Eric Hynes on Lions Love (…and Lies)
I don’t know quite how to put this, but when you’re making a movie, you’re constantly, whether it’s fictional or factual, you’re constantly sort of looking at what you’re doing as you’re doing it. You’re realizing what you have, how to incorporate that into a master plan—if there is a master plan. —Jim McBride
There was a moment in the late 1960s when it seemed you couldn’t make a movie without interrogating every aspect of what went into making a movie. You couldn’t tell a story without dissecting and dismantling it. You couldn’t document the world without challenging the factuality of the documentation. Suddenly—though actually not so suddenly, if you were tracking the likes of Robert Frank, John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe, et al—evident reality seemed fake. Meanwhile fabrications—the plastics, the outrageous fashions, the blood red James Rosenquist billboards—could seem sincere. Being could seem like bullshitting, and performance a converse, perverse form of sincerity. Or if not necessarily seeming so, then worth positing as such. It was an era of documentaries that might be put-ons (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, The Fall, King Murray, Portrait of Jason) and concoctions that might be, but which certainly seemed true (David Holzman’s Diary, The Brig). And these were all New York films and filmmakers, from trailblazing observers like Leacock, Pennebaker, and Maysles, to multidisciplinary experimentalists like Frank and Mekas, to thespian philosophers like Greaves and Cassavetes, to genius dilettantes like Warhol and Mailer.
It was a moment that began in late 1967, exploded in 1968, and echoed into 1969 and beyond. World developments pushed the form, and the form was a response, a cracked mirror, a series of questions answering uncertainty. Society, media, sexual, and social mores, race, class, and gender—inherited definitions were being rewritten, and forms with which filmmakers sought to document or narrativize these developments were ripe for revision as well. (The moment and its discontents: this is echoed in the present day, with unstable forms again rubbing roughly against uncertain times.) The goal of the hybrids and Frankenstein’s monster movies of the era seems to have been less about cobbling together a new definition than lingering within a lack of one. The not knowing was the point. That not knowing, the various formal assertions of not knowing, of not asserting one answer or shape over another, may have been the moment’s most revolutionary notion of all.
Enter Agnès Varda, who, though she had more than enough conflict, instability, and revolutionary discourse to process in her native France in 1968, instead alighted upon Los Angeles to hang out in a sunny valley ranch with three aggressively ingratiating hippie-garbed actors. (She’s spoken of how she wasn’t in Paris during the events of ’68, but it’s still curious how her impulse to dramatize the moment led her not home, but out west.) “Can we be actors and be real?” one asks provocatively at the outset of Lions Love (…and Lies). “Can we be actors and be in love?” another rejoins, significantly less provocatively. The trio—Warhol muse Viva and Hair creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado—inhabit a space fully within quotations, playing at being actors who are playing at living together for Varda’s camera over the course of a recreated June week in 1968. (The week when both Bobby Kennedy and Andy Warhol were plugged with bullets—events that barely seem to bestir the actors’ lethargy yet give definition to their malaise.) The riffing threesome gambit is often extremely off-putting, with words and actions persuading neither as committed performance or spontaneous behavior. They speak often of the plasticity of their surroundings—which Varda underscores with cutaways to the fake plants and wallpaper of the flat, a celebratory toast incorporating a Coke and a wax candle—which they thread together with talk of Hollywood, and politics, and gossip.
It’s about Los Angeles in that it’s shot in Los Angeles and everyone’s talking about Los Angeles, but the film also never really settles on what that is, or even could be. “It’s looks like you’re coming to a city,” affable cineaste Carlos Clarens says on a drive from LAX early in the movie. “But the city is never there.” And so the very setting of the film is an idea, and not a fixed place. Which is pretty much how Varda depicts it. Exteriors of the city are largely captured from moving vehicles, with locations and signposts sliding past without identification or elaboration. Meanwhile the house in the hills is a world unto itself, and it’s a world without substance or history. The swimming pool empties. The large threesome bed seems pieced together, and their self-conscious couplings seem ornamental. “It’s a fake bird of paradise,” one says about a synthetic plant, relating it to the foliage through the window. “But it’s prettier.”
Yet Varda’s journey out west makes a crucial swing through the eastern U.S., namely New York, courtesy of fellow director and downtown hybrid maestra Shirley Clarke. Flown in to pantomime trying to get a Hollywood feature off the ground, Clarke isn’t just another strange ingredient in Lions Love’s mix. She’s Varda’s lens, Varda’s conscience, Varda’s purposefully imperfectly cast doppelgänger. The female director’s stand-in is a fellow female director who’s evidently no more comfortable in front of the camera than the one behind it. In contrast to the oft-undressed lead trio, she wears giant circular sunglasses indoors, and treats her lines like alien visitations, to be puzzled over even as she’s saying them. She’s playing herself, but she’s also fronting for Varda, and the gap between them often shows, offering us a purposefully refracted view of what’s happening around them. Though it’s filmed in and freely muses on Los Angeles, with Clarke on hand Lions Love also becomes a New York movie in both form and spirit.
After learning that there’s less interest in her project than the studio head had led her to believe, and a deal-breaking reluctance to allow her final cut, Clarke skulks back to the empty apartment, climbs into bed, and grabs a bottle full of pills. “I can’t do it, Agnès. I’m not an actress,” she says, before taking her protestations a step further. “It’s not my style. I certainly wouldn’t kill myself over not being able to make a goddamn movie.” Exactly whose style would it be to self-immolate over not being able to make a movie? Varda’s idea of Clarke? Varda herself? “I’m trying to make a movie, Shirley. The show must go on,” Varda says, slipping on Clarke’s green flower-patterned dress to replace her on the bed and swallow the pills.
“Yes, you do it, that’s what I told you to begin with,” says Clarke, before guiltily retracting and agreeing to go through with it. They share a dress, but they’re not the same. And anyway it’s all costuming. They’re going through the motions of asserting what’s authentic, but we’re no closer to understanding what either of them actually believe or feel. In both substance and style, it calls to mind something Clarke had said earlier in a conversation with Clarens. “I’m getting so I don’t know the difference with whether I’m in a movie or making a movie. You know, which comes first, the movie or the reality,” she says. Though it’s an emblazoned thesis of sorts, not just for Lions Love but for that whole self-interrogating moment that Clarke embodied and observed, it’s also listlessly delivered, the mode of delivery as lacking in conviction as the syndrome described.
Yet Varda’s approach isn’t satiric, nor is Clarke sending up herself or her kind. The layers of self-awareness in Lions Love aren’t negating, but accumulative and coexisting. Clarke is playing herself, while she’s also fronting for Varda, and she’s not hiding the fact that she’s doing both of these things—awkwardly at that. And her awkwardness is an honest expression of these elements rattling around before us. There’s a Brechtian aspect, in that we’re never allowed to forget the conceit, the artificiality, the apparatus of filmmaking (Varda and her DP often appear in a mirror, and Varda occasionally turns up in a reaction shot or apartment montage), but Varda’s approach is less clever, less overtly distancing than that of her fellow Brecht disciple and New Wave associate Jean-Luc Godard. Rather than a challenge to the audience, Lions Love comes across as a rambling, inclusive exploration. The long scenes of improvisational mucking about by the vogueing trio can be quite tedious, but they transpire with a faith that something unforeseen and valuable could occur. The value of what they do or say isn’t predetermined or assumed, though the value of process is.
As Jeff Reichert wrote in his essay on Le bonheur, a very different yet stealthily kin project, Varda’s not arguing for one take over another, but rather fostering an environment of “yes, and.” Yes, the actors speak in platitudes, fragments, and canned phrases. And they do so knowingly, hoping for insight, frisson, instigation. When they sit around the television to watch Robert Kennedy campaign in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the actors suggests that the candidate is like them—an actor putting one over on the crowds. It’s also suggested that doing so is no small feat, that he’s not just an actor, but a great one, and that it’s not just hubris that leads a man to taking the national stage, but courage as well. All of these positions hold weight in Lions Love. Varda’s not making an argument so much as she’s floating various positions, and trying out different modes, and then letting them roam around in the same pen. There’s Viva. There’s Viva playing Viva. Those are Viva’s actual doe eyes. And those are Viva’s actual doe eyes fabricating an emotion. The camera’s really rolling, and this is also a show. The instability of the form mirrors the instability of the subject. Political leaders dropping like flies. The social order in disorder. A cinema no longer sure of itself, sewn together from this idea or that, with New York eyes and an L.A. body, simultaneously sputtering and thriving.
Lions Love is a staged documentary about a performance of events and ideas and attitudes that were very real to 1968. It could hardly matter less whether or not the film was good, or “worked” in any traditional sense. It’s a film of its moment, but also consciously about that moment, and comprised of moments both related and unrelated, captured and made. In a direct-address monologue that serves as the film’s finale, Viva relates that by 1969, with several Warhol films as well as Varda’s production behind her, she had a career devoid of the kinds of experiences previously commonplace for a young actor. She pines for a traditional script, a clear direction for her character. “Instead I had to make up my own lines once again,” she says about the film we’re watching. A looser improvisational approach could be liberating but also passé and a chore. The moment was alive, but also dragging. Another public figure gets shot. It’s another sunny day in Los Angeles. Shirley Clarke sleeps with the television on. Chaos answers chaos. Emptiness blinks back at emptiness. For the final few minutes, Viva quietly stares into the camera until the film runs out. Who knows if it has meaning. But it’s happening.