Friday, May 21, 2021

Uncle Yanco (Oncle Yanco)


Jean Varda

Agnès Varda

UNCLE YANCO (Oncle Yanco)           B-                                                                               France  USA  (18 mi)  1967  d: Agnès Varda

Varda’s cinema is one of subjective inclusion:  she includes herself, her friends, and her family directly and indirectly in her films.  She honestly admits, “I am always very precisely implicated in my films, not through narcissism but through honesty in my approach.”  Varda’s honesty in this context reflects her belief that the filmmaker is always implicated in his/her work and should admit that involvement, that subjective stance, rather than perpeptuate the myth of artistic objectivity.                                                                                                                                                               —Ruth Hottell from Including Ourselves: the role of female spectators in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur and L’Une chante, l’autre pas, by Ruth Hottell from Cinema Journal, (page 60), 1999 (pdf), Including Ourselves: The Role of Female Spectators ... - JSTOR 

Working for more than 60 years making films, though never really embraced as part of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda established a fiece reputation as an independent artist making films and art instillations, early on studying art history at the prestigious École du Louvre, working as a professional photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire (TNP), a famous French theater company directed by Jean Vilar from 1951 to 1963.  By the time this film was made Varda had already completed a dozen films, including two features, Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (1962) and LE BONHEUR (1965), the others short documentaries alternating between commissioned and personal shorts that already reflected her lifelong style of mixed mediums, bright color schemes, and a connection to the sea.  Varda assimilated with the Left Bank intellectuals known as the Rive gauche group, associated with feminist cinema of the 1970’s, becoming the best-known female French cineaste both in France and abroad, working in a minimalist style.  As a woman she remained an outsider and was never taken seriously by the male camaraderie of the Cahiers du Cinéma group of Godard, Rivette, Truffaut, and Chabrol who are generally regarded as the founders of the French New Wave, and is rarely mentioned in any discussion about the film movement, which only motivated her to assert her own individuality even more, with a career defined by artistic innovation, continually re-inventing herself.  Her early films were initially viewed as minor or forgotten, deemed of little critical interest, but their place in history is being reevaluated, particularly her role as a female artist uniquely presenting the female point of view, where her stature has only grown since her death at the age of 90 in 2019.  Known for blurring the lines between fiction and documentary, often putting herself front and center in front of the frame, making her presence felt, creating a dialogue with characters in her films, interjecting her own voice with voice-over commentary or posing questions that can be heard off camera, with onscreen characters responding directly to the director, Varda also accentuates the geographical space being observed while examining the relationship between people and their environment, where of particular interest is a living female subjectivity that seems to embody the spirit of her work.  Whether it be Cléo in Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (1962) or Mona in Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) (1985), their subjective female viewpoint remains paramount as they walk throught the city or countryside, viewing the world around them through their own existential perspective, which was a counterpoint to the distinctive masculine quality in the majority of movies made during her lifetime.  Anyone who spent any time with her in lectures or seminars, or were fortunate to experience her company, realize what a force of nature she was in terms of embracing life, where her bubbly personality and gracious style endeared her to the populace, becoming a kind of Earth Mother (and later Grandmother) to the entire film industry, as she lived and worked through periods of extraordinary change in cinema, so when she regurgitated her knowledge, people listened.     

This is the first of Varda’s California films, having moved to Los Angeles with her husband Jacques Demy who was invited to Hollywood to make MODEL SHOP (1969), a box office failure that now has the distinction of being listed in the 2007 BFI Sight and Sound list of 75 Most Neglected Films, Sight & Sound's 75 Hidden Gems – Movies List on MUBI.  1967 was the year of the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, a prelude to San Francisco’s Summer of Love, a musical gathering of 100,000 hippies and flower children merging folk and psychedelic rock music in outdoor settings, embodied by the Monterey Pop Festival with Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding in one of his last appearances and popularized by the Scott McKenzie song, San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair), introduced here by Mama Cass Elliot of the Mama’s and Papa’s in the final set of the Monterey Pop Festival Scott McKenzie - San Francisco - Monterey 1967 (live) YouTube (4:06).  Varda identified with the American youth movement and intended to make a film about American hippies entitled PEACE AND LOVE, but it was never made as producers refused to give her a final cut, so we have this short film instead, accentuating a bright and sunny color palette as she discovers a long, lost relative living on a houseboat in Sausalito, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.  Introduced by a very young Tom Luddy (in French), an American producer friend of Varda’s and co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival, she discovers Jean Varda, her father’s cousin who she affectionally calls her Uncle Yanco, a Greek émigré living a bohemian lifestyle as a painter and collage artist while offering weekend boat tours to young people on a non-motorized boat on the San Francisco Bay.  The introduction is artificially staged and repeated, shot through a red and yellow colored heart-shaped filter, adding a whimsical element, but it also decorates the auspicious moment, as one might while celebrating a birthday, both greeting one another with open arms and an affectionate embrace.  Opening with a psychedelic art montage, complete with pop art posters of the time, it references San Francisco as the “City of Love,” in contrast to his home country of Greece, run by a far-right military junta (Junta of the Colonels 1967-1974), a brutal police state that represses free speech by making frequent arrests, relying upon interrogation and torture tactics to silence any political dissent.  Similarly, peaceful American students protesting the Vietnam War are often beaten by the police with billyclubs and shields in a violent demonstration of overreaction, yet Yanco describes it as “a revolution without bloodshed.”  The town of Sausalito was a collective haven of artists and outcasts, with a prominent houseboat community, where Otis Redding wrote the song Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay (Official Music ... YouTube (2:46) while living on Fillmore Auditorium owner and rock concert promoter Bill Graham’s Sausalito houseboat at Waldo Point in 1967.  Yanco describes the houseboat culture in Sausalito, calling it “aquatic suburbia,” each boat an expression of diverse lifestyles and personalities, yet it allows the quirky individual space and refuge each person is seeking.

Shot in just three days, a delightfully lighthearted short, featuring the Allegro movement from Tomaso Albinoni: Concerto San Marco, for trumpet ... - YouTube (2:32) as the accompanying soundtrack, the film is a colorful and sun-drenched ode to a heartfelt family reunion.  Shot in tableau style in front of many of his paintings, which he describes as an individual exploration, they are literally bursting with life and color, distinctive for displaying his own unique flair for life, Yanco also serves as a pleasantly upbeat raconteur, easily telling stories of his life and times, where he exudes a welcoming flair for friendship, answering questions heard offscreen from the director, warmly greeting Varda’s daughter Rosalie, where he just appears to be a man at ease with himself, comfortable in his own environment, yet transfer him to a different locale and you’d likely find him filled with anxiety.  But his houseboat is his home, duly reflecting his ebullient personality, with paintings on the floor stretched across all four walls, and a glass-enclosed studio with a 360 degree view of the bay filled with easels and paint, with brightly colored collages hanging from the ceiling.  He’s made mosaics with different kinds of material strung together to form unique shapes, and he’s sold them to buyers, but it appears he’s more comfortable painting a blank canvas, where he’s particularly drawn to the opulence of the sea and to landscapes, suggesting painting nourishes the soul, offering his own philosophy that “In the realm of God there are no shadows, only light.”  He can’t imagine living in a world without color, believing color is ecstasy.  He completed a series of 30 Heavenly cities, each in bright pastel colors depicting a transcendent spiritual splendor, all of which are hanging in someone else’s home, yet they maintain a sense of vital urgency with him, as he comes from an orthodox religious background, always returning to that source for inspiration.  On Sundays he has an open house where he’s visited by an eclectic group of young people, mostly hippies with long hair and colorful clothes, one meditatively plays the flute, where he takes them out into the bay for a sailing excursion, always reconnecting to the sea.  He seems to enjoy the collective innocence they bring, perhaps reminding him of his own youth, assuming the role of a community patriarch, meeting them all, making the rounds, telling stores, embracing their spirit, where they sing songs and speak the poetry of love, where it replenishes his own spirit, using the art of creation to continually feel young again.  Varda herself is obviously charmed by Yanco’s youthful zest for living, a free spirit and larger-than-life figure who still speaks French sharing many of his same artistic qualities, including his love of color and connection to the sea, finding a brethren and kindred spirit in the making of this playful examination of her roots.  While it’s not in the film, Jean Varda used to build sailboats, and moved onto the old ferryboat Vallejo on the Sausalito waterfront in the late 1940’s (the same boat seen in the film), and was an avid sailor, living on the Vallejo in the early 60’s with Alan Watts, the Zen writer and philosopher, where they would routinely ask friends as well as singers and musicians to come join them when they would spend Sundays sailing on the bay, well supplied with bread, cold chicken, and gallons of wine.

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