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Video and our elders

Posted by Wesley Morris  March 5, 2009 11:43 PM

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Today I wrote a story about the formidable 80-year-old Agnès Varda, who's the subject of a retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive. I mentioned her sense of modernity as a virtue. But in explaining what I meant, I failed to mention Varda's discovery and subsequent embrace of video.

In "The Gleaners and I," which was made in 2000. She rhapsodizes about the digital camera's virtues -- it's light, it's portable, it's easy to get closer to others and to yourself. Indeed, her two most recent full-length documentaries -- "Gleaners" and the upcoming "The Beaches of Agnès" -- are self-portraits captured digitally. That camera is the modern tool of visual memory. And there's something about the device's portability that brings out Varda's youthfulness as much as her natural sensibility veers toward wisdom. The format also helps further erode a distinction between documentary and fiction that was already being made in Varda's filmmaking. If it's possible, the camera enhances her whimsicality.

(As part of this month's Varda-mania, The Carpenter Center is also taking on her 2004 video installation, "The Widows of Noirmoutier," starting March 12th.)

It's interesting how video has also enlivened the moviemaking of Jean-Luc Godard and Warner Herzog, who've been using it lately to make, respectively, lyrical tracts and complex nature documentaries (human and otherwise). Sidney Lumet was 82 when he shot "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" in digital high-definition. Eric Rohmer was in his early '80s when he made "The Lady and the Duke."

In some ways, their embrace of it is no different from younger artists like Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, David Fincher, or Gus Van Sant's doing the same. But it does prove you can teach old masters new tricks. Using video is frequently a matter of budgetary necessity, but the elders all thrive with the technology in ways that embarrasses directors half or a third their age. It's not a mean to an end for Varda, Herzog, and the rest, it's an invigorating paintbrush.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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