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You may remember director Agnès Varda from her 1986 film, VAGABOND. But over
the last five decades, the `grandmother of French New Wave' has completed 29
other works, most showing her affection, bemusement, outrage, and
wide-ranging curiosity for humanity.
Varda's most recent effort-the first filmed with a digital videocamera-focuses on gleaners, those who gather the spoils left after a harvest, as well as those who mine the trash. Some completely exist on the leavings; others turn them into art, exercise their ethics, or simply have fun. The director likens gleaning to her own profession-that of collecting images, stories, fragments of sound, light, and color.
In this hybrid of documentary and reflection, Varda raises a number of philosophical questions. Has the bottom line replaced our concern with others' well-being, even on the most essential level of food? What happens to those who opt out of our consumerist society? And even, What constitutes--or reconstitutes--art?
Along this road trip, she interviews plenty of French characters. We meet a man who has survived almost completely on trash for 15 years. Though he has a job and other trappings, for him it is `a matter of ethics.' Another, who holds a master's degree in biology, sells newspapers and lives in a homeless shelter, scavenges food from market, and spends his nights teaching African immigrants to read and write.
Varda is an old hippie, and her sympathies clearly lie with such characters who choose to live off the grid. She takes our frenetically consuming society to task and suggests that learning how to live more simply is vital to our survival.
At times we can almost visualize her clucking and wagging her finger-a tad heavy-handedly advancing her agenda. However, the sheer waste of 25 tons of food at a clip is legitimately something to cluck about. And it is her very willingness to make direct statements and NOT sit on the fence that Varda fans most enjoy, knowing that her indignation is deeply rooted in her love of humanity.
The director interjects her playful humor as well-though it's subtle, French humor that differs widely from that of, say, Tom Green. Take the judge in full robes who stands in a cabbage field citing the legality of gleaning chapter and verse.
Quirky and exuberant, Varda, 72, is at an age where she's more concerned with having fun with her craft than impressing anyone. With her handheld digital toy, she pans around her house and pauses to appreciate a patch of ceiling mold. When she later forgets to turn off her camera, she films `the dance of the lens cap.'
One of the picture's undercurrents is the cycle of life-growth, harvest, decay. She often films her wrinkled hands and speaks directly about her aging process, suggesting that her own mortality is much on her mind. The gleaners pluck the fruits before their decay, as Varda lives life to the fullest, defying the inevitability of death. Toward the movie's end, she salvages a Lucite clock with no hands. As she films her face passing behind it, she notes, `A clock with no hands is my kind of thing.'
If you'd be the first to grab a heart-shaped potato from the harvest, or make a pile of discarded dolls into a totem pole, THE GLEANERS is probably your kind of thing.
This film is a feast for anyone who loves film, photography or art in general. Agnes Varda takes the viewer along on a very personal exploration about what it means to be an artist. To glean means to gather whatever crops have been left in the field after a harvest and the film is on one level a straight documentary about gleaners in France, exploring the various reasons why they glean - survival, to feed the poor, for fun. But gleaning is revealed to be an apt metaphor for the process of making art, and so, perhaps on a deeper level, Varda is examining her role as a film maker, a "gleaner" of images and life moments. Regardless of why you might watch this film, I recommend it for the playfulness and beauty of the photography, and the complex and personal depth of Varda's narrative.
Yeah, it was that good. I was introduced to the French New Wave when I
was in college and I was instantly a fan. Of course I loved Godard and
Truffaut but I was also a always a fan of Varda's work. The one woman
allowed run with "the boy's club".
Even in her later years in 2000, the mark of the Nouvelle Vague was still evident in her work. Shot on video at a time when things looked like they were shot on video, this movie held true to all of the same ideals that Varda stood for 40 years earlier. There wasn't a lot of time or money spent on lighting and capturing the perfect image but what was lacking was made up for with true cinematography and framing of the shots. Visually the movie is both cheap and no frills and meticulous and artistic.
But like any good documentary, Varda's vision and message trumps any superficial aspect of the film-making. The message that there is beauty in every aspect of our existence regardless of how insignificant we think it is resonates throughout the story and will stick with you long after the movie has ended.
Jean Francois Millet, the French painter of the Barbizon school, seems
to have been the inspiration for Agnes Varda's interesting documentary
"Les glaneurs et la glaneuse". In fact, Ms. Varda makes it a point to
take us along to the French countryside where Millet got the
inspiration for his masterpiece "Les Glaneurs". Like in his other
paintings, Millet comments about the peasantry working the fields in
most of his canvases. One can see the poverty in his subjects as they
struggle to gather crops for their employers.
Ms. Varda takes a humanistic approach to another type of activity in which she bases her story. In fact, the people one sees in the film are perhaps the descendants of the gleaners of Millet's time, except they are bringing whatever is left behind once the machinery takes care of gathering the best of each crop, leaving the rest to rot in the fields.
Agnes Varda takes a trip through her native France to show us the inequality of a system that produces such excesses that a part of it has to be dumped because it doesn't meet standards. On the one hand, there is such abundance, and on the other, one sees how some of the poor people showcased in the documentary can't afford to buy the basics and must resort to take it on their own to get whatever has been left in order to survive.
With this documentary, Agnes Varda shows an uncanny understanding to the problems most of these people are facing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Agnes Varda's documentary The Gleaners and I celebrates the notion of
"freeganism" or what the French call "gleaners." Unlike the punk antics
of activists, gleaning in France is not so much a matter of rebellion
but a matter of rite. There is a tradition in France from days of old
that allows people to come behind a harvest and pick up any fruit and
veggies that weren't elected by the grower to go to market, over-sized
or heart shaped potatoes for instances. "This apple is like a stupid
ugly woman," says one person of the discards, "zero value." Here,
gleaners give new meaning to the phrase "having a field day." (Although
gleaning is forbidden in precious Burgundy wine country!) The film
moves from these rural gleaners to the urban gleaners as Varda talks
with a wide variety of interesting characters: drunks, gypsies,
artists, activists, rappers, volunteer teachers... many with a very
"lived" look to their faces. Gleaners come from all walks of life and
here they include a gourmet chef and a psychoanalyst. Picking a
patient's brain is too a form of gleaning as the therapists is in a
state of poverty, a state of not knowing.
Varda uses this film as her owns means of self-exploration. It is told in a very self-reflexive style that you will either enjoy or be irritated by. We are subjected to extreme close-ups of her gray hair or her aging liver spotted hands as she says, "we enter in the horror of her hand". The beauty in her choosing to take home a clock with no hands is symbolic of the overall poetic style to this work - "an emotion film." Long shots of her lens cap dancing in the wind, repetitive shots of trucks on the highway, and of course, her fascination with the heart shaped potatoes - food that warms the heart.
There are many words to describe this gleaning behavior: stoopers, pickers, retrievers, recyclers... Some see found objects as dictionaries - helping us to come to an understanding of humankind. Varda has a fascination with old paintings showing gleaners, like Millet's famous Gleaneuses (pictured here), but she unearths many others - from op shops to the storage basement of a museum. Marey, an early innovator of photographer, even gets evoked somehow and the combination of all her elements gives this film a very ethnographic feel.
Varda describes herself as a gleaner of images and she explores this idea in a 60 minute follow-up 2 years on (an extra on the DVD). Here she not only revisits some of the characters in the original documentary but she also meets with new gleaners who flooded her with letters and gifts in response to the release of the first film. She looks at the impact the film had on her and those who participated, the characters who share their "confidence and confidences." The Gleaners and I is a delight to watch on so many levels. It is a meditation on waste, of living on the fringes of society and conversely, what this says about people we don't see in the film: the thoughtless consumers. To me, the film is not only about the discarding of objects, but of the decay and disenfranchising of the aged. Finally, in a subtle way, this film is about self and our relationship to the world through the eyes of a very creative filmmaker for whom low production values equates to high art.
The Gleaners and I is odd in that it hardly feels like a proper film at
all: it's shot on visibly cheap MiniDV, its editing is consistently
unpolished, and it delights in crossing the line from personal to
indulgent in excess. It's obvious that these are all deliberate
choices; the question is, would we care if it didn't have the name
Agnès Varda on it?
Ultimately, the film's amateurish style is somewhat deceptive: Varda demonstrates her talent for finding significance in the mundane, and strikes a number of compelling parallels in her examination of scavenger culture. The film does tend to coast on Varda's legendary new wave status at times, particularly as we linger on interviews and segments only tenuously related to the film's subject, but it's interesting as an example of a living legend embracing her medium's democratization: for all the good and bad it implies, she blends in seamlessly with the millions of talented people who own camcorders. -TK 10/21/10
To glean is to see something beautiful or useful in something that is conventionally useless, pointless or ugly, and to make that thing even more beautiful or useful. One can consume the stuff they glean, or they could recycle it into an art form, creating a whole new purpose for the object(s). Gleaning also applies to our basic ability for survival. In the worst times of our lives, whether it's the death of a friend or facing poverty or illness, there is a way of seeing things positively that helps us survive. Thus, faith and hope are gleaned in the face of disparity. Scientists glean facts and turn them into theory. We glean possibilities every time we use our imaginations. We glean memories when we write (James Joyce was probably the world's greatest literary gleaner). And psychiatrists pay attention to what others don't notice by gleaning beneath the stubborn surface of our egos. This film blew me away in how it depicted how much waste our society makes, and the myriad of ways in which those who glean what we discard benefit society. But the film is even more than a fascinating documentary and social statement. As one can see from the concepts listed above, it's also a celebration of seeing our world and ourselves as a "cluster of possibilities." There are many theories that we are all in essence stardust developed from fragments of 'the big bang' and quintessentially, this film is about "gleaners of stardust." It pertains to those who metaphorically glean the hidden mysteries and possibilities of our world (i.e. the gleaners of dreams and ideas). Come to think of it, film lovers and the best filmmakers are in fact, gleaners by that very definition. Agnes Varda has proved that she is one of the greatest gleaners of all time.
The French film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse was shown in the U.S. as
The Gleaners & I (2000). It was written and directed by Agnès Varda,
Varda is a fascinating figure in the history of French filmmaking. Although she was making movies in France in the 60's, she wasn't actually a member of the French New Wave. Instead, Varda was part of a loosely joined group of directors that also included Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. (Although theoreticians place them into a group, Resnais said, "It is true that we are always ranked together, but what can you say we share apart from cats?") In any event Varda has a secure place in the history of French filmaking.
The Gleaners is a movie about people who survive by searching for food or objects that others don't want, or, at least, don't want to work to find. In the country, gleaners find fruits and vegetables that remain after the harvest has been completed. In the cities they scavenge for food that has been thrown out as garbage, or that has been left behind when the vegetable markets close. They also claim discarded furniture and appliances for repair and resale.
Whether by choice or by necessity, gleaners do their work at the fringes of the society. What they do isn't illegal, but it's not exactly mainstream either. However, this doesn't mean that the gleaners don't have their own fascinating personalities and informal codes of conduct.
Varda interviews gleaners in both rural and urban areas. What she learns--as do we--is that they are very skilled at--and often proud of--what they do. As Varda shows us, it takes skill and knowledge to survive as a gleaner. You have to know where to look and when to look to get enough to eat, or to sell. The gleaners are interesting individuals, and they're happy to talk about what they do. Varda has taken what they told her, and fashioned it into a fascinating movie.
The irony of this is clear when you look at the French title of the movie. The film is about gleaners, but it's also about one gleaner--Agnès Varda. Varda uses the bits and pieces offered to her by the gleaners, and fashions them into a movie. So, in that sense, she herself is the ultimate gleaner.
We saw the film on the large screen at Rochester's Dryden Theatre, as part of the excellent Rochester Labor Film Festival. However, it should also work on DVD.
This particular documentary tells the unique story of an activity and a people that many are most likely oblivious to. And it documents and explores this historical "profession" though it is probably better described as a necessity for many. The form follows in Agnes Varda's French New Wave style, introducing the filmmaker as a central character who self-reflects throughout her journey. It excels in the regard of documenting these characters and their lives and their struggles. The overall picture is very simple, and does not go out of its way to entertain the audience. The viewer's interest must already be piqued, but if it is, Varda will grab and maintain the viewer's attention for the entirety of the film.
This is Varda going out again with just a camera. This time she finds
vagrants and gatherers of all kinds around the streets of France, some
who pick up after discarded harvests in the fields, others who find
their objects of art or utility in what people abandon in the street
There's a French history of "gleaning" that she references via paintings of women picking up wheat in the fields, that is of course her entry into images of life she gleans with her camera, herself a gatherer, but in another way it is to situate what we see as a certain rite of life with its continuity, something that people do.
So I like that we're called to see beyond desperation here, though at a glance many of these lives will seem dismal. Varda has taken an interest in itinerant lives for a long time as previous films by her suggest, Vagabond most notably, and she has the sensitivity of empathizing. We do see a few troubled individuals, because life kind of swung that way before they had a chance to hold on perhaps. But we also see a life that manages just fine for itself and roots itself in the other, something like the anti-ego philosophy of one of the people in the film.
None of them are vexed to live as they do, that we see anyway, and it manages to remind me of the ancient Taoist injunctions to forego the anxieties for "humanity" and "responsibility", often hypocritical, and make yourself like a clump of earth that goes on without minding. We manage to fret quite a bit after all as we do our own gathering of important things, though god knows to what real purpose.
This is a small film that will appear at times purposeless or addled, in that Varda doesn't aspire for more than what the ground will turn up for her, but she picks it all up with care and has fun with it. She doesn't just see a social issue here and we're better off for it. How much richer the landscape of film would be if more filmmakers would just go out with a cheap camcorder? It isn't the topical subject, any TV crew could film that, it's gracing us with a way of seeing.
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