My Sicilian grandmother spent all her adult life as a city-dweller, but she never forgot how to glean. She'd visit us in the New Jersey suburbs, staying at my aunt's house next door. We had an apple tree we never tended, so it produced fruit sporadically--and the apples themselves were puny, eventually dropping to make a sweet-sour mash under the tree by late autumn. But in September she'd wander into the yard, bending over and finding some fruit worthwhile enough--cut off the bad parts, scold away a worm or two. We could shake our heads at her all we'd like, but eventually we'd get little folded-over cookies with sweet apples in the middle--and she could never bake enough of them for her grown grandchildren.
The Gleaners and I is a documentary/personal essay by the New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda, whose impish face is half-glimpsed a few times along the way, a field gnome watching Millet's after-harvest gleaners make their way toward us, past us, and into town, where dumpsters and markets wait. While the film sheds some light on the time-honored practice of picking through the leftovers, it becomes something else: a reflection on the cast-off and the junked, the physical pleasure of finding something good in the muck, the satisfaction of a free meal, and the pride in leaving nothing to waste.
And so gleaning becomes a metaphor, of course--for work, for the generous heart of true justice, for friendship and naturally for art/film itself, presented as collage/montage, the accidentally-on-purpose patterns formed by found objects, the sudden glimpse of oneself filming, at one point Varda's dangling lens cap another performer, a free-jazz dancer--and even her camera is an apt gleaning tool: a small camcorder, easy enough for anyone to use, easy as bending over and finding an apple worth eating and a heart-shaped potato.
Varda narrates with an assured combination of philosophical coolness and open-hearted glee, each profile punctuated by sly humor and genuine delight, her curiosity about the variations on gleaning insatiable--her little bowl haircut sliding across the frame as she watches us gleaning her gleaning the gleaners. Like much of the New Wave, this late entry is as much about movie-making as it is a movie--but Varda is an old pro rejuvenated by the little camera in her hand, and she plays like a talented child: Just watch/listen to her ruminations on her wrinkled hands, and those same hands playing a forced-perspective game with freeway trucks, grabbing them and squeezing as she passes each. The Gleaners and I takes the eco-idea of "sustainability" and makes it an everyday possibility--but one infused with French introspection and solid rural/urban know-how. We can all sustain, she tells us, as long as we learn to bend a little.