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Kelley Conway on film’s “consummate recycler” and the state of cinema

The UW-Madison professor and film scholar opens up about staying connected to cinema and her featured role in a new Agnès Varda box set from Criterion.

The UW-Madison professor and film scholar opens up about staying connected to cinema and her featured role in a new Agnès Varda box set from Criterion.

Image collage by Scott Gordon. Photo of Varda installation (sunflowers) by Pierre Seiter.

The suspension of film screenings since the second week of March has made for an isolating 2020. And with major and indie studios alike continuously pushing the release dates of blockbusters and buzzed-about festival titles, or relegating them to streaming and select drive-ins, we’ve been forced to reevaluate our relationship to film over the past several months.

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It’s a time when all of us are seeking clarity, optimism, and honesty in a tenuous landscape, and few voices are as respected as Dr. Kelley Conway, principal scholar of auteur Agnès Varda and Department Chair of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. Conway is also a recent recipient of the insignia of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, for her international contributions to French cinema. The honor was bestowed the very weekend Cinematheque premiered Varda’s final feature film, Varda By Agnès (2019), this past February, in what seems like a distant past under more normal circumstances. Additionally, just a couple months ago, Criterion Collection announced an expansive and complete 15-disc Blu-ray set of Agnès Varda’s films, which features Conway discussing The Beaches of Agnès (2008) in a newly recorded program. 

Conway recently spoke with me by phone to detail the experience of working with Criterion, reflect on the entirely online edition of the 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival and hopes for the fest next year, and ways to support other regional festivals and streaming platforms. She also touched upon the accessibility of the Media History Digital Library, a UW-Madison-based initiative, which received a $150,000 grant last fall. Most urgently, we examined and debated prospects for a COVID-curbed fall 2020 semester, as the situation has continued to change on a weekly basis.

Tone Madison: This past spring the Wisconsin Film Festival brought a majority of its 2020 “Wisconsin’s Own” selections to audiences, not only here but nationally, as they were made available through YouTube, one per day, throughout most of April. A lot of distributors also partnered with the fest to bring some of the other features to video-on-demand services. I know you personally recorded these wooded introductions [out in the woods] to a few films: Hunting Arrowheads With My Father, The Farm, and Corpus Christi. Could you go over your role as Artistic Director of the festival in 2020 and how that differed from another typical year?

Kelley Conway: The 2020 version of the Wisconsin Film Festival was highly unusual due to COVID-19. First, we had to do the complicated thing of actually making the decision to cancel the festival. As you may remember, at a certain moment in early March, it seemed possible that, somehow, we could have this event. Ultimately, we decided it just wasn’t worth risking the health of our patrons, and so we cancelled it. Actually, I think we cancelled the festival the same day the NBA shut down. I thought, “Well, if the NBA is closing down, we should probably do it as well.” [Laughs] But, really, in the end, we had no choice.

After that, our programming team of Jim Healy, Mike King, and Ben Reiser had the great idea to launch a streaming program, as did many festivals. As you mentioned, we showed titles from “Wisconsin’s Own,” the section of the festival devoted to films with a link to the state of Wisconsin, but we also put our children’s program online: “Big Screens, Little Folks.” We renamed it, “Big Streams, Little Folks,” and were able to draw a lot of viewers. 

So, yeah, as Artistic Director of the Festival, it was an unusual year but one that we had some positive feelings about, because we were able to attract 10,600 viewers for the “Wisconsin’s Own” program and 2,800 viewers for “Big Screens, Little Folks.” In some cases, films actually attracted more viewers than they might have in an in-person festival. One of our biggest draws was Neptune, a charming 19-minute film about fatherhood shot in a Wisconsin winter. That attracted 1,500 viewers. Obviously, we prefer a theatrical experience, but in this situation, it was gratifying to get exposure for many films.

Tone Madison: Do you have any loose thoughts right now on safety measures that you’d put in place for next year and how the festival will sort of evolve, as we’ll still be dealing with aftereffects or current effects of COVID?

Kelley Conway: Yes. We can’t make a decision yet. Of course we’ll have to see how things play out. But we will be open to the idea of holding an in-person festival, and of course we will do research on the best safety precautions. I can imagine a situation in which we have smaller audiences in venues with masks.

Tone Madison: Capping attendance, maybe?

Kelley Conway: Yeah, by half. But it’s impossible to say whether we’ll be able to have an in-person festival, so I’m reluctant to get people’s hopes up. I think that an online festival is likely. I just don’t see—given the lack of consistent messaging from the federal government on basic ideas such as the importance of mask-wearing and the safety of public gatherings, it’s hard to imagine that all of these problems associated with the pandemic will have been resolved by April 2021. So, I’m anticipating an online festival, but if things change and a vaccine is discovered or other solutions are found, it would be great to hold the in-person festival.

Tone Madison: My next question is about supporting things in the wake of COVID. I’m usually one to watch a lot of films at home with headphones on, I guess just because I’ve become so used to it over the years. But I know there are dedicated cinephiles who frequent campus events and theaters every single week and at almost every opportunity. Facing the uncertainty of theatrical exhibition that once was scheduled to resume upon the original release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (now indefinitely delayed), and the recently announced closure of the New Vision theater in Fitchburg, it is kind of looking bleak at the moment. Beyond making a donation (wherever it’s possible), do you have any advice for people on how to support these sorts of venues and preserve spaces that spark inspiration? And what have you been personally doing to stay connected at this time?

Kelley Conway: It’s true. The exhibition section is extremely troubled. I’m watching for news about AMC every day, because, of course, that venue [at Hilldale Mall] has become very important to us [at the Wisconsin Film Festival]. So, yes, it’s deeply troubling to see exhibition companies have to close, but there are things we can do to keep up with contemporary cinema at home. My favorite source for films is The Criterion Channel, which is connected to The Criterion Collection. And that itself is connected to Janus Films, an important distributor of art house classics going back to the 1950s. One can keep up with contemporary feature-length fiction films, documentaries, American and [international] films. They have excellent supplements, too. Some of them were created by my colleagues, including Jeff Smith, David Bordwell, and Kristin Thompson. You can not only watch films but learn about them. 

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Otherwise, it is possible to make donations to regional festivals, including Milwaukee Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival, True False (Columbia, MO), Full Frame (documentary fest in Durham, NC), and Sidewalk Film Festival (Birmingham, AL). We were very surprised to see that the majority of our viewers chose to donate the cost of their tickets back to the Wisconsin Film Festival. We began to refund all the tickets [in April], and we gave people the opportunity to donate their money back to the Festival. Many people took us up on it, which was really heartening. So, I would say support festivals. [They’re] one of the major sources of unusual, daring films from around the world. A little self-serving. [Laughs]  But basically, I want to encourage people to not just support traditional places like Netflix and Amazon Prime. They have some things worth watching, but these are big corporations. Criterion is a company that is less interested in profit above all and more interested in celebrating the history and art of cinema.

Tone Madison: I should add that Criterion Channel also offers a number of things that they don’t have physical editions of. I think I mentioned to you previously that I had signed up just to watch a few films from Bette Gordon and James Benning. They don’t have physical releases but are available through there.

Kelley Conway: Right. In a way, this is kind of a golden era in our ability to watch unusual things that we couldn’t even buy on DVD. All the while hoping we can add the theatrical experience back to the agenda one of these days. I would hate to see people become too comfortable with streaming and forget about the more traditional, and, to my mind, more satisfying experience of seeing a film on the big screen. 

Tone Madison: Yeah, I agree. Another service that I’ve found to be pretty valuable is MUBI. In fact, there were a few occasions this spring where their rotating 30 films catalogue, and the curation of it, intersected with the UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival, as they premiered Beanpole and Pablo Larraín’s Ema. They had a three-day series of Chantal Akerman. So, that was interesting. I signed up in early April out of curiosity, as I wanted to watch Chinese director Yang Chao’s 2016 film, Crosscurrent. I’ve kept it since. I’m genuinely excited to see what they add on there every day.

Kelley Conway: That’s great. Companies like MUBI and Criterion will only become more important in the age of streaming, because they do an amazing job curating programs. They’re a kind of filter that helps draw our attention to what is interesting and valuable.

Tone Madison: There are a lot of challenges to releasing physical media during this time, but Criterion is moving ahead with all their releases, and they’re putting out a complete 15-disc set of Agnès Varda’s films on Blu-ray next month, slated for August 11. You’re one of the foremost scholars on Varda and her life. I think I was first made aware of this during your extended, passionate introduction to Faces Places at the UW Cinematheque screening and Madison premiere back in January of 2018. I was at the Friday night screening, and you probably talked for a good 20-25 minutes. It was such a great introduction. I only took a few notes at the time, actually, and recently revisited them. I jotted down that her debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1954), had a connection to [William] Faulkner’s The Wild Palms; but your intro sincerely prepared me for her first-ever cinema collaboration with JR, as you revealed then. 

Among the special features teased in this Criterion set are a few new programs featuring actor-singer Jane Birkin, Varda’s children Mathieu and Rosalie, and you. That’s quite the honor. Ahead of the release, I wanted to ask a bit more about your particular program and what sort of information you relay in it, if it’s anything like the intro you did in 2018. I’m assuming it was just an interview with you personally, although maybe you were in conversation with any of the aforementioned people.

Kelley Conway: My work for the complete set of Varda films coming out in August was a huge pleasure. Criterion invited me to their offices in New York to participate in a lengthy interview. It was really interesting to see the Criterion team at work. They have extraordinary producers, videographers, and sound recorders there who really produce little documentaries about films and filmmakers. They’ve taken the time to deeply research the various things they’re covering. So, it was really a pleasure to talk to them about Agnès Varda. The woman in charge of this project was Valeria Rotella, and she engaged with me in a four-hour interview about Varda’s work, but she also flew to Paris and interviewed Rosalie Varda and Jane Birkin, the actor and singer. [Rotella] also visited Varda’s archive and looked at some materials. The work is not just a superficial kind of conversation; they really think carefully about what new information they can bring to each project. Typically, their DVDs include older interviews. I know the box set is including videotaped interviews throughout the many decades in which Varda worked. But, also, this idea of adding new material each [subsequent] time is something I value.

So, I went there to do that, but the team of producers often come to Madison, in fact, to interview David [Bordwell], Kristin [Thompson], and Jeff [Smith] for their video essays, “Observations on Film Art,” only available through The Criterion Channel. Those are connected to the textbook Film Art: An Introduction and examine formal elements of the film medium through the work of great auteurs. So, [Criterion] is constantly producing new material. Usually it’s connected to something they’re releasing.

My interview [with Rotella] was similar to that introduction that I gave at the Cinematheque on Faces Places. Although, [this time] it was mainly on The Beaches of Agnès (2008). I also tried to give a sense of Varda’s contributions to film history more broadly, and then give specific information about how that film functions, how it came to be made, and why it’s extraordinary. They actually interviewed many other people to ask them questions about specific films; I was mainly connected to The Beaches of Agnès. I was truly honored to be asked to participate in it, as I admire their work.


A still from Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985)

A still from Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985)

Tone Madison: I actually bought the “4 By Agnès Varda” DVD set, probably back in late 2008 or early 2009. The first film I watched was Cléo From 5 To 7 (1962), and I thought that was a fine introduction. For those curious about Varda but maybe unwilling to dive straight into a massive collection of her films, what would you recommend to watch to get a sense of her significance in film history and pioneering vision?

Kelley Conway: I agree. I thought that was a brilliant release by Criterion, because it contains Vagabond (1985), which is, to my mind, her best feature-length fiction film about a drifter, played by Sandrine Bonnaire. If anyone has heard about Varda, they’ve probably heard about Vagabond or Cléo From 5 To 7. But that set also contained La Pointe Courte, her first film, which is so unusual. And, as you mentioned, inspired by a novel by William Faulkner, The Wild Palms, in that it combines two very different narratives in this kind of strand, mixing documentary-style realism in its portrayal of these fishermen living in this village with a more stylized, almost Rossellini-esque portrait of a marriage in decline. If you’ve seen Journey To Italy (1954), it’s as if Varda combined that film, which features a deteriorating marriage as Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders travel through [a ruined] Italy. It’s like that combined with La Terra Trema (1948) or something by Visconti. Naturalistic, almost documentary-like film about fishermen. And yet she had not seen those films or [known] Italian Neorealism. La Pointe Courte is really striking for its innovation. But then, have you watched the fourth title in that collection, Happiness [Le Bonheur] (1965)? 

Tone Madison: That’s actually my favorite Varda film, I think.

Kelley Conway: [Laughs] Oh my gosh. I’m so impressed that you love that film.

Tone Madison: I accidentally watched that film on Father’s Day, and it takes place on Father’s Day. [Laughs] 

Kelley Conway: A lot of people found that film completely perplexing and hard to love. A lot of feminists hated that film, because it’s this portrait of an apparently idyllic family disturbed by the revelation of the husband’s infidelity. 

[Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead!

Just when you think everything will work out okay somehow, the wife disappears from the film. There’s that part of it- the fundamental ambiguity. Did she drown? Did she commit suicide? What happened? But also there’s the apparent refusal, on the part of Varda, to condemn this man. So, feminists in the ’60s and ’70s had a hard time celebrating the film. It was only later in the ’80s when people started to think, “Oh, this is a really interesting, almost caustic take on the apparent happiness of this family.” What did you think about it?

Tone Madison: Yeah, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it, but that was my interpretation. It was a criticism—I’m not sure of the word I’d use—it’s sort of dismantling the idea of the happy marriage.

Kelley Conway: It’s not satire. It’s something else.

Tone Madison: Yeah. The style of the film is so beautifully striking. It obviously belongs to the French New Wave by its use of editing and colors. I found it so riveting, and it’s such a concise film, too, at 80 minutes. And I’m generally a fan of shorter features, so I’m sure there were a number of factors that impressed me. I don’t like saying something is a filmmaker’s best, but I had the strongest reaction to that film when I watched it.

Kelley Conway: I did, too. It’s provocative. I agree with you that the color is stunning. She once said she wanted to imitate the look of laundry soap advertisements or the kind of brightly colored advertisements you might find in the pages of a mass market women’s magazine. But I think the color is actually much subtler than that. There’s a patterned use of the color- lots of reds and yellows. And lots of interesting choices in the colors of the costumes and the decor in the interiors. I love the editing, too. The little montage sequences of the wife doing domestic labor. You see this montage of a woman’s hands sewing clothing, ironing clothes, preparing food, taking care of babies. But shown beautifully with love and care. And then you also get that amazing montage of the husband and his lover making love. Brief shots of their bodies. Compelling and unexpected.

Another thing I love about Varda is that she never wastes anything. She’s the consummate recycler. She took a couple of old prints of Le Bonheur and made an [installation] out of it. She made these little cabins whose walls are [comprised of] film strips. And so, in Paris, in summer of 2018, she had a show at this gallery. She featured a house that was made of strips from the film Le Bonheur, and then she put these gigantic artificial sunflowers inside. If you remember all the sunflowers in that film. At the end of the film, the new couple is walking through the field with the kids, we see a lot of these huge sunflowers- this clichéd image of happiness. She takes all that material, the celluloid and artificial sunflowers, and creates this amazing installation for a gallery. She did a lot of that in the last fifteen years of her life. She would take an idea or celluloid from a film and re-purpose it into some thought-provoking installation. 

At that same show, she took still images from Vagabond, enlarged them, framed them, and hung them on the gallery walls. It’s that moment when Sandrine Bonnaire’s character [Mona] finds herself as the target of these bizarre villagers who are celebrating a kind of harvest ritual. People dress up as trees and throw wine at everyone. Mona is horrified by it; she’s confused and half-frozen. At this point in the film, near the end, she’s exhausted and disoriented. She finds herself threatened by these crazed villagers chasing after her, smearing the dregs of wine on her. In the gallery, Varda had enlarged these still images right when Sandrine Bonnaire is being attacked, and they just looked like stills from a horror film. The wine looks like blood, and you really feel the horror of that moment. And you’re reminded how that film had a lot to say about the isolation and anxiety that Mona experienced. Varda always found a way to extend and expand an idea or object to create something new.

Tone Madison: So, it sounds like you recommend exploring those four films in that set first, as an introduction, but also taking a look at her installation work as a sort of complement—another medium as a complement to her filmmaking.

Kelley Conway: That is one way to start… The other great thing about that box set is that Agnès Varda created lots of introductions to her own films, and some of these are available already in the “4 By Agnès Varda” set that you mentioned. But Criterion gathered all of those together and put them on this new set. Really, Varda was always the best analyst of her own work. She was a great communicator in terms of explaining to viewers her intentions and goals, and connecting her work to previous work she had done and to larger ideas in the culture. She was the most talented filmmaker in terms of being able to present and frame her work for an audience. She came to Madison in 2002, and audiences were just riveted by her. She introduced every film we showed in a retrospective, and she was just masterful at answering [audience] questions with insight and humor. Not all filmmakers have that skill. You’ll get a sense of her presence from the Criterion set. […] The Beaches of Agnès could also be a wonderful introduction to her work. I think people would enjoy that film even if they haven’t seen too many of her others. You really get a sense of her personality- her whimsy, humor, and creativity. They really come through in that film. 

Tone Madison: With some film-related publications suspended now, like Film Comment, we’re reminded of the significance of film analysis in promoting lesser-known work and serving as a catalyst to critical discourse. A number of directors today still write about film, and there’s obviously a long history of that. Late last year, the Media History Digital Library, which is an online resource for film magazines in nine different languages from around the world, received a significant grant for expansion from ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies). I think it was $150,000. With Eric Hoyt serving as Director, the two of you spearheaded this project in an effort to aid researchers. But do you think there’s value for a more general population in occasionally accessing it, maybe with an eye towards its connections to the American Film Institute catalog? 

Kelley Conway: Oh, absolutely. The Media History Digital Library, which was actually co-founded by Eric Hoyt and David Pierce, who works for the Library of Congress now, was groundbreaking in initially making US periodicals about film available, and TV to a certain extent… publications in the public domain. What they managed to do was scan millions of pages of material and make them available to readers who were researchers or more casual fans of movie history. I’ve come late to this project; I’m helping Eric collect periodicals for the database in languages other than English. We’ve established a team of people from India, Italy, Mexico, France, and other countries. We’re working with them to obtain journals we can scan and put on the Media History Digital Library. 

The other thing Eric did was create a search tool called “Lantern.” Say you wanted to track the history of an actor or a director, you could use the [engine] and immediately be drawn to all publications and articles about this person. [He also] created an analytical tool so you can present and display information about it- sort of a data visualization tool. So, it’s not just scanned materials online; it’s whole set of tools to organize and analyze what you’ve found. It’s good for students and researchers, but it’s also just a lot of fun to look through.

The American Film Institute has long had a great resource for listing films. So, the MHDL is going to connect with AFI so that, if someone is looking in their database, they can click on a link and go to the MHDL. They’ll be merged, and expand the utility. […] For anyone who remembers what it was like to go to a library and look at microfiche, you’ll be very grateful for this tool. It makes it so easy to find out how a film was received in a variety of publications. You can do something in 30 minutes that used to take 3 months: trace the rise and fall of a given filmmaker’s career or fortunes of a studio through time. You can chart through time and space, right now, since we’re gathering information from different parts of the world. You can really trace the trajectory of a given figure through film culture over time in a very efficient way.

Tone Madison: Are there any plans to provide a connection to social media sites related to film [like adding relevant external links to the MHDL for qualifying films]? The immediate one that comes to mind is Letterboxd, but there are a few others.

Kelley Conway: That’s a great idea. I don’t think we’re thinking about that right now. But the starting point of the MHDL was the idea of using material in the public domain to avoid copyright restrictions. Right now we’re collecting material, depending on the country’s copyright law, up to 1950. As time goes on, we’ll gather more and more info, of course.

Tone Madison: Especially in recent weeks, there’s been a lot of talk or controversy about the prospects of reopening schools this fall. I think most of the attention is being directed at public grade school, but Chancellor of UW-Madison, Rebecca Blank, announced that there would be a “Smart Restart” on September 2 for the 2020-2021 year.

How do you feel about this decision and situation? Obviously, it’s an ever-changing environment, but you said you were taking steps this summer to retool the Communication Arts curriculum as the Department Chair. What major changes have you envisioned to ensure utmost safety? 

Kelley Conway: As the Chair of the Department of Communication Arts, I understand the nuance and difficulty of the decision that the university made with regard to fall 2020. On the one hand, we want to protect the health of faculty, staff, and students; on the other hand, we want students to maintain their momentum in completing their degrees and also have the best possible educational experience. I think the university has found a nice compromise of aiming for 50% in-person courses and 50% remote classes. The university has engaged in careful planning to keep people safe, and these plans include mask-wearing, maintaining clean classrooms, and testing/tracing. However, there is uncertainty. Will students adhere to the new norms around safety when they’re not in the classroom? I hope so. I know the university is working hard on a public campaign designed to help students understand the importance of maintaining physical distance and wearing masks while indoors. I have a lot of confidence in UW, and I hope that things go well.

I can also add that administrators on campus have visited every classroom and determined the number of students who could safely be in there at one time. They have reconfigured the entire class schedule. An enormous amount of labor has gone into preparing for the fall in such a way that it could be safe. I’m grateful for that effort, and I’m hoping for the best. But it really will require everyone to change their behavior.

Did you notice Madison Metropolitan School District decided, like an hour ago [at the time of this recorded interview], that they’ll be online?

Tone Madison Oh, no, I haven’t.

Kelley Conway: Yeah, they have backed down from their initial plan to be hybrid given the rising numbers of COVID cases.

Tone Madison: Do you think that will have any effect on the decisions that will come out of the university in the next [few] weeks?

Kelley Conway: It’s hard to say. Chancellor Blank did mention, in a video conference call she had with administrators across campus, that plans could change. She established a detailed plan, and said, “All of this could change tomorrow.” So, she has rightly warned people that we could switch back to all remote [classes] if it becomes necessary. People should be ready for any number of scenarios.

Tone Madison: So, if these measures are in place, what will happen if someone is defiant and they refuse to wear a mask? Will they just be asked to leave? But then I feel like they would just try to file an official complaint against the university or something. 

Kelley Conway: I think the vast majority of students will understand that there’s a new cultural norm in place that involves keeping people in your community safe. And there’s a lot of evidence that shows masks make a difference. It’s unlikely many students will refuse that directive. If they refuse to wear a mask inside a classroom, they will presumably be asked to leave. Instructors have been asked to indicate on the syllabus that mask-wearing is required. If students are uncomfortable with masks, they should just do the online mode of instruction.

Tone Madison: Lastly, in thinking further about what would happen if the UW fall semester moved entirely online: Do you know if there would be any tuition relief or something to that effect, because there’d be no in-person instruction?  

Kelley Conway: I haven’t received any news to that effect. I know that faculty are working really hard this summer to build their skills in online pedagogy so they can create compelling courses. If an uptick in COVID-19 cases forces us to switch from a hybrid to a fully online mode of instruction, faculty will be more prepared for that scenario than we were back in March.

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