Inside the Clinton Street Theater’s Agnès Varda Festival
“Nice Waxahatchee poster back there,” says Jennifer “JJ” Jones when I join our Zoom call. It’s nice. No one has ever even mentioned it in an interview before.
This spring, Jones gathered attention for making a few posters of her own. You may have seen them: they say “Agnès Varda Forever” in big, jagged type, with pull tabs listing various titles by the legendary French filmmaker. To date, Jones has put up more than 450, plastered on utility poles all over Portland. The public art project caught the attention of the Clinton Street Theater, inspiring staff there to program an upcoming Agnès Varda Forever film festival from August 19–31.
It all started in the darkest days of the COVID lockdown, when Jones’s son came home to live with her and the pair began watching “a movie a day.” Their viewing led them to the work of Agnès Varda, of whom both were enormous fans. “I said, ‘I feel like we should plaster her name on a big wall somewhere,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, we should write ‘Agnès Fucking Varda,’’” in an homage to Smiths guitarist Johnny “Fucking” Marr. During a bout of insomnia, Jones did it, albeit in less profane form: she hand-painted the words “Agnès Varda Forever” on a utility pole at the corner of NE 27th and Ainsworth in the middle of the night.
Jones meant to send a picture of the work to her friend Laura Glazer, whom she met at a 2018 screening of Varda’s documentary Faces Places at the Hollywood Theatre, but life intervened. A few days later, though, Glazer sent a picture to Jones.
"I got home and emailed JJ and another friend of ours, and I was like, 'You'll never guess, there's another person who's a fan, just like us,'" Glazer says. "And JJ wrote back and said, 'Oh my god, that was me.'"
Glazer is a graduate student at Portland State University, working toward an MFA in art and social practice, and in March, a class assignment gave her $100 for a criteria-free commission. She gave the money to Jones, who drew up an Agnès Varda Forever poster design, lightly inspired by the gig posters absent from Portland’s phone poles throughout 2020. The first poster went up April 12, and people quickly took notice.
Jones and Glazer used Google Trends to track searches for “Agnès Varda” in the Portland area, and found that they spiked significantly about two weeks after Jones started hanging the posters. Among their fans was Aaron Colter, who started in June as a programmer at the Clinton Street Theater.
“I just thought it was a really neat idea,” Colter says. “You used to, and are starting again, to see so many advertisements, and their project was that special mix of doing something just because you loved it, and you loved the artist, and you wanted more people to know about them.”
Shortly after he started at the Clinton, Colter approached co-owner Lani Jo Leigh about programming an Agnès Varda festival, inspired by the posters. “I said, ‘Hey, I'm thinking about doing this kind of risky thing—it's kind of a lesser-known director, at least in America, except in certain circles.' And Lani Jo was great. She was like, ‘Yeah, Cleo from 5 to 7 is an amazing film. No one will come, but let's do it.'"
Colter tracked Jones and Glazer down after catching wind of an interview on the Hollywood Theatre's Instagram account, where the theater's education director Alison Hallett revealed the pair as the masterminds behind the project.
"When we met with [Colter], he told us we could do anything we wanted," Jones recalls. "I was like, ‘Nobody ever says this to an artist.'"
The festival will feature five of Varda's films, programmed by Colter with participation from Janus Films: Cleo from 5 to 7; Lions Love (...and Lies); One Sings, the Other Doesn't; Vagabond; and The Gleaners and I (Glazer's first and favorite Varda flick ). On opening night, Jones and Glazer will host a talk with Power of Women (POW) Film Fest executive director Tara Johnson-Medinger, and for the remainder of the festival, they'll set up shop at the Clinton as artists-in-residence.
Details of their residency aren't firm, but expect Jones and Glazer to make themselves available on the sidewalk outside the theater for tea with anyone who wants to talk movies. Also on the vision board: zines, the production of a short film, a chat with a local hairdresser about how to achieve Varda's iconic bob. There will be a merch table featuring T-shirts, bags, stamps, copies of the posters, and more, the proceeds of which will benefit POW. Plus some thematically appropriate arts and crafts.
"We're going to encourage people to, right then and there, make their own poster of somebody ‘forever,’ and talk about who they admire, because the whole project is really about taking your admiration and making it really public," Jones says. She's fixated on Varda for a number of reasons: she's an incredibly influential but somewhat underloved female director ("Maybe that will change, and she'll get her due, and she'll start to be seen as, like, a Kubrick," Colter says); her work celebrates the delights of mundane daily life. But really, Jones says, the project is about public admiration.
"There's something special about celebrating another person that you admire, and part of that, which Laura and I have found out from this project, is finding out who shares your admiration for that person," she says. "Haven't you ever worn a T-shirt of your favorite band, and then it's so fun when somebody says, 'I was at that same gig!' It happens a lot around music and bands, but I don't see it happening with other sorts of things. I would love for people to say, like, 'I love Louise Nevelson.'"
I smile, nod, and glance back at the Waxahatchee poster on my wall. It is fun.
Agnès Varda Forever Festival
Aug 19–31, Clinton Street Theater, $8 for individual tickets, $35 for a festival pass