Wednesday, January 16, 2008

L'opéra-mouffe/Oncle Yanco/News From Home

L'opéra-mouffe is an early essay film by Agnès Varda, a free-associative exploration of the neighborhood around the street La Mouffe in Paris, a small network of back alleys, fruit markets, and charmingly rundown apartment buildings. Varda divides the film into segments with iconic titles indicating the subject of each part of the film. "On Lovers," "On Pregnancy," and "On Drunkenness" are surely obvious enough in terms of their topic, but Varda also includes more oblique headings. "Dear Beloved" is followed by an image of a wall covered in photographs, mostly of old men drinking and seemingly having fun, suggesting that this is a segment on remembrance and mortality, on nostalgia for old friends who are no longer around. In "Greetings," children in animal masks romp and play in an empty courtyard, their hidden faces evincing a reluctance to engage or introduce themselves.

Throughout all these chapter headings, Varda explores a variety of ideas and images, especially concentrating on pregnancy and the life cycle — from an image of a chick hatching out of an egg, to masked children running, to the heavily lined faces of the old women walking in the market, captured in poignant closeups by Varda's camera. Even the opening of the film suggests the continuum of human life and nature, when Varda cuts from a shot of a woman's pregnant belly to a large, rotund pumpkin being sliced open, its guts extracted. It's a gesture both playful and disturbing, drawing the link between motherhood and the larger natural world, but also casting darker shades on pregnancy.

This is a minor but still enjoyable early short in Varda's filmography, reflecting a real warmth for the people of the neighborhood markets, who represent the opposite end of the life cycle from the unseen developing baby that opens the film and underpins its frequent symbolic evocations of pregnancy and childbirth.

Agnès Varda's Oncle Yanco is a lighthearted tribute to her father's cousin, the painter Jean Varda, a Greek emigree who has settled in San Francisco. Varda goes to visit this vibrant, kindly old man, who everyone calls Yanco, and the resultant film documents their meeting while commenting on the strength of familial ties and the joys of creating a truly alternative and creative lifestyle for oneself. Yanco lives in a floating community at the docks, where people build their own boat-like homes from wreckage and junk, and the mostly younger hippies gather around Yanco as a distinguished center to their makeshift village. Varda's whimsical spirit is perfectly suited to this material, and she approaches it not as a straightforward documentary but as a mix of obviously staged vignettes, re-stagings of "real" events, and documentary footage of her uncle's parties and interactions with his local friends.

In one scene, Yanco sits in front of one of his paintings, explaining his ideas about light, color, and the representation of the world in art. He paints expressionist collage works — though he dislikes the term "collage" and prefers to compare himself to the mosaic painters — that use cloth, beads, and layered, brightly colored paints to create fantastic and glitzy imaginary cities, teetering on the edge between kitsch and innocent beauty. As he speaks, Varda's editing fragments the image, cutting between different versions of this basic setup, with people moving in behind Yanco to carry off one painting and replace it with another, so that throughout the scene he is backed by several of his imaginary city paintings. In other scenes, Varda has some friends or relatives hold up heart-shaped transparencies of various colors in front of the camera, while she and Yanco play out their first meeting over and over again. In between takes, the clapper marks the scene, while Varda also fragments the scene with choppy editing, and even runs it backwards to further accentuate the filmic and artificial nature of this reconstruction. These techniques self-consciously call attention to the fact that Varda's decision to make a film about her uncle inevitably changes the nature of their relationship, and that the filmed version of their first meeting must differ from the original event.

This kind of formal play interests Varda even within the context of a seemingly straightforward documentary, and these small touches in disrupting the cinematic artifice of her encounters with Yanco greatly enhance this fun little film. Of course, Yanco's lively and artistic personality remains the film's centerpiece and raison d'être, and the real joy here is just spending a solid 15 minutes in the company of this slyly witty old man, who's clearly enjoying his niece's antics and the childlike artifice she's constructing around him. In Varda's documentary, the pastel colors of Yanco's paintings wind up bleeding into every frame of the film, both literally, in the sunlit and colorful visuals, and figuratively, in the cheerful spirit and bonhomie that weaves throughout the film.

Chantal Akerman's News From Home is an intriguing arch-formalist experiment, a minimalist documentary about New York City, the sensation of being a foreigner in a strange land, the connections of family, and the concept of "home." All of this is accomplished with a drastically limited set of tools and an intentionally sparse filmic vocabulary. The majority of the film consists of a series of minutes-long, entirely static shots of urban settings: streets, buildings, subways. Occasionally, the camera moves, very infrequently at first, and limited to sideways sweeping pans; as the film progresses, the camera becomes freer, moving more frequently, often in languid 360-degree pans or lengthy traveling shots filmed from a moving car or an elevated train. These shots are accompanied, for the most part, only by the natural noises of the city: cars, trains rumbling, people talking, and occasionally a calming silence. At intervals, a woman's voice reads from letters that the filmmaker's mother is sending her from Belgium while her daughter is in New York. These letters are utterly banal and ordinary, relating sicknesses, birthdays, engagements and breakups, and small details from everyday life. Sometimes, the voice reading the letters is swallowed up by the noise of traffic on a city street, and at other points the film's static shots continue at great length with no real sound to accompany the visuals.

Within this sparse and repetitive framework, Akerman establishes a sense of the rhythms of her life as a foreigner in New York. She is an observer here. This is not her culture, and she maintains a distance from the city and its inhabitants. The first long shots of the film are virtually uninhabited, just bare streets with no one walking and perhaps only an occasional car driving along. As the film progresses and the observer becomes more acclimatized to her surroundings, she begins to allow more and more people to enter the frame — at first, glimpsed from a distance, or as a literal outsider filming the inside of a building through its windows, but finally she places her camera right into the center of crowded areas, on city streets and in subway cars, and lets the people of the city fill the frame as well as its buildings. There are moments of backsliding, too, as in the shot where the camera frames a street with cars and people moving along it in spurts, then pans right until it comes to rest on a view of an rusted old truck and abandoned gas station instead. A sliver of the street, still visible in the lefthand corner of the image, remains as a reminder of the activity and life that was left behind to document this decay and emptiness.

Akerman's stance as the perpetual outsider in this urban landscape is underscored by the effect of the letters she receives from home. The stoic objectivity of the images is wearing in its total refusal to engage with the content or provide overt commentary of any kind, so the letters become a point of reference and orientation for the viewer, and in some of the longer stretches of silence, the desire to hear that voice of connection becomes almost overwhelming. In this context, even the utterly banal content of these letters is reassuring, providing a human component to a film that otherwise seems entirely disconnected from the world it captures. Just as these letters are the filmmaker's only link to her home and family, they become for the audience an equally powerful link, a concrete way into the film and its themes. In some of the more patience-testing sections of the film, the total isolation from the city, the distance from the surroundings, can become practically painful. Akerman further plays with this tension by sometimes obscuring parts of the letters beneath the city's noisy soundtrack, so that the words become unintelligible — towards the end of the film, she covers over almost an entire letter in this manner.

It's also worth noting that this is a one-way dialogue. The mother's letters mention letters from her daughter, but these are never read, and it's apparent from the mother's writings that few of her questions are answered in these letters anyway. The images of this film, instead, constitute Akerman's response to her mother. She says with images what she could not say with words: what New York is like, what it's like to live there, her relationship to the vast city and its people. The film winds up communicating much while saying little, expressing the filmmaker's vision of her surroundings and her place in them in every frame of her film and every subtle camera movement. These images have an austere formal beauty, and never is this more true than in the stunning final shot of the film, an epic 10-minute continuous traveling shot from the deck of a small boat as it pulls away from Manhattan.

The shot begins in near-darkness, under a dock, the camera peering into a gloom that seems to be beneath the city. As the boat leaves the dock, the camera maintains a steady view of the city, panning across its skyline as the boat runs parallel to the shore, then zooming back as it begins heading out towards open waters. As the cityscape recedes further and further into the distance, slowly being eaten away at and swallowed up by a dense fog, Akerman allows the images to verge onto romanticism for the first time in the film. Only with the city behind her, in the process of leaving it, can she view it with some subjectivity, a romanticized nostalgia that she didn't see when she was face to face with the realities of its streets and its people. She arrives at the final image of the film through a series of de-facto camera movements, achieved solely through the motion of the boat while the camera frame remains static — it's a kind of slow-motion dance between the city and the observer. In this final shot, Manhattan has become a distant and mist-shrouded city of myth, with the gentle murmur of waves and the caw of gulls (flying hauntingly across the skyline) replacing the roar of traffic and the chatter of people. It's a gorgeous, deeply moving shot, a moment of transcendence that quietly puts the preceding hour and a half into sharp perspective.

1 comment:

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the link to this. It's a really nice write up. What makes that final shot more stunning is placing it in the modern seems like anything with the Twin Towers has a totally new meaning and the same goes for the end of this. The way they, and the whole city, start fading in the distance and clouds start surrounding becomes extremely haunting.