What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Agnès Varda and JR's Wonderful "Faces Places"

A couple of week’s ago, at City Cinema, I saw Agnès Varda and JR’s wonderful Faces Places. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What a sublime piece of personal filmmaking! It reminds me of Ian Frazier’s work. “You read an essayist like Frazier primarily for the encounter between his sensibility and the world,” Carl Rotella says, in his New York Times review of Frazier’s Hogs Wild. Yes, exactly. And that’s what I go to Varda’s films for – the encounter between her genial, curious, idiosyncratic sensibility and the world. To quote Richard Brody, “Shot by shot, line by line, moment by moment, Varda rescues the vitality and the beauty of the incidental, the haphazard, the easily overlooked—because she fills each detail with the ardent energy of her own exquisite sensibility” (“What to Stream this Weekend: Seaside Frolics,”, August 18, 2017).

In Faces Places, Varda travels with JR in his van (equipped with a photo booth and a large-format printer), exploring a number of small French towns, talking to various people (e.g., goat farmers, dockworkers, chemical plant workers). To quote Brody again, “The subject of Faces Places is the heroism of daily life, the recognition of the daily labor and struggles of factory workers, farmers, waitresses, and, for that matter, women over all whose private roles in sustaining the public lives of their male partners go largely uncommemorated” (“Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places Honors Ordinary People on a Heroic Scale,”, October 10, 2017). Varga and JR honor the lives of ordinary people, but also transfigure them, making huge black-and-white murals of their portraits, and pasting them on arresting surfaces such as railway tank cars, barns, and towering stacks of shipping containers. In the process, Faces Places magnificently fulfills one of art’s primary aims – giving the ordinary its beautiful due.

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