Saturday, December 7, 2013

Glean Some Death: Agnes Varda, Essay Films, and Death

Jean-Francois Millet

“He saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days..”
– Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life." – Wendell Berry 

Entropy, from the Greek for "transformation," is an immutable law of physics that all ordered systems descend into chaos. It is inevitable that the rules of the universe will slowly break down and lose their tight organization and rigidity. Entropy is the inexorable relaxing of order that ends in the ultimate chaos: nothingness, a complete absence of order. All matter obeys the march of entropy. There is no escape. No escape from decay. No escape from death. All bodies will die, will lose their rigidity, will have their organs stutter and stammer, will wrinkle, will stop, will end. Death is the ultimate "transformation" of matter. Entropy is pervasive and death is always knocking at the door. All things fall apart. The subject is always intensely aware of the inevitability of death, since it is the ultimate fate of all things. Despite this knowledge, the subject feels an immense ambiguity about entropy. They are programmed to resist death by any means necessary, yet entropy is ineluctable. Some subjects combat entropy ceaselessly, while others accept their fate.

Agnès Varda's documentary Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is, in many ways, an expression about acceptance of death: the death of a cultural practice, the death of an era, the death of the subject, the death of the filmmaker. Though, "documentary" is perhaps not the best descriptor for Varda's intimate glimpse into the practice of gleaning. Rather, the "essay film" would work better as the genre of the essay film better allows for the introspection and formal vacillation between subjects that Les glaneurs et la glaneuse traffics in. The essay film as a genre lets Varda accomplish her rather literary goals of metaphorical vacillation that the staid documentary form might resist. Instead of the didactic approach of the documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is an essay film that lets the subject accept death, or rather transformation.

In the traditional tarot card deck, the thirteenth card of the Major Arcana is the Death card. The Grim Reaper rides aloft the white stallion, brandishing the flag of the flower. While the card may seem grim, with kings and paupers still at Death's feet, the card symbolizes nothing more than a change of state: "One state must end (tis common sense)/Before another may commence" (Moore Promethea, 12.15). Death is inherently transitional as it allows for one state of matter to transform into another state. There is little difference, physiognomically speaking, between a living body and a freshly dead one. The moment of death is not even the initial step of entropy's march. Rather, the physical death is only one step on a long journey. The decay of the body, the transformation, is constant, from the moment of adulthood. 

Varda uses the medium of video to easily capture the gleaners and their dying/transforming cultural practice. She narrates that her project is to film one hand with the other. Through this, and the title, she sets up a duality that the film is both about gleaning and about ageing: an objective factual documentary and a subjective introspective look at the documentary filmmaker. But Varda "rejects this duality" and she forces herself and the viewer to understand that the camera lens both captures and reflects simultaneously (Fischer 114). It is not a dilemma: capturing the practice of gleaning before it disappears versus accepting its disappearance. Rather, it is a process. The film, like death itself, is transitional, a liminal state between genre (documentary/travelogue), between media (film/video), between subjects (gleaners/filmmakers). Instead of resisting the change in state, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse embraces it. The film understands the "horror of it."

The film is cognizant of the death drive, or Thanatos. The death instinct is not, contrary to its name, interested in the death of others but rather the destruction of the self. Freud's formulation of the death drive is related to the subject's repetition, the constant return and departure, the build up of pleasurable tension (pleasurable, of course being relative). The death of the subject, then, is the ultimate release of tension – far more pleasurable than sexual release. The rehashing of events not pleasurable are rehearsals for the subject's own death. Repeating destructive events is the ultimate form of self-destruction. Since the death of the subject cannot be experienced by the subject (as the body loses ability to be aware of or even repress), the death drive is experienced through the deaths of others (eg family members, friends, celebrities, pets). Other decaying dying bodies allow for the subject to "work through" their own death. Thus, I submit that Varda's documentary is not a documentary about a transforming cultural practice but a way of working through her own impending death by metaphorically aligning herself with gleaning.

Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée. Ceres Teaching Agriculture to King Triptolemus. 1769
The choice of the practice of gleaning as a way to work through the subject's inescapable descent into entropy is not chosen randomly. Not only is it a cultural practice on the decline, but it is also an agricultural practice. The practice of agriculture, done by countless across the world, has always and forever been intricately related to death. The Greek figure of Demeter (later named by the Romans as Ceres as in the above painting) was closely related to death, literally. Her son-in-law was Hades, lord of the underworld. The Greeks used the myth of Persephone's partitioned time in the underworld as a way to explain the seasonal shift in agriculture; when Persephone is in the underworld with her husband for half the year, Demeter is in mourning and thus there is no growth in the soil. Though, Demeter/Ceres are not the only deities that closely linked death and agriculture. Osiris, of the Egyptian pantheon, was both lord of the dead and lord of the harvest. In Aztec mythology, Xipe Totec is the life-death-rebirth god as well as agriculture. Ninurta, of Sumerian mythology, was god of agriculture and war. There are countless more examples. Agriculture has always been linked to entropy because it is the apotheosis of transformation. At no point does agriculture ever sit still. It is a constant process, ever changing. All elements of nature shift, in a futile attempt to stave off permanent death. Rather than submit to oblivion, flora and fauna go into fallow periods. Trees lose their leaves; grains hibernate. They transform. It is a constant vacillation between life and death.

In the film, Varda picks up a potato, discarded and unwanted. She lets the camera's gaze linger on it, letting the potato take center stage for once. The rotting starch would normarlly have been forgotten by the camera's gaze, as it is transforming back into the earth, but Varda saves it and allows its transformation to be the star. 

The potato should not be forgotten. They deserve to be filmed, Varda implies. She films them up close, while simultaneously is filmed herself, setting an immediate comparison. Neither Varda nor the misshapen potatoes should be forgotten, despite their transformation towards entropy and death. Both deserve to be in the archive of the documentary. As Derrida writes, archives are traditional and revolutionary, institutive and conservative (11). Archives shelter themselves, conceal themselves while simultaneously making themselves transparent. Varda's film is both traditional in the sense that it is a travelogue, has a subject, and uses linearity for intelligibility but the film is also revolutionary in that it frustrates, resists, and blurs generic signifiers. It is not simply a travelogue nor a one subject documentary. It is not simply a meditation on the transformation (the entropic journey) of a cultural practice. It is both transparently about gleaning while sheltering its multivalence. Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is an archive that seeks to keep gleaning alive in the collective conscious and it is an archive that seeks to keep Varda alive. Though, as Derrida points out, the archive does not happen without the death drive. Derrida writes, “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression" (19). In other words, the very fact that things are finite is enough to drive the archive fever. Were things (potatoes, people, lives, film) infinite, there would be no need to archive, to sort and select that which need to be made infinite. The archive inherently looks to the past as it is a shelter for things the archivist has decided might be lost in the future, but in that, the archive also looks to the future. It is both pessimistic (things will be lost) and optimistic (things will be remembered in the future). For the archive, “it is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come” (Derrida 36).

This prophetic tendency finds a comfortable home in Varda's ostensible archive. The film straddles the past and the future, using historical analysis and art to understand the cultural practice of gleaning while looking forward to how different cultural practices might be understood in relation to gleaning. This complex relationship with past and future means "there is no stable archival object or archiving subject that we can hold, or by which we can be held, in a time that is simply present or past" (Torlasco 52). Varda interviews a cook who gleans herbs and vegetables in order to keep his food cost down. Also, in the final sections of the film, Varda interviews a man who gleans at the urban marketplace. Varda "gleans" this man from obscurity, from the forgotten edges of history, and follows him around. She follows him to his home, where he teaches new immigrants basic reading and writing. The building is a shelter, just like an archive.

For archive fever to function, “it is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (Derrida 57). It is a desire to salvage from the wreckage of the past, to re-energize the detritus of the past for a future. The documentary is a film invested in the idea of transformation: the transformation of a cultural practice, from an agricultural one to an urban one. Thus, as gleaning changes from a wholly alimentary concern to one of dealing with increasing levels of discard from consumer culture, the subject of the film shifts as well. Varda attempts to salvage the practice of gleaning by interviewing those who live on the margins of urban spaces.

Varda, as in other films, shows an interest in the underclasses, the detritus of "polite society." Varda salvages them, just as her subjects salvage food or garbage in order to survive. It is a process of transformation, to take the garbage of one person and turn it into the treasure of another. In the film, Varda interviews different artists who repurpose trash in order to make art. Trash is beautiful, one moment in the film tells us. This is another vacillation in Varda's project: recognizing that the transformation itself is beautiful. The entropic descent is inevitable, but there is beauty to be found there, in the wrinkles of a hand, in the rotting heart of a potato, in the discarded doll's head, in the margins of society.

While entropy is inexorable, Varda's film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse shows a complex relationship with death. The essay film, with its personal and empathetic approach, its confessional style, and its loose structure, is an ideal form to approach the subject. The archive fever propels the essay film, just as the death drive propels the archive fever. Varda's awareness of her decay, her destruction, fuels the desire to capture, salvage, and repurpose. In one sequence, Varda films her hand forming a circle, as a camera's lens, so that she might capture images. She films her own hand, just as she claimed she would. Her own decaying hand. She does not shy away from death. She repurposes death for film, for art. She gleans the beauty from entropy with her film.

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