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The Shack of Film

On the Occasion of ‘Agnès Varda in Californialand’, LACMA November 3, 2013 – June 22, 2014 —

‘Grand Dame of the French New Wave’
‘Grandmother of the New Wave’
‘Mother of the French New Wave movement’

This is what happens to the woman artist at a certain age —
She no longer is. She represents. Not herself. But what she has supposedly brought into being.
Her progeny.
I mean. Really!

Varda’s no grandmother, she’s no great lady . . .
She’s alive and well at Agnès in Californialand, an installation in which she is all ages.

In the opening texts displayed on the walls of this first U.S. museum presentation of her artwork, Agnès Varda calls this little building in the center of one’s view, a shack. The museum, intent perhaps on making the California connection, calls it a beach shack. But what makes it wonderful — and it is — is that this ‘shack’ eludes description. For me it aroused so many different associations: a small Japanese temple, precise, serene, self-contained; a sukkah, the Jewish hut of harvest, awaiting its oranges dangling from the ceiling; a shrine to that which is gone (the medium of film losing ground to the digital age), to filmmaking itself (Varda says that she is no longer making films but instead installations); and to that which is perennial: light. Light as shelter. Light as permeable, as open to the winds, as openings. Varda brings us into her house of light.

There’s no place to sit. Those film cans piled up in a corner may look like stools, but they’re not: ‘KEEP AWAY FROM THE ART WORK,’ the guards say again and again, and in one way their intrusive caution, resounding through the shack, is right, for how could one safely stroke, tempting though it is, walls as flimsy as these, boards made of strips of film.

The exhibition is a child.The shack is a child’s playhouse; a little house that seems to be a kind of Shrink Me shack — a house for the Alice in Wonderland that Varda so often seems to be, a place for playing, for marveling. The very walls are not solid, just as childhood is not solid. Winds blow through.

The exhibition is also a teenager who pins objects on a bulletin board, a pushpin sort of relationship to artifacts, except here it’s not the bulletin board it seems to be but instead a painted wall, and what appears to be tacked on, is not. It is more like a horizontal scroll of associations tacked to time, centered around Varda’s 1969 film LIONS LOVE, in which Gerome Ragni (pictured top below) and James Rado (co-authors of Hair), disport and consort with Warhol star, Viva, the three of them shimmying up to the counter of the culture.

The exhibition is a teenager too because parts of it feel as though Varda has rummaged through her closet as here, picking up a magenta boa from the floor and flinging it around a flag and, on the other side, garlanding a monitor that shows excerpts of her film LIONS LOVE: James Rado, beatific, golden in his headband, an innocent Parsifal soon after he has left home, swimming in an aquamarine amniotic fluid next to the perfect rear end of the incomparable Viva. It is Varda who has made time stop. I looked up Internet images of these icons in their later years. Don’t. As Rado has said — a cautionary note — ‘Don’t grow old. Grow young.‘

The exhibition is a middle-aged woman who comes to California with her husband, fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, both of them attracted to extravagant murals, to the bent elbows of love-ins, to Black Panthers and a bohemian uncle living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Originally taken as witnesses of what was happening, these photographs are mostly now deracinated images, at least as seen by those of us who bring to them a subjective amalgam of our associations. Sufficient to say that some of these are terrific photographs, and all of them show the eye of a woman we can almost palpably witness falling in love with these bodies that once were charged with specifically political meaning.

One more photograph, an old woman, Varda, the one who also who makes the image, who chooses to portray herself in pieces that are not only fragments but also a mosaic. In only one room — barely filled — Varda has carried herself and others through the stages of life.


Back in the film shack, openings in the walls admit pieces of a photograph on a far wall, of a person looking, of a wall colored by the filter made by the film strips, and always the sprocket holes, tiny claws that were made for pulling the strip along, through its projection, the tiny claws that are time.

In her notes on her great 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, Varda writes, ‘This film is a documentary woven from various strands: from emotions I felt when confronted with precariousness . . . ‘

Anyone whose work is based on time must also confront precariousness. Her shack is precarious — one big huff n’puff from the wolf and it would blow down. That precariousness, the knowledge that it is only temporary, is what makes it beautiful. Once more, from her notes, among the various strands is the ‘desire to film what I can see of myself– my aging hands and my gray hair.’ She never says that time is the ultimate gleaner — She has left it to me who in this photo-essay can afford to pin things down as this butterfly filmmaker cannot. Watching The Gleaners and I, I see her installation at LACMA from a different angle. The filmstrips of the shack of film are outtakes, gleaned presumably from past completed films.The bulletin board too is a casual showcase for the gleaned — posters, buttons, sayings scribbled on scraps of paper. Even the photographs are gleaned — as perhaps are all photographs. So too is the boa, itself a flag of a flamboyant time. The installation is a room occupied by her eternal preoccupations. The artist who is Varda has come not full circle but more in the shape made by a kid whizzing around on an amusement park ride, driving one of those little cars that allow her to swerve. The installation — and her age — may seem like the completion of the course. Not her. Not Varda, the grandmother, mother, child of herself.


All Photography © Janet Sternburg



  1. This is a thoughtful, warm appreciation of a filmmaker whose work (film and photography) has always struck me as connected to people and the natural world in an organic way (long before we were casually using the word organic). I remember talking to Agnès Varda back in 1985 in Paris, interviewing her for a short documentary on her film with Sandrine Bonnaire, “Vagabond,” a gritty piece of French realism that went by the original title “Sans toit ni loi,” since Bonnaire was a young homeless wanderer who lived outside convention. Varda waxed philosophical, she spoke with her feet on the ground and her imagination in the clouds. She had then very few peers, and I can still think of few filmmakers who hold a candle to her in terms of true grit in the work. Thanks to Janet for this illuminating review of “Agnès Varda in Californialand.” We must all be sure to go see the installation, and watch her films all over again.

  2. stuart frolick says:

    A lovely review and photo documentation of what appears to be a great show.
    I had the pleasure of seeing Agnes Varda at CalArts a few weeks ago and she
    and her work were pure delights. Thanks Janet!

  3. I like how the article connects Varda to phases of life through her imagery (Teenage boa, amniotic fluid). I only recently became aware of Varda’s work and am now doubly inspired to become acquainted with her.

  4. Lewin Wertheimer says:

    This is wonderful and inspired review of an exhibit I can’t wait to see. I know I will appreciate it all the more with Janet’s observations in mind. Thank you .

  5. Nancy Cantwell says:

    Varda is an installation artist indeed. Insightful review. Thanks Janet

  6. Janet,

    is clear to me that both, you and Varda love people inside out and outside in. Your look into her installation is full of warmth and quiet admiration. I always found her films unpretentious, real, direct and grounded. This is what I get reading your contemplative article.

    Gracias otra vez por tu singular forma de ver y observer el mundo.


  7. Wonderfully written piece, reflective, multivalent, echoes the mosaic of the work. Only wish that I were there to see the exhibition.

  8. Patricia Cruz says:

    Janet – how wonderful. Your photographs and words capture the artist , her films and this installation, through your artistry. I know very little of Varda’s work but because of you I will pursue both. Thanks many time over for your exceptional insight. With high regard, Pat

  9. Sonya Friedman says:

    What a marvelous essay! I only wish I were there to see the installation. However, your piece
    brought Varda’s wonderful films back to my mind and heart. This exhibit seems a distillation
    of her autobiographical “Les Plages d’Agnes”, one of my favorite films. love, Sonya

  10. Howard Burkat says:

    Once again, Janet has opened my eyes to something I knew little/nothing about previously. Nice job.

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