Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Vagabond (1985) DVD................8/10


“You chose total freedom and but you got total loneliness. The time comes when, if you go on you destroy yourself. You head for destruction. If you want to live you stop. My friends who stayed on the road are dead now, or else they fell apart: alcoholics or junkies, because the loneliness ate them up in the end.” –Farmer speaking to Mona

This critical conversation extends itself into the visual language of the film, as do several. "If you want to live, you stop." VAGABOND (1985) is in fact punctuated by moments where Mona, our detached and wandering loner, forges past stop signs, but not before pausing for a hanging moment. She is recurrently given explicit warnings, both tactile and in conversation, but falls deaf to them, as if impelled to her own end by indifference. Mona’s arrogant fatalism is what differs her most from, say, the altruistic driven character of Alex Supertramp of INTO THE WILD (2007). In fact, it seems apt to be discussing Agnes Varda's VAGABOND in lieu of the recent release of Sean Penn’s film. Both share an uncompromising spirit of refusal and follow an usher who has arguably no roots in this ‘world of reason’ on their rebellious migrations. While the commonalities of these films are striking (structure, premise), their differences are stark and mostly attitudinal. Mona of VAGABOND is virtually the opposite of Alex of INTO THE WILD though they make roughly the same larger decisions, affect those they encounter by their intensity, and meet with a solemn and solitary finality. Where Alex is aimed (reasonably so), Mona is aimless. He seeks a means, and she seeks an end (whether or not she understands it). Mona has no interest in building loyalties or to be changed by her encounters, nor does she strive to offer any returns of thanks or wisdom, while Alex is explicitly seeking a kind of purity, a truth that he desires to share. “Maybe I’ll write a book when I get back, about my experiences.” He rejects the tenets of man and law with knowledgeable discretion, not bitter totality. To be fair though, Mona makes a curious gesture of selflessness by giving blood, and not for food or for money. She pawns it off as "killing time," but in a way it might be the best way for her to lend herself, because it is done from a distance, detached completely from those who will take benefit. In a sense, it could be taken as her own obscure manner of "living on," in the way that an artists work is their own vying for posterity. I'm reminded of Francois Ozon's unsympathetic and complex LE TEMPS QUI RESTE (2005), in which the young, rather insensitive, and bitter Romain, dying of cancer, makes a final gesture of amends by helping a family conceive, naming the child the sole recipient of all his wealth. Its a small moment that doesnt swell or turn saccarine, just as Mona's moment remains as passing as any other in her downfall.

Mona is a base individual, whose ambitions are wholly selfish and sensual (that’s not to infer that she is simplistic). She seeks no attachment and boasts a harsh ambivalence towards those she encounters (though some evoke a brief sensitivity from her, such as Assoun, “the man with the kind eyes.”). We never really get wind of her motives or of her heart. VAGABOND is insular to a brief period of her wandering, as revealed and anchored by scenes of those scorned individuals interviewed in the police investigation of her death. What we do get, in terms of motives, is a latent superficial remark that explains a part of her disdain, but it comes across as more of a shallow pretense to a deeper concealed impulse we’ll never know. “I hated being a secretary. I quit those bosses, but not to find another boss on the road,” she says to the farmer’s accusation of her laziness and inadequacy. “You don’t want anything. We give you land, you don’t do anything with it. Your heads empty….You’re no drop-out, you’re just out. You don’t exist.” “Fuck your philosophy!” she exclaims.

The film floats on a motif of stark but elegant lateral panning shots, calling a likeness to Mizoguchi and the more unsparing moments of his etherial but realist masterwork UGETSU (1953), with the camera held back, hung in observation by detachment. Unique to VAGABOND is that these shots convey, not only the attitude of Mona, who sidesteps responsibility and repercussion (save for her demise), but also function as microcosms of the film itself. Several of these lateral shots start before Mona, catch up to her and then rest at a point ahead of her, alluding to her transitory nature and the parenthetical narrative. One of these shots is particularly telling. The camera begins at the top of a stone wall, it pans left somewhat swiftly and imperfectly, passing Mona who is seated and looking at photographs, resting well ahead of her on a tangle of winter-worn branches. The photographs that we are shown shortly after, lean to the form of the narrative, being itself a composite of flashbacks and fractured recollections, mere snapshots in the lives of those who encountered Mona, and but a snapshot of her own.

This much is certain; Mona meets her end, falling waerily headfirst into a ditch covered in wine dregs. It is a meager affair as pitiful and solitary as her life on the road, seeming more like a pained resignation as it unravels. It’s not a surprising result, mostly because it is the first thing we come to know of her existence, but also because the film constantly breeds an impending finality, (another quality it bears in common with INTO THE WILD), as if it could end at any moment. Although INTO THE WILD conceals Alex’s death till its final moment, and all the while you hang upon his volition, VAGABOND folds its hand on Mona within the first five minutes. Even if Varda held back till the end like Penn did, it would be evident that Mona was at a dire threshold. The most direct implication of her character and demise is that of the dialogue between Mona and the woman tree specialist, who drives her around half delightedly, half curiously, for presumably 24 hours. The woman is explaining the work that she does; seeking a cure for diseased plane trees. Mona boasts an obvious disinterest. “It invades the tree and kills it. We can’t stop it. All plane trees are doomed. The epidemic began, we understood too late.” “How dumb,” Mona replies. “Not to stop the plague is even dumber,” the woman recants. “Anyway…” says Mona, rolling her eyes. After this conversation, the woman drives them onward, but the camera turns from them to the heart of the withering infected tree she had cited, set upon its final days. This is a perfect illustration of how Mona is herself infected. Her sickness is that of constant refusal and a debilitating velocity. These qualities are as much a cancer as the fungus killing the tree, a sickness that is all too late understood and has no “resistant strain” to stave its course. Remember what the farmer said of his wayward friends, “the loneliness ate them up in the end.” Neither kindness, nor company, nor security, nor warning can lull Mona to stillness, though ironically in all her travels she never really gets anywhere and in fact collects a loose orbiting family of members unaware of each other’s proximity and relation. A number of those whom she affects, are drawn into passing encounters with one another, like bodies caught in the tail of a comet, drawn to bitter realizations or reflections of themselves. If nothing else then, Mona was a wandering mirror covered by a filthy scrim.

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