I’ve now lived in New York as long as I lived in Los Angeles, which means I can at least begin to compare the experience of the two cities with some modicum of authority. (And by some, I mean … not much.) I bear no particular ill will toward Los Angeles — for all I know, I could end up there once again later in life enjoying the solitude of being stuck in traffic and the absence of anything resembling a winter. But I think it’s quite telling that cinema has produced far more valentines to New York City than it has to Los Angeles. Most big-screen portraits of L.A. revel in its seediness, the two-facedness or the artificiality. Even Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, arguably one of the more doting depictions, filters its affection for its titular locale through the lens of filmic fantasy and reverie.
In many senses, though, the two cities hold a similar attraction to the creative classes who flock there. Angelenos and New Yorkers who are there by choice, not by accident of birth, see their cities as sprawling cosmopolitan behemoths onto which they can project their dreams and aspirations. The Big Apple presents new arrivals with a city of steel pointing skywards, the grand ambitions of many generations past all pushing the limits of human capability. The architecture and history are all there, beckoning the next great ones to etch their name in history.
Los Angeles also invites projection, albeit with a different framework. As a city that sprang up largely due to the dream factory of Hollywood, its foundations are more figurative and imaginative. Yet, ironically, the lack of distinctive landmarks and edifices open the door for creativity to quite literally project itself onto Los Angeles’ architecture. This dichotomy is a key point of fascination in Agnès Varda’s 1980 documentary Mur murs, a landscape of the many murals that adorn the walls of Los Angeles. The film feels like a spiritual prequel to Varda’s Oscar-nominated collaboration with JR, 2017’s Visages villages (Faces Places), in the way it probes how outdoor art can change residents’ relationship to the locales they occupy. But here, Varda is not a creator — simply an observer.
The film begins with some heavy narration as Varda outlines the sociological and philosophic underpinnings of the mural aesthetic. For her, they are “living, breathing, seeing walls.” They possess a vitality that runs in direct opposition to the billboard and other commercial entities that view the people passing through the urban space as mere consumers and customers. Murals represent and express the spirit of the people in a space; they do not exploit it.
Varda later zooms out to examine the roots of Los Angeles’ vibrant mural scene. It’s a history both ancient and contemporary, pulling from both ancient Mexican ancestral tradition as well as the anti-establishment attitudes of the hippies. The latter group spurned the stuffiness and insularity of galleries, believing that artistic expression should neither be subject to the curatorial tastes of the vanguard nor cloistered for their primary enjoyment. If art truly belonged to the people, it should be visible and accessible for all.
Varda pays particular attention to how this dichotomy plays out in different areas and communities within Los Angeles. Unlike New York stories, which can often paint a diverse metropolis with a large and homogenous brush, Mur murs acknowledges the atomization and stratification of the city. For those privileged few who could pass for an extra in a Judd Apatow “west of the 405 problems” film, the mural is a mechanism to disturb the mundanity of reality. “Even if they see us for three seconds, they’ve been exposed to art […] people need beauty,” opines one mural creator along the beach. Varda isn’t overtly critical of this privileged worldview, one that places a premium on aesthetic pleasure for people already likely to be luxuriating in plenty of it already, but it is telling that she spends more time in Los Angeles’ underprivileged or minority communities in the film.
In hispanic and black neighborhoods, murals skew toward their historical antecedents. These wall renderings depict the vitality and energy of the people who dwell there, both metaphorically and literally. Without assuming the role of political pundit, Varda zeroes in what makes the murals in these areas so enthralling. They are expressions of humanity in a city, country and world insistent on the fact that they have less of it than other groups. Murals are statements of personhood, of identity, of pride. Through art, they allow a community to do more than just occupy a space — they enable them to own it. By truly projecting themselves onto these buildings, they reclaim their relegation from the city center as a demonstration of their worth and value.
It’s no wonder, then, that the mural spirit extends beyond walls in these areas. Murals are “anything decorated to express ideas or feelings,” Varda notes. So, yes, cars and tattoos count so long as they are individuated and decorated. Murals function as personification of the marginalized. “Mural means ‘I exist and I sign what’s mine,’” she concludes.
But it is ultimately the walls that Varda spends the most time studying and attempting to wrap her head around. (After all, mural and the French word mur are both derived from the Latin word murus, meaning “wall.”) As the world’s population continues its flight from tight-knit villages to vast cities, we need a canvas large enough to contain the multiplicity of experiences within it. Varda identifies the wall-bound mural as the most fitting staging ground for such art. It can express the grandeur of urban life in a way that also amplifies the individual to larger-than-life status. In a scene reminiscent of the shipping container mural in Faces Places, Varda frames the real-life subjects of a mural standing beneath their giant images. They then walk toward the camera, eventually overtaking their representations in stature.
Even though these representations are but impermanent adornments of the Los Angeles landscape, as Varda notes in the film’s final mural shot, their contributions to an intangible spirit of the city still matter. They might not be a part of the city’s enduring image, but they are a part of the city’s evolving story. New York might have the physical structure where one can project themselves onto a city, but Los Angeles’ mutability allows people to graft their life into its cultural fabric.
Watch ‘Mur murs’ at FilmStruck.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).