Teddy Bears, Telemachus' Father, and Time
Not precisely film, nor even documentary, so seventy-seven-year-old Parisian Agnès Varda terms Cinevardaphoto, rather, an assemblage of “cine-essays.” In the original, Montaigne sense of l’essai, each part of this loose trilogy is, indeed, a personal view of “last Sunday or anytime, I or anyone.”
Photographer Edward Steichen and writer On Photography (1970) Susan Sontag stressed the medium’s mission of explaining the individual to the group and to himself, and of conferring importance on the subject-moment. With her own running commentary here, the French photographer-writer-director interprets a disparate array of stills and continuous film while acknowledging that, with time, opinions evolve. Time itself, in effect, becomes a major theme.
Thus it is odd that the oldest selection, the third, is the least effective and integrated. Animated from her photos of the era, Salut les Cubains records the Caribbean island four years after the fall of Batista, when revolutionary hope and belief still burned high. Current repeated press-material admonitions to “replace this documentary in the context of 1962” notwithstanding, the half-hour comes across as a chamber of commerce promo that has dated the far side of badly. Redeemed only by energy, this homage to the women of the new Cuba, to the hats and the music, willing labor, social reform and fervor, confident artistic freedom and even Fidel’s six-hour speeches -- now merciless harangues -- the work might serve as a period-piece, silly sad reminder for those who thought to see Third World light.
The segment is related to a photo exhibition and thus at least tangentially to its two companions, the middle of which is mostly color but grows out of a single b&w taken twenty-eight years earlier, and the opening, present-day color segment, which oscillates between an unsettling museum exhibit of several thousand stills and the Toronto gallery owner and collector who inspired it.
Dedicated to Bienvenida, the Spanish title figure’s mother, twenty-two-minute Ulysses won France’s 1983 César for best short. It begins, comes back to, and ends with a 1954 photo by Varda, who was drawn to the Mediterranean’s beaches and dead creatures sometimes found there. His mother remarks that though her now-grown son could not officially be registered for the Greek hero, a name not figuring on the Catholic calendar, such was father Juan’s choice and has always been used.
In the key photo, the naked child sits half-turned towards the distant camera, the naked father standing to his left looking at the sea, and starkly in the right foreground lies a dead, perhaps pregnant, goat, fallen from cliffs overhead.
Grown to married manhood, bookshop owner Ulysses Llorca does not remember the camera image but childish drawings from it. Against news footage of France at the time of Dien Bien Phu, from the original photo and drawings and snapshots of herself starting out, the filmmaker elicits responses from mother Bienvè, neighborhood children and others, finally to voice her own imaginings. Picasso and goats, Toto and Oliver Twist, Penelope, Nausicaa, Circe and the Sirens, the Ages of Man, physical and temporal wandering -- evocative musings, far-fetched, mutable and personal.
Opening forty-four-minute Ydessa, The Bears and Etc. deals with, expands from, the Marburg-born (1948) daughter of Holocaust survivors. Entirely in black, pale and heavily rouged and finger-ringed, long red-haired, her lower lip drooping to the right, a confident unselfconscious Addams Family figure in an eighteen-room house, Ydessa Hendeles seems the world’s most organized collector of Teddy bears and photographs of them.
Occupying three rooms of ten in a 2003-04 Munich Haus der Kunst exhibition, “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” featured two balconied rooms containing thousands of starkly framed floor-to-ceiling shots of stuffed Teddies and their human owners/families, while a third was bare save for “Him,” sculptor Maurizio Cattelan’s lifelike kneeling Hitler in a business suit. Alongside shots of Ms. Hendeles, brief comments from curators, museum visitors, writers of children’s books and the collector’s mother Dorothy, and close-ups of the photos and actual stuffed figures, Varda’s voice comments supply information about the bears’ stories and real and imagined relationships with people and society. That, in conception and manufacture, the popular stuffed toy is German (Bär) and American (Theodore Roosevelt) -- humorously, one photo is from a “Berlin, Ont.” Studio -- winds imperceptibly to reflections on childhood, the past, memory and roots, and the Holocaust.
“Fascinated by the inert photo that comes to life when we look at it,” Varda presents this film as her monologues meant to draw out viewers’ dialogue reactions. Though interesting to a degree, such time-shifting highly personal interpretation is the stuff, however, of the written essay, not the moving picture.
(Not rated by MPAA.)