Our Cosmetically Imperfect Yields; or, Agnès Varda’s Loose Grip on Gleaning
Gnomish Agnès Varda, with her mushroom cap of hair dyed the color of a dark, ripe cherry.
A film conversation between Gregory Giles and Teresa K. Miller
Gnomish Agnès Varda, with her mushroom cap of hair dyed the color of a dark, ripe cherry, with her visual groaners (posing impishly beside Jules Breton’s glaneuse with her own shoulder-borne sheaf of wheat)—she operates in the spirit of happenstance, fearless of mockery, making filmed essays in the most etymological sense of the word “essay”: as an attempt to create some new connective analogue, a noble experiment of symbology-from-scratch. As an attempt, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) often features goofily attenuated stretches of equivalence, ligaments of bear-with-me narratives that try, at least, to bring her practices in some relation to impoverished people foraging for food. As the original French title has it, she is, in part, la glaneuse (although, so are the subjects of Millet’s and Breton’s paintings), and they are les glaneurs. She would prefer being part of the subject matter, a point that is lost with the English title’s first person pronoun—The Gleaners and I—in which the link is cut in favor of a vis-à-vis relation, with an imperious gap between filmmaker and subjects.
I want essays to return to this sense of the unrefined attempt—in some ways, I want our conversations to be like that. This is not the art of persuasion with its polished rhetorical clarities and met expectations; this is the mess of a new, unfathomed world. If poetry is the suggestion of the unknown, I want this to be poetry, but I would rather not hone anything. I favor the rawness, even if audience members/other poets roll their eyes when performers read their unedited dream journals at the poetry slam. The trouble isn’t that those journals are unedited; the trouble is that they are limited by the format of dream reportage—the constraining historiography of their subconscious—and the documentation of dreams is pedestrian in its typically anxious desire to represent.
But as Varda closes her fists around the forced perspectives of passing trucks, like a child playing peek-a-boo, she wants relation to be the accident, not the intention. “There are my hands again!” she seems to exclaim every time her aged paws float before the camera. They are a satisfying “horror” to her, a harbinger of death and personal culpability—like the hand in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And they can crush trucks transporting produce to hypermarkets. But they always seem to surprise her without ever causing despair. Throughout the film, we watch gleaners at work, deploying their hands to the business of fruit picking after the harvest, or retrieving rejected vegetables from the asphalt of the market in the late afternoon. Her hands get in the way, occasionally—like the forgotten lens cap on a lanyard jerking beneath the camera that thoughtlessly films the ground—doing their crustaceous dance, exploiting their owner’s loosely directed narrative in order to intrude and witlessly force new meanings that may or may not convince Varda. It would all seem disingenuous if it weren’t for Varda’s sanguine willingness to look foolish, perhaps a characteristic of nouvelle vague humorists, now that we have considered Moullet.
Like a child playing peek-a-boo, she wants relation to be the accident, not the intention.
Clichéd imagery presents the major problem at the archetypal unedited-dream-journal-open-mic reading, sure, but even with unconstrained or unexpected juxtapositions of image and theme, I’m not ready to join the first thought/best thought school in full rejection of revision. Varda’s film has documentary elements, but its amorphous, messy meditation defies the documentary label. She picks up story lines, trails off into sequences signifying nothing except her own curiosity about movement within the frame, returns, haphazardly, to those earlier lines, ends without moral. On an accident-intention relation continuum her final cut skews toward accident, but she seems much more invested in the interplay between accident and intention than you suggest. She explicitly calls out a culture of waste and inequity: People live in trailers without electricity by the highway. They dig discarded but edible food out of the garbage. Potato growers dump their cosmetically imperfect yields to rot without alerting hungry people to the surplus. But she leaves room for surprise and free association, for moments of humor and aesthetic digression simultaneous with the more sociopolitical concerns. Here is a difference between art and propaganda, and a parallel with Moullet’s Genèse d’un repas: a loose grip.
Here is a difference between art and propaganda: a loose grip.
The problem with truly unedited attempts is so much of what we think/say/generate harnesses no magnetism or movement, or the compelling kernel hasn’t been developed/revealed in the first iteration. For me the question becomes not whether to refine or avoid refinement, whether to cleave to accident or intention—but where is the most fruitful point in those muddy, liminal spaces for a given project? It would be disingenuous to call this conversation entirely raw; though the document accretes chronologically through subsequent exchanges, and we pass it back and forth quickly, we are not quick enough for spontaneity to smother deliberation. And conversation itself is a process of revision—of each other and ourselves.
There is and is not causality in the world, so a genuine attempt must embody that tension in some way. Humans seem wired for narrative, analogy, and if-then/first-next statements, but at the same time, so much of what happens in our lives is random and out of our control. At first, Varda’s man eating vegetables off the ground after the farmers’ markets seems sad, possibly mentally ill; she tells him it’s strange he’s concerned about a balanced diet (an unexplored and condescending beggars/choosers premise), but he replies it’s normal as he has a master’s in biology. With that master’s, he sells newspapers by a transit station. We find that he lives in public housing, where he has organized a regular night class for his fellow residents, immigrants from Africa, to learn to read, write, and speak French. He defies dismissal as an unthinking body scurrying from discarded pile to discarded pile; standing at the whiteboard, he is funny, generous, engaging. It’s a good story, an unexpected reveal. And also, life is long stretches of highway with no particular meaning, just moments trying to amuse ourselves with hand games. I think of your interview with Kay Ryan, when she told you much of the time she isn’t thinking or writing anything profound, just letting her mind wander along the lines of “I like spaghetti.”
He defies dismissal as an unthinking body scurrying from discarded pile to discarded pile.
What’s missing from all this discussion of form and thesis, though, is some attempt to grapple with an overarching but mostly unspoken thrust of the film: what it means for Varda personally to face aging as a woman. I, too, felt let down by the English translation of the title, but for different reasons. In French, it is The Gleaners (male or mixed-gender group) and The Gleaner (solitary female). Yes, Varda seems the evident singular gleaner, separated to some degree from her subjects, whether first person or third. But sifting through postcards of paintings from her travels, she says, “It’s always a self-portrait.” Your gloss of “There are my hands again!” is not an accident but in turn a lament, an assertion of living before death, a claim on visibility in a world—broadly and artistically—that renders women invisible when they transform too far from their 20-year-old bodies.
Your gloss of “There are my hands again!” is a lament, an assertion of living before death, a claim on visibility in a world that renders women invisible.
Gleaning follows the primary, commercially rewarded harvest but asserts much of value remains that should not go to waste. The pockets of resurgent gleaning in contemporary French and American society attempt to reclaim the stance of collectivity and value from the jaws of shame, isolation, and criminalization. What is still edible and useable, though overlooked by the industrial harvester, is not garbage. Varda’s narration remains too self-effacing—too dismayed not so much by her own approaching mortality as by the superficial precursors to that mortal end, in a medium that is, after all, all surface—to proclaim explicitly her own reclamation of her body in the face of industrial aesthetic rejection of aging women. Yet her act of filmmaking does just that.
The pockets of resurgent gleaning attempt to reclaim the stance of collectivity and value from the jaws of shame, isolation, and criminalization.
I should be clearer about transparent happenstance during creative practices: It is less about first thought/best thought and more about keeping and owning traces of approach. I have taught students to polish and polish, discarding drafts, repudiating the accretion on the palimpsest for the sake of making a document of perfect utility, believing that expository writing is simply the attempt to dissolve form even as it shores up content in apparently levitated relief.
This kind of refinement is excellent for job and school applications, but in all other assignments in which the writer’s perspective is a significant feature, it is unnecessarily deceptive. Varda’s film attempts to allegorize the act of gleaning food for sustenance, so I will try to do the same with this next anecdote. Kelly and I walk among the food carts near Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, searching for Nong’s Khao Man Gai, a cart that serves one chicken dish traditionally found on the streets of Thailand. All fresh ingredients, served on butcher paper, with a gluten-free option for Kelly (the subtraction of soy). Started by dyed-blond Nong Poonsukwattana, a young Thai female immigrant who has meshed nicely with this explosive food cart “movement” after years working as a line cook and server at various Thai restaurants throughout Portland, not least of which Pok Pok, the trendy Thai eatery led by James-Beard-Award-winning chef Andy Ricker, who is obviously not from Thailand, although expert in northern Thai cuisine. This is Portland foodie culture in a nutshell: Kelly and I combining our chicken, rice, and broth into a dish that is ubiquitous on the streets of Thailand (although typically not gluten-free, or made with curated ingredients), seated along a brick embankment in the square, while across from us, a scruffy white male vagrant surreptitiously gathers discarded containers of food in order to pull together a meal. I catch his eye accidentally, and unless I am projecting my own embarrassment, imagining some optical violation of privacy I want him to enjoy, he looks a little hunted and not happy to share a look. And he is chewing quickly while he stands near a garbage can overflowing with white boxes, white napkins, white plastic cutlery, transparent condiment containers—all colorfully soiled with the evidence of picked-through, prepared food.
In a late-capitalist nation, we have to shunt this image aside as either an embarrassment, a shame, a trespass, or a nightmare of failure. But can it be totally, totally fine? Can we find a tidier, cleaner place to put excess food where others can enjoy it? This likely sounds naïve to many Americans, simply to ask this question. It sounds naïve, unsanitary, trivializing, but the only other option is what happened in Alaska when I was in Valdez the summer of 1989, after the Exxon oil spill that drew hundreds of indigent people from around the state to a small town that couldn’t sustain them: The new arrivals overestimated the number of people Exxon would hire to clean up their catastrophic mess, and local businesses began charging unconscionable prices for food, clothing, and other staples, given the wage inflation among those fortunate few who had jobs with Exxon. When no one else could afford to buy produce at the grocery store, the owners hired guards to stand by the dumpsters at night, so that the “excess” population couldn’t do what Varda’s subjects do throughout the film: glean from what would inevitably be left to rot—the grocery store’s asinine justification no doubt being that none of them would buy food if they knew they could simply dumpster-dive after hours.
The grocery store’s asinine justification being that none of them would buy food if they knew they could simply dumpster-dive after hours.
This is the trace imagery of American consumption, what seems unsavory to those who have disposable incomes and can afford to waste food. To cordon off this inevitable effect of our daily nourishment is to live blindly. I want a picture that shows the “garbage”—the perfectly edible, healthy “waste”—and the ridiculous, perfectly useless embarrassment we force ourselves to experience when we see a person compelled to eat under any circumstances, like any of us would have to do if caught in a similar pickle. In Varda’s film, the unemployed former truck driver who sorts through sprouting potatoes rejected by harvesters also gathers recently expired food in unguarded dumpsters behind French markets, choosing fish, cucumbers, and apples before he returns to his small trailer beside a highway. “We are not afraid to get our hands dirty,” he says. “You can wash hands.” Being the last remark before a scene-changing cut and one among many hand-related references, his aphoristic comment has an impact that forces us to consider its resonance across the next scene: the relatively antiseptic, smoothly active hands of the Michelin-rated, white-smocked chef who announces the appetizer for that evening’s $100 menu, consisting of lamb kidney in a chicory root sauce with a potato fritter, aniseed and nut soup, and mushroom mousse with truffle oil. The abrupt transition with its precipitous socioeconomic leap, however, soon lands softly as we watch the chef’s own gleaning expeditions, gathering leftover grapes, apples, and herbs in the fields so that he can know with the utmost certainty where some of his restaurant’s ingredients originate.
The hand bridges somewhat the shock of economic disparity, a symbol of nourishing stewardship, from source to consumption. It attends the universality of gleaning, retroactively normalizing the economically poorer examples that would otherwise incite shame and embarrassment in the viewer.
The hand bridges somewhat the shock of economic disparity, a symbol of nourishing stewardship, from source to consumption.
We highlight, then, rather than conceal, the exposed stitches and seams of the Global North’s commercialized food system, its dead ends and inadequacies, as we also leave record of the evolution and junctures of our thought processes on the page.
Your idea of sharing the surplus is not naïve; the concept underpins food banks, recipients of near-expired perishables from the grocery store and other excesses in the for-profit system. My elementary school friend’s mom ran the food bank near my childhood home, and we volunteered there sometimes as kids. One week, hundreds of pounds of rice from which to sieve tiny shards of gravel. Another, all wilting broccoli and no potatoes. Sometimes dairy, sometimes not. But while the banks are a step up from digging through garbage cans—more sanitary, and with an open invitation—they remain a paternalistic arm of an industrial food complex. If 14–20% of US households live in chronic food insecurity, food banks do not address a transient emergency but rather prop up an increasingly inequitable economic system, one that fails to pay large swaths of the population sufficient wages to buy food with independence and dignity.
We highlight the exposed stitches and seams of the Global North’s commercialized food system as we also leave record of the evolution and junctures of our thought processes on the page.
You and I sat on the amphitheater steps outside Oakland’s City Hall a year ago and ate soup made from hundreds of pounds of vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste. Feeding the 5000 started in the UK and came to our town, a celebration and proof of concept instead of a charity meal, where everyone was welcome: activists, city residents, tourists, people living in the park and in the surrounding condominiums, curious passersby. This acknowledged our shared humanity more than a food bank or a soup kitchen could, and yet that stubborn strand of dependence on stores, corporations, and agricultural enterprises to volunteer donations instead of trashing—the ultimate decision-making power over sustenance and survival left in the hands of the for-profit few.
I’m struck by how much reflection Varda’s film stirred in me despite the fact that on the fifth-grade-book-report level, I wouldn’t say I liked the film. Where I wanted a deep, sustained look into the subjects’ lives and the theoretical implications of their choices, I got a more superficial gleaning scrapbook. And the early handheld digital video is off-putting, not only lacking film’s tactile artifacts—the rich grain of physical media, maybe akin to the exposed linguistic sutures of true attempts—but adding its own flat, yellowed, pixelated filter. The medium, though a kind of revolution in its turn-of-the-millennium context, feels shoddy and gives the attempted artful meditations the air of farce. And yet, Varda opens a space for us to collaborate: Her audience necessarily co-constructs the piece because of its raggedness.
Early handheld digital video lacks film’s tactile artifacts—the rich grain of physical media, maybe akin to the exposed linguistic sutures of true attempts.
Early digital video camcorders such as the Sony DSR 300 and DCR-TRV950 used in Varda’s film will—like most nascent technologies—inevitably produce an image that dates over time, and while I’m not sure what they cost originally (a 2002 online review lists the latter at $2600), it’s likely she chose the format because it was relatively inexpensive; at the same time, I would say the video look of the documentary suits the cost-effectiveness of the entire subject, and given the moldy corners of her home that she professes to love, I doubt that Varda is an entirely secure woman (i.e., massively insured, richly endowed, indifferent to price), at least in the late-capitalist sense. (I’m sure in all other senses she is a titan of security, cherished and protected by her legacy and affiliations within French culture.)
This is the second time I have invoked the caveat of late capitalism, not in the spirit of fussy bookkeeping, but rather in the hope of demonstrating that all my assertions must be conditional, given our economic system. The paternalism of food banks, of course, will always be a poor settlement, a next-best resource beside alternative forms of government that would manage state and global economies differently, creating radically different systems that make nutritious food available to every individual, enabled by the simple fact that there is enough to feed the world already—the irrefutable, frustrating condition that certifies our cruelty as a species; titmice, dugongs, and cuttlefish can moderate food consumption better than we can. Our political greed and inefficient distribution channels discourage the universal availability of this basic necessity.
Titmice, dugongs, and cuttlefish can moderate food consumption better than we can.
This is not an actual shortage, therefore, but rather one produced by a lack of will among those psychologically captured in local frames of existence, voting men and women who believe their vested interests are a) constantly under assault, and b) within any one person’s control. Politics under late capitalism is simply an endless deployment of susceptible fears, whether it involves the fear of immigrants or the fear of climate change. Until the rules change, we will always have to work cynically, exploiting reactionary fears for the benefit of all.
Politics under late capitalism is simply an endless deployment of susceptible fears, whether it involves the fear of immigrants or the fear of climate change.
Like Luc Moullet in Genèse d’un repas—our previously discussed film—I must finally implicate my own insecurities: At one point, Varda genuinely bonds with young vagrants (the second time I have used a word some might view as derogatory) who sport fashionably dreadlocked hair and corrective lenses, even as they live on the streets (as if I believe the homeless should verify their status by refusing to wear prescription glasses!). They gripe about being refused access to dumpsters for food, and at this moment, I can’t help but think about the gutter punks I have often mocked—the irascible young men and women in camouflage who panhandle with their pitbulls on rope leashes along Haight Street in San Francisco, the Pearl District in Portland, and other nationwide urban hotspots of similar activity—with my ignorant, dead-wrong assumptions of their poseur status (e.g., trustfunders playing at poverty), the contradiction of which does not preclude me from being occasionally snide. Mockery is merely rhetorical concertina wire surrounding a vulnerable anxiety: in this case, my fear of their precocious “authenticity,” if that scare-quoted word can signify a path made for the young and homeless that is mostly followed without volition.
Ironically, if anyone has a limited impact on the earth’s resources, these exceedingly earnest French children do, even if what I once perceived as a “choice” was actually precipitated by family dysfunction, sexual abuse, a search for a more accepting community, an untreated mental illness, or self-medicating drug use, and even if they grow with age into less fashionable homelessness and more universal neglect, entering the purview of my impotent sympathy simply because they are now beyond the intense, media-driven fetishization of youth that always arouses my suspicions.
Ironically, if anyone has a limited impact on the earth’s resources, these exceedingly earnest children do.
Varda appears refreshingly free of the anxieties that too often encourage the malicious typing of strangers, even as she too frequently elides their backstories (as you deplore), and this openness expedites an easy camaraderie that can elicit frank remarks from cagey, homeless alcoholics and paranoid store managers alike. She can charm a judge into holding forth on laws relating to property rights as the latter stands ridiculously in black robe and white scarf before a pile of discarded appliances on a street corner, nonplussed at the stupidly germane setting, but without any sense of either lost dignity or an insulting trivialization of the legal profession. I am just not sure if Varda’s smooth passage across the socioeconomic spectrum is, in the end, a testament to her charisma or to the universal admission—begrudging or not—that biological necessity is the fundamental criterion of what should become a human right.
Nonplussed at the stupidly germane setting, but without any sense of either lost dignity or an insulting trivialization of the legal profession.
All screenshots taken from Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) copyright Agnès Varda and included here under principles of fair use for purposes of commentary. This conversation is the second in an occasional series on films with environmental and food justice themes. Read the first one, on Luc Moullet’s Genèse d’un repas (1978), here.
About the Authors:
Teresa K. Miller is co-editor of a forthcoming anthology titled Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building. Author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky), she holds an MFA from Mills College. @TeresaKMiller
Gregory Giles is the founder and singer/songwriter emeritus of the San Francisco band 20 Minute Loop. He lives near Portland, Oregon, with his occasional collaborator Teresa K. Miller. An elderly man at a table to his left declares: “That’s why guns don’t have batteries!” Everything depends on “that,” but it’s lost. @gcgiles