Jon Jost's quietly magnificent All the Vermeers in New York (World Artists) shows the little-known indie filmmaker as an heir to John Cassavetes, fascinated by the kind of long, awkward or seemingly irrelevant moments that get discarded in other films, but combine in the right hands to make you feel you're seeing something very real. His two protagonists — a wealthy stockbroker and an unsuccessful actress who meet while admiring a painting by Vermeer — are not very likable characters, but Jost depicts their flaws without judgment, and we come to see the insecurity and deep yearning behind apparently shallow façades.
Midway through the film, the couple meets on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper, and the stockbroker is filled with disgust. He doesn't understand what's fun about getting so far from street level that people become ants with little ant problems and little ant loves. The film never makes a point about where exactly they are, but as they stare out at the city, we see two long, identical shadows stretching away beneath them — if you have ever stood atop the World Trade Center, you know where the camera is, and you know how connected those little ant people felt one day to the workers in that mammoth building.
Last October, not a month after September 11, a packed house in Austin watched Philip Glass perform a live accompaniment to Godfrey Reggio's film Powaqqatsi, part of a trilogy bearing the subtitles "Life Out of Balance," "Life in Transformation," and "Life as War." (Next week, in anticipation of the upcoming third installment, MGM is releasing the first two on DVD.) In the middle of this sea of imagery, which in part aims to make Westerners feel how connected our prosperity is with extraordinary poverty and suffering on the other side of the world, there is a flurry of urban scenes, then a long take that shows a vast village of dwellings with bedsheets for walls. In the next shot, a tilted camera pictures the side of an apartment building horizontally, so that laundry lines shoot up out of the windows like competing flags. Just as we've figured out what we're looking at, an airplane enters the frame; it's just passing behind the building, but the angle make it seem that it is headed straight down into a mass of concrete. After three weeks of watching an all-too-similar image on the news, it was enough to make your heart stop beating, and it yanked the film's philosophical messages out of the world of ideas and into our day-to-day existence.
Agnès Varda's recent French documentary The Gleaners and I (Zeitgeist) has — I'll admit it — a somewhat intangible connection to the topic at hand. Like All the Vermeers, it has a famous painting as its starting point; like the Qatsi trilogy, it's concerned with those living in the shadows of capitalism's excess. But there's a poetic, deeply stirring sense of hope in the film that is an essential component of this cinematic requiem.
A gleaner is one who comes to the fields after a harvest, gathering the scrappy produce left behind and living on it instead of the farmer's more presentable crop. Varda finds gleaners (literal and metaphoric) everywhere: in potato fields and vineyards; in the city, subsisting by necessity or choice on what produce markets leave behind; behind her own camera, as the filmmaker gathers images and ideas, letting them simmer into a rich, nourishing stew.
On the surface, the movie offers a charming collection of fringe-dwellers, hoboes and radical propagandists. Beneath, the director is dealing with her own mortality by investigating how resourceful people find sustenance in what most of the world rejects as worthless. As demonstrated by tons of supposedly valuable documents that were scattered by the wind across Manhattan a year ago, the line between what's necessary and what's disposable is a fine and shifting one, more a matter of perspective than reality. That's not an example Varda used, of course, in a film shot in 2000; but this is one of those revelatory documentaries that seems to encompass the whole world in a simple subject. It's essential viewing for the modern world, a bit of beauty made from trash.