BY SARAH GINSBURG // May 2014
The Gleaners and I (2000) was my first introduction to Agnès Varda. I wondered who this strange little woman was peeking in and out of the frame, ruminating on the different pickers and gleaners she came across on her journey. I noticed her youthful spirit, her childlike curiosity and playfulness, even as she filmed her wrinkled hand, operating a digital camera with the other. I finally got the chance to dig into her previous works, and in doing so I’ve come to better understand where Agnès Varda came from, where she started, and where she’s been. This “little woman” is largely responsible for a big movement in cinema. Agnès Varda is a pioneer. Arlette Varda, at the age of 18, changed her name to Agnès Varda, establishing early on that she was not one to let anything get in the way of her objectives. It was in 1953 that a 25-year-old Agnès began production on her first feature film. She remembers, “There were three women directors in France. Their films were OK, but I was different.” She was right. La Pointe Courte (1955), with its low budget and use of both professional and non-professional actors, its long tracking shots and unconventional editing, its fusion of a fictional love story and a documentation of a place, resembles the groundbreaking films of Godard and Truffaut. The difference? La Pointe Courte was made years early, earning its title as the first film of the French New Wave. From that point on, Agnès existed amongst, collaborated with, and befriended these big names – all belonging to males mind you – that we study today. Looking back, she believes her naivety gave her freedom: “You have to be strong to be a carpenter, maybe, but the director of a film doesn’t need to have muscles. This is why I didn’t know why I couldn’t do it.” She did it and did it again; from Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) to Vagabond (1985) and countless shorter pieces sprinkled in between. Now, in the second half of her career, Agnès leans more towards documentary and credits digital technology for the shift in her approach. She states, “It’s my relationship with reality that’s different.” We witness this relationship in Agnès’ most recent film The Beaches of Agnès (2008) as she tenderly navigates the life behind her – the parts and people she loved, and perhaps misses, the most. I can relate, and maybe you can too, to Agnès’ deep love of place. Maybe this is why I’m most touched by a film she made in 1975 called Daguerréotypes, a film about the street she lived on (Rue Daguerre) in Paris. She describes it as, “more or less a casual look at my neighbors. The film could be an archive for archeologists and sociologists in the next century.” I could sense the intention of the artist as the film unfolded; she handled her subjects gently and with adoration. “In Daguerréotypes, we saw the way people spoke to each other without saying anything, in that sort of non-dialogue dialogue one hears in their shops,” Agnès says of her film, and I think I know exactly what she means. As we move, and a new place becomes our home, we fall in love with it; we identify with it, yet we know that we won’t always have it. It’s the people, whether we’ve exchanged words or not, and their daily routines that largely contribute to why I love my current home. It’s funny how I’ve almost come to rely on them. But, my time in my little neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts is coming closer and closer to an end, and while I’m eager for what’s next, I’ve been feeling this desperate need to preserve what I have now. Each day, I’m stepping outside and I’m recording. I’m hurrying to collect bits of sound and images that will soon become relics. But I’m also waiting, anticipating the goodbye. I think I’ll pay tribute to Agnès Varda and simply say adieu, “Anyway, it’s a film I sign as the neighbor, Daguerreotype-Agnes.”
Thank you to Mr. Howett of Golden Age Television Recreations for sharing his expertise and helping to identify equipment.