The Caveman’s Holiday is Bourgie Nonsense; The Fine Gleaners and I

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Videocam in
hand, 72-year-old Agnes Varda proves herself the nimblest thinker at work in
the popular cinema. (Jean-Luc Godard, most recently represented in the Museum
of Modern Art’s splendid commission The Old Place, has been pushed
outside the popular realm.) Varda’s four-decade commitment to both fiction
and nonfiction shows that she, more than any other New Wave director (except
Godard, of course), understands the camera as a tool particularly suited to
exploring social experience. She’s an artist because she takes that experience
personally, as indicated by the title of her latest work, The Gleaners and
I
.


The world’s
on view here. Varda connects the age-old ritualistic gleaning of produce left
over after a harvest to various modern habits, such as scavenging by urban homeless
people. This ubiquitous city scene inspires Varda’s compassion and ignites
her intelligence. She sees gleaning ("scavenging" is, ultimately,
too harsh a term) in different–and revealing–ways of life. Starting
with a shot of the collected Nouveau Larousse, Varda compiles her own
visual encyclopedia: wheat farmers, gypsies, street people, a Parisian chef,
grapes, a psychoanalyst, olives, almonds, figs, cabbages, tomatoes, a recycling
artist ("I’m moving toward lessness"), a Russian bricklayer ("I
like dolls, they’re my system," he says. "He’s an amateur,"
his wife explains), a wine grower, the painter Louis Pons, whose subject is
refuse ("I accommodate chance, a cluster of possibilities"), oysters,
clams, trucks, and a biology graduate who volunteers to teach African immigrants.
(Varda highlights their introduction to the terms "nocturnal activity,"
"useful insect," "success.")


Though The
Gleaners and I
doesn’t have the esthetic elation of something shot
on film, it’s still a marvelous video work. "I’m happy to put
down an ear of wheat and pick up my digital camera," Varda says. "It’s
stroboscopic, narcissistic, hyperrealistic." You miss the latter quality
in the transfer to film; nonetheless Varda allows for abstract appreciation.
It reflects the joy she gleans from life and from her cultural heritage. (Film
Forum is also showing her 1958 short L’Opera Mouffe, which anticipated
The Gleaners and I’s abundance.) Varda’s central image comes
from François Millet’s painting The Gleaners, which influenced
Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat and Hearts of the World and
now inspires Varda to look upon the world and take appreciation further. (Proudly
discovering a heart-shaped potato, she keeps it as a memento–a serendipitous
reference to Hearts of the World’s alternative title, Love and
Potatoes
.) Varda recognizes the axiom that the poor are always with us.
But knowing "they" aren’t always part of our cinema, she perceptively
performs an act of intellectual grace.


Art should
sharpen our wits and sensitize emotions, transforming feelings made hard and
dull by the world. Varda’s background in photography, her anthropological
curiosity, makes her docs even more exhilarating than her fiction. A shot of
a clochard on the pavement in L’Opera Mouffe has the vibrancy of
a Cartier-Bresson moment; tomatoes in the furrows of a field have the balance,
clarity and beauty of a Cezanne still life. The Gleaners and I is masterly,
if not a masterpiece. Varda’s style seems more random than definitive works
of social/personal perception like Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes
or George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Yet Varda
is deliberately, artfully random–a better approach than last year’s
Dark Days documentary on the homeless living in Amtrak tunnels.
Varda knows what she’s doing–visually and politically. She’s
not a naive experimenter like Darren Aronofsky, model for the current era of
style-mad pseuds (Traffic and Memento are their newest totems).
Her allusions are so blithe and erudite that when she makes worthy analogies
to fine art like Van der Weyden’s polyptych The Last Judgment, her
glance at apocalypse conveys humane apprehension, not a presumption.


Equally memorable
is a closeup of Varda’s own hands. ("I feel as if I am an animal.
Worse, an animal I don’t know.") The age blemishes recall the shocking
spots on her late husband Jacques Demy in Varda’s elegy-tribute Jacquot
de Nantes
. Later, blotches on those heart-shaped potatoes pick up the motif
as a connection with nature, the potato’s decay suggesting Varda’s
sense of her own mortality. In such instances The Gleaners and I is as
moving as JLG by JLG. Though never so gorgeously somber as Godard’s
treatise on his own mortality, Varda offers whimsical worldliness. She jokes,
"I like filming rot, leftovers, waste, mold, trash." Finding a clock
without hands, she turns on her digicam and says, "That’s my kind
of thing. You don’t see time passing." (But we see Varda, in a cinematic
trompe l’oeil, gliding past the clock.) For all its brilliant lightness,
The Gleaners and I
is a work of immanence. Varda has had a true vision,
yet she shifts gravity onto another artwork, Hedouin’s painting Gleaners
Fleeing Before the Storm
. It’s a European esthete’s modest way
of admitting what the Isley Brothers rhapsodized in "Harvest for the World."


"The
World of Agnes Varda" runs March 16-April 5 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston
St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 727-8110.


 


The
Caveman’s Valentine
Directed by Kasi Lemmons


"Get out
of my way, I’m a white man!" shouted an apparently homeless
black man, storming through Rockefeller Center the other day. He harmed no one,
but was convulsed by his own paroxysm. I imagine Agnes Varda would appreciate
the poignancy of such a moment (L’Opera Mouffe features something
similar when a street person stares back insolently at Varda’s camera.)
So why doesn’t Kasi Lemmons, the 35-year-old African-American director
and former actress (Fear of a Black Hat, Silence of the Lambs),
show compassionate understanding?


Lemmon’s
absurd The Caveman’s Valentine romanticizes the madness of Romulus
Ledbetter, a former piano prodigy who now lives in northern New York City’s
Inwood Hill Park. As he rants on the streets about a man named Stuyvesant sending
"z-rays" to destroy his life, Romulus, who wears long, expensively
kept dreadlocks, is meant to epitomize unfathomable black male anger. (Sam Jack-o’-Lantern
Jackson plays the role.) Romulus has an adult daughter, a New York cop (Aunjanue
Ellis), fed up with her father’s craziness. By adapting George Dawes Green’s
novel, Lemmons gets to revisit the father-daughter theme of her vastly overpraised
Eve’s Bayou. Mixing shame and fancifulness, she does black male
paranoia a disservice by making it delusional. (Adam Clayton Powell famously
remarked, "Any black man in America who isn’t paranoid is crazy.")
Romulus’ creative background also represents the misunderstood artist,
but that’s just Lemmons (whose hair is in tendrils) braiding-in her own
narcissism.


Since the release
of Eve’s Bayou in 1997, the media has used Lemmons as the prime
example of Serious Black Filmmaker: she fulfills liberal feminist designs by
perpetuating the specter of the ominous black male (Eve’s Bayou
climaxed with quasi-incestuous suggestion). It’s what the mainstream wants
to see. So is the gay victim-art subplot of a Robert Mapplethorpe-type photographer
suspected of killing one of Romulus’ street buddies (Lemmons rehabilitates
Mapplethorpe’s reputation, but first exploits its controversy). Still,
the concept of a homeless musical genius who has sci-fi/apocalyptic hallucinations
pretending to be Columbo only shows how desperate Lemmons is to make the right
impression. The Caveman’s Valentine bungles Lemmons’ Freudian
obsession with the black male enigma. If she’s trying to figure out the
black father, she’d do well to read Itabari Njeri or maybe Bebe Moore Campbell’s
trenchant Sweet Summer: Growing Up with or Without My Dad. I suggest
Lemmons also study Agnes Varda’s work, it’s part of her cultural heritage,
too.


Caveman’s
failure comes from Lemmons’ inability to make Romulus’ alienation
sensually or intellectually stimulating, the way Varda sympathetically photographs
the homeless, the artistic and disenfranchised, and finds art-historical equivalents
for their plight. Instead of adapting blues antecedents (or August Wilson),
Lemmons leaves one judgmental, rather than empathetic, regarding citizens as
beyond the pale as that Rockefeller Center ranter. When Romulus guilts a rich
white guy (Anthony Michael Hall) into sponsoring his reemergence into the cultural
scene, the ploy is less interesting than Bring It On’s rejection
of liberal handouts. (And why no conversation between Hall and his wife that
shows an understanding–or insensitivity–about racism, homelessness,
opportunity, luck?) At its worst moment, Caveman posits Romulus’
madness and exhaustion as fear of success. That’s bourgie nonsense. You
don’t have to be a social scientist to know that one can be made crazy
by being cheated or betrayed, by everyday indifference, hostility, ostracism,
injustice, rejection. Romulus’ wife (Tamara Tunie) advises, "Plain
ol’ run-of-the-mill craziness, that’s the only demon you have to fight."
It’s supposed to be sisterly wisdom, but it adds insult to every insult
that black men have ever felt from the cruel or acutely observed racist world.


The cushy Sundance
world Lemmons fantasizes isn’t one an artist as rigorous as Varda would
bother to validate. But Lemmons doesn’t even film it well. She overdoes
Aronofskyan jittery, intrusive, repetitious tv transmissions. Romulus’
comeback sequence lacks the sensuality of skin, of his fingers (or his mind),
being cleansed. When white culture-vultures crave his black phallus, Lemmons
makes erotica of it–to please whom? Yet I bet Caveman won’t
be pampered like Eve’s Bayou. Every pretentious point here is so
gratuitously appeasing of white liberalism that the mainstream has no compelling
need to accept or appreciate it. The acquiescence, the obeisance, is done. Service
rendered. Understand: I don’t mean to discourage black female directors,
but to reprove the fallacies surrounding this one’s acclaim. The indie
movement has handed us Lemmons, but you can’t make lemonade out of Caveman’s
rancid brew.

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