The Caveman's Holiday is Bourgie Nonsense; The Fine Gleaners and I

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Videocam in hand, 72-year-old Agnes Varda proves herself the nimblest thinker at work in the popular cinema. (Jean-Luc Godard, most recently represented in the Museum of Modern Art's splendid commission The Old Place, has been pushed outside the popular realm.) Varda's four-decade commitment to both fiction and nonfiction shows that she, more than any other New Wave director (except Godard, of course), understands the camera as a tool particularly suited to exploring social experience. She's an artist because she takes that experience personally, as indicated by the title of her latest work, The Gleaners and I.

The world's on view here. Varda connects the age-old ritualistic gleaning of produce left over after a harvest to various modern habits, such as scavenging by urban homeless people. This ubiquitous city scene inspires Varda's compassion and ignites her intelligence. She sees gleaning ("scavenging" is, ultimately, too harsh a term) in different?and revealing?ways of life. Starting with a shot of the collected Nouveau Larousse, Varda compiles her own visual encyclopedia: wheat farmers, gypsies, street people, a Parisian chef, grapes, a psychoanalyst, olives, almonds, figs, cabbages, tomatoes, a recycling artist ("I'm moving toward lessness"), a Russian bricklayer ("I like dolls, they're my system," he says. "He's an amateur," his wife explains), a wine grower, the painter Louis Pons, whose subject is refuse ("I accommodate chance, a cluster of possibilities"), oysters, clams, trucks, and a biology graduate who volunteers to teach African immigrants. (Varda highlights their introduction to the terms "nocturnal activity," "useful insect," "success.")

Though The Gleaners and I doesn't have the esthetic elation of something shot on film, it's still a marvelous video work. "I'm happy to put down an ear of wheat and pick up my digital camera," Varda says. "It's stroboscopic, narcissistic, hyperrealistic." You miss the latter quality in the transfer to film; nonetheless Varda allows for abstract appreciation. It reflects the joy she gleans from life and from her cultural heritage. (Film Forum is also showing her 1958 short L'Opera Mouffe, which anticipated The Gleaners and I's abundance.) Varda's central image comes from François Millet's painting The Gleaners, which influenced Griffith's A Corner in Wheat and Hearts of the World and now inspires Varda to look upon the world and take appreciation further. (Proudly discovering a heart-shaped potato, she keeps it as a memento?a serendipitous reference to Hearts of the World's alternative title, Love and Potatoes.) Varda recognizes the axiom that the poor are always with us. But knowing "they" aren't always part of our cinema, she perceptively performs an act of intellectual grace.

Art should sharpen our wits and sensitize emotions, transforming feelings made hard and dull by the world. Varda's background in photography, her anthropological curiosity, makes her docs even more exhilarating than her fiction. A shot of a clochard on the pavement in L'Opera Mouffe has the vibrancy of a Cartier-Bresson moment; tomatoes in the furrows of a field have the balance, clarity and beauty of a Cezanne still life. The Gleaners and I is masterly, if not a masterpiece. Varda's style seems more random than definitive works of social/personal perception like Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes or George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. Yet Varda is deliberately, artfully random?a better approach than last year's Dark Days documentary on the homeless living in Amtrak tunnels. Varda knows what she's doing?visually and politically. She's not a naive experimenter like Darren Aronofsky, model for the current era of style-mad pseuds (Traffic and Memento are their newest totems). Her allusions are so blithe and erudite that when she makes worthy analogies to fine art like Van der Weyden's polyptych The Last Judgment, her glance at apocalypse conveys humane apprehension, not a presumption.

Equally memorable is a closeup of Varda's own hands. ("I feel as if I am an animal. Worse, an animal I don't know.") The age blemishes recall the shocking spots on her late husband Jacques Demy in Varda's elegy-tribute Jacquot de Nantes. Later, blotches on those heart-shaped potatoes pick up the motif as a connection with nature, the potato's decay suggesting Varda's sense of her own mortality. In such instances The Gleaners and I is as moving as JLG by JLG. Though never so gorgeously somber as Godard's treatise on his own mortality, Varda offers whimsical worldliness. She jokes, "I like filming rot, leftovers, waste, mold, trash." Finding a clock without hands, she turns on her digicam and says, "That's my kind of thing. You don't see time passing." (But we see Varda, in a cinematic trompe l'oeil, gliding past the clock.) For all its brilliant lightness, The Gleaners and I is a work of immanence. Varda has had a true vision, yet she shifts gravity onto another artwork, Hedouin's painting Gleaners Fleeing Before the Storm. It's a European esthete's modest way of admitting what the Isley Brothers rhapsodized in "Harvest for the World."

"The World of Agnes Varda" runs March 16-April 5 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 727-8110.


The Caveman's Valentine
Directed by Kasi Lemmons

"Get out of my way, I'm a white man!" shouted an apparently homeless black man, storming through Rockefeller Center the other day. He harmed no one, but was convulsed by his own paroxysm. I imagine Agnes Varda would appreciate the poignancy of such a moment (L'Opera Mouffe features something similar when a street person stares back insolently at Varda's camera.) So why doesn't Kasi Lemmons, the 35-year-old African-American director and former actress (Fear of a Black Hat, Silence of the Lambs), show compassionate understanding?

Lemmon's absurd The Caveman's Valentine romanticizes the madness of Romulus Ledbetter, a former piano prodigy who now lives in northern New York City's Inwood Hill Park. As he rants on the streets about a man named Stuyvesant sending "z-rays" to destroy his life, Romulus, who wears long, expensively kept dreadlocks, is meant to epitomize unfathomable black male anger. (Sam Jack-o'-Lantern Jackson plays the role.) Romulus has an adult daughter, a New York cop (Aunjanue Ellis), fed up with her father's craziness. By adapting George Dawes Green's novel, Lemmons gets to revisit the father-daughter theme of her vastly overpraised Eve's Bayou. Mixing shame and fancifulness, she does black male paranoia a disservice by making it delusional. (Adam Clayton Powell famously remarked, "Any black man in America who isn't paranoid is crazy.") Romulus' creative background also represents the misunderstood artist, but that's just Lemmons (whose hair is in tendrils) braiding-in her own narcissism.

Since the release of Eve's Bayou in 1997, the media has used Lemmons as the prime example of Serious Black Filmmaker: she fulfills liberal feminist designs by perpetuating the specter of the ominous black male (Eve's Bayou climaxed with quasi-incestuous suggestion). It's what the mainstream wants to see. So is the gay victim-art subplot of a Robert Mapplethorpe-type photographer suspected of killing one of Romulus' street buddies (Lemmons rehabilitates Mapplethorpe's reputation, but first exploits its controversy). Still, the concept of a homeless musical genius who has sci-fi/apocalyptic hallucinations pretending to be Columbo only shows how desperate Lemmons is to make the right impression. The Caveman's Valentine bungles Lemmons' Freudian obsession with the black male enigma. If she's trying to figure out the black father, she'd do well to read Itabari Njeri or maybe Bebe Moore Campbell's trenchant Sweet Summer: Growing Up with or Without My Dad. I suggest Lemmons also study Agnes Varda's work, it's part of her cultural heritage, too.

Caveman's failure comes from Lemmons' inability to make Romulus' alienation sensually or intellectually stimulating, the way Varda sympathetically photographs the homeless, the artistic and disenfranchised, and finds art-historical equivalents for their plight. Instead of adapting blues antecedents (or August Wilson), Lemmons leaves one judgmental, rather than empathetic, regarding citizens as beyond the pale as that Rockefeller Center ranter. When Romulus guilts a rich white guy (Anthony Michael Hall) into sponsoring his reemergence into the cultural scene, the ploy is less interesting than Bring It On's rejection of liberal handouts. (And why no conversation between Hall and his wife that shows an understanding?or insensitivity?about racism, homelessness, opportunity, luck?) At its worst moment, Caveman posits Romulus' madness and exhaustion as fear of success. That's bourgie nonsense. You don't have to be a social scientist to know that one can be made crazy by being cheated or betrayed, by everyday indifference, hostility, ostracism, injustice, rejection. Romulus' wife (Tamara Tunie) advises, "Plain ol' run-of-the-mill craziness, that's the only demon you have to fight." It's supposed to be sisterly wisdom, but it adds insult to every insult that black men have ever felt from the cruel or acutely observed racist world.

The cushy Sundance world Lemmons fantasizes isn't one an artist as rigorous as Varda would bother to validate. But Lemmons doesn't even film it well. She overdoes Aronofskyan jittery, intrusive, repetitious tv transmissions. Romulus' comeback sequence lacks the sensuality of skin, of his fingers (or his mind), being cleansed. When white culture-vultures crave his black phallus, Lemmons makes erotica of it?to please whom? Yet I bet Caveman won't be pampered like Eve's Bayou. Every pretentious point here is so gratuitously appeasing of white liberalism that the mainstream has no compelling need to accept or appreciate it. The acquiescence, the obeisance, is done. Service rendered. Understand: I don't mean to discourage black female directors, but to reprove the fallacies surrounding this one's acclaim. The indie movement has handed us Lemmons, but you can't make lemonade out of Caveman's rancid brew.

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