Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Agnes Varda travels down memory lane


The longer life goes on, the more we seem to rely on memory and the more we fear its eventual loss. In fretful moments, we ponder the ravages of dementia or Alzheimer's, perhaps panicking at the thought that age and disease might rob us of the sense that we've lived at all. If we can't remember events and people -- even with the distortions that inevitably seep into consciousness -- can we be sure of anything? Without memory, we're like ships bobbing randomly on the ocean of consciousness, unable to pull into port and having no log to remind us of where we've been.

Agnes Varda, the 81-year-old French director, has no such problem. In The Beaches of Agnes, the director remembers her childhood, her development as a still photographer, then as a movie director, and, of course, as the wife of director Jacques Demy, most famous for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Varda's movie is at once French, arty and playful -- serious without ever being solemn. Varda, who was 80 when the film was made, describes herself as a "little old lady, pleasantly plump." At one point, she holds a pancake in front of her face and draws a comparison. "I am alive, and I remember," she tells us at the film's conclusion.

We draw encouragement from Varda's talent and her attitude, which probably are inseparable. You can tell that Varda still believes in the possibilities of cinema, which -- in Beaches becomes both an autobiographical medium and a repository for pleasant asides. Film historians classify Varda as a member of the Left Bank group that included filmmakers such as Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe- Grillet. She opens the movie on a beach, which she says is best suited for this tale. I kept thinking about sand castles slowly crumbling under the force of rising tides.

There's plenty here for film buffs to savor -- Varda knew many great filmmakers and gave such actors as Philippe Noiret and Gerard Depardieu career boosts. She also spends a lot of time on her relationship with Demy. Somehow these two important filmmakers lived and let live. She tells us -- without need for further explanation -- that Demy died of AIDS and that while he was dying, she made Jacquot, a film about her husband's youth. Jacquot was an act of love on Varda's part -- of both her husband and of cinema.

At the age of 80, Varda wears her feminism easily. She talks about Vagabond and One Sings, the Other Doesn't, movies with much to say about women.

Most important, Varda is fun to hang around with, and the film affords us with that opportunity. She may be aging, but her eyes are still wide open, alert to possibilities, ready for engagement. Beaches is much too spirited a film to be taken a swan song. We expect there's more on Varda's horizon.


In 1996, director Leon Gast released When We Were Kings, a brilliant documentary about the fabled 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Initially, the fight -- which took place in Zaire -- was to be accompanied by a three-night music festival featuring some of the great soul acts of the day: James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Spinners and Celia Cruz. The concert footage hit the floor when Gast assembled his movie, which focused on an unexpected six-week delay of the fight that resulted from an injury to Foreman. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who worked as an editor on Kings, does his best to assemble a story about the concert from Gast's unused footage. He does a reasonably good job of sustaining a narrative, but the performances carry the day with the Godfather of Soul providing the finale to Soul Power, a documentary for those who want to remember a musical event that wasn't Woodstock.

The Beaches of Agnes and Soul Power open in Denver Friday, Aug. 21.

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