In the post-Katrina 2000s, I was an idealistic college student with a very silly (and very sloppy) punk band called Trash Trash Trash. It was kind of a concept art project involving politically absurdist songs about art & trash, hazmat suit costumes decorated with crude finger paint, and VHS cassettes of images that alternated between camcorder documents of crude art & piles of garbage we would find around New Orleans. As a group, the eight of us were a total, incohesive mess, but could passably put on a fun show while conveying a highly specific (even if abstract) political philosophy. A decade or so later, it was mind-blowing to see that exact philosophy projected back at me on the big screen, especially in a documentary that preempted Trash Trash Trash by several years.
Watching Agnès Varda’s trash-obsessed documentary The Gleaners & I was like gazing into a time-traveling mirror, back to where my mind was in the early 2000s. The French New Wave innovator gushes early in the film about the affordability & portability of digital camcorder technology. She addresses the significant overlap between trash & art and how the excess of capitalist runoff is reabsorbed as a kind of Natural bounty that can be harvested for sustenance. She dumpster dives with French crust punks, tickles herself with silly puns, and (no joke) fucking raps about the politics of trash in a key montage of broken televisions. The only component of Trash Trash Trash missing from this prophetic vision is the finger-painted hazmat suits, but I must admit I was so overwhelmed by the other similarities that I may have missed them. The punkest thing about all this philosophical overlap is that she not only beat us to it, but she did so in her 70s, not as some idealistic college student.
In a way, The Gleaners & I is more of an essay film than it is a traditional documentary. The thesis Varda posits is that modern trash-digging (whether for found art objects, rescued furniture, “expired” food, or otherwise) is just a natural extension of ancient traditions of harvesting. French law allows for people to collect left-behind fruits & vegetables after farmers’ proper harvest season, so that left-behind food does not go to waste. It’s a long-established (and traditionally feminine) practice known as “gleaning.” Varda documents the myriad of ways the practice of gleaning has evolved in modern life. She interviews the few (largely destitute) communities who still glean in a tradition sense, the farmers who either encourage or deliberately hinder their activity, lawyers who protect its legality, and so on. Once she extends these interviews to the homeless people, crust punks, and artistic weirdos who dig through urban garbage for their own modernized form of gleaning (as well as interrogating her own impulses to rescue found objects from the trash) the political point she’s laying out about modern capitalist excess becomes more esoteric & philosophical, but also much more distinct & cinematic.
Varda’s recent Oscar-nominated Faces Places is a great reminder that she’s still a playfully subversive political mind who can deliver high caliber cinema without any of the fussy snobbery associated with the art form. I loved being introduced to her aesthetic through that endearing work, but its D.I.Y. punk ancestor The Gleaners & I hit me much closer to my heart. I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth. I’m too much in awe of her very existence to say much more.