Tagged: Agnes Varda

Remembering Agnès Varda, Considering Kenneth Anger

Show a film in the basement of a century-old library and the filmmaker dies.

This might resemble the premise of a horror movie, but it’s something that actually happened last Thursday after I screened Agnès Varda’s 1962 film, Cléo from 5 to 7 in class last week. The doyenne of the French New Wave passed away last Friday at the age of 90.

My History of Film class at Pratt Institute meets in the basement of the Pratt Brooklyn library. The library was built in 1896 and is a pretty exquisite building. It is one of the oldest buildings at the Clinton Hill campus, and it features Tiffany stained glass throughout the building. Another ornate feature is that the book spine labels in the stacks are handwritten in a pretty distinct yet clearly standard style.

The day after I screened Varda’s best known film I heard on KPCC’s The Frame radio program that Varda had passed away in Paris.

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Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 is an existentialist exploration in life and death.

When our class met this past Thursday, a student remarked that he had heard that Varda had died, and it struck him that he was familiar with her work due to our screening Cléo in class days earlier. The timing was eery for him and for me.

This past week’s class involved a survey of eight American experimental films, and sensitive to the timing of Varda’s death, I noticed that of the eight films, the filmmakers of seven had already died. These are the films and the filmmakers:

Manhatta1921Charles Sheeler
Paul Strand
Rose Hobart1936Joseph Cornell19031972
Meshes of the Afternoon1943Maya Deren19171961
A Movie1959Bruce Conner19332008
Wonder Ring1959Stan Brakhage19332003
Bridges Go Round1958Shirley Clarke19191997
T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G1968Paul Sharits19431993
Scorpio Rising1964Kenneth Anger1927

As you can see in this list, of the films I screened on Thursday, only Scorpio Rising‘s filmmaker Kenneth Anger remains alive today.

Symbols of death recur in Anger’s best known film, Scorpio Rising.

Being a superstitious fellow, I worried that we would somehow curse Kenneth Anger. He is far from a young man, aged 92 years old and as old as Scorpio Rising is, he actually completed his first film in 1947.

So far, forty-eight hours after our class, Anger appears to be alive, and I wish him many more years.

New Wave Hipness in Left Bank Form

As I mentioned in class on Monday, Cleo from 5 to 7 remains one of the best examples of the French New Wave for many reasons. First, the film is one of the few made by women during this very vibrant period in film history. For the usual reasons, women were not part of the filmmaking fun in this rather male-dominated scene. The fact that Varda was able to break through the gender barrier is certainly remarkable.

Cleo 5 to 7 - Chapter 1

Second, the film ties into very contemporary city life. You get a lot of scenes that feature Parisian life quite prominently, especially those parts that young Parisians would find familiar. One such scene is the cafe scene when Cleo enters in plays her song on the radio to see if she can get anyone’s attention. The personalities and conversations in that scene would have rung familiar to anyone in the city at the time.

Third, the film features rather visibly, the concern for formal experimentation and political voice for which the so-called Left Bank filmmakers became known. The formal element of the film was exposed through its chapter structure, which were very clearly seen on screen. Although the story is about Cléo, other characters get their own internal voices portrayed on screen and the chapter titles make that break from the film’s narration quite clear. An early example is when we see Angèle at the cafe trying to console an inconsolable Cléo.

Cleo 5 to 7 - Chapter 2

There’s also a fair amount of politics involved, too. You can see that in the clip where Cléo and Angèle are driving around in the taxi cab, and we hear the radio news cover Algeria, which was arguably one of the biggest events of the early 1960s in France and was covered repeatedly by the French New Wave filmmakers.

Cleo 5 to 7 - Algeria

And, of course, there’s an undeniable element of human drama. The final shot of the film, with Antoine and Cléo looking off into the distance, marks a huge departure from the self-centeredness Cléo exhibits throughout most of the film.

Cleo 5 to 7 - Andre