A few years ago, the artists A.K. Burns and Katherine Hubbard were cutting hair as performance at the Recess Gallery in Soho. As my cut was happening, I was telling them about how I wanted to do this movie about clothing and how people related and exchanged it, and A.K. and Katie were telling me about the process of making their video project, Community Action Center (which has gone out into the world with quite a bit of notoriety in contemporary feminist art).
This “haircut as performance” had a small audience, and at one point, A.K. and Katherine couldn’t agree on the direction of the cut. I had no say in the matter, the lack of mirror anywhere made that abundantly clear. Then someone watching said, “Just because she is a filmmaker doesn’t mean you have to make her look like Agnes Varda.”
It made me laugh, because I actually wouldn’t have minded looking like Agnes Varda. Would you ?
I didn’t think so. Ms. Varda is pretty hot stuff. And look how cute she is winning the Grand Jury Award at the Berlinale in the ’50s:
It’s an interesting challenge to refocus my attention when thinking about her. I have spent some time analyzing how she tells her stories, how she composes a shot, cuts a scene, what she is actually saying, and have never actually thought much about what she is wearing or what her characters are wearing. But it turns out I can break down my love for her in the language of style.
The first film I ever saw of hers was Cleo from 5 to 7 and it rocked my world. It was loose and free (everything I loved about the French New Wave) but unabashedly female. The main character is a young woman (a model, or someone who has gotten through life on her looks) waiting to hear back about a test for cancer. The audience stays with her for two hours witnessing her superficial life unravel as she prepares to possibly face death. Pretty heavy stuff, but that doesn’t stop Agnes from going all out and making sure that Cleo doesn’t look fine.
Varda’s narrative films remind me how much fun it is to shop for your characters when you are making a movie.
Once, I made a short film where I wanted the main character in classic A-line dresses circa 1961 (a la Cleo). The stylist was a little stressed about it until she came running to me across a thrift store one day beaming. She had found a perfect A-line (a bright yellow one with little while flowers, exactly as I described) like a hunter with the head of a lion on a spike. She had won the challenge and I was one step closer to seeing the picture in my head come to life because of that dress. We were ecstatic.
Here it is:
The next film I saw of A.G.’s was the one that really changed my life and probably the biggest reason I even considered starting my current project, SWAP. It was The Gleaners & I. In it, she follows four characters who survive by gleaning what others throw away to eat, live, and make their art. She compares them to 17th century peasants gleaning the French countryside for potatoes.
When she gleans for them herself, filming her own hands doing so, she discovers that a lot of the potatoes are shaped like hearts, turning the whole film into this grand metaphor about living your life for what you love, even if that means digging for it sometimes.
It’s epic. But going back to style, Agnes is French and like all French women she exudes that effortlessness that the rest of the women in the Western world so desperately try to attain.
Even here, she is not even trying. Pure style. Pure fun.
And when she is totally reaming this uptight square for describing the hippies in her film Lions Love as grotesque, she still looks totally groovy as she smokes her face off and rolls her eyes with Susan Sontag every time this he opens his mouth.
(Warning: this interview is 27 minutes, but worth every second.)
In more recent years, Agnes has taken her senior citizen look to new heights by dying the edges of her classic bowl bob in an ombre style, but in dark purple; warranting the teenagers in her neighborhood to call her “punk grandma.”
I could write a book about Agnes and how much she means to me. I’ll end with this interview of her waxing on poetic about the relationship between cinema, free jazz, and poetry. Every time I watch this, it makes me so stoked to get old and live in a cottage in Astoria, OR with a pack of chihuahuas and art projects filling my days. I think I will go more in a streaky direction with my hair, a mixture of purple and blue.