“Whether collective daydreams or personal visions, the walls tell of a city and its people,” Varda muses in her documentary Mur Murs, which follows her interactions and conversations with Los Angeles mural artists. Camera in hand, she drove all the way from East LA to West LA, digging deeper into the stories behind these artists from marginalised communities. Although the film is widely considered marginal compared to the rest of Varda’s work by current audiences, Mur Murs is more central to her core convictions as a filmmaker than has been previously acknowledged, both in its content and its form. Mur Murs stands as a metonym for Varda’s filmmaking sensibilities and is past due for a rediscovery by film critics and audiences alike. It seamlessly invokes Varda’s idea of cinécriture and Cixous’ idea of écriture feminine, it tells us what Varda was interested in during an uncertain period in her career, it radically breaks traditional narrative conventions, and it connects the personal with the political.
Following Varda’s passing in late March of this year, there have been many great retrospective pieces published honouring her life’s work, and rightfully so. However, it was disappointing to note that Mur Murs was often glossed over in many of these articles and is still peripheral in larger conversations regarding Varda’s filmography. This is not to say that Mur Murs is more important than any of her other, more studied films such as Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), but that it deserves a place next to them in the Varda canon. Additionally, many significant texts about Varda essentially erase Mur Murs. For example, in Contemporary Film Directors: Agnès Varda, the only mention author Kelley Conway makes of Mur Murs is that it is ‘a feature documentary about street murals followed by a fiction feature called Documenteur (1981).’ In reality, the film should be remembered as a film that provides important insight into Varda’s sensibilities, rather than as an inconsequential documentary made during her second extended stay in California. Alternatively, the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series released the film on DVD in 2015 in a series called ‘Agnès Varda in California,’ bringing this period of Varda’s career back into the light. The essay ‘Outside and In’ (Michael Koresky), that was paired with the series, rightfully elevates Mur Murs as “Varda at the height of her intellectual and aesthetic powers, reflective of her unflagging inquisitiveness and the alienation she was experiencing.” It is possible that Conway did not have access to Mur Murs since the film only became available through the Criterion Collection in 2015. Again, it is important to note that my intention is not to rank Varda’s films in a hierarchy, but to emphasise Mur Murs’ importance in the colourful mosaic that is her body of work.
There is a remarkable degree of resonance between the writings of Helene Cixous and the films of Agnès Varda. Through Helene Cixous’ theory of jouissance and the feminine writer, as well as her own idea of ‘cinécriture,’ or using the camera like a pen, Varda created one of her most poignant works. According to Cixous, the feminine writer is a person who “doesn’t speak, she throws her trembling body into the air, she lets herself go, she flies, she goes completely into her voice, she vitally defends the logic of discourse in her body…she exposes herself.” (Newly Born Woman, 2008) When discussing jouissance within that same book, Cixous believes that instead as marginalised artists and women, we should “not repress something as simple as wanting to live life itself.” Instead, we should derive joy from creating our art, no matter the medium, from sparking joy in others, and from generally living our lives. The joyous, feminine writer “has never held still; explosion, diffusion, effervescence, abundance, she takes pleasure in being boundless, outside self, outside same, far from a centre…she doesn’t hold still, she overflows.” (ibid.). The feminine writer defines the world according to her own gaze, her own camera, not by the way others gaze upon her. According to Varda herself, “the first feminist gesture is to say: ‘Okay, they’re looking at me. But I’m looking at them.’ The act of deciding to look, of deciding that the world is not defined by how people see me, but by how I see them.” (Filming Desire, 2000). By acting on this decision to define the world by how she sees it, Varda gave herself agency as an artist without ever asking for permission from anyone else. Although Cixous originally wrote these ideas to describe joyous feminine writers, they are applicable to feminine filmmakers as well; this is writing, or filmmaking, from the margins.
Another significant aspect of Varda’s documentary cinema and of Cixous’ feminine writing is the ability to reflect on one’s place in the overall story as the artist, which is crucial to the intersection between the political and the personal. Varda’s “discourse, even when theoretical or political, is never simple or linear or objectivised, universalised; she involves her story in history.” (ibid.). Although moments of self-reflexivity in Varda’s documentaries increased later in her career with films such as The Gleaners and I and Faces Places, the seeds of this reflexivity were already planted in Mur Murs. For example, there are moments when Varda comments on the action; one clip shows a mural that has been demolished by the LAPD in order to better monitor drug trafficking. “The state and its officers have their own reasons for ignoring collective art, especially when it means they can get a free snort,” she quips over this footage. This kind of punching up, simultaneously light and heavy, is essential to Varda’s cinema; with a gleam in her voice, she jokes about the oppressors, but never about the oppressed. Cixous and Varda are on similar paths because they both express the need for both joy and pain when creating art, they resist the male gaze, and they both highlight the necessity of acknowledging ones’ own place in the narrative as the feminine writer.
Both Varda and most of the muralists are feminine writers who write from the margins: they express both joy and pain, they are not afraid of their neighbours, they break the conventional structure rules set by artistic gatekeepers, and they create their art, whether moving picture or mural, for ideas’ sake instead of for profit’s sake. While it is true that they share these characteristics, Varda herself is both connected to and separate from the muralists. After a string of failures in Hollywood and a painful separation from husband Jacques Demy, Varda must have felt marginal compared to the glamorous but shallow backdrop of the City of Angels. Moreover, she also acknowledges her status as a foreigner early on in the film. “In Los Angeles, I mostly saw walls-graffiti covered walls as beautiful as paintings, signed by dozens of anonymous Kilroys, walls long as mythic serpents. This was the beginning of a surprising and joyful discovery-the painted walls, or “murals” as they call them in the U.S,” Varda explains in the opening of the film over footage of colourful Los Angeles highway murals. There is no French translation for the English word “mural,” yet Varda easily closes that gap in a way that never feels exploitative or tokenising. She is genuinely curious about the lives of the muralists, and she knows the importance of portraying their joy while also not ignoring their suffering.
Varda is aware that these ideas of joy and pain are not mutually exclusive; rather than being juxtaposed against each other, they are inextricably linked. One significant example of this idea of entangled joy and suffering comes in the work of St. Elmo’s Village muralist Suzanne Jackson. “I’ve been painting birds and hearts since I was a child. I was asked by the black panthers why I didn’t want to paint fists and rifles and I felt that there was another way to paint and that there were other symbols that are really necessary, even as a black person,” she says, posing proudly in front of her mural with her young son, dwarfed by the large, colourful fish that seem to be swimming joyously in the sky. Jackson is unabashedly proud of her work as well as hopeful for the future instead of afraid. I do not believe that Jackson or Varda are insinuating that the black panthers are bad or wrong for wanting to take an angrier approach, they just believe that there is a different way to approach anti-black racism in the United States. Another muralist who promotes this idea of joy in art is Jane Golden, who earned a grant from the city government to paint murals depicting a vast forest on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway. “Even if they see it for three seconds, they’ve been exposed to art and beauty…This is the ugliest street in the world, I think. And it needed something. The people here need beauty,” she says, smiling, and proudly wearing paint-stained white overalls. Golden uses her financial privilege of her government money in order to spread joy and beauty throughout the community instead of focusing on the ugliness that she sees.
However, Varda is not painting a solely rosy and optimistic picture. A lot of the artists in the film use painting as a way to vent very real pain or trauma, to subvert the traditional art gallery system, to recover from excruciating trauma, or to help troubled youth grow into more artistic adults. Shielding his eyes with sunglasses, muralist Willie Heron tells Varda the story of how he became a painter:
“One weekend I came home to see my brother laying in blood in the alley at 16 years old. He had been jumped by a rival gang, just lying there in blood…On my way to the hospital, I collected all these images and different things just passing through my head and decided that a way of possibly getting my revenge would be through art.”
Instead of feeding into the vicious cycle of violence perpetuating violence by joining a gang and getting his revenge, Heron decided to channel the memory of his brother into murals that depict people struggling to burst out of the wall. Varda’s conscious choice to interview Willie Heron’s mother, a well-known baker within the community, also speaks to her dedication to emphasising the feminine perspective.
Feminist and Chicana woman Judy Baca is another artist who channels her anger into creating art for the community to enjoy and to learn from. “I realised when I was 23 years old that I had never seen a Chicana in a museum. There would be very little opportunity for me to take my work and put it in an establishment. And so it seemed to be logical for me to bring my work to the people,” she tells Varda. Baca here hits on important points regarding representation within visual media many years before these kinds of conversations became mainstream. Not only does Baca talk about the necessity of seeing oneself reflected in art, she also puts her words into action through her job: teaching kids from all different backgrounds who all went through the juvenile prison system to paint murals. The kids’ murals often represent the part of California’s history that has been left out. One artistically conveys a half corn-half woman spirit whispering ideas into the ear of Thomas Edison, who was a Mexican immigrant to the United States and also the inventor of the movie camera, which changed the mainstream film industry in Los Angeles forever. The kids were even paid for their work, albeit the minimum wage. Not only does Baca express her own pain through her art instead of resorting to violence, she also teaches new generations of marginalised artists to do so as well.
In order to create a film that resists the male gaze as well as systems that leave out people like the muralists, Varda knew that she had to formally disrupt the very conventional narrative structures that keep Hollywood afloat. Mur Murs does not follow any kind of traditional linear narrative structure that audiences are used to seeing in fiction or in documentary. Varda never pushes narrative rules onto the mural artists; instead of showing the audience the way she views them, she represents their own self-expression of themselves and then brings it to a larger audience through the film. This may seem like a small distinction, but when making a documentary, Varda reminds us that it is important to ask yourself if you are representing your subject the way you want them to be seen, or the way they want to be seen? Or is there a third option, one in which the filmmaker and the subjects both have points of view that are essential to the narrative? Varda is an artist with a strong intention behind this film, yet it is important to emphasise that she made a film that the muralists would be able themselves in. The traditional documentary narrative structures do not want the artist to take a curious, empathetic approach toward its subjects. When you are not a white man, everything you do, every decision you make, every aspect of your personal life, is automatically labelled as political, whether you wanted it that way or not; therefore, Suzanne Jackson’s large swimming fish, Willie Heron’s people bursting from the wall of his mother’s bakery, the children’s alternative depiction of Thomas Edison, are all political, even though they are also very close to the artist’s hearts. This is how Varda connects the personal with the political through shattering traditional structures of visual storytelling; not only did she make a film that does not follow linear narrative structure, she also made it about artists who actively subvert the traditional art gallery system by creating free art for everyone. While challenging narrative structures is something Varda began doing with her first feature La Pointe Courte, it is especially apparent here.
Ultimately, Mur Murs is a film that serves as a footnote on the murals in a way that celebrates the spirit of the artists who created them by entangling the personal and the political as well as breaking traditional form structures. As audiences, we have been treating Mur Murs the same way mainstream Hollywood treated Varda and the muralists in the film; as if it belongs on the sidelines. When it was first shown at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard category, it opened to mixed reviews. A New York Times journalist disliked Varda’s reflexive moments and referred to it as only “entertaining when it simply presents the paintings and artists without commentary.” (Agnes Varda’s Murals, The New York Times, 1981). However, with the benefit of hindsight and the ability to examine Varda’s career as a whole, audiences should now be able to recognise as well as celebrate Mur Murs’ achievements in terms of both content and form.
You can find Mur Murs on Criterion here.
It is also available to stream on the Criterion Channel
by Katarina Docalovich