Forms of Memory: Close-Up on Chris Marker’s "Level Five"

In Chris Marker's film, a woman is tasked with completing the project of her vanished lover: a video game about the battle of Okinawa.
Benjamin Crais

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Chris Marker's Level Five (1997) is playing September 17 - October 17, 2017 in most countries around the world as part of the retrospective Chris Marker: An Essayist from the Future.

Level Five

Midway into Chris Marker’s Level Five (1997), Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) ponders aloud what ethnologists of the future might think of the video diaries she makes throughout the course of the film. Answering to their presumed curiosity, she tells those future detectives, “Yes it was customary for such tribes to address a familiar and protective spirit known as a computer…They’d consult on everything, it kept their memory. In fact, they no longer had a memory. It was their memory.” If one had to make a sweeping statement about this dense, multivalent film, one could do worse than suggest that Level Five’s subject is this externalization of memory into media addressed by Laura, with an eye to the particular relationship to memory and history produced by the computer.

When Level Five boots up, Laura has tasked herself with completing the project of her vanished lover: a strategy video game about the battle of Okinawa, an event which saw the mass suicide of thousands of Okinawans and formed a partial justification for the later use of the atomic bomb. The game’s objective is ambiguous: RECONSTRUCT THE BATTLE OF OKINAWA. Laura, like any good gamer, assumes that to reconstruct means to rewrite: to play the event again and possibly create a new outcome.

To complete her lover’s work, Laura must gather information on Okinawa through the means available to her from her office-nest (never abandoned except for a brief respite in a menagerie)—namely through books, OWL (Level Five’s figuration of the Internet), and video shot previously by her lover. All this, as well as the numerous video diaries she records throughout, is gathered with the intention of passing the footage to “Chris” at a later date for the “editing wunderkind” to work out. Everyone’s working with pre-existing footage, with the traces and artifacts left by others. Marker in voiceover: “I was readier for other people’s images than my own.”  

In this sense, Level Five proceeds through explicit engagement with what Bernard Stiegler calls “tertiary retentions”: exteriorizations of memory, memory made technical, discrete, and spatial. Laura has no experiences except through such manifestations: books of imperial history, a mechanical parrot, OWL… If the impetus for Level Five, as Chris Marker once told a reporter, is the way the deaths of Okinawa had been “bypassed by memory, erased from our collective consciousness,”1 the question is in what forms does this event remain inscribed in our world (despite the attempts of official history to erase it). What traces remain for Belkhodja’s cyber-researcher to discover?

Only one trace of Okinawa, in Level Five, comes as embodied (human) memory: the recorded testimony of Reverend Shigeaki Kinjo, who as a boy massacred his family so that they would not be left to American soldiers. Otherwise, the more outwardly “material” traces: a wall riddled with holes from officers’ suicides-by-grenade (complete with a placard to identify it as such), a bunker preserved as a tourist attraction, an underwater graveyard. Sampling director Nagisa Oshima’ footage of that sunken tomb, Marker calls him a “surveyor of memories,” implicitly naming the skull turned over in a diver’s hand one of those memories: a trace of the past surfacing some decades later.

Audiovisual recording constitutes its own kind of memory, preserving and transmitting the light and sound frequencies of some past moment for future recall. Marker grimly notes that we’ve yet been unable to do the same for smell: “Till we get smellies, like talkies, war films don’t exist.” However, the audiovisual archive available to Laura on OWL doesn’t offer a transparent window onto a partially-recoverable past. Level Five is more concerned with the uneasy status of images as both documents and actors, recordings and weapons (Marker: “a war of images that soon coincided with the real war”). One of the film’s more striking moments comes from a clip of a Saipanese woman who had decided against participating in mass suicide until she spots the camera trained on her, recording either her cowardice or resolve for posterity. The camera records and causes her suicide in the same moment, an idea suggestively taken up again when Marker says Kinjo killed his family “because an invisible camera spied on him.”

Level Five’s fundamental concern, however, is the particular status of the computer as a technology of memory. Black screens announcing LOG IN and the accompanying date punctuate Level Five, whereas the “found footage” that constitutes the bulk of Level Five is rendered through OWL’s interface. To call up the clips, interviews, et cetera discussed throughout, Laura must move through OWL’s database—organized into categories like US TROOPS and WITNESSES—and request those artifacts which materialize gradually, built up piecemeal by pixels and graphic layers.

Level Five

In an essay on Marker2, Jacques Rancière makes an opposition between information and memory (with memory consisting of “an orderly collection, a certain arrangement of signs, traces, and monuments” and information a matter of indifferently equivalent facts), but one could say here that Level Five deploys these two terms in a slightly different way, and less as an opposition than a tension or relation: that between memory and information technology, of personal-historical-cultural memory manifesting in, through, and by a database.  

Level Five probes this mostly on a formal level, but—as in the lines at this article’s start indicate—this tension plays no small role in Laura’s growing malaise. At one point, Laura sets her screensaver to a puzzle—made of discrete squares continually rearranging themselves—to illustrate her intuition that her lover has left her a “huge puzzle” that might end with no image at all. Marker then redoubles and emphasizes the puzzle-image in a kind of cascading or windowing effect where Level Five’s image of Laura is duplicated in puzzle form on the computer screen in the background: the film’s image (a recording, a temporal flow, et cetera) remediated by the computer, its temporality superseded by the puzzle’s (computer’s) spatiality, a recording turned into a table of information. When one’s relation to the past is less a matter of some continuity than of assembling and working on the various clips, images, and texts immediately available through one’s computer, do we still have history or something else3 (“the discouraging thought that, in the end [of the puzzle], there’d be no image…”)? Level Five leaves this unresolved: OWL is the means by which Laura can recover Okinawa’s lost history, but this comes with the recognition that OWL might inaugurate its own particular relation to the past. People smiled at all the knowledge available on the Internet, a computerized voice intones, “but that was exactly their game: have information ever further and faster.”

Laura delivers her final monologue to her missing lover. In a movie devoted to traces, artifacts, recordings, and the like, he has a strange non-presence: no photos, no sounds, no evidence, just a few remembrances that he sits in the margins of (“I’d find [your writings] in the morning when I logged in…”). As she wonders what he might remember of her, posing that “one day, my image would begin to blur…[the] scraps of life filling your memory were shifting out of focus,” Laura simultaneously blurs the camera’s image with a remote control, slowly flattening the image to near-obscurity, conjugating the two forms of memory in their mutual cloudening.


1. Chris Marker interviewed by Dolores Walsfisch. “Interview with Chris Marker (1996)” in Chris Marker by Nora Alter (145).  

2. Ranciere, Jacques. “Documentary Fiction: Marker and the Fiction of Memory” in Film Fables (157).

3. See: “Retconning History,” Steven Shaviro.

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