Faces Places (2017)

Faces Places, 2017 Documentary
Directors, Writers, and Stars: JR, Agnès Varda

Kimberly and Jane leap onto a journey with 89-year-old director Agnès Varda and 34-year-old photographer and muralist JR through rural France while they lift ordinary to extraordinary and, to everyone’s delight, form an unlikely friendship. Yes, age is critically relevant!

There are so many things I loved about this film.

 And so many things to love!!

 Two people, artists who mutually admire each other, decide to throw caution to the wind and spend some time together traveling and making art. They jump into JR’s van which doubles as a photo imaging lab, like an arcade photo booth, and head off through the south of France to photograph interesting and ordinary people they find along the way. Then JR pastes the larger than life photos on the sides of buildings, trains, cars, and many other surfaces that form the environments these people dwell within. This alone is an amazing project but what really hit the nail on my soul is the way the relationship between these two artists is portrayed. An unlikely coupling jumped into with vigor, two people deciding to throw a wrench in their normal lives to follow the call of art—an older woman, quite established in her career, and a young joyous buck at the beginning of his own artistic journey. For the sheer sake of discovery, they decide to collaborate. How many people can say that they would be willing to stop life and run off with a stranger? Especially someone so completely outside his or her normal realm of relation and reference.

 Well, for Varda at 89, someone who offers legs that can run and turn your life into a movie – yeah, I see why she would say yes!! JR’s long legs are almost a character in the movie. And for JR, Varda had eyes that could see beyond convention and into the treasure of ordinary life. But, and or, yes, the intimacy between them was interesting to watch unfold. Their partnership defies every preconception we might have about a normal contract to work together. Of course, they are both artists, so the trick lies in getting ordinary people to take a chance and participate in art during the daily course of their lives. Their being an odd couple, no doubt, helped them pull this off. But the best part for me was in seeing the two of them come together and realize a completely new creative potential while playing off each other. In joining together, they are able to give complete strangers such a passionate sense of connection. The productivity of creative intimacy of someone so old with someone so young was truly poignant for me.

 You’ve wanted me to read the book Crack in the Cosmic Egg for a while now, and I just finished it. The best part of the book is that it points out these special moments, or realizations when we are jostled out of the status quo of our lives, and led to experience or see something in an altogether new way. Those are the moments that make life worth living, rather than the familiar everyday routines we find ourselves dependent on. Those cracks are where we find richness so unexpected. Art posits a great way to find these cracks because art is all about someone leading others to see their own visions that they may have otherwise never stumbled upon. This film presents all kinds of cracks for me. The idea of traveling in flow and letting circumstance, people, and location define the work that is birthed. But also this grand idea of jumping in a car with a stranger totally outside your normal realm of operation and just saying the words, “GO!”

 True, the unbridled freedom and potential in that concept of the crack in the schema of cultural expectations are liberating and exciting albeit, also, a little scary. Good stuff! Their ability to slip through the ‘crack’ is doubly exemplified when Agnes and JR create anew the famous scene in Jean Luc Godard’s Bande a part (“Band of Outsiders”) by running through the Louvre with JR pushing Varda in a wheelchair! Everyone who’s ever seen the original scene gets swept away by the thrill of seizing a stolen moment completely surrounded by art. In this reprise of Godard, we fly along. We feel Agnes being set free and JR along for the ride, having fun, experiencing his journey as a splendid beginning as she is a splendid ending of hers. The run is metaphoric and equally potent for them for different reasons. And…for me…this is the moment when the archetype of the wise woman and the magician leaped to mind. I’ve seen it all around me in real life but never quite grasped its significance. Elders teaming up with Youths or Youths teaming up with Elders to discover an energy that leaps free from constraint and connects us, one more time, to the wonder of being.

 Agnes was a friend of Godard’s and she spends a good deal of the film reminiscing about her early days as an artist when she was, like JR, knee deep in the beginning of her career. JR becomes like a magical substitute for her old friend, in the moment, and now. He transforms her nostalgia into a present situation that is equally worthy to her own memories.

 All the while receiving a unique mentorship in life himself.

 I love the part where she asks if she can see JR’s eyes because he is noted for always wearing his sunglasses like a boundary in the public. She tells him the glasses are a mask. He replies by asking her about her hair that is dyed red on the rims like a bowl and says, isn’t that also a costume? She tells him she loves color. She points to a dog at their feet and says, nobody wants to be that white. It is a comical moment but also a great one about artists who live as if life is their greatest form of art.

 She talked about how Godard wore glasses too and wouldn’t take them off. There’s a marvelous moment at the end of the film that ties Godard and JR together for her. In a final gesture to Godard, they go to his house to meet with him but he’s become a bit of a loner and curmudgeon and never shows up. So Agnes and JR end up on a bench by a lake pondering the larger fate of their journey and Agnes’ disappointment at not seeing her old friend. And, with all the emotion one might expect of such a moment, JR takes off his dark glasses and lets Agnes see his eyes. It’s delightful; it’s wistful; it’s funny. It’s them together in true recognition of one another and what they’ve made possible for others and for themselves.

 There’s the magician again. Changing one experience into a more alchemical one with meaning for the two of them.

 The whole thing was magic. Let’s get in a van and travel around and take pictures of real people and elevate them in their spaces, make them feel iconic for a little ounce of time. It was very special.

 JR’s spirit, in particular, was one that I like to call “joy elf.” You know those men who are elfin and energetic and infuse joy into all who come around them. There wasn’t a moment in the film where he wasn’t leaping, laughing, singing, or otherwise acting as a provocateur of liveliness.

 JR had such a sense of himself and, for sure, an awareness of his own very idiosyncratic photogenic impact. His glasses were a bit of a barrier he put up so that his art could reign more important than his personage.

 The spirit of the art was definitely front and center for him and he epitomized the concept of flow for me. I am a great fan of the poet-rocker Patti Smith and have read two of her books recently. In one she speaks of the concept of “clocks with no hands,” of living your day swept moment to moment just flowing with whatever comes next before your face. There is one incidence where she is in a hotel room in England and watching a show in her room. She goes to the elevator after watching to get some tea in the lobby and runs into the actor from the show she is just watching. These kinds of synchronicities keep happening to her because she has no plans, just this following of moment to moment that leads to all sorts of unscripted magic. Faces Places was a great testament to that for me, just driving where the wind might take you and finding the treasures in art you weren’t manipulating to happen.

 I found it wonderful how they would drive into these small towns and find the heart of the village in the people who lived there and then make tributes to them. To them, the magic of art lay in the connection between ordinary and extraordinary. In this film, they were showing us that fine line between the two and how flimsy and meshed it really is. When they pasted that massive photo portrait onto the brick row house of the one old woman still living in the abandoned coal town where she had lived her whole life, it was a great honor to her life and her existence that she may never have understood otherwise.

 I know, I loved the scene where she opens the window of her home right out onto her own image.

 I know I’m changing the subject a bit but there was one other thing that caught my attention. They were creating mirrors for people to see themselves as they’d never seen themselves. When we look in a mirror we see ourselves as an image separate from the image we hold in our heads. In this case, Varda and JR lifted a person from small to very, very large and people could see themselves in a different light – a large public light. It created a surprise for most people and sparked an awareness of themselves as a person worthy of being seen. But mirroring can also be jarring. It happens when our vision of ourselves is elevated beyond what we’ve quietly developed. Even looking in a regular mirror tells us that we carry a different image in public than we carry of ourselves in private. When they paste the huge portrait of a young pretty waitress onto the side of a building in the small town where she lives and works, she becomes famous. Visitors snap ‘selfies’ with her, even ones massaging her pretty bare feet. The waitress is not altogether comfortable with losing her privacy and her own hold on her identity. I personally appreciated this reminder in their film of a dark side to art that is simultaneously so celebratory. Like life, it’s complicated.

 I also love the way the images conjure thoughts of mortality and place. Most of the images are meant to remain on their spaces until time or the elements naturally erode them away. When they put up the photo Agnes had taken of her one-time photographic collaborator Guy Bourdain onto a rock near the sea, the sea ends up washing it away overnight. Much like the work of another favorite artist of ours, Andy Goldsworthy, these pieces are created even with the knowledge of being temporary or impermanent, much like life itself.

 That is the crack.

 Yes, that is the crack.

 This film gives you a moment, doesn’t it? I felt my own joie de vivre of ordinary life! And I’m grateful for that. Varda, of course, is a champion of breaking through convention. In The Gleaners, rubbish pickers become clever survivors.

 I think more relationships like theirs would do the world well.

 Me too. Today, we are seeing many women, like Varda, who are independent and powerful in their late years. It used to be, you passed a certain age, retired and got to bed by sundown. Now people are living much longer lives, and going through phases two, three, and four before calling it a day. Agnes is a great testament to living long and continuing to evolve. JR’s enthusiastic willingness to leap into the unknown of a journey where age is the least of his worries is probably a testament to denial. That’s a joke. I think he knew exactly what he was getting into and, like Agnes, loving every minute of it. I look forward to seeing many more wise woman-magician stories break through onto the big screen.

 Crack on cosmic egg! Keep showing us that invisible light in the complacent fabric of our lives!

3 thoughts on “Faces Places (2017)”

  1. I absolutely need to see this film. i love how you both introduce me to films i am overlooking. your response bounce off each other nicely.

  2. And I’m reminded that I want to see it again. In fact it seems the kind of film I’d like to see perennially, a heartening reminder of the vitality of old age, and the wisdom of youth.

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