“That’s part of the beauty. It’s going to change.”
What’s there to do while you’re in Los Angeles? Shoot a couple films, of course. That’s exactly what French auteur Agnès Varda decided to do in 1981 with her fictional narrative Documenteur and documentary Mur murs. The latter proves a very down and dirty point and shoot piece, immortalizing the myriad murals around Los Angeles as well as the artists behind them. This is important too since so many have been covered in graffiti, knocked down, or hidden by new construction. She shoots these works both in close-up to linger on different portions for detail and via rolling pans with the painter’s name whispered into the air as we pass each by. Her movie depicts culture as much as art to provide a fascinating look into the past.
Narrating it herself, Varda seeks to find the reason such art exists in a world overrun by commercial advertising competing for the public’s attention and space. Some interviewees extensively explain the purposes of their work—why it’s located where it is, who’s depicted, and their intent. But just as many prove born from idleness or inspiration (one gentleman painting his wife’s face on their house, cleaning it whenever necessary) or as a hybrid with one foot resting in capitalist gain and another in beauty (listening to business owners/patrons provide some of the most interesting bits of unfiltered comedic banter). Varda captures the art as is, affixed to its concrete in differing states of repair, and she ensures her human subjects are portrayed in the exact same light.
The styles and backgrounds of the artists run the gamut. Most shown are black or “Chicano” because they’re in the majority where Varda visits. The work mirrors this fact in its depiction of those same races in and around their homes. As one muralist explains, the odds of getting her work into a museum as a Latina were stacked so high that she had to take matters into her own hands and share it with the community herself. It isn’t open-air specific either as Varda visits a school of which two former students paint each wall with the stipulation to keep aggressive politics like that of the Black Panthers out. It’s still often provocative, though, supplying a venue for the young to ask questions and embrace their emotive experiences.
A lot of the work is fantastic with many highlights coming from Kent Twitchell, Willie Herrón III, and Victor Henderson. It helps too that they each give Varda their time to talk on-camera. She even has some fun visually with Kent’s murals. “The Freeway Lady” is shown statically, but a couple others have motion added for captivating effect. “Holy Trinity with Virgin” has Twitchell himself superimposed in the gap that holds the Holy Spirit and we travel up and down each body so the artist can explain his models and his motives. “Six Los Angeles Artists” goes one step further bringing its models out to reinterpret the piece on camera two years later with different hairstyles. Every mural has a story whether based in process or interpretation.
We get a glimpse of a performance piece using walls as background, a French photographer who skates and poses LA youth in front of the art, and a “traveling show” of sorts where panels of Judy Baca‘s “Uprising of Las Mujeres” are installed in the beds of pick-up trucks and transported to the front of banks and other relevant destinations. Varda’s climactic selection is something wholly different than the rest, though. It’s the expansive Father John’s slaughterhouse that began on the brush of Les Grimes for twelve years before Arno Jordan took up the mantle after Grimes tragically passed away in a fall while painting. It’s a massive undertaking and Varda goes beyond the artist to actual employees for their insight. After all, it belongs to the public.
She’s also meticulously composed her footage with select B-roll shots to add even more honesty. It can be jarring to hear a subject ask whether Varda is done, but it’s an uncensored personal touch that makes Mur murs into its own mural of LA—a picture in a picture like one of the artist’s portrait inside a portrait. Some subjects put on airs, joking or acting self-important, but it’s a woman reminding herself to reclaim her jacket before leaving and a slaughterhouse employee sheepishly coming back into frame to tell Varda, “Merci beaucoup” that resonate. To some extent the film is a diary entry of the director’s time in a foreign land, a moving scrapbook for inspiration. Now, with many works erased, it preserves an era’s artistic legacy.