movie: The Gleaners and I (2000)

Recommended by the fabulously talented Jessie van Eerden. Writing my thesis with her this semester is a dream.

However, first thoughts on this movie were “wow, this is weird, why am I watching this?” and then I got into the groove. For one thing, it’s an interesting work of narrative nonfiction. Ostensibly, director Agn├Ęs Varda is concerned with an external subject: the longstanding tradition of gleaning, or collecting the leftovers of a harvest. She enters this subject via art – the paintings of Millet and Breton – but among and in between this external material, Varda looks back at herself. The moments that become personal make the whole thing work, for me. Which is not to say that I wish the whole thing had been personal, or I spent the rest of the movie waiting to learn more about our narrator, you understand. I’m just voicing again my preference for a present narrator. I appreciate external material that is commented upon by a personal voice. In fact, I pretty much require it, as a personal preference. Perhaps this is on my mind now because I’m working on my thesis, that book-length project “of publishable quality”… and I am appreciating that Jessie shares my feeling of being an essayist, of commenting on outside material from a personal perspective, rather than simply airing all my own thoughts and feelings. Personal essay, not memoir, if you will.

And that is what I’m getting out of this movie: the narrative stance. As well as the subject matter: not gleaning in particular, but the entry through art into a larger subject (I am writing about the Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, and Dominique de Menil, among others), as well as its metaphoric possibility. I really lit up when Varda noted the new, metaphoric uses of ‘gleaning’:

On this type of gleaning, of images, impressions, there is no legislation, and gleaning is defined figuratively as a mental activity. To glean facts, acts and deeds, to glean information. And for forgetful me, it’s what I have gleaned that tells where I’ve been. From Japan, I brought back in my case souvenirs I had gleaned.

She does a lot of using one hand to film the other hand, which is an interesting statement about art, right? (All that commentary about the memoir as navel-gazing!)

The Gleaners and I is a piece of art, concerned in part with art – the original paintings as inspiration; the artists Varda meets who create out of the refuse they scavenge – as well as several meanings of gleaning. The people in the French countryside consider gleaning in its old sense, bending down to pick up leftover crops lying on the ground after a harvest. Some see a difference between this act and picking, which is picking fruit or nuts or whatever off of trees, vs. bending to take off the ground. Then there is urban scavenging, dumpster diving and combing through curb leavings. And finally that metaphoric sense, in which I watch this movie and take with me – figuratively – the parts that are of most value to me.

Varda interviews a “painter and retriever” who picks up other people’s discards from the curbs to make art, not unlike a dear friend of mine: he says, “what’s good about these objects is that they have a past, they’ve already had a life, and they’re still very much alive. All you have to do is give them a second chance.” (I also love that he points out that the city council puts out maps of where this not-junk is going to be, and Varda responds that really, aren’t the maps so that the people can put out their junk? And he sort of chuckles and says yes, well, I read the maps in my own way.)

I’m really fascinated though at the assumption throughout – never challenged! – that this food is all “wasted” if people don’t eat it. One guy did say about unharvested grapes that otherwise “the wild boars and the birds will get them.” So… how is that a waste? No human got it, but it didn’t go to waste. Even the fruit that rots on the ground contributes to a system. Even if we’re compelled to make it about us: dirt is necessary for people to live, for everything to live, and rotting grapes help make dirt. I wrote to my artist-scavenger friend about this movie, and he responded: “There is an edict in the Old Testament about leaving behind a percent of crops for the animals. Old wisdom makes sense sometimes.” This seemed like a gaping hole to me. After all, we didn’t invent grapes. They grew on their own, for their own purposes: the purpose of the grape, and the bird and the wild boar. Shades of Amy Leach here…

The film is in French, with subtitles, and it’s dated. (It was released in 2000, but the narrative voice is very much “what is this new millennium nonsense” – filmed in the 90s, of course.) It’s also arty, a little slow-paced and introspective, which could contribute to its being a little less than accessible – it worked that way for me, early on. It had a little bit of the tone of Sherman’s March, but not nearly so off-putting for this viewer!

All in all, I was a touch slow to get involved but Varda’s Gleaners ended up being fascinating, thought-provoking, and memorable. It’s been haunting my thoughts. There’s a lot going on here, and I do recommend it, if you’re at all interested in… trash, food, the end of the world, reuse, art, or narrative perspectives. So, good for all thinking souls.


Rating: 8 cages interesting like boats, like violins.

movie: Milk (2008)

While I recognize it’s risky to learn history from a biopic, I really appreciated all I learned about Harvey Milk and his fine work in this movie, which was visually pleasing and well-done–through heart-wrenching–as well as educational. I do recommend it.

Milk begins with Harvey Milk’s fortieth birthday in New York, then quickly follows him to San Francisco, where he gets involved with politics, and through to his end by assassination. Sean Penn plays a beautiful Milk, and his partners played by James Franco and Diego Luna make striking, attractive characters as well. I found the acting all-around admirable. I loved the characters of Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg; and I appreciated the way Dan White was handled. He comes off not as a straight villain, but as a flawed, a troubled human being. His actions are hard to stomach. But I appreciate the nuance with which he was handled in this film.

San Francisco and the Castro feel real to me (and what do I know about how authentic they are here; but I bought it). The styles felt right for the time (same caveat). In other words, I was convinced and in fact spellbound by the whole thing; and that’s before saying that obviously I find Harvey Milk’s life and work inspirational, and his demise saddening. I would watch this movie again. You should watch it, too.


Rating: 8 votes.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

movie: The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period, beginning today with travel. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


Sorry to follow last week’s negative review with another.

I’ve heard about The Wild and Wonderful Whites for years now, and I know a lot of people who appreciate it. When I started school in West Virginia, folks from other places mention this movie as a way to know the place. As I was watching all those other Appalachia/Southern movies for school, a friend borrowed it for me, as an optional add-on to my education, I guess.

I think it’s a shame that this movie represents the state. This documentary of the apparently legendary White family records their lifestyle: petty crime and violence, drug and alcohol abuse, no great contribution to society–excepting of course the cultural value of the tap dancing. I don’t know. The film itself presents (we assume) reality, with little or no editorializing. But the response to the film feels to me like glorifying or celebrating a lifestyle that includes a certain amount of tragedy. I’m not a prude; I appreciate partying, and I don’t judge making babies out of wedlock, or anything like that. But the matriarch crying at the drug use at her birthday party, and the pillhead whose baby is taken from her in the maternity ward, are sad stories. Why are we laughing and joking about this? Also, West Virginia doesn’t deserve this as its theme song.


Rating: 4 Xan-bars for filmography, I guess.

movie: Sherman’s March (1986)

Sherman’s March is the third movie assigned for that one seminar (see also The True Meaning of Pictures and Deliverance).

I don’t know. Perhaps it will be illuminated for me in seminar; but this movie didn’t hold much value for me. Ross gets a grant to make a documentary about the lasting impact of General Sherman’s march across the South during the Civil War. He sets out with camera in hand to visit his family and meet women, traveling the Carolinas and Georgia. His love life is suffering, and everyone he meets is either a potential partner or a matchmaker. He lolls about, bemoaning his single fate and feeling sorry for himself. He occasionally opines about General Sherman or visits a monument. Look for lines like, “Why aren’t you in love with me?” and “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know her, Ross.” (Two and a half hours of this.)

Woe is Ross. The end.


Rating: 3 hours of my day lost.

movie: The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (2002)

This movie was assigned viewing for school, for the same seminar on “the documentary imaginary” that assigned Deliverance. It won’t surprise you to know then that I was comparing them as I watched this one.

The True Meaning of Pictures is a documentary, examining the work of photographer Shelby Lee Adams, and examining his portrayal of his home region of Appalachia. In a major departure from Deliverance, then, this movie explicitly questions how Appalachia is seen and viewed artistically, and asks if its portrayal is fair, or stereotypical, or exploitative. This is a nice answer to that other movie, and I’m so glad I watched them in this order.

Shelby Lee Adams is from Appalachia, so he “owns” it, it is his place. But the argument goes that he has chosen to photograph the stereotyped version of that place, a place he’s mostly left behind in his own day-to-day; and he has to some extent staged those images. Can you exploit the place you’re from? Or is what you see what you picture, and that’s that? The people whose lives he photographs (many of whom are close friends, who he stays with and visits for extended periods) generally appear (at least in this film) unbothered by the pictures he makes. The one woman interviewed here who was really offended by his work was the relative of one of his subjects. She had left her roots behind and didn’t like how he’d portrayed then. It makes an interesting juxtaposition, for me.

I enjoyed this documentary. I found it thoughtful, and informative. It offered me a view into a handful of people I found interesting to meet. I’m a little reluctant to make conclusions as to my own opinions about Appalachia and its portrayal; I’m an outsider to that region, which is an intriguing position to be in just now, studying it with a student body (and instructors) who are mostly insiders. I thought this movie was pretty fair in its examinations. But I’ll be interested to hear what my classmates think.

Next up is Sherman’s March, a 1986 documentary offering “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” So that sounds… interesting.


Rating: 8 holes in the screen door.

movie: Be Here to Love Me (2004)

Husband and I finally got around to this documentary about the life and music of Townes Van Zandt, and it was totally worth it.

be-here-to-love-meTownes and my mother share a hometown in Fort Worth, Texas, and although he lived in Montana, Colorado, Tennessee and elsewhere in bits and chunks, Texas certainly has a claim on him. Austin was at least a seasonal home in the 70’s and early 80’s, during which time my aunt & uncle lived in the same part of town there. My parents remember him as part of the Houston music scene. These are some of the reasons that his story feels close to me.

You can do your own search if you’re unfamiliar, but – Townes was born in 1944 into a family with money; had issues with drugs and alcohol, was institutionalized and given insulin shock therapy, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder; had three marriages and three children; and died at age 52 of complications of his lifestyle, to put it simply. He was a country/folk singer/songwriter with limited commercial success or coverage in his lifetime. He was not unknown but neither was he a sensation on the charts. His peers regarded him very highly, though, as we see in this film in interviews with Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Joe Ely, and others.

This documentary reminded me some of Montage of Heck, last year’s documentary about Kurt Cobain, for its focus on the heartbreaking genius, illness and ill luck of a musical hero. It more than reminded me of Heartworn Highways, the 1976 documentary about outlaw country, as the two movies share several minutes of footage. Like those, this one is an edited bunch of home videos, television clips, and interviews with people who knew Townes. I found it hard to watch for its poignancy: I have long observed some sort of connection between genius and madness, or illness, or struggle, and Townes is another good example of that tradition (see also Hemingway, Abbey, Cobain, pick your hero). An older Townes speaks slowly and in fits and starts, seeming to forget what he’s talking about mid-sentence. It’s hard to watch a gifted and singular mind fried that way.

But it’s also amazing to get to see this special man & musician in video clips that show him laughing, chatting, performing, musing, and just being with his family. That’s a rare chance, and for that opportunity, this film is worth tracking down. Also Townes’s music: check it out. For a start, you can hear a song here that featured on my definingplace page. That’s synchronicity for you.


Rating: 8 lost pages.
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