FILM JULY 15, 2009
The Beaches of Agnes--Cinema Guild
The Windmill Movie--The Film Desk
Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Naturally enough, the New Wave is rolling back. The tide of new French talent that flooded world screens just before and after 1960--bringing Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, Resnais, and Chabrol, among others--has been ebbing for some time. Movingly aware of this, Agnes Varda, one of the earliest if not one of the most eminent members of the group, has looked back at her life in a film.
The Beaches of Agnes is autobiography as festival. It begins on a beach in Belgium that was important to her as a child, and it visits other beaches that have mattered in her life. She says, "If you opened people up, you would find landscapes. If you opened me up, you would find beaches." But, with the fizz and fervor that have marked most of her pictures, she takes us to many other places where she has lived and worked, and we meet many of the people, some of them famous, who have figured in her career. Little that she includes, except clips of past films, is rendered exactly as is: most of it is decked with Varda touches. (Instances: a suite of large mirrors on the first beach that reflect her and her helpers; a beach created with truckloads of sand in a narrow Paris street just because she had imagined a beach there.) Some of her diversions can get too cute, like a music-hall number in which she performs, but the picture ripples along very pleasantly, with energy and affection on the surface, and with inevitable bitter elixir just below.
She was born in Brussels in 1928. (Her hair in the present-day shots is dark, yet in some of the other shots done recently it is gray.) In the war years her family moved to the southern coast of France, and to the beaches there. After schooling, when she thought it was time to stop being a virgin, she climbed aboard a Corsican fishing boat with a crew of three and solved the problem. Rather quickly it became clear that she was destined for some kind of pictorial work, because, as she moved through the world, she saw every place in terms of pictures of the place. She studied photography and spent ten years as stills photographer for the renowned Jean Vilar and his Theatre National Populaire. (Some stunning photos here.) Then she became interested in cinema.
Why? The reason is unexpected. For words, she says. Motion pictures brought her much more than words, of course; but primarily it was the addition of language, rather than motion, that drew her to cinema. Oddly, this priority is not supported in the Varda films that I remember, or the clips of them here, where there are always ideas of some kind but where the purpose is the presentation itself. Beaches is spangled with other clips, too, with snippets and flashes of past enterprises--we glimpse the earliest film appearances of Philippe Noiret, Michel Piccoli, Delphine Seyrig, Gerard Depardieu--usually with shards of apt dialogue but with even more striking visuals.
Wound through most of her story is her marriage--to the late Jacques Demy, himself a gifted director (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Varda made a film about him after his death in 1990, and, as I remember, it has some resemblance to Beaches: a director's life presented through clips of past films along with past events. But it did not have the champagne effect of Beaches. Varda's effervescence has long been celebrated, yet here, too, there are contradictions in her career. Her very first feature to be seen in the United States, Cleo from 5 to 7, is marked with her visual idiosyncrasies, though it deals with the two hours before a young woman gets the results of a biopsy. And the intensely serious Vagabond (1985), the drama of a young woman struggling to shuck society's protocols who is destroyed by that society even as she withdraws, has no touch of Varda's usual stylistic vivacity but is her most memorable film.
Though she can dazzle in both powers of the camera, the still photograph and the film, her special use here of film as retrospect is even more telling. The camera always preserves time, but film preserves the phenomenon of being itself, and an account of this preservation is almost inescapably moving. (Think of Fellini's Intervista, which I sometimes do.) It is quite possible that Varda will be as happily remembered for this fantasia about her career as for what she did in it.
Another autobiographical film about a film-maker, but vastly different. Richard P. Rogers was an American documentary maker and, at Harvard, a film teacher. His autobiography was assembled after his death. The Windmill Movie refers to a windmill that actually stood in the garden of his family home in the Hamptons, acquired by his mother as a kind of memorial of her father. That family link and the insistence on "movie" in the title, a rather assertive statement of humility, tinge the whole picture.
Rogers, who died in 2001 at age fifty-seven, had been nibbling all through his life at an autobiography on film. He made eighteen features but found time at successive ages to shoot, and to have shot, vignettes of himself doing something or other or nothing, speaking the while about purposes and questions and devilments and pleasures in his life. We meet most of the people who were lastingly important to him--father, mother, wife (Susan Meiselas, a noted photographer, who produced this film), mistress. His mother is especially vivid. We sample much of the Hamptons life that Rogers both needed and skirted. He seems glad to have had entry into that life and also doesn't mind avoiding it when he can.
This film was assembled and fulfilled by Alexander Olch, who had been a student of Rogers at Harvard. Linkages, talking-head shots, visual data, atmospheric lifts are all well handled by Olch. There is even a brief appearance by one of the best American playwrights, Wallace Shawn, who was a Rogers friend. The result is a portrait of an individual who is very much himself yet familiar--intelligent, self-mocking, self-concerned, set and upset in his relationships, and worried (in his own scale) by mankind's perennial question. Phrased grandly or simply, it is the basic question of existence: what's it all about?
The temporal basis of The Windmill Movie enhances it. The picture exists in four time planes. Usually there are three planes: when the action was done, when the maker dealt with what was done, and when the viewer sees it. Here is an added dimension: the person whose wonders and worries are on screen no longer exists, so there is a fourth limitless plane of time for him. Nothing could by now be more common than seeing deceased people on screen, either acting or as themselves. But this picture is devoted to the puzzles of a man who is dealing with these matters before our eyes and who is now free of them. In a wry way, it reminds us that at least one thing about us will survive: our questions.
The film would have been somewhat more enlightening if Olch had included a few clips from Rogers's work, which would have added yet another time plane. Still, The Windmill Movie underscores a huge and faintly terrifying fact: all human lives, potentially at least, have been extended indefinitely by film.
The people in the film world who get little of the gratitude they deserve are those who find the pictures in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. The twentieth such festival is now here, with thirty-two films--fiction and documentaries--from seventeen countries, and the two that I have so far seen, both of them fiction, prove that the level of the work is still high. The judges who find the pictures in these annual festivals have exceptional taste. "A double blessing is a double grace," says Shakespeare. Human Rights Watch is not only doing the work that is manifest in its name: it is increasing world awareness of good films.
Here are my two samplings. Snow by Aida Begi is from Bosnia and is about people whose troubles were once in the spotlight and who now live in the aftermath of those troubles after the spotlight has moved. It is 1997. In this home in a Bosnian village live the women of a family bereft of their men, all of whom were killed by Serbs. Begi begins by evoking the atmosphere of the home, this eastern European home, thickly textured with warmth and tacit unity and defense against the world outside. Then the women are approached by a man who represents a large corporation that wants to buy their house, and other houses in the village, for the construction of a business enterprise (thus destroying their village by non-military methods). This man is a Serb, who admits that he was in the Serbian army, as was a colleague who soon joins them. So the war continues in a different lexicon.
Kabuli Kid by Barmak Akram, set in Kabul, deals with a taxi driver and an infant abandoned in his taxi, and it has no iota of sentimentality. A young woman with a baby hails this man's taxi one day, gives directions, then suddenly gets out of the taxi, deliberately leaving the baby behind. We may expect a tale of soppy metamorphosis, as the wee one melts the driver's heart. What we get, however, is a cross-section of life in Kabul as the driver tries to find the mother or leave the child in a safe haven. Glimpses of local life and custom abound. (For instance, when the mother is preparing the baby for abandonment, she puts eye makeup on it.) Akram found means, in a tightly wrapped blanket, to explore a city and its culture, with honesty and insight.
As usual, the festival will travel with programs of differing lengths to many cities in the United States and Canada. For information either about dates or what will be available on DVD, the website is www.hrw.org/iff. The humane purpose of the festival is hardly secondary; but we might also remember that it brings us good films, foreign and domestic, that do not get commercial release because of commercial conditions. Thanks again to the festival judges.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.