Friday, May 28, 2021

Lion's Love


Director Agnès Varda

LION’S LOVE          B-                                                                                                              aka:  Lion’s Love (…and Lies)                                                                                                        France  USA  (112 mi)  1969  d: Agnès Varda

Actors are like lions.  Indeed, they used to be called lions.                                                      —Agnès Varda, Agnès Varda: Interviews | T. Jefferson Kline | download, edited by T. Jefferson Kline (272 pages), 2014

From a small sample of Varda’s California films, arguably the weirdest film in the Varda repertoire, this is a dated film that doesn’t hold up well over time, where the promoted idealism was passé in the span of a decade, already recycled into new ideas and concepts, yet it is a paean to a golden era referenced in song, “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius,” Hair the Musical - The Age of Aquarius at West End LIVE ... YouTube (2:55).  Using a bunch of transplants from the East coast art scene, Varda creates a time capsule for the 60’s American counterculture when Vietnam and Civil Rights protests dominated the headlines, while taking the country by storm was the anthem-like rock musical Hair, with Varda using the two original Broadway stars in this movie, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who created the music and starred in the original production, while also adding Viva from Andy Warhol’s staple of underground performers.  The 60’s was the era when Andy Warhol became a pop art superstar, creating an environment for free-spirited artists in his New York Factory, making underground films where dozens of Warhol superstars improvised in front of cameras, usually on drugs and often unclothed, where the prominence of nudity was pushing the envelope of social acceptability, usually playing in tiny underground theaters that could barely pass the health codes.  Additionally, there were regular appearances of The Living Theatre, the oldest experimental theatrical group in the country, where their claim to fame was touring college campuses around the country creating scandalous appearances, as inevitably the show would end with all the performers stripping naked, asking audience members to join in, and then they’d march out the theater spilling out into the streets where they would immediately get arrested.  It would be hard to fathom that kind of lewd activity occurring today, but in the late 60’s when this film was made, it would have been hard to miss.  Equally representative of the era was a decade of political assassinations, first with President Kennedy in November, 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965, Martin Luther King in April 1968, and then two months later Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles during his political run for President in June 1968, the same week this film was being shot and in the same town.  Varda was in Los Angeles when her husband Jacques Demy was invited to Hollywood to make MODEL SHOP (1969), an often misunderstood and underappreciated film, with Varda incorporating newsreel footage into this film, where politicans are viewed as particularly wealthy and well-versed actors, who come and go in the nation’s conscience like movie stars from a distant era that fade from memory, recusitated each time we see them again onscreen, gaining resonance with each new generation, as the characters sit around and watch the political tragedy unfold on television, a medium that dominates American life, holding them all transfixed for a brief moment in time.  Like many of Varda’s films, it’s a work about different things all strung together, combining the transience of Hollywood and politics through an intersection of mixed mediums, like surrealist painting, portrait photography, avant-garde theater, experimental film, and television, combining audio and visual, even introducing a few songs, given a Godardian twist for good measure, offering elements of contradictions, exploring what Varda describes as themes of historical truth and lies (television) along with collective mythomania and truth (Hollywood).  The icing on the cake, perhaps, is the presence of independent film director Shirley Clarke making a brief visit to Los Angeles, serving as a stand-in for the director, finding it difficult to raise funds for a new film, “I’m supposed to be making a movie using movie stars as real people,” but it comes with restrictions on the final cut, with the studio insisting upon retaining their rights to make changes, a compromise she’s not willing to make, as she insists on making her own films.  The story was actually a proposed Varda film about American hippies entitled PEACE AND LOVE which was never made, with Varda claiming it might have been easier if she’d compromised, but she would have lost her autonomy and the films would have looked nothing like her own.  “I didn’t have a career,” she reflected recently in an interview, “I made films.  It’s very different.” 

The film takes place in a rented villa in the Hollywood Hills, a very loosely structured film with Viva in a ménage à trois with her two boyfriends offering a reverie on sexual relationships, viewing themselves as the Holy Trinity, each loving the other two in an attempt to expand and redefine the terms of a relationship.  Blending documentary with fiction, the film opens and closes with bits and pieces of Michael McClure’s avant-garde play The Beard, The Beard by Michael McClure - Warholstars (Jim Morrison can be seen in the audience), an imagined fictional confrontation between Jean Harlow (Billie Dixon) and Billy the Kid (Richard Bright) that was viewed at the time as lewdly obscene, with the police bringing obscenity charges that were later dropped, but the playwright and the actors went to jail, while the subject matter generated demonstrations outside the theater by conservatives, and the Los Angeles theater was ultimately burned to the ground.  What’s shown, however, leaves out the crude sexual language and is completely harmless, more of a battle of the sexes, an exaggerated farce veering into a misogynist melodrama.  The use of dolls and puppets mysteriously given voice lead to our human threesome who engage in lighthearted banter throughout the entire movie, all of which feels improvised, so if there was a script it is only a scant outline.  Even Varda intrudes into her own picture, seen behind the camera at one point, referred to directly by Viva, calling her by her first name, heard again in the final scene, even making two brief appearances in front of the camera.  Broken down into equal thirds, the film accentuates a dizzying absurdity to their Southern California lifestyle that borders on comical, with Dr. Pepper the cure for all their ills, yet nearly every attempt at cleverness or originality falls flat on its face, as they each demand to be the center of attention, literally spilling all over themselves to be seen by the camera, mostly behaving like uncontrolled little children, which turns especially detestable when they actually bring in children, stuffing them with candy and sweets and soda, where their permissiveness is pretty sickening, as their full-fledged narcissism couldn’t be more obnoxiously offensive, yet perfectly represents the pot-consuming vacuous airhead culture of Los Angeles, dressed up in a bohemian flair, but feels utterly tiresome, seemingly going nowhere, drudging up empty banalities.  The introduction of Robert Kennedy giving a stirring victory speech the week he won the California Presidential primary, his most significant primary victory, combining progressive anti-war politics with a burgeoning youth movement, boldly awakens the film to a different reality, offering the significance of political promise and its quick demise, as an entire movement was lost with the June 5th assassination of Robert Kennedy.  He provided aspiration and garnered great hope that the Presidential campaign could be re-energized with new ideals and values that were altogether missing from the campaign.  Those dreams died with his abrupt death, offering pictures of yet another televised Kennedy funeral where the stoic family once again shows extraordinary strength and grace, with kind words of condolence offered by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King.  And finally the film offers a nostalgic history lesson of Hollywood, as narrated by Carlos Clarens, a Cuban film historian who takes us through a magical mystery tour of Hollywood, at its birth “an orange grove with breakfast served by the Ritz,” where streets have the name of former movie stars in a town where actors used to be called lions, even an unseen chorus chimes in out of nowhere, viewed through the lens of the Larry Edmunds Bookshop, Book Store | Larry Edmunds Bookshop | United States, which serves as the epicenter for classic movie history in the absence of an existing Hollywood museum, located midway between Hollywood/Vine and Grauman’s Chinese Theater (renamed TCL Chinese Theater), not far from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with a brief cameo by Peter Bogdanovich holding up his own book on John Ford to hide his face.     

From the maker of Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (1962), made a year earlier than Antonioni’s infamous Zabriskie Point (1970) that showed the radicalization of America, both are European comments on the American youth movement, where even the magazine covers bear a strange resemblance, with Antonioni’s stars gracing the cover of Look magazine while Varda’s appear naked on the first issue of Warhol’s Interview magazine.  The film is basically a series of impressions that are amusingly self-indulgent, combining early elements of the French New Wave with the evolving Underground movement in America, but is short on substance, with suggestions that too much freedom can be just plain irritating, where one character (James Rado) bleakly utters, “There are no messages, only mistakes.”  A recurring theme in the household is waking up in the morning, as they have no shades or blinds, so they cover the window each night with a brightly colored cloth that allows a filtered sunlight to seep through, but someone inevitably rips the cloth down, where an overwhelming burst of sunlight overtakes them in short order, which may be a metaphor for too much light, where their habitual indolence of never leaving the house leads to an all-consuming decadence, hardly the cultural trendsetters they aspire to be.  They frolic in an outdoor pool, with Viva laying naked atop a raft while the two men flirtatiously compete with each other to gain her attention.  It’s mostly silliness, though when the histrionic Viva gets going it’s hard to get a word in edgewise, where they actually have to yell at her to shut up at one point, where their theatrics can be a bit overwhelming, spiraling into anarchy and chaos.  Similarly, when the three of them read The Confessions of Thomas Aquinas, an early autobiographical appeal to convert to Christianity, they literally speak over one another, creating confusion, where all content is lost.  The presence of Shirley Clarke shifts from a stand-in for the director to a fictionalized portrayal, where Varda asks her to portray a director taking an overdose of sleeping pills in a suicide attempt, which she initially refuses to do, forcing Varda herself in front of the camera, but Clarke finally agrees to do the scene, creating a montage of the paramedics coming to rush her to the hospital (where she quickly recovers), coinciding with the June 6th early morning death of Robert Kennedy and a June 3rd assassination attempt on the life of Andy Warhol by Valerie Solanas, an unstable member of the Warhol fringe (reports have Viva on the phone with Warhol while having her hair done at the time of the shooting), and after two months in a hospital Warhol recovered from a gunshot wound, but his health deteriorated significantly after that, turning him into an overly frail recluse, dying 19 years later.  The promise of freedom in the hippie peace and love movement just a year or so earlier was undermined and eradicated by America’s right-wing gun violence that simply eliminated the most potent American voices of the left.  The whimsical opening is met by a theme of tragedy and violence, followed by what is arguably the most coherently entertaining aspect of the film, delving into the history of Hollywood with a joyous panache, filled with plenty of Varda color and spectacle, making it her own take on the city she is only temporarily visiting, uniquely blending the mythologies of Hollywood with the American counterculture, ending on Viva in an extended shot that amounts to a Warhol screen test, where even a perplexed Eddie Constantine makes a cameo appearance.  This whole thing is tediously overlong and so frickin’ crazy that it has an endearing quality about it.  There’s a Brechtian aspect of theatrical artificiality, where the German playwright Bertolt Brecht had his own dealings with Hollywood, with well over 200 movie and television writing credits to his name, including THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1931), but his apt description for the industry was a “marketplace of lies.”  When asked to describe what this film is all about, she offers (Agnès Varda: Interviews | T. Jefferson Kline | download), “I could give you twenty different answers that would all be more or less true and more or less limited.  I wanted my film to express two great currents in America:  sex and politics.  The film, which I’d prefer to call a collage, is about:  nostalgia for the stars of yesteryear and, as I’ve already said, the political stars; my attempt to make a film in Hollywood; a certain mysticism, the mysticism of the hippies; Hollywood, the magical city with its typical streets, enormous boulevards and enormous studios; the end of youth since the characters are too old to be hippies, too young to be adults; and contradictions—between political events and private life.”

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