Mur murs (1981) - full transcript

Agnes Varda's documentary on murals in Los Angeles.


Edited by

The Visitor

Directed and Narrated by

In California
you can go see friends

and enjoy the finest
of all grasses.

In Los Angeles you can see angels
walking on the Pacific waters,

but they're really just
blond guys on surfboards.

You can visit
the big Hollywood studios

and really see the movie stars.

As for me, in Los Angeles
I mostly saw walls —

graffiti-covered walls
as beautiful as paintings,

signed by dozens of anonymous Kilroys,
walls long as mythic serpents.

This was the beginning
of a surprising and joyful disco very -

the painted walls,

or “murals, ”
as they call them in the U.S.

Murals as living,
breathing, seething walls.

Murals as talking,
wailing, murmuring walls.

Murals — one cries out,
the other doesn't.

But these walls
don't sell you anything.

A billboard —
an enormous advertising panel —

has to be well placed, smiling,
and made up to the hilt.

It's not a mural.

That's obvious
as soon as you arrive.

From the landing strip
to the freeway,

sometimes in a traffic jam
you spot a mural.

It's often badly placed,
unsmiling, un-made up.

Suddenly a face in close-up,
with an insistent gaze.

What should I call them,
these residents of the L.A. walls?

“Los Angelenos”?

Or else...

“Los angels in aspic”?

“Los ugly losers”?

“The lousy jealous
of Los Angeles”?

In any case, as if the city
were only murals and palm trees,

I drove 35 miles
from Los Angel-east

to the ocean in Los Angel-west.

Whether collective daydreams
or personal visions,

the walls tell
of a city and its people.

It's a recent
and widespread phenomenon,

although the Mexican tradition goes back
to Orozco, Siqueiros, Ribera.

Is it a result of the '60s?

The flower children
who sought to beautify life?

The people of '68 who wrote
their protests on the walls,

and the artists disgusted
by the gallery system

and the collectors' art market?

Is it a primal need to display
private life in the public square?

For all these reasons and more,

murals have flourished everywhere.

In Los Angeles, there are lots,
in very particular styles.

The fall of Icarus is quite a story.

As told by John Wehrle,
a stranger to the city,

who told me on the phone,

"Los Angeles is a city
planted in the desed

and under-populated with angels.

I see it as a collision
of different mythologies

in a drive-in, ride-in, fly-in...

a surrealist get-together

between an angel,
a cowboy, and an astronaut.”

The cosmonaut fell through the air.
Lay the blame on Voltaire.

Icarus fell to the flows.
Lay the blame on Rousseau.

As for the fall,
it plays out every day

on the Venice roller stage.

Venice is a mix
between Fire Island

and Greenwich Village.

It attracts artists and tourists,

dopers and gropers,
movers and shakers,

and French image makers.

In Venice,
it's calm on a weekday.

You have to come on Sunday.

Everyone comes
to pick up girls, to swim,

to roller-skate,
to see the murals back there

and over there.

I shoot a lot of pictures of the murals.
I use them as backgrounds.

I put people in front —

roller skaters.

In fact,
“Frenglishman” Richard Bennett

does roller skaters only,
with mural backgrounds only,

just as we 're doing
to a disco beat.

Authorities demolished
the top half of a wall

called Life in Venice
to better monitor drug traffic.

The state and its officers,
disguised as beachgoers,

have their own reasons
for ignoring collective art,

especially when they can get
a free snort.

Richard lent us the missing heads.

Then we left the din of Venice...

for the silence
of Kent Twitchell's studio.

Like Alice herself,
Kent finds his way

among the very large
and the very small.

I saw him grow tall and shrink small
during our Torrance interviews.

We hadn't predicted
the fanfare of a local parade.

So our artists, in both their giant
and miniature perspectives,

were honored by the cavalry,
the marines, and the army.

Nor had we predicted
the children weaving in and out

like a flight of swallows
in the fading daylight

by the pale mural of Opal Way.

And then there's the night.

The street kids pass by it all —
the world of drugs...

of motionless voyeurs...

of little birds and flying fish.

At St. Elmo's,
a black village within the city,

“black” means “colored. ”

On this June Sunday,
there's a festival

organized by the Sykes brothers,
the village painters.

Roderick Sykes is here
with Susan Jackson.

a black community near Watts.

The people Richard Wyatt knows
and paints aren't white, in any case.

They're black, yellow,

and burnt sienna.

As for the pyramids that inspire him,
they reappear

as stairways in immigrant
neighborhoods without elevators.

As a gesture in kind
to this black American

who paints images of Mexicans,

a Mexican American, or 'Chicano, ”
sings in the black blues tradition.

Manuel Cruz,
former member of the Macy gang,

conveys through the blues
the misery and pride of la raza

in front of a bar he painted.

- What's your name?
- Juliet.

Topo, Flaco, Indio, Lobo, Tita —

the homeboys and homegirls
are gang members.

There are 300 gangs in Los Angeles,
15 of them in East L.A.

Each has its own name,
logo, and sign

related to its neighborhood,
the barrio with a V —

here, “Varrio” Nuevo
East Los Angeles,

Happy Valley,

Hazard Grande.

And so emerged a series of murals
dedicated to their dead.

When I tried to find out
why these kids

looked like adult dudes
and chicks from the '50s,

A tattoo gave me the answer.

Drawn in a jail
some 25 years ago,

and copied from a photograph of
Jean Harlow pressed up against a man,

this same couple ls still used as a model
to represent young people of the '80s.

War games begin in childhood

among the dragons and skeletons.

The skeleton is the pepper
of the Mexican imagination...

whereas education
is as necessary as salt,

and an educated woman is priceless.

A rose-colored graduate.

Of course,
woman is always a rose

in the cliché garden
of the tough guy's heart.

Yes, he said “mural”
when he spoke of his tattoo.

Anything decorated to express

ideas or feelings is called a mural.

Including cars, as we'll see.

The word “mural” means “I exist...

and I sign what's mine.”

Chava is one of
the White Fence Gang members

who worked on
the Wabash Recreation Center

under the direction of a feminist.

Those forgotten by history
already take up 1,500 feet,

and it's not finished yet.

This long, reproachful gaze
and this lengthy accusation

tell of the exploitation
of man by man.

As for the Women, here they are —

at the beginning of the war...

during the war...

after the war...

on strike...

in trouble...

and on-screen.

The Little Tramp, the most famous
of the forgotten ones, stands guard.

Watch out!
Painted walls have ears.

Chaplin and McQueen
are the only superstars

who file go! mural billing.

After this first piece,

Twitchell preferred cameo
and television actors.

He magnifies the crocheted shawl,

reinvents the white lab coat,
and sacralizes it.

For Chicanos,
Christ is still traditional...

and the Virgin is always from Guadalupe,
on her crescent moon.

In Ramona Gardens,
a Chicano housing project,

mural painting
has been organized.

At first,
it was to prevent wall graffiti.

The state provided money
for the residents to paint

under artists' direction.

From this,
a need to paint developed.

The residents became artists,

and that's just fine
with the artists.

From left to right:
Willie Herrón,

Wayne Healy, Gronk,
and Manuel Cruz.

The local good Samaritan,
Father John Santillan,

is a Chicano rebel.

He can relate to children by day
and drug addicts by night.

You hear him from afar with all his keys —
the neighborhood Zorro.

They're called Los Streetscapers:

Wayne Healy...

David Botello...

George Yepes.

On Sunday morning,
they wash down their painting.

That same Sunday morning,

the Chinese are rinsed off
in the Tujunga Wash...

while across town,
Arthur Mortimer

soft-soaps his wife
at the beach.

There's one mural everybody's seen who
drives down Pacific Coast Highway at 55,

but no one can actually describe it.

That doesn't bother the artist,
Jane Golden.

Nostalgic for the days
of beaches before cars,

forests before motels,

and ocean piers before the fires
that burned them down,

Jane Golden painted
the Santa Monica summer crowd of 1920,

but without faces,

ghosts of the period
when Abbot Kinney was dreaming

of building his American Venice,
almost as beautiful as its Italian model.

Who pays for all these murals?
For the artists?

The paint in cans?
The ladders and vans?

In Jane's case, there are grants.

For others, there are organizations,
benefactors, and business people.

I filmed one such businessman.

He looks more like a patron
of primitive painting than a merchant.

This is my store.
I had this mural painted.

Piazza Navona
is one of Rome's main squares,

where people meet,
chat, have ice cream,

look at the sky,
talk about the weather.

European ice cream is quite different
from American ice cream,

especially at the “Tre Scalini”
in Rome.

We've been quite successful.

I'm head of
the Municipal Art Gallery,

here in this park,
which is close...

to this house built
by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1920.

I'm interested in how art is used...

as a means of communication
between people.

There are professional artists,

and there are artists
who create folk art.

Many are Mexican-American.

They wanted to paint ideas.

They wanted to express problems

that exist in their community.

There are also American artists...

who wanted...

to bring art to the streets...

for everyone, not just those
who go to museums.

The advent of mural paintings...

shows art, once again,

as it was
during the Middle Ages.

Art was a part of life.

Yes, it's very nice.

It's a beautiful painting.

It's an impressive sight.

Lincoln and Kennedy are neighbors
on this anti-police mural

in another Chicano housing project
called Estrada Courts.

Charles Felix, called Cat Felix,

organized this collective work.

This is Sonny here...

with Felix the Cat,
who, when he paints,

paints big, fearsome cats.

In Ramona Gardens,
wild animals too have their place

in the Garden of Eden.

The wild environment
is present in these giant stone heads

dominating these newlyweds
in their civilized wedding costumes.

This is how this showy mural,
“Bride and Groom, ” came into being.

It's a love story
Kent Twitchell lived and painted

over five years and five stories.

But not everything was romantic.

He was asked to pay parking fees
for his scaffolding,

so he had to paint at night.

As models, he'd chosen
the bridal-shop owner himself

and his fiancée at the time,
but she left for Hawaii and forever.

So her fiancé remained
a lone, unmarried widower,

left with the head of the woman
who'd taken back her heart.

They represent, first of all...

everything they're fighting for.

A very busy East L.A. intersection —
the corner of Brooklyn and Soto.

You can see
The Young Man and Death.

The other day we saw
“the young man and the motorcycle.”

The backdrop to this incident

had been painted
a few days earlier by Willie Herrón,

in a much better mood
than his self-portrait would suggest.

On the other side
of this same drug store,

he'd painted a subject
of an allegorical and surgical nature.

Willie invites us to imagine a few
of the catastrophes that inspire him —

misery. ..

Famished cows, locusts...


the atomic bomb...

and the delirious interplay
of freeway interchanges.

The car, however,
inspires more peaceful paintings

of moving murals
and tongue-in-cheek contrasts.

This mecca of spirituality

is actually the Culver City DMV,
so we haven't left

the world of cars
and money after all.

Judy Baca paints money —

or rather, work and capital —

as two monsters to be hunted down
and dragged from their caves

for a duel in the sun.

It's hard to know
whether capital's running after work

or work after capital,

just as we don't always know
whether art imitates life

or life imitates art.

The famous Farmer John, both boss
and logo, dominates the factory

that makes the infamous hot dogs,
bacon, and other piggy products.

It's the site
of an enormous mural

called simply Pig Paradise.

Pigs are processed
here in their final resting place,

while the consumer
is offered this mural,

a processed mix of decoration,
advertising, brand name,

black humor, pretension,
and false naïveté.

In any case,
in their public-relations pamphlets,

where images of pork
sizzling in frying pans

alternate with pigs romping
through bucolic meadows,

they don't even mention
Les Grimes and Arno Jordan,

the two artists
who each spent 12 years

painting the walls and pipes
of this enormous slaughterhouse.

I search in vain.
Their names don't even appear

on the reproduction of their work.

That's boss politics.
Pig politics.

Painting painting everywhere.
Directly from producer to consumers -

those who buy in markets...

and those who consume
in restaurants.

Not all decorators of bars
have the same propensity

for illusion and existentialism.

Their tastes lean towards leaning.

And when windows of bars
and cars are crooked...

it smacks of alcoholism...

and neorealism.

Before ending your days
on the road because of a drunkard,

there are still a few good days left
to spend in the bars.

No, this isn't Jacques Prévert's
blue-eyed gray whale

but two gray-eyed blue whales

swimming along
to the Chinese gymnastic slow motion

in the waters between Beethoven Street
and Venice Boulevard.

Here, they're at one with the wall
and the silence of the ocean.

Here, they slow down time.

Elsewhere, Willie Herrón
and his friends relate to time

with the impatience of childhood
and the rage of la raza.

They paint a whole wall in a weekend
and in vent a performance,

put it quickly together,
make nonsense of it,

then undo it even more quickly —

that's the subject
and the very essence of this happening.

Do they mean to challenge the idea
of a mural and confront the wall itself,

or enter into the wall
and be part of it forever?

Their group is called Asco,
which means “nausea” in Spanish.

Everything ends up in dust and rubbish
ground up by mechanical means.

Everything disappears,
even certain murals —

especially in Venice,
where they're the prey

of condo-with-a-view developers.

They made a famous mural disappear -
Venice in the Snow —

by building right up next to it.

It no longer snows, except on the face
of the mime on duty...

and the mural is visible
only to cats and rats.

His first mural, on Brooks,
will disappear soon.

Developers seem out to get him.

He doesn't think much
of them either.

He chose a huge wall near a vacant lot
for his trompe I'oeil of Venice,

which he managed to paint

from sky to street

without even making a sketch.

His space has been invaded
by a bank and its parking lot,

and this mural may disappear entirely
behind a huge commercial complex.

We may be looking

at the last beautiful months
of an imaginary city.

Californians talk about
the great earthquake all the time,

even with their foreign friends.

The huge fault follows a path
laid out by seismologists

that will separate California
from the American continent.

The furthest edges of Arizona
will become beaches,

and California will be an island,
as in the title of this mural.

But not a flowering
and inhabited island.

An island of ruins and silence,
the ultimate failure of concrete.

And this final mural,
seen here between two mail trucks,

murmurs its message:

The future may be a wave
that will wash us away.

Our Thanks to the Muralists Appearing
In Person or Through Their Works