Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Movie Review: The Gleaners and I

This is an essay I wrote for my Intro to Film class at BYU, so its structure and style will differ from my other reviews. Each week we focused on a particular aspect of film (e.g. lighting, sound, mise en scène, etc.). In conjunction with this, we had to watch an assigned film which was offered at three different times during that week. The week that we talked about film editing we were assigned to watch The Gleaners and I (French: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse), by Agnès Varda. She is considered one of the major players in a film movement called the Rive Gauche [1], itself a faction of the French New Wave.[2]

The Gleaners and I

In The Gleaners and I the filmmaker, Agnès Varda seems to have gone out and shot a bunch of footage, without very much initial structure in mind. After she had all the footage she wanted (or at least most of it) she created the film through editing. She took pieces that, initially, would seem unrelated, and, through editing, juxtaposed them for our consideration. Through this process the theme emerges that art and humanity (the creators of art) are ultimately a collection of garbage and debris. She enlarges this theme through the editing techniques of graphic relations, rhythmic relations, and temporal relations.

At one point Agnès Varda states that she likes filming and photographing garbage. Yet the majority of her footage features human beings. This is a subtle hint about the theme of the film. She follows shots of garbage with shots of human beings. And she follows shots of human beings with shots of garbage. She also compares gleaners of the past (in paintings and drawings) with gleaners of today (with live footage). She also contrasts those who glean for food (most of whom are impoverished) and those who collect garbage for artistic purposes.

Throughout The Gleaners and I Agnès Varda shows little continuity in the length of her shots. For example, the first time she mentions the trucks on the highway, she cuts from one to the next in rapid succession, showing how many and how quickly they passed her by. But the next time around, when she tries to “catch” the trucks in front of her, the shots are longer in duration. Some shots, like “the dance of the lens cap” [3], seem gleaned from the cutting room floor. This enhances the feeling that the film was put together haphazardly—which emphasizes the theme.

Much of the story is linear, but many scenes Agnès Varda allows us to assume they are in order, when they probably were not. It is not likely that the first thing she did, when she began filming, was to pull out the dictionary and look up the word “glean”—especially a dictionary that happened to have a picture based on the painting she so liked. Nor is it likely that the last shot that she filmed was when she helped bring the painting of the gleaners before the storm out into the wind. This jumbling of the temporal reality of her story tries to make aesthetic sense of a less-ordered and more banal experience.

In one of the more subtle edits, Agnès Varda compares herself with a self-portrait of Rembrandt, thus identifying herself as an artist. The rest of the footage featuring artists, though, feature artists who specialize in collecting and arranging garbage. In this way she extends the metaphor to herself. Through graphic relations, rhythmic relations, and temporal relations this theme is conveyed to the attentive audience (or subliminally to the subconscious audience). Ultimately, she has, as an artist, taken garbage (both human and real debris) and tried to aesthetically arrange it for our consideration with herself in the middle.


[1] This is in reference to the Parisian District, Rive Guache ("Left Bank"), on the southern side of the Seine River, where many well-known (and Bohemian) artists and philosophers lived, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rive Gauche.

[2] I've only seen a few French New Wave films (The 400 Blows, Alphaville, Breathless, Fahrenheit 451, and this one), but so far I haven't been impressed.

[3] My film teacher must've known that must of us (including me) would hate this shot, which consisted of her walking around, not knowing that her camera was on, filming the danging lens cap. So he spent several minutes lauding it in class the next week. But I maintain: what a worthless shot to include in her film.

Image attributions:

Des glaneuses is by Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Millet Gleaners.jpg.

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