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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Agnès Varda's turn at an Oscar

As a classic film enthusiast, I consider "classic films" and "films of today" two different animals.  Despite the connective thread through film history, this is at least partly because the great filmmakers of the past aren't typically Still. Making. Films.  Enter director Agnès Varda, one of the rare exceptions.  This pioneer of the French New Wave began her film career in 1954, and at 89 years old her 2017 film Faces Places (Visages Villages in French) is her first to be nominated for an Oscar--we'll know in just one week if she will be the oldest living filmmaker to win any competitive Oscar.  This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two very special screenings at the Harvard Film Archive, with Ms. Varda in person to answer questions after both screenings.  This post will summarize my thoughts about the films, with emphasis on Faces Places, and some insights Ms. Varda provided her enthusiastic fans at the screening.

As soon as the opening credits of Faces Places started rolling on Friday evening it was immediately apparent that we were going to be witnessing filmmaking at its very best. The clever use of animations brought us right into the whimsical world we were about to enter.
From opening credits of Faces Places (screengrab from film's trailer)
The film documentarians, Varda and her visual artist/collaborator JR, would not only tell the stories, they would BE part of the stories.  After the film, Varda commented that in her documentaries, she never believed that the filmmaker could or should be remote from her subject, and thus she is comfortable being in front as well as behind the camera: "When you do a documentary, you are part of it."

Varda (from Le Monde, 2017)
I'll admit right now that until a couple of months ago, I was a Varda newbie. I attempted to address that quickly by watching two of her most critically acclaimed earlier films, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) and Le Bonheur (1965). Cleo is the film that put her clearly in the French New Wave camp, and yet her place in that camp was special -- as a woman filmmaker telling a uniquely woman's story. Her contemporaries were the likes of Jean-Luc Godard (with whom she remains friendly), Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jacques Demy, who became her husband.  She also had the distinction of coming to film from photography; born in Belgium in 1928, she moved to France early in her life and devoted over 10 years to her photojournalism career.  This perspective allowed her to craft intimate and compelling stories from everyday life and put them movingly on film.  

With a bit of background behind me, I can postulate safely that Faces Places is an amalgam of what makes Varda so great.  First, it's not just her film; she collaborated with a young French artist known only as 'JR', with whom she developed a strong artistic partnership. JR is a muralist, who takes black-and-white photos of people and places, enlarges them, and plasters them on the sides of buildings or other large inanimate objects as way to comment on the world.  Under the tutelage of master Varda, he embarks on a journey around France, capturing photos of everyday life, mostly of working classes or the marginalized, and makes them literally larger-than-life to bring attention to their causes, or just their humanity in an overly mechanized world. 

The journey, and the work, is beautifully filmed and edited by Varda, although she shares directorial credit with JR. A particularly poignant vignette contrasts two goat-milking farms. One farm has mechanized milking machines and all the goats have their horns burned off at a young age to prevent them from fighting. The proprietors of another, smaller, farm allow their goats to keep their horns, and milks the goats manually. Varda and JR, without being preachy, challenge the prevailing societal opinion that productivity is king; goats should be allowed to keep their horns.  This is illustrated no better than in their mural as shown below.

A number of such compelling stories of everyday life are illuminated in the film, a Varda specialty. At the Q&A Varda was asked about the extent of her planning ahead what she captures on film.  She answered, and I paraphrase, "I am mainly curious about people. In my documentaries, I get to know people by just being curious and wanting to learn. I plan where I want to go, but then I am ready for chance to provide direction."  In another moving scene, Varda and JR plastered the oversized images of three striking dockworkers' wives at a construction site at Le Havre, to give them a presence in their man's world. She elaborated in the Q&A by saying, "As a feminist, I want to move the needle, but we need to work with the men to change the circumstances." And also, "I never ask (her subjects) about politics, but I go quietly to these people."  

Although the focus of the film was mostly on others, it turned internal at times. On film, JR and Varda had a conversation in a cemetery about death, and Varda said she's not afraid of death, but wonders what is on the other side, and feels it getting closer. She elaborated a bit about mortality in the post-film discussion, saying her memory had holes in it, like swiss cheese, but that she has come to terms with that. "We are made as a mixture of memory and discovery."

Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond (1985)
Vagabond (1985) was screened on Saturday night, and unlike Faces Places, has a dark, existential tone. Sandrine Bonnaire shines as the titular character, a 17-year old vagrant in France, who tries to fit in society but ultimately it rejects her--and she it. The film feels in many ways like a documentary, as all scenes were filmed in real locations, and most of the supporting cast were not actors.  To better connect with her character of Mona, Varda spent time driving around rural France and picking up hitchhikers, learning about their lifestyle and their habits, "even what was in their backpacks," she said.  

The theme of  'journey' also connects the two films.  In fact, characters on some sort of physical, as well as symbolic journey, are common to Varda's writing. When asked about this at the end of the screening, Varda commented that the theme of 'walking' in particular was prevalent in the French New Wave.  (Cleo from 5 to 7 follows a young woman walking around Paris.)  "People walk as a reaction to society," she said.  

I'm so so glad I've discovered the films of Agnès Varda, and even more thrilled to have seen her in person, two extraordinary evenings in a row.  While I've not seen any of the other Oscar-nominated documentaries, I want Faces Places to win on March 4. I want to see Varda, along with JR, on the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood--the difference in their ages and heights poignantly on display--accepting an award that celebrates unheralded film history as much as one film.  This would be a significant step in bringing Varda's 70-year distinguished career into a brighter light, and further chipping away at the limitations and discrimination faced by women in film history for longer than that.

This post is part of the '31 Days of Oscar' Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club.  Click here to check out all the other great posts honoring past and present Oscar films and stories.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Volcanos and fiery conversation: An afternoon with Werner Herzog

When you have the chance to see a film never before shown on the big screen AND to see its celebrity filmmaker live, you don't turn it down.

Last Thursday was the day that Werner Herzog visited The Coolidge Corner Theatre to accept his Coolidge Award, and although that specific event was in the evening, in the afternoon he attended a screening of his 2016 Netflix documentary Into the Inferno, and had an extended Q&A after.  A memorable afternoon it most certainly was! 

As a Coolidge member, I had reserved a ticket weeks ago, got there early, and saved a seat for my friend.  I shot this photo while waiting for her, but when she arrived we moved closer several rows.  Then the fun began.
First up was the film, and I loved itIt follows the Herzog blueprint of exploring distant and dangerous lands, this time sharing the lens with British volcanographer Clive Oppenheimer, with whom Herzog has had a longtime friendship.  The film isn't about the science of volcanoes, although there is some of that; it isn't about the search to uncover volcanic secrets, although there is that; it isn't about capturing the violence and cinematic beauty of volcanic eruptions, although there is that as well.  In reality, it's a little of all those things, with perhaps humankind's odd and wondrous relationships with volcanoes being the primary theme.  Herzog himself traveled to locales like Indonesia, North Korea, and the Danekil desert in Ethiopia, developing relationships with and seeking insights from those that live on the edge of volcanic worlds. I found the segment with an inside view of the North Korean society, along with their country's volcanic origin story, to be particularly fascinating, especially today.  
North Korean children instructed in music (from Netflix Into the Inferno trailer)
The film successfully weaves scientific, personal and sociological explorations seamlessly with the characteristic Herzog editing finesse.  I didn't mind that a single theme wasn't deeply explored - which was a criticism by at least one reviewer I read.  The film was varied enough that whatever your interest, you were left wanting more, in a good way.  Another feature of a Herzog film in abundant evidence here, to this fan's delight, was the choice of music.  Choral music by Rachmaninoff, Vivaldi, and Schutz, along with the prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin, and traditional vocal music by Russian monks from the Kiev Pechersk Monastery, enhanced the magic and awe that we were taking in visually.

At the end of the film, Herzog was formally introduced by Katherine Tallman, Executive Director at the Coolidge, and was greeted enthusiastically by the sold-out crowd.

With a slightly raspy voice, he answered questions from moderator Professor Herbert Golder (Boston University).   For those interested, the entire Q&A was captured via Facebook Live and archived here.

Naturally, many of the questions related to the film we had just seen. I was surprised when he expressed that one of his main motivations to make the film was to get young audiences excited about science.  "If young people are inspired to become scientists, then the film will have been worth it." 
Herbert Golder from Boston U. and Werner Herzog.
There was also discussion about the larger themes, especially religious and spiritual, that are included in this and much of Herzog's work.  He acknowledged that while not adhering to a specific religion, he is fascinated by 'belief systems' and inspired to reach the sublime that is beyond everyday realities.  Considering much of his chosen music was religious, he told of a difficult negotiation with the Russian Orthodox church, which objected to sacred music with reference to 'voices of angel's being superimposed over images of volcanic eruptions.  In deference, Herzog left out some of the music he wanted to include. 

Herzog touched on his career of getting close to 'the edge' in many of his films.  He laughed and said he's still around because he balances his awe of nature with appropriate prudence.  The conversation naturally turned to the future of our planet, and his remarks were balanced--no doomsday view from this filmmaker.  "We are on shaky ground, but that doesn't mean we should roll back progress or go back to being hunters/gatherers."  And, "The Amish would be the only survivors on the planet if the internet went down for two weeks." (!)

Finally, he was asked his views, somewhat indirectly, about the current political climate in the U.S.  This is when the conversation turned fiery, and Herzog didn't hold back: "Trump was elected in a democratic process. We have to live with this.  The problem is not Trump, but the culture and the alienation felt by many in the heartland of the U.S.  The problem is not Steven's Point, Wisconsin, the problem is Boston."  A respectful hush came over the cinema then.  Herzog apparently feels that those in the audience at the Coolidge should work harder to develop a discourse with those in 'flyover' country.  I won't comment further, as my role is film blogger, not political commenter.  

I was glad that before this event, I took time to watch more of Herzog's work, including Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979), as shared in last month's blog; Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), and the fascinating documentary My Best Fiend (1999) about his relationship with volatile, unstable, but brilliant actor Klaus Kinski.  It helped me better appreciate the skill and uniqueness of this still active auteur, with whom I shared an afternoon.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the evening conversation and award presentation, but for those interested, that is also available on Facebook here: