Agnés Varda in California (1967-1981/2015)

by | Aug 23, 2015 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Agnés Varda in California (1967-1981/2015)

Films: Uncle Yanco (1967 19 min.); Black Panthers (1968, 28 min.); Lions Love…And Lies (1969, 1.66 ratio, 112 min.); Mur Murs (1980, 82 min.); Documenteur (1981, 1.66 ratio, 65 min.)
Cast: Viva, Agnés Varda, Mathieu Demy, Sabine Mamour, James Rado, Gerome Ragni
Director: Agnés Varda
Video: 1.37:1 except for two wide-screen ones noted above, color
Audio: English & French mono PCM
Subtitles: English
Studio: Janus Films/ The Criterion Collection Eclipse Series 43 [8/11/15] (3 discs)
Extras: None
Rating: ****

These five films were created b the French filmmaker who was married to the great musicals director Jacques Demy, when she lived in California during 1967 and later in 1980 and -81.  Her career had begun in the 1950s with the success of her film Cléo from 5 to 7, and she ended up in California due to her husband making his first Hollywood film and dealing with the new multiple film workers standard (Model Shop, which seems to have been forgotten completely). She made these five portraits of her outsiderness.

Uncle Yanco is about her visit to meet for the first time her distant Greek uncle with the same name in Sausalito. She had expected a rich American uncle, but instead found the artist Varda (who I met while living on a houseboat there), living in what he described as an “aquatic suburbia.” She shows all the various re-takes of the scene where she first meets the odd 70-year-old artist, complete with clapper. I only was slightly disappointed by the pan of the various houseboats starting with the one just east of mine and the Yellow Ferry Harbor boat. Across the bay, she turned her camera on an Oakland demonstration against the imprisonment of Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers. The editing and soundtrack narration reveal her curious and empathetic nature about her new surroundings.

Lions Love …and Lies takes NYC counterculture to LA, as Viva (an Andy Warhol favorite) and the two guys who wrote Hair, pretend (or perhaps are really doing) a trio sexual setup in a Hollywood mansion overlooking the beach. Filmmaker Shirley Clarke is also involved, as well in Varda herself in one scene. It’s something of a sixties Hollywood mess now but some may like it. One begins to think Varda only liked it due to Viva’s penchant to prance around bare-breasted half the time. I thought it was the most wasted footage of the entire series of five films.

When returning to LA from France in 1979, Varda made two quite different films which yet have some connections. The best one is Mur Murs – a fine documentary on the many striking giant murals that cover empty walls thruout LA. I’d already thought myself of doing such a documentary on the murals around San Francisco, and now Portland. Some of the stories behind the various murals are fascinating. I hadn’t noticed in visits there how many of the murals had images of angels in the sky.

The other film is the 65-minute Documenteur. It is a very slow-moving document on the divorced French mother and her son, leading a quiet existence on the margins of LA after divorce followed their move to America. The child was Varda’s own son at the time. It shows the metropolis at once sprawling and isolating, bursting with life, yet haunted with loneliness. The strangest thing about it is the way it just suddenly ends, with no wrap up or conclusion, as though the money ran out and production has to be stopped.

Definitely worth viewing, if only for Uncle Yanco and Mur Murs.

—John Sunier

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