Sunday, July 8, 2007

Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse by Agnes Varda

There are many euphemisms for the act of photographing. Some people “go shooting.” Some “make pictures” while others “take pictures.” Now in the digital age, we are describing everything with “digital capture.” Photographers are thought of as hunters and subjects as prey. There are a whole slew of essays out there, some deeper than others, about photography and those perceptions.

While watching a recent Agnes Varda film, a new term came to my attention. A term that is kinder and gentler and more appealing to my sensibilities than the bloodthirsty terminology of the past.

The film, Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) is about people who ‘glean’ or collect what is left behind after a harvest. The film explores the history and present practices of gleaning and salvaging by Varda’s interviews with a range of eclectic people.

It is ostensibly a film about waste and recycling. Food is mainly the subject. Varda seeks out people who glean after a city fruit and vegetable market closes and fill bags of produce only flawed by a bruise or wilted leaf. She finds a man who for ten years, has lived off nothing but found food. “To bend is not to beg.”

She also features a few artists whose livelihood is created through the use of found objects.

Within the film, Varda looks at herself as a gleaner as well. In French, the title means “the gleaners and the female gleaner” (Varda). Varda is identifying herself as a part of the group or lifestyle of the gleaners. The poor English translation of the title, The Gleaners and I, places her outside looking in at the gleaners. That aside, Varda reinforces her point that cinematography (and photography) is as much gleaning as picking up a piece of fruit to eat.

She cinematically ‘grabs’ passing trucks on the highway.

As a true gleaner leaves nothing to waste, Varda picks footage from her film that would have naturally wound up on the cutting room floor in most other films. At one point, she forgets to turn off her video camera and the resulting footage of the ground and bobbing lens-cap become its own enjoyable segment in the film.

Surprisingly, Etienne-Jules Marey makes an appearance in the film. Marey was the inventor of Chronophotography, an early invention that led to cinematography.

Marey much admired the work of Eadweard Muybridge, but was dissatisfied with the lack of precision in the images of birds. In 1882, he perfected the 'photographic gun', inspired by the 1874 'photographic revolver' of the astronomer Jules Janssen, and capable of taking twelve exposures in one second. Intersting note, that this type of photography and revolver style guns were invented around the same time. As Janssen and Marey's adaptations show, perhaps much of the hunting metaphor in photography sprung from these inventions.

For Varda and her film, beyond cinematography, Marey’s family comes from a long line of vineyard owners which was what led Varda to their doorstep.

Although it isn’t a book (what’s with all the writing about film and filmmakers Mr. Whiskets?) it is a wonderful film from the ‘grandmother of the French new wave’ that in its own way is about photography too.

It was released in 2001 and is distributed by Zeitgeist Films. Zeitgeist is well worth mentioning as they are also the distributors of the recent Ed Burtynsky film called Manufactured Landscapes, a film on Tierney Gearon called The Mother Project and a film on the photographer Sally Mann called What Remains. All of which will get further mention here at 5B4 in the near future.

DVD Available Here (The Gleaners and I)