To meet new faces and photograph them so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.
To look at some of the work of “unidentified” artist JR—giant black and white images pasted onto surfaces with a literal or figurative contextual relationship—is to see the type of community-based, socially conscious messaging Agnès Varda built a career documenting. It’s no surprise to therefore hear JR explain how meaningful Varda’s Mur murs was to him as a budding artist searching for his unique voice and style. I can think of no two people more perfect to collaborate, share inspiration, and simply see the world as it isn’t usually seen. And I can think of no better way to show the fruits of this encounter than Visages, villages [Faces Places], a film wherein both secure equal artistic footing as they simultaneously play interviewer and interviee.
It’s a documentary on its surface, but a comedy at its heart. For every in-the-moment rendezous there’s a staged transition accompanied by scripted voiceover to move us forward with levity and personal history. Look no further than the opening minutes wherein the camera catches JR and Varda in multiple “almost” run-ins—same place, same time, but different headspaces. Beyond the breezy chuckle earned, however, is also a metaphor for their similarities in ambition despite five decades separating them in age. It’s as though this film provides the nexus with which they can join together and create something to stand the test of time they alone cannot. As such, their destinations hold value with their pasts. They travel towards familiar territory to view it again through a fresh lens.
Their transportation is JR’s Inside Out Project truck, a portable photo booth with wide format printer that spits out blown-up exposures to be pasted as ephemeral public art adding character and meaning to otherwise decrepit beauty. They travel to a mining town of which Varda has long possessed photos, affixing giant facsimiles of the men who worked there atop a row of houses earmarked for destruction. They journey to an abandoned town left unfinished to add the smiling faces of neighbors who’ve long since admired the site onto the facades to breathe life into otherwise empty shells of concrete. And they cross paths with former collaborators of JR’s, dockworkers and their enthusiastic wives posing as pillars of strength on the side of a mammoth shipping container wall.
Each artist brings the other to a destination that’s personally meaingful to him/her so they may form new memories together. They meet strangers with stories worth telling and learn how the world has passed itself by via technological advancement. We watch as one woman breaks down into tears at the sight of her image enlarged two-stories tall on the side of her home just as another admits embarrassment as her own portrait is photographed by strangers passing through her town. We hear from a farmer who keeps up with every new toy so he can farm 2,000 acres all by himself while a goat farmer elsewhere rejects machines for a more traditional process of old that allows her animals to exist as more than property serving her needs.
The whole therefore consists of random installations connected by the artists themselves. The subjects become a revolving door of intrigue with some even being rejected for others more suitable to the task of providing them this forum of immortality. The idea is to approach people in a way that will open them up to see what’s around them with fresh eyes. By asking these communities to become a part of their surroundings as a static fixure seen a mile away, they are introducing a new level of engagement that our world’s growing isolation has threatened to dismantle. To see the joy of workers posing for a photo to adorn the drab entranceway of their factory is to see an injection of light where monotonous routine had taken root.
And while there are running jokes such as Varda’s constant “This could be my last …” or JR’s refusal to remove his trademarked sunglasses and hat despite Jean-Luc Godard doing so long ago for a moment of vulnerability with Varda’s camera, these gags are more to give an excuse to return to the artists leading this gloriously meandering journey than provide any true dramatic impact. These asides often reach tangents that ultimately lead towards an epiphany about their next carefully curated destination. We sense frustration in some of them, their authenticity often subverted by what seem like filmed reenactments for added conflict. But whether or not JR removes his glasses proves inconsequential as long as the playful argument takes us somewhere just as special as the last.
Faces Places documents the people met as much as its filmmakers at this specific moment in their converging careers. We learn who they are through breif vignettes as well as through their compassionate interactions with their subjects. JR and Varda challenge each other, forever seeking purpose in their current location with a compromise between innovation and experience. They are capturing the souls of everyday people able to find the pleasures of a simple life. Their art uses humanity as paint, camera as brush, and the world at-large as an infinite canvas deserving of life’s predictable unpredictability frozen in place. And while the artifice in the road trip transitions (save a heartfelt moment sparked by an absent friend) is obvious, they too come from a place of authentic emotion.
No locale is complete without those injecting it with the vitality of life in passing or through residence. JR and Varda may be wandering through—often for the second time—but they still prove themselves worthy of being a part of the landscape simply by their presence. Too often we neglect the beauty of what we make and the importance of ourselves as its makers, taking for granted the mark we leave. This film seeks to remind the common man and woman of their identity as more than a cog in a machine. We all have hopes, dreams, and aspirations and yet we pass each other by without a second glance, heads buried in phones. But we’re all an integral part of the whole. We deserve to be noticed.
courtesy of Cohen Media Group