Saturday, February 5, 2011

Heart & Soul: The Beaches of Agnes & Soul Power

It's commonly held that January is a graveyard month for film releases. If Christmas supposedly brings us plenty of treats, the early New Year generally offers us no party favours. One look at the mean-spirited arrogance of The Green Hornet, or the tone-deaf comedy of Ron Howard's The Dilemma, you'd be tempted to give up movie-going for good. But we have also seen a surprising number of terrific movies open in Toronto in the last month. Besides Sofia Coppola's luminous Somewhere, there is the bittersweet poignancy of Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, the plaintive urgency of Patricio Guzman's ongoing quest to come to terms with Chile's traumatic past in Nostalgia for the Light, plus Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve turning Wajdi Mouawad 's schematic play, Scorched, into a fever dream of familial conflict in Incendies. Movies rarely get much better than that diverse group. But just in case you are all caught up, there are some pictures currently out on DVD that you just might have missed.

In the opening moments of her movie, The Beaches of Agnes, director Agnes Varda tells us that she’s “playing the part of a little old lady.” But there is a fair bit of youthful playfulness still in evidence in this imaginative and affectionate memoir. Varda (Cleo From 5 to 7, Vagabond) is perhaps the least celebrated of the great French New Wave directors of the sixties and she is one of the only females in the group. She left dramatic narrative behind a while back, but in recent years, with The Gleaners and I (2000) and Cinevardaphoto (2004), Varda has been turning out fascinating and idiosyncratic film essays. In The Beaches of Agnes, Varda looks back on both her life and career by invoking it through the objects that symbolized the varied loves of her life. That love includes her relationship with director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), as well as her intellectual friends from Paris’s Left Bank and the American counter-culture who she embraced when she began making movies in California in the seventies.

Agnes Varda and her mirrors
What is so beautifully rendered in this picture is how Varda uncovers the pining that lies within our need to uncover indelibly powerful and lingering memories. But her remembrances here, as shaped through this experimental narrative, get stripped of both nostalgia and sentimentality. In The Beaches of Agnes, Varda has no illusions about the past, which she looks upon with whimsy and admiration. She experiments with the documentary form, too, in order to find some resonance, or to make some emotional sense of the earlier years of her life. In one scene, mirrors and models fill the sandy beaches as Varda walks among them as if strolling through her storybook past, grasping its full meaning for herself today.

The Beaches of Agnes often has the elliptical pleasures found in some of James Joyce's prose, where Varda, too, invents a language that's in flux, but best suited to comprehending her story. Perhaps the most touching of these moments is her treasured memories of Jacques Demy who she calls “the most cherished of the dead.” She revisits her memories of being a wartime exile to the coastal village of Sete, where she found fun and excitement and discovered herself as an artist. Since Varda began her career as a photographer before becoming a filmmaker, she draws on both talents to animate the still shots from her collection. She weaves them seamlessly throughout the footage that she gathers while walking through her collection of memories. Although The Beaches of Agnes tells a powerfully personal story, the love and compassion that seeps through its frames totally envelop the viewer in a larger grasp of life. It’s a truly great film.

James Brown
Love also informs the marvelously entertaining concert picture Soul Power, which documents the great 3-day soul and jazz festival in Kinshasa, Zaire, held in conjunction with the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman fight back in 1974. This famous musical event was alluded to in the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings (1996), which dealt more specifically with the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Soul Power though is essentially all about how the concert was mounted and it features a number of spectacular performances by Hugh Masekela (who came up with the idea), James Brown and the JBs (whose song provides the title), Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, The Spinners, BB King, and salsa singer Celia Cruz. There’s not a bum note in the picture.

In a sense, Soul Power resembles a black Woodstock (but without the mud and drugs). Woodstock, of course, was predominantly white (save Richie Havens, Sly & the Family Stone, Santana and Jimi Hendrix). Most of the black performers here were emboldened by the Civil Rights struggles in the post-assassination period of the early seventies. They all bring a spellbinding vibrancy to their performances, an urgency to seize the time. Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte (who edited When We Were Kings) rightly avoids doing present-day interviews that would provide hindsight. He sets out rather to capture the immediate excitement of that event, where the journey back to Africa was electric for a number of black performers then feeling displaced in their own homeland. (Many were visiting Africa for the first time.) While the show slowly builds to the electrifying climax of Brown’s explosive performance, the eclectic styles of the performers brings out the undercurrents of African culture often heard in American black R&B. We can hear the elements of the American blues in Makeba’s “Click Song,” while Masekela’s percolating jazz rhythms are right at home next to The Spinners. Bill Withers provides an ingenious fusion of country blues and soul balladry.

It took years for Soul Power to come to the screen because the financing company was mired in legal disputes (which didn’t get settled until When We Were Kings won its Oscar). The wait though has been well worth it. If you're looking for a pick-me-up picture to melt the winter doldrums, Soul Power is it.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. He will also be facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University beginning on February 13th.

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