16 November 2013

Agnes Varda In Lotusland

Who  better to document the culture clash that was the 1960s than a French New Wave filmmaker living  in Southern California?  Contemporary viewers may see more  of John Waters  than traces of La  Nouvelle Vague in Lions Love (...And Lies,) in its newly remastered digital format, but Agnes Varda's film is still a very funny movie and a delightful addition to her available oeuvre.  Of Los Angeles,  Varda recalled recently : “ I found it very dreamlike. It had the quality of daydreams, which I like. And a quality of strangeness."   From now until June 22, 2014, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art  presents the first U.S. museum exhibition devoted to her work:  Agnes Varda In Californaland.

When Agnes Varda moved to  Los Angeles in 1968, she came with her husband Jacques Demy  whose 1967 film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort had paired the American Gene Kelly with the Snow White and Rose Red of French cinema – sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac – in a color-filled  musical that attracted the attention of Hollywood movie makers. 
While Demy worked a project offered to him, Varda was free to make her own projects:  a  documentary about the Black Panthers,  Oncle Yanco a short film about a distant relative living in Sausolito,  and a celebration of the new counterculture, the feature film  Lions Love (... and Lies).  Varda describes her “Hollywood” films this way: "The films are about sex and politics, like they were at the time.”    For the LACMA installation Varda designed a room within a gallery, using stacks of celluloid film cans from Lions Love.

Structured like nesting dolls, Lions Love takes a trio of real people: Jerome Ragni and James Rado, whose Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical had created a sensation when it opened Off-Broadway, and Viva, an actress who appeared in Andy Warhol films,  and sets them loose in a film partly scripted and partly improvised.  In filming. Varda plays with  cinematic illusion, as she often has,  allowing the actors to look directly at her while on camera or by panning past a mirror that captures herself at work.  A heavenly choir, heard in voice-over, hymns the creature comforts of their rented house in the Hollywood hills: a giant bed, a  curvaceous, heated swimming pool, a loopy mix of plants, plastic and real.  Varda frames Viva in a halo of light that crowns her pre-Raphaelite beauty, a more generous gesture than  Warhol was capable of making.  Like a masculine version of Snow White and Rose Red, Rado is the quiet one and Ragni is the clown.  It took a woman to imagine this kind of poly-amorous group.

The plot has this trio of flower children, waiting for the break that will make stars of them, rubbing their bushy heads together  as they murmur their mantra: “Star. Star. Star.”  These three couldn't care less about the 'new morality',  living as they are in what they imagine to be a new garden of Eden.  Like children at a sleep-over, they lounge endlessly in bed, conversing about the meaning of life.  They kiss and nuzzle and make crank phone calls to the bank ( "I'd like to order $200 to go").  They while away their afternoons in the pool, smoking substances that dilate their pupils as surely as their casual nudity does to  the pupils of viewers.   Into this group, comes Shirley Parker, an independent filmmaker also trying to make it in Hollywood.  A New Yorker in over-sized sunglasses, she is both attracted and annoyed by the indolent trio.
When Viva decides, like 'the folks who live on the hill' that they should have children, the trio borrows (abduct) some from the neighborhood.  Not surprisingly, at a time when abortion was illegal and safe and effective birth control was hard to find, Viva contemplates pregnancy without enthusiasm. "Do you think I could go through nine months of it and only come out with one?"  Domestic disaster ensues.   The kids refuse to take naps, urinate in the pool and eat nothing but french fries. "I think," says Viva, "we have to find another way to the spiritual life."
Into this technicolor dream comes a nightmare in the form of black-and-white television coverage of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles, just three days after  the shooting of Andy Warhol in New York.    Like everyone else at that moment, the three are glued to the screen but drape the television set in a black cloth.  

The  characters, as much as the fact of their nudity,  caused consternation when  Lion Love (...And Lies) was relearned in 1969.   At the  New York Film Festival that year  where it was screened, Lions Love  was coupled in the public mind with Duet For Cannibals, the first film by the American intellectual Susan Sontag.  As a sign of the times, the two women endured an excruciating joint interview on Public Television with Newsweek's award-winning but clueless film critic Jack Kroll.  Varda immediately bristled at Kroll's repeated characterization of her stars as "grotesques" and "marginal characters" who would be of no interest to ordinary moviegoers.   When she pointed out that Viva and Andy Warhol were real people, Kroll questioned why anyone should be interested in them.  Both Varda and Sontag were at pains to remind Kroll that, in the films he preferred, the characters act out conventions of behavior manufactured for the movies, not the behavior of real people.  Too bad, neither woman  interrogated their interrogator about his characterization of attractive unclothed people as "grotesque."
The discussion only went downhill from there. If Kroll had done his homework, he might have mentioned Varda's previous release Le Bonheur (1967), a film that raises serious moral questions and still leaves viewers unsettled to this day.    When Varda asserted that  movie stars and politicians like the Kennedys were now on equal terms as  "public effigies" because of television culture, an idea that Sontag explored in Duet For Cannibals, Kroll responded testily: "Reality is being shoved in our faces."  At one point, Kroll even pointed out to Varda and Sontag that they were both women.  It was a long half hour. 

For the lucky visitors to Agnes Varda In Californialand, the retrospective may shed new light on the filmmaker's career.  The ultimate test for Lions Love (...And Lies), or any movie, is how it strikes the viewer on its own merits.  If Lions Love  shows a moment when everyone was young and optimistic, that is a fair description although Varda expresses some reservation with her additional parentheses (...And Lies) . 
Sex and politics was in the process of becoming a subject unto itself when Lions Love was made and film critics were not the only ones who were uncomfortable.  Events moved quickly enough so that in 1985 when the California director Donna Deitch.released her film Desert Hearts, a lesbian love story set in post-World War II Las Vegas, critics wrote admiringly of what are some of the most erotically-charged love scenes ever filmed - and by a woman. 

1.Varda and the cast  of Lions Love were featured in the first issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in 1969.
2. Jim Morrison of The Doors, Peter Bogdanovich, and the European character actor Eddie Constantine make cameo appearances in Lions Love.
3. Lions Love (…And Lies) a film directed by Agnès Varda, France 1968, 35mm, color, 110 min.  Printed by Cine Tamaris
4. Lions Love  (...And Lies) was screened at Yale University on November 8, 2013,  the  second showing of the  new digital transfer.

Agnes Varda - portion of wall installation for Agnes Varda in Californialand, 2013, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).


Tania said...

Surprising movie and reception ! Agnès Varda is great. I did not see "Lions love" but I adored "The beaches of Agnès".

Jane said...

Thank goodness a lot has changed! The video of the interview is online, as is the movie. I'm sure a DVD of Lions Love will be out soon.
I liked The Beaches of Agnes,too.

Timothy Cahill said...

Poor Jack Kroll. He appears to have adopted the role of the Mr Jones character in Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man": He knows something is happening, but he doesn't know what it is. Varda, in all things, is radiant.

Jane said...

Tim, is that really a line from Bob Dylan? Dylan is one of those artists that male radio guys think belongs to them and there's a "Girls Keep Out" sign on him.
A sign of a mental block perhaps, my favorite Dylan song is "Love Minus Zero" and I have never heard him sing it. After hearing it in Scott Walker's gorgeous baritone, I've been afraid Dyan would spoil it for me. Walker's career has had a similar trajectory to Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was idolized by women and then something happened (his personality, I think) and he ended by being lionized by men. Scott Walker also began that way but after he discovered avant-garde music, men discovered him. I've toyed with writing about Scott Walker but have managed to shirk the responsibility so far.