What Happens When You Get Lost in Agnès Varda’s Universe

January 28, 2020 8:57 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Versión en español.

The Email that Opened a Magical Portal

Halfway through December I got an email from an editor at a film distribution company I can’t yet reveal, asking if I’d like to write an essay for a book about Agnès Varda’s body of work. Varda, my favorite filmmaker and the woman after whom we named agnès films, the publication about women and feminist filmmakers I co-founded in 2010, passed away in March 2019 at age 90. She left behind a spectacular legacy of not only making exactly the films she wanted to make, but of inspiring fellow filmmakers to do the same. She also left behind a void—a whimsical, compassionate, feminist void that I wasn’t sure how to fill. How do we relate to those who are no longer with us? The invitation to write an essay inadvertently provided an answer for me. It gave me permission to spend two weeks with Varda’s films, watching sometimes four per day and writing thousands of words of notes, as I tried to figure out what my essay would say about the woman I never met and yet missed so deeply.

And so it was that as 2020 began, I journeyed into the world Varda created. I sauntered down Varda’s idiosyncratic images—her heart-shaped potatoes, her naked pregnant bellies, and her closeups of the impoverished strangers’ faces we often ignore when they walk by us. Sometimes I watched with my sons, who were mesmerized by her films even though they don’t speak French. But mostly I watched alone. I felt a deep, ineffable joy during those two weeks, a sense that the world was not broken but brimming with delicious weirdness and unpretentious explosions of kindness. It wasn’t until I saw Varda talking about one of her films that I began to understand why her work has always made me feel so hopeful. She simply stated, “I’m not judgmental,” and it clicked for me. The reason why her films are such a delightful and transformative place to inhabit is that she doesn’t judge her characters and the world in which they live. I’d gotten to reside in a non-judgmental universe for two intoxicating weeks. Varda observes, appreciates, revels in the weirdness, and embraces the pain. As the US national election primaries are about to take place in Iowa, and as the rest of the world comes face to face with the global turn to the right, it is good to remember that we don’t need to judge those we don’t understand. We can listen and try to see their humanity and maybe even find something to marvel at in them.

My Article Published in Composition Studies

Alex skyping on a laptop
My short article, “Adventures in Collaborative Documentary Editing Across Continents, or How I Learned to Make Better Movies,” was published in Composition Studies. In it, I look at what I’ve learned from collaborating with my editor, Cristina Carrasco, on The Weeping Season and at how bringing different skillsets to a collaborative project can lead to more nuanced and profound results, and perhaps more importantly to rearranging and deepening our understanding of the creative process.

Unearthed Photo of the Month

Alex in France in front of a mausoleum
As I tried to figure out which photo I wanted to write about for this month’s community letter, I remembered an image my husband Nate had taken of me back in 2005 during our first trip to Paris together. I’d wanted to share the melancholic wonders of the Père Lachaise Cemetery with him, and, as had happened the first time I was there, the moment we crossed the cemetery gates the sound of the city was absorbed by the trees that bring life to that resting place of the dead. Suddenly all we could hear were leaves swaying in the breeze and birds chirping. Although the cemetery houses many famous inhabitants like Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison, I’d always been more intrigued by those I know nothing about. What stories slept inside the homes those strangers had built to hold their bodies after death? As we walked by the Famille Leriche’s mausoleum, I was captivated by the images of faceless sorrow that they’d chosen to build on it. They seemed to be saying that death can be so drastic in its detachment to those we love that our features vanish as we mourn, our whole body dissolved by sorrow—at least temporarily. Though in the case of this mausoleum, with the permanence of stone. As I posed for the photo, my scarf got caught on the foot of one of the columns, a reminder, perhaps, that I was trespassing on the lives and deaths of strangers.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to connect the photo to Varda, but if felt right all the same. And then, as I was watching her 1984 short film Les dites cariatides, the connection appeared on screen. In this documentary, Varda examines the history and meaning of the dozens of human-shaped columns—mostly featuring women—built in Paris in the late 1800s. She ends the film with a story about poet Baudelaire, who for years courted a woman, Ms. Sabatier, through rhyming entreaties. She finally gave in to his game of seduction and gave herself to him. He sent her a letter the next day, explaining that he no longer wanted her because before they’d consummated their love she’d been a goddess. Now she was just a woman. Varda says that one could cry from the cruelty of what he did, but that what makes her cry even more are the last years of Baudelaire’s life, when in spite of being famous, he was poor, embittered, and ill. At 45, he lost the ability to speak after falling in a church. He died 18 months later, still bereft of speech. It is as she mourns Baudelaire that we see the same representation of faceless sorrow that I’d posed in front of back in 2005. The column she filmed is a little different but still features that faceless, unspeakable pain. In Varda’s universe, we can learn of Baudelaire’s meanness and still mourn his sad demise in stone and in the flesh, just like the Leriche family mourned itself at Père Lachaise.

My Short Documentary Teta Screening in Lansing in February

Nate (husband) and Alex with their two boys on a boardwalk in a field of dried plants
My film Teta: a nursing mother tells her story, which has been an official selection for 27 film festivals around the world and earned 8 festival awards, will screen at the MSU Latinx Film Festival on Saturday, February 15 at 10 a.m. at the Lansing Media Center. There will be a Q&A session after the screening and some of the cast and crew, myself included, will be present. I hope you can join us. You can learn more about the film and the festival on their website.

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Versión en español.
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This post was written by Tiffany McIntyre

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