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Varda, Keaton and the pleasures of the cinematic trifle

An early short film by Agnès Varda and a late-career one by Buster Keaton make for a surprising, charming double bill

Agnes Varda's short film ‘Along The Coast’
Agnes Varda's short film ‘Along The Coast’

Film fans spend most of their lives combing the vastness of cinema for self-evident masterpieces. Yet, all that’s memorable in film cannot be limited to the canonized or the fully realized. There’s great pleasure to be found in trifles—the sketches on celluloid which never foresaw a large audience. I was captivated by Agnès Varda’s short Along The Coast, which arrived on MUBI last week. And as I finished watching it, I was reminded of another trifle: the Buster Keaton short The Railrodder (on YouTube). Both are fetching colour films, whimsical, commissioned with the intent of boosting tourism. Each has moments that’ll make themselves comfortable in a corner of your mind, sitting alongside large swathes of Important Cinema. 

With her blend of inquisitiveness, whimsy, poetry and mischievousness, Varda was one of the great documentarians (in addition to being one of the great fiction filmmakers). We see these qualities in embryonic form in Along the Coast (1958). The faux-opera opening sets the tone, with lyrics proclaiming each Riviera town in turn—Nice, St Tropez, Cannes—bella, the most beautiful (the music is by the great Georges Delerue). Then there’s the narration, at times incredibly factual, other times slipping into poetry (it’s mostly by a male voice, but a woman interjects to add place names: a light surreal touch). 

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Varda’s debut had come three years earlier, with La Pointe Courte (1955), considered the first French New Wave film. It was in black-and-white, so Varda’s incredible eye for colour was revealed three years later, with her second and third films: Ô saisons ô chateaux (1957) and Along the Coast (1958)—both made for tourism boards. The photography—in Eastmancolor—is stunning, with blues and reds bursting out of the frame. It looks ahead to the glories of features like Le Bonheur (1965) and shorts like Uncle Yanco (1967), just two of the many examples of Vardacolor. 

With Along the Coast, Varda gives her financiers what they want (sands, tourist sites) while slyly subverting the idea of the tourism documentary. It announces early on that it won’t be looking at the “natives” – a staple of the travelogue – and that instead, “our subject is the crowd”. Later, we’re told, “The Riviera is the most beautiful cemetery in France… an Azure corpse is a quality tourist”. And Varda pointedly ends the film by reminding viewers how the beauty on offer is expensive and fleeting: “Though these dreams are collective, these gardens are not public.”

Buster Keaton in ‘The Railrodder’
Buster Keaton in ‘The Railrodder’

Varda was just starting her career when she made Along The Coast. Buster Keaton was at the very end of his when he filmed The Railrodder. In this 24-minute travelogue directed by Gerald Potterton for the National Film Board of Canada, Keaton, then 70, travels from coast to coast on a railway speeder, a brightly coloured little car resembling a golf cart. It opens in London, with Keaton reading a newspaper, the words “See Canada now!” emblazoned across a page. Keaton then folds the paper, climbs onto a bridge, and jumps into the river. He emerges from the Pacific Ocean, hijacks a speeder and sets off.

The Railrodder is more likely to draw chuckles than guffaws. Keaton’s too old to perform the sort of the gravity-defying stunts and intricate set-pieces he was once famous for. But it’s a delight nevertheless: the fetching sight of the red-and-yellow speeder passing fields and mountains and streams; the jaunty score; and the stone-faced beauty of Keaton taking it all in. Some of the routines are inspired, like when the tracks separate and the speeder is transferred onto a barge, except Keaton doesn’t realise what’s happening and keeps trying to fix the engine. There’s also the beautiful sight gag of Keaton having a cup of tea on the speeder, watched by bison, with rain starting to fall.

With sound effects and music but no dialogue, The Railrodder is practically a silent film. Keaton, of course, was one of the great silent stars. But while Chaplin, his great rival, made the transition to sound, Keaton’s career floundered once the talkies came. After years of starring in commercial dross like Beach Blanket Bingo, there’s something restorative about the dignity and concision of this little travel film.

Whenever the speeder passes over a bridge, you half-except it to collapse like the bridge in The General (1927), perhaps Keaton’s greatest film, in which he played a locomotive driver. If you’re new to the actor’s work, you should see the accompanying documentary, Buster Keaton Rides Again. Shot on locating during the making of The Railrodder, it alternates interviews of Keaton  with clips from his extraordinary films. Keaton died the year after this was filmed. It’s fitting that one of his last roles returned him to his element: silent, unflappable, mining comedy from the great outdoors. 

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