“We have to be minimalist. A small event, if we can understand it, reconciles us a little bit with the world.” Agnès Varda

In my conversation with Agnès Varda about her current exhibition of video installation, photography, and sculpture showing at Blum & Poe (the full interview will run next month in The Brooklyn Rail), she emphasized that expanded vision occurs through close, returning attention to all that is caught in images of daily life: the complex and sustaining drama of living in time.

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After using Agnes Varda’s One Sings and One Doesn’t as a pun, or place-holder, in a recent post, how fun that Netflix delivered her recent autobiography, The Beaches of Agnes, to my house the very next day. I make it a habit to watch documentary portraits of women artists–Patti Smith Dream of Life, Our City Dreams, Writer of O, The Life and Work of Sally Mann, Lee Miller: Through the Mirror (as well as making my own, Women of Vision, I suppose)and better yet strive to meet them whenever I can, to support their work, and hear their voices (see recent post on Sheila de Bretteville). I look to them as I suppose younger women look to me: to have visualized (given the paucity of mainstream images) what we might become, what we might accomplish, how we do it: make art, live life, be political. You want to see if it can work (out).

Varda’s autobiography was especially useful as this kind of guide post in that, as a feminist filmmaker, her whole life seems to have been documented or made into film, and thus made re-seeable. Following her mellow lead, we get to watch with her as she watches the images that mark her watery passages from defiant youth to wise and wistful age, a laudable journey, proving it can be done: the feminist art, life, and always-learning.

I saw One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (Varda, 1977) in my graduate Women and Film class in the late 80s, with Professor Annette Michelson (one of those strangely women-averse female role-models who “mentored” my feminist education, Eve Sedgwick being another). Radical in 1977, by 1987 it already seemed dated.

Vincent Canby (1977) wrote about the film:

THE 15TH NEW YORK Film Festival gets very fashionably under way tonight at Avery Fisher Hall with a woman’s picture—a movie by, for and about women. These are women who haven’t exactly done away with men but they have successfully established an emotional strength that—unintentionally, I think—makes the men around them look superfluous for everything except for the reproduction of the species and singing in the kind of harmony that requires a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass.

Canby’s words hold eerily true for the two films I discuss today, so many years later, and so much and so little gained (for feminists and woman’s picture’s): Motherhood (Katherine Diekmann, 2009) and The Kids Are Alright (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010). While I really want to support the ideas and goals of both—putting onto the mainstream screen via movie stars (Benning, Moore, Thurman) the pathos, humor, and actual politics of the daily lives of women who live a lot like me, middle-aged, upper-middle class, professional, artistic, feminist mothers—one sings and the other doesn’t. This leads me to ask what forms are necessary to make woman’s pictures actually work?

I’ll attend to one here. As is true of the melodramatic and sentimental forms that serve as foundation for both films (and most all woman’s pix), the dramas of everyday life elevate (for the film and its women) in ways that are unrealistically scaled to the actual relevance, meaning, or impact of the household’s itsy-bitsy minutia (carrying too many grocery bags, having an affair) especially in relation to either world history, or the complex unfolding of any one person’s life. Yet any working mother can appreciate the gap between how large these small humiliations and tiny herculean accomplishments feel in relation to how inconsequential we rationally know them to be. One is reduced to really caring about goody bags or moving the car when one leaves the world of work, men, and the important things that happen outside the home, and this is at once humiliating, harrowing, and humbling.

The formal challenge resides in the minding, tending, and making clear of that very gap: Douglas Sirk marks it with style and camp; Cholodenko with witty writing and pitch perfect performance hit up against sunny LA exteriors; while Diekmann’s Uma Thurman somehow is asked to believe in the importance of her own clunky performance of home life’s endless queues-for-crap. Admittedly, this is hard work—for mothers, actors, and directors—to retain enough distance from the actual pain and pleasure that chosen- or forced-confinement creates to keep its irrelevance relative. It seems, in these (film) worlds of women, not the kids, or the moms, but the boys always, in the end, get it easiest, at least if that’s to be truly alright.