September 14th, 2009

Harriet Vane

Les Plages d'Agnes Varda and Ang Lee/James Schamus's Taking Woodstock

Gentle friends,

I have two films to recommend tonight:  Agnes Varda's autobiography, Les Plages, as virtuoso film-making, and Ang Lee and James Schamus's Taking Woodstock as yet another personal allegory about Lee's difficulty in achieving independence from his father; to which this time is (or once again) added a strong homosexual character as a friend of the hero.

Varda in the film

Jacques Demy

It's much more than an autobiographical film, though it is that in spades: candid, intensely projecting and involved.  It's about film itself, how we imagine our worlds from pictures (she begins with a series of photos and mirrors she puts on a beach),

about both how unreal film is (concocted) and how real (we see her filming a lot).  The angle is both sad and disillusioned and intensely yearning, hopeful, celebratory as she looks back.  She does manage to take the viewer through the main events of her life, and suggest portraits of the people she was closest to and who meant most in her career; she tells of her relationships with first the father of her first child and then Jacques Demy, who was her co-film-maker and husband of many years and died in 1989 of AIDS (in his last months she made a film of his life with him next to her). 

She shows her genius throughout.  The life also becomes a kind of clothesline on which she hanges or intersperses clips from films she made; she has an unerring sense of what is a resonant phrase (one older actor in one film thinks of how he hopes someone will visit him tonight), a brilliant sequence of images or events. (Herein much poetry resides.)  Much is on location so we go to California where she lived for a time too -- though we keep coming back to the beach and to her long time house in a courtyard.  A sequence of her family (children, grandchildren, cats too) is like a dream while the overvoice reminds us of how much a family joy is an abstraction we make up in our minds. She talks with a cartoon cat (she and Jacques had many a favored cat):

She shows her politics. She filmed the Black Panthers, the Vietnam protests, the students in 68 in Paris, and (a wonderful strong sequence) feminists protesting strongly against forced baby-making, cruel abortions (no anesthesia) and all sorts of injustices: no half-hearted presentations here at all. how unashamedly she photographs herself: old, aging, heavy, her skin mottled and how she films other women the way they really look -- as well as the beautiful stars she did have in a few films. No anorexic supposes sexy women here.

She takes her politics clips up to today's wars in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Afghanistan. She may be 80+ but she's as involved as ever.

Her office

My husband, Jim, says he and I saw her Vagabond about a girl who refused to be imprisoned in office work and is homeless and we watch her wander about the world. I don't remember any other, but I sure what to make up for lost time.

Two weeks before that we made it to Taking Woodstock. The review had characterized it as dull and wondered why we were not given clips of the performers (Janis Joplin anyone?).   Well, what's valuable is we are made to experience Woodstock as say one person who had little power might have: our hero never gets to the center to see or hear clearly what's happening. 

It's also autobiographical, but like other of Lee's movies, not frankly so.  Men are not allowed to be. Once again we have a story of a father and son.  Lee is most interested in the young male at the center who is trying to wrest independence from a father. Unlike previous Lee films, though, there is now a harridan of a mother to stop him and who has made the father's life miserable, and threatens to keep the son in babyhood. This I think is Schamus as a Jewish man working through his own hangups. As ever too, our hero has a transgressive iconoclastic friend whom he relies on:

Henry Goodman as Jake

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Dan

The character Dan has been remarked upon as the most interesting in the film after our hero and his father (the mother is presented unsympathetically even if she's excused by her memories of the holocaust she is a doped as presented).  I'm beginning to think that this continual foregrounding of a deeply sympathetic admirable homosexual male as the friend of the hero is something Schamus is responsible for more directly than he admits. He built up the homosexual character in The Wedding Banquet so appealingly.  So is Schamus himself gay? or bisexual?  I don't know.

These belong under the sign of Austen because the first is a woman's film, in characteristics (cycical, subjective, keeping to humlity); it's deeply anti-false sentiment and yet is so inwardly moving; the second is by the director of the 1995 S&S (whose themes swirl around family internecine intangible warfare so to speak).