Agnès Varda’s California

By Lauren O'Neill-ButlerApril 8, 2014

Agnès Varda’s California
Agnès Varda in Californialand
LACMA / BCAM, Level 3

November 3, 2013–June 22, 2014

A PICTURE TAKEN on the set of Agnès Varda’s mostly unscripted film LIONS LOVE (…AND LIES) (1969), a collage-like reflection on the intersection between free love and political turmoil in Vietnam War–era Los Angeles, graced the cover of the debut, winter 1969 issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. Inside this “collector’s edition,” Soren Agenoux, the publication’s managing editor, begins his Q&A with the French filmmaker with an impromptu aplomb, encapsulating the spirit of the quarter-fold film journal: “Shall I ask you intellectual questions? I don’t know what kind of questions to ask you.” In another piece in the same issue, Amy Sullivan chats with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin from Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point while Warhol wanders into the room, Polaroid in hand, and asks the young actors to take off their clothes for a shot, an echo of the nudes on the cover: the three primary members of Varda’s cast, posing like classical statuary, Warhol superstar Viva with James Rado and Gerome Ragni (the two writers of the musical Hair). The auteur stands in the background and holds up a film camera made of cardboard, which divides her face in half. The splitting is a metaphor: Varda both is and is not in this film. And isn’t that always the case with her work?

Absent from the image, the great director Shirley Clarke is the fourth actor in LIONS LOVE; she plays herself (an underground New York filmmaker) and also performs as Varda’s stand-in. Lodging with the subcultural trio in their Hollywood Hills home, Clarke’s in town to meet with local producers interested in commercially backing her latest film. (Another theme of the jigsaw movie is film financing in America and what it takes to let a director have the ultimate say on her work.) It’s mostly all peace, love, and harmony until an exasperated Clarke overdoses on sleeping pills, and Varda nearly approaches a storyline. Yet Clarke breaks “character” and interrupts the middle of the scene, claiming the action has no “truth” for her. Varda enters, switches shirts with Clarke, swallows the fake pills herself, performs the deed as she wants, and then coerces Clarke to imitate her and continue.

The Brechtian turn isn’t so surprising coming from the oft-cited “Grandmother of the French New Wave,” but it’s the context here that counts: The scene occurs in the bedroom of a lavish, sun-drenched mini-mansion with a backyard pool. It’s a rented house (“somebody told me that Elvis Presley lived there,” Varda said), and nearly the entire film unfolds therein. For Varda, the home is an emblem of Los Angeles, a city where she lived, in various neighborhoods, from 1967 to 1969, and then again from 1980 to 1981. A prominently featured bedroom has large windows streaming in abundant light, giving the movie a fishbowl feel, especially since the actors barely ever leave. Varda closely plumbs the material qualities of this particular pièce by letting her camera lens dwell on its objects and inhabitants — always with her “instinctive eye for tactile values,” as critic Gordon Gow put it. In interviews, she has consistently attributed this awareness to her late-1940s-era studies with philosopher Gaston Bachelard — “He was a very old man with a beard and he had this dream of the material in people,” she once proclaimed. Her studies with Bachelard would have been before his best-known book, The Poetics of Space (1958), but his affective and poetic phenomenological interests in history and lived experience left a mark on Varda’s mind.

In 1968, Varda was introduced to Warhol and Viva, allegedly at the Factory. It may have been before or after June 3, 1968 — the day Valerie Solanas shot Warhol as he was on the phone with Viva. (She was having her hair done.) The actual date was c’est sans importance to Varda, who incorporated this material fact into LIONS LOVE: while the actors watch televised reports of Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles (on June 5, 1968), Viva receives a phone call from New York; someone on the line is telling her that Warhol has just been shot. Viva, Rado, and Ragni next discover Clarke’s character passed out from the OD, prompting Viva to vacuously whine, “I can’t stand it. Shirley, Kennedy, Andy — everybody’s dying. When is it our turn?” It’s the end of youth, maybe the end of days — the characters are blank canvases like any young American of that era, reeling in a broadcasted war and tragedy, set apart by geography and youth. Amid draft dodging and rock music, they’re a generation too old to be flower children but not yet adults. Varda’s critique digs deep, but it’s affectionate.

In poetically fudging the dates of the shootings, and allowing the actors to play themselves and/or figments of themselves, LIONS LOVE is a prime example of Varda’s merging of the texture of documentary into feature filmmaking. Her current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Agnès Varda in Californialand, curated by Rita Gonzalez, illustrates how the context of living in Los Angeles spurred Varda to develop the tactile aspects of her output while it traces (to a curtailed but still effective and edifying extent) her three lives: photographer, filmmaker, and installation artist. The exhibition also follows a major film restoration effort commanded by LACMA and organized with the Annenberg Foundation and the Film Foundation to preserve and restore four of Varda’s California films: the documentaries Uncle Yanco (1967), Black Panthers (1968), and Mur murs (1981), as well as LIONS LOVE.

What drew Varda to Los Angeles? “It’s true that things were pretty tough in France in ’67,” she told Philippe Carcassonne and Jacques Fieschi for Cinématrographe magazine in 1981 interview from her home in Venice Beach. In the late ’60s, her husband, Jacques Demy, wanted to make a film in Hollywood and began to work on Model Shop. Varda notes:

At first I wasn’t so excited to be here. But then I made a short film on a Greek uncle of mine who lived near San Francisco (Uncle Yanco); and after that a documentary on the Black Panthers […]. [T]he film was supposed to be broadcast on TV, a French show called Five Headlines, but at the last minute it was censored: it was October ’68 and we weren’t supposed to “reawaken the students’ anger.” Meanwhile, I had written a scenario for Columbia, Peace and Love. They didn’t allow me to do a final cut and I got really angry, but I ended up doing Lions Love, which I really enjoyed. […] And in 1980 I made a documentary on the murals here. It’s really a portrait of Los Angeles, especially in what these paintings reveal about the problems of the Mexicans, whom the media absolutely never mention.

The latter documentary is Mur murs, and it ethnographically examines the murals of Los Angeles (many now long gone), as if the city is the largest outdoor gallery in the world — and maybe it is. Filmed as Varda roamed streets, housing projects, businesses, and shops over a three-month period, mostly in East LA, the film incorporates interviews with artists such as Judy Baca (of the Great Wall of Los Angeles project) and collectives including ASCO. Moving from disco roller skaters in Venice Beach to the residents of Ramona Gardens and Watts, Varda’s wide-eyed French-speaking narrator also moves the film along, interviewing everyone — gang members, artists — she meets along the way. The overall effect is like a postcard or love letter to France, and many of Varda’s California films appear this way; as she notes, she expected at least one to be aired on broadcast French TV.

Spanning a wall of the LACMA exhibition are photographs Varda shot during her California years, some while filming Mur murs, Black Panthers, and Uncle Yanco. Like her late, great friend Chris Marker — whose six-decade career was also celebrated in a recent retrospective at the MIT List Center — Varda was a photographer before she was a filmmaker. Born in Brussels on May 30, 1928, some 20 years later she was hired as the official photographer of the Théâtre National Populaire under Jean Vilar, working first at the Avignon Festival and later in Paris. Simultaneously, she began to take portraits of artists with a secondhand Rolleiflex camera, including Calder, Hantaï, Brassaï, and Dalí, as well as filmmakers such as Fellini, Visconti, and, of course, Demy. At LACMA, the images range from her Yanco on his boat in Sausalito in 1967 to Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, seen protesting among other members of the group in Oakland in 1968, to a tai chi group in front of a mural of a blue whale on Beethoven Street in Venice, a memorable image from Mur murs.

Also in the show is Varda’s My Shack of Cinema, 1968–2013, a makeshift beach cabana that uses a decommissioned copy of Lions Love as flimsy walls and ceiling. With three stools of stacked metal film canisters where viewers can sit and ponder notable scenes from the film at eye-level, the work transforms — almost pulses — as natural light from overhead skylights shifts in the gallery. In 2003, Varda began making installations after a request by the ubiquitous curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist to include her work in the “Utopia Station” section of that year’s Venice Biennale. She presented the three-screen Patatutopia, which she famously advertised during the opening of the show while walking around in a potato costume. Next, Varda made an installation titled Les Veuves de Noirmoutier in 2004, which she showed in a major exhibition at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris in 2006.

In 2010, I spoke with her about Les Veuves, on the occasion of its US debut at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, as well as her recent autobiographic essay film Les Plages d’Agnès, and she noted, “I’ve been making films for so long, for over 50 years now, but I really think I have two paths of work –– cinema and installation. They overlap, of course. My installations use films and, one might say, my recent film –– Les Plages d’Agnès –– is a kind of installation.” The idea comes in clear as a bell, like the sunlight cutting through the windows in LIONS LOVE: Varda intermingles installation, film, documentary, and fiction to achieve greater tactile and emotional resonances. And now with her LACMA exhibition it’s easy to see how her short yet formative experience of being in Los Angeles, meandering its cinematic streets and scenes, prompted her to expand both of these paths, from the immaterial space of cinema to the material world.


The exhibit, Agnès Varda in Californialand, is on display at LACMA until June 22, 2014.


Lauren O’Neill-Butler’s criticism and nonfiction have appeared in publications ranging from Art Journal to Bitch. The managing editor of, she has also been a contributor to Artforum since 2007.

LARB Contributor

Lauren O’Neill-Butler’s criticism and nonfiction have appeared in publications ranging from Art Journal to Bitch. The managing editor of, she has also been a contributor to Artforum since 2007.


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