MUST WE REALLY begin with the end — with a world sans Agnès Varda? She never liked endings. As the French critic Serge Daney once observed, Varda was a filmmaker “who loved starting stories but not so much finishing them.” I, too, have never liked endings, and I would much rather begin with the end before the end, during one of her final visits to Los Angeles in November 2017, when she accepted an Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Speaking at a podium where her golden statuette stood, she remarked with her customary wit that, unlike Oscar season, there was “no money at stake and no competition” for the lifetime achievement award she had been given that evening. As she went on to list her most memorable films — from the French New Wave precursor La Pointe Courte (1955) to her later documentary The Gleaners and I (2000) — she suddenly stopped and reflected: “But, I have to say, I had a hard time finding money … My films never made money.”
Perhaps it was standing there, in “the Mecca of cinema,” as she referred to Hollywood in her speech, that prompted her to go off-script and utter these words, as she had done in a 1982 interview with the French film magazine Positif. “At this point of your career, where do you find yourself?” Françoise Aude and Jean-Pierre Jeancolas asked Varda, who had just returned to Paris after a two-year exile in Los Angeles. “Out of gas. Not out of inspiration but out of courage,” she admitted rather dispiritedly, after explaining how she had had, by sheer necessity, to produce the vast majority of her cinematographic works: “I make films not deals,” she interjected in English, as though she were still in Venice Beach, where she had lived between 1979 and 1981 following her separation from Jacques Demy.
That was, in fact, her second Californian exile. In 1967, Varda had accompanied Demy to Hollywood where Columbia Pictures had offered him a contract to make Model Shop, his sole American feature. Remaining there for two years, while the May 1968 events were unfolding in Paris and the Vietnam War was raging, the couple lived in Beverly Hills, drove convertibles, and mingled with movie stars and directors, among them Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michelangelo Antonioni. They even paid a visit to Antonioni on the set of Zabriskie Point, in an apartment in downtown Los Angeles, facing the Richfield Oil Building that would be demolished shortly after in the spring of 1969. During these two years, Varda also attended sit-ins and began noticing slogans, protest signs, posters, murals, and billboards all over the city. She directed a film on the hippie culture and the crumbling studio system titled Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969) and traveled to San Francisco and Oakland to make several documentary shorts, including a report on the Black Panthers for French television.
When, a decade later, Varda moved from Paris to Los Angeles for the second time, she found a city still plagued by the 1973 energy crisis and the ensuing recession. In Venice Beach, she encountered not only the famous boardwalk and its roller skates, but also homelessness, crime, unemployment, and unwanted furniture left on sidewalks (20 years before she would make The Gleaners and I, Varda gleaned from the streets of Venice Beach a couch and other objects to furnish the apartment she had rented). At the same time, living in L.A. in the late ’70s, Varda witnessed the artistic aftermath of the many rebellions and social movements of the previous decade, from the second wave of feminism to the Chicano movimiento: art collectives; shared creative strategies; and alternative practices and materials, such as murals.
Varda’s second exile coincided with the golden age of L.A. mural-making, sporadically sustained by federal funding. In 1974, for instance, the Inner-City Mural Program commissioned Kent Twitchell’s Old Woman of the Freeway, while the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act enabled The Great Wall of Los Angeles, initiated by the Chicana artist Judy Baca. Varda had not planned to make a film about murals while in exile. In 1979, she was writing a screenplay titled Maria and the Naked Man inspired by a news item about police brutality. Awaiting funding for this film that she would, in the end, never make, she practiced the art of noticing, as she had done since the late ’60s. At the wheel of a 1973 Chrysler (and no longer a convertible), she spent four months combing the city from east to west, and from Compton to Venice, in search of murals and muralists. Three years earlier, in Daguerréotypes (1976), she had recorded her shopkeeper and artisan neighbors on Rue Daguerre, where she lived. Now in Los Angeles, she forged a community by turning her camera to the city’s painted walls and to the men and women who had created them. Varda had studied art history in Paris and once aspired to become a museum curator; in exile, she assembled a collection of transient objects in the hopes of preserving them. “I reuse a couch — this delays its death. I film murals that are ephemeral — maybe they’ll become a little less so.”
Twitchell’s famous Lady Freeway is the first mural to appear in her 1981 documentary Mur Murs. It was painted over five years later by a billboard company. Twitchell’s large-scale wall painting The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, which Varda also included in the film, still stands on Wilshire Boulevard in MacArthur Park. I discovered it walking home one afternoon in the summer of 2017, shortly after I had moved to Los Angeles. What did it mean to find a piece of Varda in the midst of my own temporary journey in this city? I took it to mean serendipity. Like Varda before me, I began to scour L.A. for the painted walls of her documentary. I wrote to Twitchell, David Botello, Wayne Healy, and Art Mortimer, who shared with me their memories of participating in Mur Murs. I visited the many exhibits the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative devoted to murals that fall. At LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, I watched a video of Willie Herrón in front of The Wall That Cracked Open, where he had also stood in Mur Murs. I learned the story of Filling Up on Ancient Energies, a mural by the East Los Streetscrappers that Varda’s film had showed me (it, too, would be destroyed several years after appearing in her film).
At the Skirball, I was given a map locating the murals of L.A. photographed by Ken Gonzales-Day and found the painted walls of Baca, Botello, and Twitchell that I had discovered with Varda. A map was, precisely, what she had not given her viewers in Mur Murs — her Los Angeles was, quite simply, an isle of murals. An isle — like Terry Schoonhoven’s famous apocalyptic mural The Isle of California, depicting a chunk of the freeway hanging precariously over the ocean after the “big one,” with which Varda ends her documentary; an isle — because she saw in the painted walls sites of resistance and vulnerability, and isolated them from the rest of Los Angeles’s concrete landscape. In her film, she effaced the clichés of this horizontal and iconic city — the Hollywood sign, the palm trees, and the freeways. As Daney would write in his 1982 review of Mur Murs, Varda “had given the gaze another chance.” She had also effaced the lines delimiting neighborhoods and districts, as well as ethnic and racial boundaries, and reorganized the city entirely around its painted walls.
In 1979, Varda saw herself as “a French woman in Los Angeles” and borrowed the title of her film from Victor Hugo, who, in reference to the mur, or wall, that once surrounded the French capital, had described the murmurs of Paris. In Los Angeles, Varda found herself far away from the Paris she had filmed in 1962’s Cleo from 5 to 7. Yet, more than “a French woman,” she remained in exile a filmmaker always at the margins of the motion picture industry; an “artist-artisan,” as she would describe herself in 1982, as though referring to the muralists she had encountered in L.A. “I started painting murals because I realized when I was 23 that I had never seen a Chicana in a museum,” Baca tells her in Mur Murs. In 1979, Varda could have titled her documentary The Outsiders and I. She not only identified with Baca — she identified with all of the muralists in her film. Yet, unlike in The Gleaners and I, where she would explicitly intertwine the personal and the social, Varda stayed behind the camera in Mur Murs and never formally engaged with the artists that she was filming. Instead, she made a fiction feature directly after titled Documenteur about a French woman starting over in L.A. and released the two films as a diptych. Docu-menteur, or “Docu-liar,” because Mur Murs had become, in the end, just as autobiographical.
Varda presented Mur Murs at the film’s premiere in a packed Fox Venice Theater on Lincoln Boulevard where Mortimer and other muralists sat in the audience. In 2013, Baca, Botello, Healy, Herrón, Mortimer, and Twitchell gathered once more around Varda for a screening of the film held at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. This was the year the LACMA celebrated her work of the ’60s and ’70s in an exhibit titled Agnès Varda in Californialand. At the opening, Wayne Healy told me in our correspondence, Varda wore a badge that read: “I don’t remember your name.” She was a filmmaker who spent decades archiving memories with her camera — of murals and muralists in Mur Murs; of Jacques Demy in Jacquot de Nantes (1991); of herself in The Beaches of Agnès (2008); and, most recently, of her own films in Varda by Agnès (2019). There are many ways to remember Agnès Varda — I will remember her time as an L.A. outsider and the first memories of the city that she gave me, long before I ever arrived.
Jennifer Cazenave is assistant professor of French at Boston University. Her first book, An Archive of the Catastrophe: The Unused Footage of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, will be published by SUNY Press in 2019.