Murals Murals embodies all that makes Agnés Varda such a singular and masterful filmmaker, demonstrating her warm humanism, her unceasing curiosity and her unerring aesthetic instincts.
Murals Murals embodies all that makes Agnés Varda such a singular and masterful filmmaker, demonstrating her warm humanism, her unceasing curiosity and her unerring aesthetic instincts. The 1982 documentary darts around Los Angeles, showcasing the lively street art that had erupted in the city in the ‘70s, specifically the colorful murals splashed across walls all over town. What makes the film so special is that in 2019, Murals Murals is just as poignant and vibrant as ever, as gentrification—vaguely foreshadowed in many of the film’s interviews—systemically erases the murals while destroying the community spirit that birthed them, and the muralists’ themes, particularly racism, immigration and police brutality, remain hot-button sociopolitical issues today.
While watching Murals Murals, it is not the political content that stands out, but rather the ineffable yet undeniable sense of life. This is Varda’s genius. The sun-drenched Los Angeles she captures with her camera is exactly what anyone (like me) who has never been to the city imagines it to be: bursting with energy, bright colors, tall palm trees, surfers, roller skaters and good fashion sense but also with freeways clogged with traffic, racial tension and so, so much concrete. The murals are beautiful, of course, and she frames them just right with her camera, but it goes deeper than that. As a filmmaker, Varda is so humane, framing real people leading real lives; in one sense, none of the individuals in the film are exceptional, but in another sense, all of them are. Hers is not the cold, clinical approach of Wiseman or the more overtly ethnographic documentary style of Malle but instead an invigorating exploration of motive and meaning that heightens her subjects while bringing to life her setting.
Varda’s Los Angeles is the L.A. of dreams and the L.A. of reality, smashed together into a fantasia whose very texture and lived-in-ness are stranger than fiction. It is both the L.A. an outsider thinks of and the L.A. that an insider is daily confronted with. She shows a multicultural, multilingual city and her muralists are just as diverse, from Chicana feminists to black freedom strugglers to born-again white evangelicals, all spending their days rolling paint on the ubiquitous concrete of their city. There are other documentaries about Los Angeles and countless films that attempt to reconcile the very idea that a city of so many millions can exist on a fault line in the desert, but none of them show L.A. like Murals Murals does. Varda’s portrayal lives in the unseen; her L.A. is so Chicano, so black and so poor, with none of the Hollywood glitz, Beverly Hills excess or pristinely tanned beach bodies of other films.
And this gets to the political heart of Murals Murals. Every Varda film is, at its core, a political project. She is ever championing the marginalized: those who are poor and thus invisible, or not-white and thus invisible or not-male and thus invisible. Her targets are the structures that render others invisible, especially the vapid capitalism whose commodified sense of valuation has led to most of the murals shown in this very film being destroyed or covered up, but here also she is fighting the sinister white supremacy that dictates so much of US culture and policy. Regardless of the nature of the struggle, in Varda’s hands the muralists of Los Angeles are resistance heroes daring to dictate terms to the great white capitalist patriarchy. But they are also just ordinary men and women. She never canonizes: the essence of her political message is that to dare to live with agency in defiance of what is expected is to become a rebel. We are all capable of this resistance and this is also all we need to do to struggle.
So, it should shock no viewer that her 1981 documentary about street art has political relevancy 35 years later as her subject country continues to struggle with issues of xenophobia, racism and unfettered capitalism. Varda always had a keen awareness of authority and a sharp eye for spotting the resistance against it.