Agnès Varda, a quintessential French New Wave film director, is the subject of an upcoming L.A. show that explores a few fruitful years the director spent in the Golden State.
New Wave directors aimed to tackle social issues and formally experiment with film, in reaction against the Belle Époque-era costume dramas that were being made by their traditionalist contemporaries. Varda, through films like La Pointe Courte (1955), Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), and Le Bonheur (1965), unflinchingly tackled tough subjects like illness and infidelity. But Varda's most experimental period was an era when she accompanied her husband Jacques Demy to California. There, she began to follow her curiosity, making a succession of odd verité-style documentaries and one very strange narrative feature. At 85, Varda is opening a new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Agnès Varda in Californialand" (Nov. 3, 2013-June 22, 2014), focusing on this fertile period in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
The show zeroes in on the years from 1967 to '69, in which Varda produced the documentary shorts Uncle Yanco (1967) and Black Panthers (1968), and the 1969 narrative feature Lions Love ( . . . and Lies). Also included is the later Mur Murs (1981), a love letter to L.A.'s murals and muralists such as Kent Twitchell and Terry Schoonhoven. In L.A., she sought "sex and politics," she said at an exhibition preview.
Varda hasn't made a film since The Beaches of Agnès (2008), instead opting to create art installations in places like the 2009 Venice Biennale. The LACMA show's main feature-centered in the middle of the gallery-is a commissioned sculpture: a shack, titled My Shack of Cinema (1968-2013), whose walls are made of strips of film stock from Lions Love, hanging from a metal frame. Other works in the one-gallery exhibition include black-and-white photographs from love-ins and Panther rallies, a few self-portraits, a mural of stills and hippie ephemera from the making of Lions Love, and a television draped in an American flag and showing scenes from that film.
The visual art component of Varda's work can be underwhelming. While her black-and-white photographs are superb and show off her particular eye for dramatic, chaotic imagery, the shack overwhelms the exhibition space, and plays out too cleverly the idea of "being inside a film." Moreover, the mural is under-realized, though it does betray hidden moments of Varda's quirky sensibility-amongst the hippie symbols and stills from Lions Love, a line from the film is scrawled out in script: "I hate every form of entertainment, including living."
Varda's California adventure came at a critical moment in film history. While Black Panthers, a complicated and ambivalent take on the controversial group, became a significant document of the Civil Rights Movement, Lions Love was a commercial failure, Varda said during a Q&A with "Californialand" curator Rita Gonzales, adding, "This is a revival of the flop." But Lions Love is a forgotten masterpiece-absurdly funny and unrelentingly experimental-featuring a vibrant Warhol muse named Viva and the two men (Gerome Ragni and James Rado) who wrote the musical Hair in an existential ménage à trois. During the filming, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated and Andy Warhol was shot. These events were interpolated into the script, creating a beautiful, messy, comedic collage. It's all in keeping with Varda's mantra, which textually pops up on screen in the film while the actors pantomime sex while wearing bodysuits: "Should art imitate, exaggerate, or deform reality?"