Some months after the fall of the Berlin wall, during the time of federal elections in Germany in 1990, Chris Marker shot this passionate (?) documentary, reflecting the state of the place and its spirit with remarkable acuity. In order to report for the tv magazine “Special Emissary”, the maker of La Jetée and Grin without a Cat assumes the eye of a traveller, an outsider, in order to observe the changes sweeping across the reunified country. With a strong insightful result.
“I write to you from a far-off country…”
Information regarding the early life of Chris Marker, photographer, filmmaker, videographer, poet, journalist, multimedia/installation artist, designer, and world traveler, is scarce and conflicting. The year to which his movies, videos, and multimedia projects are dated depends on which source you use, and in which country you live. Personal data is in a state of complete disarray: Derek Malcolm, writing about ¡Cuba Sí! (1961) for The Guardian, reports that Marker was born in Mongolia, of aristocratic descent. Geoff Andrew of Time Out London isn’t sure (Andrew, 146), and most sources, along with the Internet Movie Database, use the location I’ve listed above as his place of birth. Some say his father was an American soldier, others that he (Marker) was a paratrooper in the Second World War. Still others, that he comes to us from an alien planet. Or the future. Throughout his career, he has rarely been interviewed, and even more rarely… read more
“I write to you from a far-off country…”
Information regarding the early life of Chris Marker, photographer, filmmaker, videographer, poet, journalist, multimedia/installation artist, designer, and world traveler, is scarce and conflicting. The year to which his movies, videos, and multimedia projects are dated depends on which source you use, and in which country you live. Personal data is in a state of complete disarray: Derek Malcolm, writing about ¡Cuba Sí! (1961) for The Guardian, reports that Marker was born in Mongolia, of aristocratic descent. Geoff Andrew of Time Out London isn’t sure (Andrew, 146), and most sources, along with the Internet Movie Database, use the location I’ve listed above as his place of birth. Some say his father was an American soldier, others that he (Marker) was a paratrooper in the Second World War. Still others, that he comes to us from an alien planet. Or the future. Throughout his career, he has rarely been interviewed, and even more rarely photographed. It is said that he responds to requests for his photograph with a picture of a cat – his favorite animal. (2) I have to wonder, given the dry, unexpected, and off-kilter wit in much of his work, as well as his fascination with the malleability of information in the digital age, whether, if he is not the author of any of the above pieces of information and disinformation, would he at least support the creativeness (or strangeness) of their design? When Mikkel Aaland, an artist and web designer who wrote about meeting with Marker during the early ‘90s (while the filmmaker was working on Immemory, an interactive CD-ROM that explores the interpenetrative concepts of memory and understanding), wanted to record on tape his talks with the multimedia artist, he was told, “No interviews. Instead, if you must write something, use your imagination. Place us on a boat on the Nile. We are drunk. It’s your story.” It isn’t that Marker supports lies and falsehoods – his chief fascination in his work has been, rather, the nature of truth, how it is perceived, understood, and most importantly, how it is created, for ourselves as individuals and as members of this or that community.
He is often credited with conceiving the cinematic essay form, with which such disparate filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jon Jost, Chantal Akerman, Wim Wenders, Harun Farocki, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Jonathan Demme, Abbas Kiarostami, Nanni Moretti, Terry Zwigoff, and Agnès Varda have had varying degrees of success, and although the cinematic essay has its precedents in early work by Luis Buñuel (Las Hurdes, 1933), Alain Resnais, (3) and Georges Méliès, among others, Marker’s placement within the context of the development of the essay should begin with Lettre de Sibérie (1957), which is not his first film, (4) but certainly the earliest case of his unique narrative style. Not that confirming his planting of any flags has been easy: he is mentioned twice in Pauline Kael’s enormous review anthology, For Keeps, both times in conjunction with Jean Rouch, and subordinate to Godard, undoubtedly because Rouch, whose Chronique d’un eté (1961) is a key work that gave birth to the cinéma vérité movement, and Marker, whose Le Joli mai (1963) is predicated on some of the same man-on-the-street interviews introduced by Rouch, were simply seen as documentarian-ethnographers or documentarian-anthropologists (Edgar Morin, who collaborated with Rouch on Chronique d’un eté, is a leading French sociologist and philosopher), while Godard, who was and still is more of an international celebrity than Marker or Rouch or Morin put together, was beheld by Kael as a one-man band, a cinematic messiah, who knew no boundaries, and whose imitators would always know defeat when their imitations are uncovered or, as Kael suggested in her Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) review “we murmur ‘Godard’ and they are sunk” (Kael, 187). The similarities between Le Joli mai (a film which seems, in contrast to his later work, imbued with an uncharacteristically objective tone) and Chronique d’un eté were undoubtedly great enough for a writer to set up Marker and Rouch as cinematographic coefficients, but the mere murmur of a film made in the year between the two primary specimens of cinema vérité, the science fiction masterpiece La Jetée (1962), is more than sufficient to grant Marker his own corner in cinema history. But we will return to that one in a moment.
Film school textbooks and books on film history have arrived at a general agreement to treat any French filmmaker working outside of (or alongside) the French New Wave as secondary: exclusions include Jacques Tati – who, like so many other giants in the medium, worked on a wave of his own design – and the filmmakers who belonged to the Left Bank group. While one normally pictures such Cahiers du Cinéma graduates as Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer when discussing the French cinema of the late ‘50s and early-to-mid ‘60s, there also existed the Left Bank directors, who, according to Richard Roud, included three people: Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, and Marker. Any division between the New Wave and the Left Bank cinemas became increasingly problematic as the ‘60s progressed, and as the French intelligentsia became more and more politicized. All of the things that were critical in the early part of the New Wave/Left Bank periods: cinéma vérité, jump cuts, the fixation on American film noir, the neighborhood (Champs-Elysées, Cahiers, Paris, Europe)-centric attitudes, were discarded or modified accordingly to suit an increasingly global, and increasingly anxious, worldview. A multi-episodic collaboration between Marker, Godard, Varda, Resnais, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, and Joris Ivens, Loin du Vietnam (1967), created as a means to express sympathy with the North Vietnamese, was both an explicit embodiment of this “new” consciousness, as well as – perhaps not coincidentally, as Roud suggests (Roud, 668) – a movie made during a period when Marker decided to make films in collaboration with one or more other directors, rather than on his own: others included À bientôt, j’espère (co-directed by Mario Marret, 1968) and La Sixième face du pentagone (co-directed by François Reichenbach, 1968). This was also the period in which Marker founded the SLON (Societe pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles) production studio, an on-again, off-again (when overcome by events) filmmaking collective devoted to making socially and politically conscious works. Marker was also involved with Godard and Resnais in making and distributing “cinétracts,” 16mm promotional pieces intended as “news bulletins” for and about students and workers during and around the May 1968 revolt. (5) Marker would later make (and even later, modify) Le Fond de l’air est rouge (1977-1993), also known as A Grin Without a Cat, as a way to reflect upon the rise and fall of the left during the ‘60s and ‘70s; the collective this time was a chorus of narrators, similar in scheme to The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998), surrogates for Marker, whose name does not appear in the credits, but whose hand is unmistakably omnipresent.
Marker was in his late 30s when he made Lettre de Sibérie, but if it’s possible to reverse the old saw and say that there are no authors, only works, then the brief, skeletal outline of data above truly forms the foundation of his “early life”; these were the formative years for the Marker who would go on to design and stage an installation exhibit called “Silent Movie” for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, or before and after that, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (1992) and Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch (1999), or his second masterpiece, Sans soleil (1982). He is now the single author of his work, but now often credits himself, if at all, with “conceived and edited by…” instead of the usual “un film de…” or “written and directed by…” that we associate with contemporary French- and English-speaking filmmakers.
My association with Marker’s work began when, as a lark, I picked up the New Yorker Films videotape of Sans soleil, based on praise by Geoff Andrew, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and others. That was in early 2001; that’s how far Marker and I go back. I’ve since seen the essay – incontrovertibly the cornerstone of the form, far surpassing comparable works by Godard and Farocki – three more times, and each time it (cliché warning) remains utterly fresh. I’ve read a few reaction pieces by people who have been overwhelmed by the flow of information and introspection in Sans soleil, with its one-damn-thing-after-another structure shaped around Marker’s meditations on travel, consumerism, Tokyo, West Africa, guerrilla warfare, fatigue, television, history, memory, nostalgia, images, Tarkovsky, and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), to name just a few things. But that’s precisely what I love about it – a recent capsule review in the New Yorker referred to it as “intellectually exciting,” and it may be the most intellectually exciting movie ever made; it opens up discursive spaces in your head in such a way that you feel you’re being electrocuted. One connection or reflection in the movie becomes four or five in your mind as you watch Sans soleil or think about it afterwards, as if the filmmaker has sent you on a mission to find out this or that idea or bit of information (the movie is inspirational in a very concrete sense), or to consider something from a different perspective, and still another, and so on; the cinematic equivalent of a stone being thrown into a pond, wherein you are the pond. All this, and Marker still finds room for a melancholy, weary, yet strangely optimistic, exhilarating emotional texture. It also happens to be very funny at times.
La Jetée is Marker’s best-known work, thanks to 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995), which adapted its premise to suit a 129-minute movie with high-profile stars (Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe) and a 29 million dollar budget. The original film is much more modest, obviously, but also much more graceful. The premise is familiar, probably: it’s present-day Paris, where a young boy sees a beautiful woman at an airport, and then sees a man die of a gunshot wound from an unknown assailant. Years later, following an apocalyptic disaster that has driven a decimated mankind into underground bunkers, the boy – now grown – is afflicted by his memory of the beautiful woman so strongly that government scientists wish to use it as a means for time travel, with the hope of finding a key to restoring the world to its former condition. Naturally, he meets the woman and falls in love with her. Clocking in at 28 minutes, La Jetée is one of the strangest movies ever conceived, and also one of the most beautiful and sad. It’s made up almost entirely of black and white still photographs, depicting the events of the narrative. (There is one single, haunting exception – the woman, in repose, fluttering her eyelids open.) These stills are governed by a third-party narration – the only voice we hear – as well as music, and sound effects.
Other key works by Marker include two excellent pieces of film criticism, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre, covering the life and times of the forgotten Soviet filmmaker Alexandre Medvedkin, and Une journee d’Andrei Arsenevitch, a 55-minute video profile of the exalted Russian movie director, Andrei Tarkovsky, made for the French television series “Cinema de Notre Temps,” and the aforementioned Le Joli mai and Le Fond de l’air est rouge. His documentary on Yves Montand, La Solitude du chanteur de fond (1974; aka The Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer) is entertaining and wonderful to listen to, although it’s probably fueled more by affection than thought. A subtitled print or video copy of ¡Cuba Sí! eludes me, as does much of his lesser-known work, including the cinétracts. His only disappointments, I think, are A.K. (1985), an unsatisfying homage to Akira Kurosawa that was made during the production of Ran (1985), and Level 5 (1997), a dreary shell of an essay that fails to capture Marker’s supposed fascination with online culture (along with his usual themes of memory, history, etc) and drifts too often into self-parody.
In a recent American movie, Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002), a character discusses a futuristic computer interface, a console for police officers to examine evidence in a way that makes them look like orchestra conductors, and refers to a specific investigative routine as “scrubbing the image.” (6) I don’t know how much Spielberg or his screenwriters know about the work of Marker, or Farocki, or even late-period Welles (F for Fake 1974 and Filming ‘Othello’ 1979), but my mind immediately made the connection between the high-tech investigative process – which is rooted in mental images and memories, coincidentally – and the work done by these essayists. Taking an image, a simple image, like the shaking hand-held cameras in some of the Le Fond de l’air est rouge footage, and “scrubbing” it – closely examining its nature, its context, its subject, or any other aspect, in order to develop a relevant discourse – is what Marker does best. Scrubbing the image is Marker’s bread and butter. One of his more recent subjects, Tarkovsky, remarked in his Sculpting in Time book that:
It is obvious that art cannot teach anyone anything, since in four thousand years humanity has learnt nothing at all. We should long ago have become angels had we been capable of paying attention to the experience of art, and allowing ourselves to be changed in accordance with the ideals it expresses. Art only has the capacity, through shock and catharsis, to make the human soul receptive to good. It’s ridiculous to imagine that people can be taught to be good…Art can only give food – a jolt – the occasion – for psychical experience. (Tarkovsky, 50)
I’m of the mind that, in this regard, art can make the world a better place, that it can create a fertile environment for the human mind to evolve in its sense of self, its environment, and its place in the global culture, and I don’t think it’s naïve to suggest that there are certain great works of art that should be viewed as tainted goods if they in any way promote destructive ways of thinking and acting, like racism, colonialism, sexism, and the preservation of ignorance. How unusual is it, then, that Marker has that rare quality that doesn’t make him more than a journalist as it makes him more of a journalist than his colleagues – the ability to find, extract, reflect upon, and use as the binding element of his theses, the elusive poetic quality, the vital force, of the persons, places, and things he sees. —Senses of Cinema