Seems like a feature to show off Keaton’s comic improv genius – but where’s that genius? Give Keaton a lasso and… the rope gets tangled and his hat falls off. Give him a basket of eggs and… he puts the eggs down then mistakenly steps in them. Not groundbreaking stuff here.

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Mercifully short feature about Keaton taking Horace Greeley’s advice, moving west and falling for a cow. He hops trains, learns how to shoot, fails to learn how to milk a cow or do anything useful. When his host rancher’s herd is derailed by a rival, Buster drives the cattle through the city to the yards, saves the day, and gets to keep his own favorite cow as a reward (not the rancher’s cute daughter – the cow! ha!).

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The city scene is the big showpiece. Has its moments (Keaton in a costume shop dressing up as the devil to get the bulls to chase him), but most of the humor derives from how unreasonably afraid of cows the townsfolk are. My favorite visual bit was early on, the movie demonstrating the passage of time by the length of his package of food as he rides the trains. After that I’m afraid it wasn’t entertaining enough to keep me awake late at night.

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IMDB says a post-scandal Fatty Arbuckle had a cameo in the city. Guy who played the ranch foreman drowned filming one of his next movies.

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Les créatures (1966, Agnès Varda)

I think these might be time-lapse shots of the tide going out, but the picture quality is too poor to be sure. This is gonna be a rough one…

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Opens with a closeup of Catherine Deneuve smiling, a good sign, but soon she and husband Michel Piccoli are in a car crash. Afterwards, she can’t speak anymore and he has a harry potter scar on his forehead. Some eerie, powerful string music and many close-ups of crabs later, we’re at a seaside town where the couple have come to recuperate. Apparently they don’t talk with the locals much because there’s plenty of gossip going around.

Sheet salesmen:
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Doesn’t take long for things to get weird. Small hands drop buttons into pockets. Piccoli (whose character name is also Piccoli) gets scammed by traveling sheet salesmen. Fishermen provide La Pointe-courte flashbacks for the viewer. Piccoli beats a chef with a dead cat. But it’s not a comedy! Something dark and eerie is definitely going on.

Piccoli talks with a horse. The horse talks back.
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Piccoli is a writer working on a story, and when we see him writing the dialogue being spoken by a woman across town, I’m never sure afterwards what is really happening and what’s part of his meta-movie.

horse: “What is your story about?”
MP: “It’s about a man who knows how to control people by remote control. … but it wouldn’t last very long, a minute at most. This guy would be a bad person, with an evil mind. He wouldn’t be human or animal anymore.”

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Soon Michel meets a bad man with an evil mind, Mr. Ducasse, who lives in a tower. He’s hired kids to drop magic discs into townspeople’s pockets which enable their wills to be controlled by his super computer. Ducasse calls the townfolk his “creatures”, gets Piccoli to play a game of Battle Chess with him over the fate of the town and of MP’s wife. MP is losing, but decides he doesn’t have to take Ducasse’s crazy misanthropic shit anymore, destroys the computer and tosses Ducasse from the tower. I’ll let NY Times give away the ending below.

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Other notes I took while watching:

Catherine writes him messages, which I can’t read from the poor picture quality, and even if I could read them, they’d be in French. I have nice DVDs of Varda and Demy movies here, but I choose to watch a junk bootleg instead. Odd priorities.

The dead cat came with a piece of iron that makes the lights go out and causes people to act strange.

He just told a rabbit that his wife is pregnant.

Thief Max burns money, puts on diving suit, gets shot by partner.

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You can’t tell much about the camerawork from my lo-res letterboxed videotape, but it’s one of the first films shot by William Lubtchansky (a decade before he began his 30+ year relationship with Jacques Rivette) along with two others. Interesting that all of her films until 1977 had multiple credited cinematographers.

Village Voice calls it “really botched” in their roundup for this year’s retrospective… “If it’s about anything, it’s about the creative process in action and stars that fine actor Michel Piccoli as a novelist who bases the characters in his story on friends and acquaintances.”

Ebert: “a complex and nearly hypnotic study of the way fact is made into fiction. It seems to operate on many levels, but in fact it operates on only one, illustrating how fantasy, reality and style are simultaneously kept suspended in the mind of a creative writer.”

NY Times: “Then love conquers all. The survivors of the seven subplots make happy arrangements — for example, the statuesque hotel keeper (Eva Dahlbeck) gives up mistressing for the town doctor and begins with an underage busboy. The writer almost completes his novel. The wife gets her voice back, pronounces her husband’s name (“Edgar”), and has her baby — a bawling creature who at the end fills up the screen precisely to balance (and somewhat to resemble) a crab creature that fills it at the beginning.”

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The movie’s studied anthropology and attack on human behavior reminds me of Resnais’ Mon oncle d’Amerique. And also of Bjork’s “Human Behavior.” There’s definitely, definitely… definitely no logic.

Thirst (2009, Chan-wook Park)

Not a vampire thriller with comic parts, but an all-out comedy. I used to think Park was someone to take seriously with his vengeance trilogy, but after this and I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay, I’m not sure he was ever serious. Maybe it has always been dark humor, and he never had anything to say about revenge – there’s nothing I can remember, anyway, and surely nothing to match K. Kurosawa’s Eyes of the Spider. Complaints aside, this was entertaining as hell and the sparse crowd was laughing and yelling in horror and delight.

Great to see the star of The Host again on the big screen, and just as good (if not better) was his 20-year-old costar Ok-vin Kim. Anyway, a priest volunteers to be injected with a painfully fatal disease in the name of science, but during a blood transfusion on his deathbed, accidentally gets turned into a vampire. Still a priest, he’s trying to be the most humane vampire he can be, killing nobody and drinking blood from coma patients through their feed tubes. But then he falls for wild young Tae-joo and leaves the priesthood to have an affair with her behind the back of her husband (Ha-kyun Shin, father of the dead girl in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). She’s messed up and amoral from the start, and our man begins to fall – killing his blind friend and the girl’s husband so they can be together. But then she becomes a vampire and starts killing everyone in sight, so he drives them out to the middle of nowhere and waits for the sun to come up…

No messing around with stakes through the heart, garlic or other vampire business – we never even see the original vampires who infected these two. Their super strength adds to the comic-book atmosphere, jumping across rooftops, denting lampposts, tearing apart a car with his bare hands.

This died at the theater with hardly anyone hearing about it. Weird that foreign action/horror movies don’t seem to stand a chance in theaters here, while talky family dramas do fine. I’d think The Good, The Bad & The Weird, Sukiyaki Western Django and this could pull a bigger crowd than Summer Hours and Revanche, but I guess that’s why I’m not paid to book theaters.

Steve McQueen’s Hunger was playing last week, and I meant to catch it so I could watch Hunger and Thirst back-to-back, but sadly reality prevailed over gimmickry and I missed it.

The Gleaners and I (2000, Agnès Varda)

Good to see this again. Funny that all I really remembered is one of the first scenes with Agnes asking a couple reluctant women about gleaning, and Agnes talking about her own hands.

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I’m feeling uninspired, so we’ll let Senses of Cinema do the talking:

The official subject of this film is gleaning, the act of gathering remnants of crops from a field after the harvest. As Varda demonstrates, people can be discovered throughout the French countryside gleaning everything from potatoes to grapes, apples to oysters, much as they did hundreds of years ago (though no longer in organised groups). More figuratively, there are also urban gleaners who salvage scraps from bins, appliances from the side of the road, or vegetables from stalls after the markets have closed. And then there’s Varda herself, a gleaner of images, driving around France with a digital camera and a tiny crew (at times, she wields a smaller camera herself, permitting an even greater degree of intimacy).

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Varda has a (sometimes contested) reputation as a feminist, left-wing artist, and this is very much a political film, though it offers a series of poetic metaphors and concrete encounters in lieu of an explicit, closely reasoned argument. My guess (based mainly on anecdotal evidence) is that the political outlook of The Gleaners And I has a lot to do with its popular success – even if Varda herself, who began filming back in 1999, wasn’t fully aware how thoroughly she was tapping into the zeitgeist. Without specifically referring to political movements or events, the film embodies a quasi-anarchist ethos now in the air in all sorts of ways – a resistance to consumerism, a suspicion of authority, and a desire to reconnect politics with everyday life.

Agnès enjoys a pilfered fig:
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Katy liked the movie, and the next day she felt like going out to pick figs. Shot on a handheld digital videocamera. The picture/framing isn’t always beautiful, but she keeps things quirky enough to stay interesting amongst all the talking heads.

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As with Le Bonheur, Varda has taken over the DVD’s special features section herself with a whole hour-long follow-up film entitled Gleaners & I: Two Years Later (2002) Gleaners was her most locally popular and globally well-distributed films in decades, and she racked up awards and fan mail, so here she addresses concerns and gaps in the previous film and catches up with some of its stars.

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Killer finale, the heart potatoes, symbol of the Gleaners film, old and wrinkled as it sprouts new life. As the credits roll, sudden cutaways to closeups of the potatoes, exactly as in the opening credits with the sunflower in Le Bonheur.

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Donkey Skin (1970, Jacques Demy)

I think most Jacques Demy studies begin with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and end with The Young Girls of Rochefort, pausing to mention that he died young and was married to Agnes Varda. I enjoyed those two so much that I figured his other films couldn’t be that bad, so I checked this out since the video store didn’t have Lola. Not only is it not-bad, but I challenge anybody to find anything wrong with it.

Catherine Deneuve (the same year as Tristana) plays a young princess. A few months after her mother passes away, the king (Jean Marais, not looking too different 25 years after his other fairy-tale film, Beauty and the Beast), with no other attractive princesses in the land, decides to marry Catherine.

Funeral for a queen:
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Catherine, a sheltered princess who spends her days with parrots and blue-painted dwarfs sees nothing wrong with this – after all, she loves her father. Fortunately, her fairy godmother Delphine Seyrig (the year after Mr. Freedom, and looking much classier) knows it’s a problem so gives Catherine a series of costume-design challenges to pose to her father to delay the wedding. When he passes them all, making her dresses the color of the sky, the moon and the sun, she asks for a dress made from the skin of the prize donkey which shits gold and jewels. Seems like a cruel slap at the kingdom, but he does it, and she flees for the country wearing the freshly-killed donkey.

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Doing small-town drudge work in public, but secretly sleeping comfortably in her shack with some magical fairy help, Cath attracts the attention of Prince Charming (Jacques Perrin, who starred in Z after playing the military poet who is driving away in the final shot of Rochefort). He meets her, loses her, then does the Cinderella thing with all the girls in the land, only instead of a slipper it’s a ring that fits only her hand, and announces they are to be married.

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Just then, a helicopter (!) drops in carrying the king, who is going to marry the fairy godmother – a hilarious ending to a story that started pretty dark (death, incest, donkey-killing).

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Demy (in homage to Cocteau?) uses slow motion and reverse effects as cheap movie magic to enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere. Hmmm, and painted people hiding in the walls and Cocteau’s name in the credits and his leading man in the cast – I guess he was an influence after all.

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Lovely music by Michel Legrand and lovely cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet, both returning from The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Dialogue that prefigures the helicopter:
CD: “Can a spell wear out like a dress?”
fairy godmother: “No, but it can weaken like a battery.”
“A battery? What is that?
“Nothing – I’m getting old!”
“But fairies don’t get old.”
“You’re right. I had forgotten.”

Also: birds galore… a giant stuffed white cat as a king’s throne… iris-fades to solid colors a la Le Bonheur… force fields… talking flowers… horses painted red… pretty much a must-see movie.

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Katy, Jan 2013: “I mostly liked it.”