Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Documentary and artifice to reveal and obscure (Film - The Beaches of Agnes & The September Issue)

By coincidence the Ragazzo and I ended up watching two documentaries last weekend:

They could not have been more different. Agnes Varda, the French film director, has made open, frank films with idiosyncratic subjects for her entire career - Les Glaneurs (The Gleaners), for example, follows people who live on the detritus of others, food from waste bins behind restaurants, the potatoes that are left over after the harvest for having the wrong shape to sell, those who furnish their homes from discarded tables left on the street. Varda was part of the Rive Gauche film movement including many artists who often collaborated with one another, like director Alain Resnais and writer Marguerite Duras. Varda was married to director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

Varda's film acknowledged its artifice from its opening scene, involving the placement of mirrors of all sizes on the beach with shots angled to catch their subject, framing her at odd angles - so that her image, an artificial concoction, appeared floating or sitting in the natural vast setting of the sand and the ocean. In another, Varda's office was taken out of its usual setting and reassembled in the middle of a street, carrying out its business there in a detailed but stylized manner. The film was peppered with these off-kilter touches that exemplified how Varda's films, a self-conscious artisitic form, worked amidst and against the bustle of real life that existed around it. They capture something that feels real from that juxtaposition of intentional art and happy accident. Varda traced her trajectory chronologically with the story of her parents, her schooling, her filmaking, her children and husband, and her political activism - revealing much along the way about herself, the images, people, and ideas important more to her internal life than to its external events, but not necessarily explaining them. For example, we learn the intimate detail that Demy died from complication due to AIDS in 1990. We learn not from Varda's words, but from her behavior, of her profound love for him but we are not explained the details of why he contracted the virus or what each week of his suffering was like. So the film is intimate without being explicative or invasive. The strength of The Beaches of Agnes is revealing the depth, the reality, and the beauty of an inner life through the strengths of a superficial medium, but not through narrative explanation.

This is polar opposite of The September Issue, made by R. J. Cutler., a film about Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, and her staff through production of the 2007 September issue - what is always the biggest issue of the year, that one that introduces the look of the year to come in fashion. Though this film pretended to get the gritty backstage view of operations of Wintour - their icy queen and her yes-saying minions - it was, as far as I was concerned, a superficial bore. It was highly set-up, not surprising for a film about fashion, but the artifice was about not revealing its subject, rather than offering us detail about its subjects or what moves them to act as they do. It wished to tell a story about Wintour as a cold, decisive pragmatist who will never show the workers around her admiration to their face, even though she values their talent. Rarely are we permitted a glimpse through her dark sunglasses. The story is void of human detail, I know that she holds a Starbucks coffee, but I don't ever see how it got there, which would be an interesting detail for a celebrity who seems not to like to interact with others. I know that she comes into the office, but not at what time. I know she is muscular and perversely thin but don't know if she does that through exercise, sports, or dieting. There was one nice touch, a brief moment in Wintour's home with her daughter who tells the interviewer that she has no interest in fashion and intends to go to law school. Mama Wintour gives a mild, embarrassed smile, "we'll see," she says.

The film reveals Andre Leon Talley, Wintour's former editor-at-large as a clownish, self-obsessed egotist who does nothing but pose for the camera. The operation appears to be largely dependent on Sarah Coddington, former model and now creative director, a down-to-earth, imaginative worker who gets her personal opinion out of the way and gets the job done. In the end, the film was an utter failure to me because it called itself a documentary and yet it lied. For example, it gave the impression of Wintour as an ice queen with no sense of humor however, in either a scene that ran beneath the closing credits, or it may have been a cut scene included on the DVD, following a meeting with a nervous designer Wintour quips "give that man a drink!" A sense of humor! If you are going to develop a character, always show the flip side, or any discerning audience member will know you're lying. The biggest failure of the film was its biggest lie. Unfortunately, a key staff member commits suicide during the period during which the film was made. This was undoubtedly a terrible event tragic on both a corporate and on a personal level for people we never meet, so I do not believe that this should have been dwelt on or that people who knew the deceased should have had their lives pried into in any way, however, it was an event that had undoubted real and human consequences in this artifice-obsessed factory. Its occurrence had to touch the lives of the film's subjects and was part of the story behind their behavior which revealed their stresses and pleasures through their movement, their words, their emotions. And yet, we were made to think that all these behaviors revealed nothing but the story the filmmaker wished to tell about the production of the September issue of Vogue. What a big fat lie. Varda gave a perfect example in her film about how one can be intimate without getting specifically personal. Here was one of those tragic accidents of life that would have offered an artist a real opportunity to document who these people and this organization really were. This was purportedly the reason this film was made. It might have revealed them as more human than we suspected or perhaps as more ugly, but at any rate, the filmmaker ignored the real story thrust upon him by life and tried to stick to one he had in his head, or the one Vogue's lawyers told him he could tell. As a result we watched not a documentary but rather a big wet kiss on Vogue's butt. What a bore.

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