This week I caught up with Anges Varda's The Beaches of Agnes (2 screens), which -- if nothing else -- is a strong contender for the year's best documentary. Of course, it helps if you know who Agnes Varda is, or at least have a passing interest in her work. She was associated with the French New Wave, and made her movie directing debut, La pointe-courte (1954), years before Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. However, she was not a member of the guy's movie club and was not a critic; in fact, she claims that she had seen less than a dozen movies when she first picked up her camera. She came from a background of photography and mingled with a group of other artists. Over her long, impressive career, she has made many films, including such notables as Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), Vagabond (1985) and The Gleaners and I (2000). In recent years, she has become the keeper of her husband Jacques Demy's legacy, overseeing restorations of some of Demy's films (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, etc.) and making various films about him.
Now it's time for Varda to make a documentary of her own life, but she's clever enough to avoid most of the obvious clichés. Rather than showing a bunch of clips and photographs, she focuses on the idea of memory and how flexible it is; she then creates amazing, funny new images that somehow reflect back upon her memories. In one extraordinary sequence, she returns to the scene of one of her early films, and tracks down some of her former actors, now much older. She mounts a projector in the back of a cart, shows the film, and has the actors push the cart through the town square. It's an incredibly layered image about memory, movies and life. Additionally, Varda does things like setting up dozens of mirrors all over the beach to suggest some of the same ideas: mortality, memory, cinema.
Come to think of it, even if you don't know Varda, The Beaches of Agnes would be a great place to start, especially for women hoping to break into the movie game. It's a much better example than All About Steve (215 screens), which is one of the worst reviewed films of the year (currently with a 6% on Rotten Tomaotes). It's about an annoying, repressed female character, Mary Horowitz (Sandra Bullock), who becomes a stalker and then convinces everyone that her behavior is OK. It's a truly harebrained, misguided movie, but the really shocking, depressing thing about it is that Bullock produced it and probably shepherded it into existence. In the mid-1990s, she tried to wrangle control of her career by turning producer, possibly in an attempt to subvert her "America's Sweetheart" image before it wore out its welcome. The problem is that America wasn't interested in seeing Bullock do anything but the "Sweetheart" character (as evidenced by the overwhelming success of last summer's The Proposal). And so her producing career seems to be going nowhere, fighting against the sweet romantic comedies and losing.
But Bullock has already directed a short film, Making Sandwiches (1998), which means that she could be considering a feature directorial debut. She has probably thought long and hard about what kind of project to try, and has probably over-thought it at this point. I hope Ms. Bullock goes to see Ms. Varda's film and finds inspiration in Ms. Varda's artistic freedom and daring. After all, both women are adorable and smart and funny in their own little ways, and it would be more than great to see The Beaches of Sandy at some point soon. Better that than All About Steve 2.