By María M. López* with Ed Fuentes on November 18, 2013 12:30 PM
The Parisian whirlwind that is filmmaker Agnès Varda briefly touched down in Santa Monica for the premiere of the restored print of "Mur Murs," her 1981 film on Los Angeles murals.
Many of the muralists featured in the documentary joined her at Santa Monica's Aero Theater for the Wednesday, Nov. 13 screening.
It was another evening for the cinema icon taking in a triumphant trajectory through Los Angeles, which included serving as guest artistic director at AFI FEST 2013, and feted with "Agnès Varda in Californialand" at LACMA.
At the packed Aero, the 85-year old godmother of French New Wave Cinema reminisced about the beginning of the Los Angeles muralist movement, the nature of public art, and the role of the documentarian.
In 1979, already a lion of cinema, Varda was living in Los Angeles writing a screenplay, when she started to explore murals with friends Denise Warren and filmmaker Alain Resnais. "I thought it was a very interesting movement," said Varda. "At that time nobody knew. There were murals but nobody spoke about them. We just went around taking pictures, investigating with the neighbors, 'Do you know who did it? When?'"
Varda tracked down the muralists to ask if they would speak on camera. "I wanted to show how a city can express itself," she said. "It's really telling a lot about politics, about the situation, about the segregation. Obviously there are no murals in Bel-Air."
Varda does more than scratch the surface of a subject. By coining terms like Los Angelést, or Los Angelouest, she reads the city beyond the geographic divide.
In "Mur Murs," Varda also extends the expression of the Los Angelést artist.
Varda loved how Judy Baca's paintings spoke on capitalism and work. She set one of Baca's mural in motion, by placing it in the back of a truck and driving through the industrial and working class neighborhoods of Los Angeles -- a commute that is shared with the subject of the mural.
In the film, Baca's portable mural, "Uprising of the Mujeres," is seen roaming the streets, sending the capitalist and worker themes to be juxtaposed against a Los Angeles landscape of banks, industry, and a railroad car, that said 'Union.'"
"I couldn't quite understand what Agnés was doing," Baca said. "She kept doing these sort of crazy things. 'I'm gonna put your mural in that truck and drive it down the street,' and I just thought, 'What is she doing?'
"But then I realized she was interacting with the work, and had an understanding of why it was a work that was basically alternative to the mainstream. What we were doing essentially is fighting a system that would not include people like us, our neighborhoods, our stories, our communities," adds Baca.
"At first, it was a game," Varda admits. "It's a cinematic game that makes things be easy." Varda asked former student, turned muralist, Johnson Clifford, to present his paintings surrounded by students at Willowbrook Middle School. She dropped hints to Kent Twitchell to stroke the face of the Christ figure in his mural as he described it. This approach brought out different dimensions of the artists and their work.
"She really wanted to get to the heart of things ... and wanted to know what made artists tick," said Willie Herrón III, muralist and Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles' official restorer. He noted Varda's awareness and commitment when she filmed the art collaborative, ASCO, and the artist and musicians in East Los Angeles. "So she brought that out in us. We had to say something and do something that came from deep inside."
The film is a restored 2K digital cinema print, bringing out colors and sounds of a previous Los Angeles, whose works are now fading or lost. "Nothing lasts forever," said Varda, about the nature of this public art. "It's part of the game that they disappear."
"I don't wish them to disappear, but it's part of the risk by being outside. It's part of the challenge that these muralists take." she added.
Since many of the muralists did not have professional training, their work was more vulnerable to the elements, she said. But even so, there is a purity in the works, some done by non-professionals, that allowed spontaneity that would not be seen otherwise. "There were very different approaches which I found very interesting," said Varda. " I'm glad I did [the film]. There could be a new documentary every 10 years because they raze them, they do new ones."
After the Q&A, when audiences members lingered, muralist Victor Henderson asked why he had not been credited in the film, despite Varda featuring three of his murals, including "Venice in the Snow" and "Isle of California." At first surprised, Varda then recalled that she had properly credited L.A. Fine Art Squad -- the collaborative that Henderson co-founded with artists Terry Schoonhoven and Jim Frazin -- which was the moniker they used to sign their works.
This exchange spoke to the age-old issue of proper recognition for artists, including those that are credited, or signed, as a group. The filmmaker took pride that her documentary helped highlight overlooked Los Angeles area muralists, and they were researched to be properly credited, she assured the artist and onlookers.
"Mur Murs" remains relevant today, as it provides a rare look at how the city adorned its streets in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "In a way it's the perfect moment to show the movie, but it's also like closing circles," said Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of MCLA, who has led the recent changes to restore the Los Angeles mural movement. "Since 2002 many of the artists depicted in this film had been fighting for their right to express themselves."
"At the time she made the movie she was talking about freedom of expression," continued Rojas-Williams. "She was showing a glimpse of who we were; the freedom of painting murals in the streets from Venice to East Los Angeles. So to me we are recovering that. Seeing this movie today is like the cherry on top."
Varda's film came years before the recent wave of books and exhibitions on murals and graffiti art, and shows how the diversity of ideas and opinions in a documentary can add to an expression within the context of history. Like all documentaries, "Mur Murs" is a product of its time and place. That had Varda offer a reflection: "Then it becomes, maybe nothing, maybe a witness."
Then, like the ephemeral subject of her film, Varda enchanted her audience and before you knew it, she disappeared.
Top: Willie Herrón III and Kent Twitchell with Agnès Varda. Photo by Gil Ortiz.