“HAS ANYONE SEEN AGNÈS?”
It was the Day of the Dead, and we had lost Agnès Varda in the procession trodding solemnly down Los Angeles’s Olvera Street, a pseudo-Pueblo tourist attraction. “She’ll come back,” her daughter, costume designer Rosalie Varda-Demy, said with a shrug, joining LACMA curator Rita Gonzalez and me for a pitcher of margaritas on the patio of La Golondrina. “She’s probably just found some new material.” Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, Varda returned, all smiles and silver-and-magenta color-blocked bowl cut. “I’ve found my next project,” the eighty-five-year-old filmmaker declared as she helped herself to a margarita. From across the table, her daughter yelped, “That has tequila in it!” It was Varda’s turn to shrug.
Hailed as the “grandmother of la Nouvelle Vague,” Varda was only twenty-six in 1954 when her extraordinary debut La Pointe Courte shattered notions of what cinema could be, inspiring filmmakers like Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard. “I’d love to meet Godard,” Gonzalez sighed. “Go to Switzerland,” Varda snapped, reaching for a churro.
These days, Varda is also being recognized as an “emerging visual artist” (though the type of “emerging” who has solo shows at Fondation Cartier and is included in the Venice Biennale). This week, she is celebrating the opening of “Agnès Varda in Californialand,” a new installation at LACMA, and a revival of four of her California-themed films from the 1960s, recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and Wallis Annenberg.
It would seem Varda was enjoying Californialand as much as she was the margaritas. She first regaled us with tales of the evening prior, spent at the home of Sharon Stone (“such a beautiful woman, yes, but such a beautiful Léger…”). “And after the dinner, I bought Michael Govan a soup,” she went on to brag. “Now this is a man who could buy himself a soup, or a tuxedo, any day he likes, but he let me buy him a soup.”
Govan surely needed both during a week that culminated in Saturday’s Third Annual Art+Film Gala, a fund-raiser specifically aimed at supporting the intersections of art and cinema. The program was first proposed in 2008, when Govan announced he was scrapping LACMA’s traditional film screenings in favor of a new approach. Doubting his intentions, critics pounced on the institution for what they saw as smoke and mirrors to mask budget cuts. Scorsese was one of the most vocal opponents, publishing an open letter to the LACMA director in the Los Angeles Times. In return, Govan invited him to a public conversation; soon the filmmaker would become one of the museum’s key allies in efforts to increase the presence of film within the museum. Now it’s hard to find an exhibition that doesn’t have some connection—from Varda to a stunning show of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa to the eighteen-screen David Hockney video landscapes of Yorkshire, where the sometime Californian has been “on location.”
It was only right, then, that Scorsese and Hockney should be the guests of honor at this year’s gala, which was once again hosted by LACMA trustee Eva Chow and Leonardo DiCaprio. The elaborate dinner was to be held in a massive, glass-windowed “tent” in the center of the LACMA campus, dominating the landscape beside Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass. “Nobody does glamping like us,” LACMA’s Stephanie Sykes joked. Curator Lauren Bergman rolled her eyes: “People keep asking me who this one is named after.” Rightfully so, when the one-night affair would add $4.135 million to the Art + Film coffers.
Saturday morning, I skipped the fennel juice and Brazilian blowouts and opted instead for a pre-gala beauty regime of a stroboscopic light bath, courtesy of James Turrell’s Perceptual Cell, part of his current retrospective at LACMA. The twelve-minute dip in a sensory-deprivation chamber slides viewers, MRI-style, into an enclosed sphere, where claustrophobia is leavened by the sensation of light, glorious and boundless. And then the strobes begin, ripping and rupturing through the calm, until you can no longer tell if your eyes are open or closed. It’s a uniquely disorienting experience, best summed up by one PC vet: “How’d you like the trough full of bubbles?”
The strobes proved the perfect warm-up for the flashbulbs erupting over the red carpet that evening, as Hollywood descended on the museum: from old guards like Jane Fonda, James Caan, and Warren Beatty to new royalty Salma Hayek, Will Ferrell, and an eerily spiffy-looking Robert Downey, Jr.; from patrons Annenberg, Alan Hergott, and Jerry Bruckheimer to artists—Ed Ruscha, Mark Grotjahn, and Diana Thater—and dealers—Larry Gagosian, Tim Blum, and Paul Schimmel. Even PSY, the reigning king of YouTube, put in an appearance. (Though if he Gangnamed through Chris Burden’s Urban Light, I missed it.)
Dinner was preceded by cocktails to the tunes of Dhani Harrison. (George’s son. Apparently a thing.) Fixed near the entrance, a glittery Kate Hudson and a Gucci-suited James Franco clutched at one another in a battle of the megawatt smiles, only allowing themselves to be interrupted when Carole Bayer Sager swept by to air-kiss hello. While the industry force was strong, as the flashbulbs began to settle, I began to spot more art people. There was Alex Israel nursing a rosé with China Chow and collector Abdullah Al-Turki with dealer Almine Rech, while outside the tent, Gagosian’s Serena Cattaneo and LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory kept company with a T-shirt-clad Urs Fischer. “I’m already dressed,” the artist boasted, skipping a finger down his forearm tattoos. When we were called in for dinner, Lynda Resnick breezed past me, airily assuring her companion: “Well, of course we can! We’re practically masters of the house here.”
Inside the tent, amiable actor-couple Jason Sudeikis and Olivia Wilde chatted it up with Fergie and Josh Duhamel across the table from Bob Shaye and Doug Aitken. Stationed behind them, sometime starlets Nicole Richie and Amber Valletta were locked in a fierce-looking tête-à-tête, seemingly oblivious to the effect of their near-identical black mesh ensembles and high ponytails. At the table of honor, I clocked Christie’s Loic Gouzer and Michael Chow, whose second career as an artist is taking off, with an upcoming solo show with Pearl Lam in Hong Kong. (“François Pinault was the first person to buy a piece,” he beamed.) On my way over, I got sidetracked catching up with Sarah Watson, formerly of the now disbanded L&M Arts. Only after a round of “to Miami, or not to Miami?” did it register that she was seated with Tom Hanks, Jimmy Kimmel, and Mary J. Blige. Returning to my seat at Varda’s table, I was greeted by French filmmaker Julia Fabry, who was ebulliently spouting: “Fahn-zee! Fahn-zee!” She was referring to Henry Winkler.
It was to be an evening full of charming speeches, with Govan and Eva Chow setting the tone of an easy gentility early on. Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) prefaced a short, sweet film about Hockney with a magic trick in which he made a bowling ball drop out of his program. “Just try to do that with an iPad,” he affectionately jibed at the artist. When it was DiCaprio’s turn at the podium, he compared “spending time with Marty” to “spending time in a history museum.” Scorsese turned the praise around toward Varda (“always so tough”) and Hockney, whom he counts as an inspiration for Taxi Driver. While I had never pegged “Fields of Gold” for a party song, something about watching Sting on stage strumming a Mini-Martin got everyone out of their seats and dancing. My line of sight was blocked by the cartoonishly handsome Duhamel, but from what I could tell, Catherine Opie’s moves put many moguls to shame.
Beside me Sharon Lockhart and LACMA curator Carol Eliel traded notes: “I’ve just been pretending to take photos of artist friends,” said Lockhart, “but really I’m cutting their heads off to focus on, like, Leo.”
I glanced at Varda. She looked on approvingly at the scene before her, then turned toward her daughter: “So, what’s next?”