Friday, June 26, 2015

The Gleaners and I (2000)

Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, France, 82 minutes, documentary
Director / writer: Agnes Varda
Photography: Didier Doussin, Stephane Krausz, Didier Rouget, Pascal Sautelet, Agnes Varda
Music: Joanna Bruzdowicz, Isabelle Olivier
Editors: Laurent Pineau, Agnes Varda

The themes in Agnes Varda's turn-of-the-century documentary are equal parts modern-day and ancient, focused on life and waste. Varda sports a digital camera, learning the ways of the technology, complete with snazzy effects (and a goof or two). The picture is concerned on obvious levels with stewardship of the planet and our fellow beings. And it is also about the olden practice of gleaning, scouring fields after harvests for the leftovers that would otherwise be abandoned and rot. A pedantic legal scholar appears at one point, wearing his finery and waving around a red-bound copy of the local penal code, quoting from it, explaining the legalities of gleaning, which have developed over the centuries in France. It is considered a kind of public charity, and apparently grants open access even to private lands, under specific conditions, for the practice.

It's not the only kind of gleaning in this documentary, but it's what Varda shows us first, with a potato field that has been harvested yet still yields hundreds of pounds—many potatoes rejected because they are too big, or the wrong shape, or just because the machinery missed them. Varda spots a heart-shaped potato and claims it for herself, hunting for more, which she puts in a basket and brings home and displays. Then, as this brief film opens up, we see the more modern styles of gleaning, in urban environments, in public markets before and after hours, at informal drop-off / trading sites, with dumpster diving explained and demonstrated, and beyond that suggestions of estate sales, thrift stores, and collecting. Gleaning is an old and even honorable way to get by, and one I can respond to personally as a lifelong consumer of gently used fare.

Yet honestly, I'm a little hard put to guess what has sent Varda's 15-year-old documentary so steadily climbing the list of 21st-century titles at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, starting seven years ago just outside of the top 100 up to last year when it moved from #20 to #12. Obviously Varda's reputation is part of it—she is a French filmmaker who broke in in the '50s and '60s, who is often credited as a founding figure of the French New Wave. Indeed, The Gleaners and I is full of Varda's patient, thoughtful aesthetic, one that is uniquely in tune with gleaning. Her films are often slow developing, assembling themselves by pieces, dense with the found intersections of meaning between language, visuals, and sound. Gleaning is a perfect documentary topic for her.

The Gleaners and I is raw in a way I haven't seen in that many of her films before, not even Vagabond, which is the story of a wandering young homeless woman (full disclosure: I've only seen a handful of Varda's pictures). The passage of time and Varda's own aging is another theme in this documentary too, which definitely veers in the direction of an essay-film, grinding at the nuances of gleaning in its many forms, institutional and traditional, academic and personal. Varda is repelled and fascinated, for example, by the way her hands betray her age, filming them again and again in close-up, as she ponders in voiceover, like a koan, "one hand filming the other hand." Later in the film, when she shows that she has let the heart-shaped potatoes rot, instead of eating them, it only complicates her purposes further, humanizing rather than undermining the despair at the enormity of waste all around us that her film suggests.

In fact, it's a bit of a tricky line that she walks here all through, addressing waste and the absurd disparities of wealth, and their consequences, even as she turns as often to art history and European show culture, looking to famous paintings of gleaners and gleaning from centuries past, perhaps most famously Jean-Francois Millet's 19th-century The Gleaners (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Jules Breton's The Gleaner). At one point Varda persuades a museum to bring out of storage a painting of gleaners Varda had seen before only in black and white, reproduced in a book. Amazingly, on a windy cloudy day that threatened to storm imminently, the museum helped her take it outdoors to be filmed. It's one of the best shots in the whole thing.

So back and forth goes this documentary. At one point Varda interviews the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche. She also interviews a number of artists, including Louis Pons, who work in the medium of found objects. She finds a man who feeds himself with what he finds off-hours in a public farmer's market. He needs to keep his expenses low because his primary occupation is a voluntary one, with no pay, teaching basics of reading and writing French to first-generation immigrants. He is shown in his classroom at one point, engaged and alive. It is humbling to see and by her own declaration it is humbling to Varda too. A production note by Varda in the DVD extras may explain much: "[The Gleaners and I] confirmed my idea that documentaries are a discipline that teaches modesty," she writes. As is gleaning, she might have added.

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