I saw Mur Murs at the Aero last week, and had mixed feelings about it. It’s a documentary by Agnès Varda about the murals of Los Angeles at the beginning of the ’80s. Varda films murals of around Los Angeles talks with many of the artists. I came mostly looking for the aspects of Los Angeles history—and it was great to see some of the murals that have since been destroyed or covered up—but the film overall had a syrupy “artsiness” that left a bad taste in my mouth.
I grew up in Los Angeles in the ’80s (though I was only a toddler when this movie was filmed), ams there were so many twinges of memory while watching the movie. I don’t know how much I’ve internalized the way film looked at the time as an indicator of what live looked at the time, but everything looked like something out of my vague memory. And judging by the occasional murmuring of the mostly boomer audience, others who were older at the time felt the same.
Because Varda always seems to have at least one mural in every shot, it leaves you feeling like Los Angeles is a is a city where very wall is filled with color, an art gallery on every street. It’s not that way, and it wasn’t then, and I was craving the chance to leave the frame to see the mundane spaces that I was more familiar with. But seeing those sometimes out-of-the way places knit into a dream geography is wonderful.
Some of the best moments of the movie involved the members of ASCO, an influental Chicano performance-art group. Members like Willie Herrón and Gronk talk about their early murals, which leads into their discussion of current work, culminating in the filming of an Asco happening that is part mural, part theater, and, ultimately, part film. It’s this kind of artistic synthesis that Varda seems to be chasing throughout the film, though in many place’s it feel terribly flat.
Where I was looking for the art to speak for itself, Varda seemed to wasn’t too comment on the art herself. She stages shots in painfully precious ways. A line of people practice Tai Chi in front of Two Blue Whales. People are provided with props to match the images of the murals the walk past. And most egregiously, while showing the entirety of the Farmer John Packing Plant mural, someone (presumably Varda) makes derisive pig sounds for as few minutes before the narrator (definitely Varda) chastises Farmer John for not showing the artists of the mural the appropriate respect. (Though, to her credit, Varda does make it a point to announce the artist credits whenever their work appears on screen.)
Maybe it’s a generational thing; the older audience seemed to be eating those segments up. During the Q&A with Varda, even terrible pounds were treated with absurd reverence. But the movie was made for a different audience and a different time. Asco, who tagged LACMA in protest of Chicano exclusion from the at world, had a retrospective in LACMA recently. I can see how a film like this would be an argument for the art establishment to respect murals, but then I don’t care much for that establishment anyway, then or now.