“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”
One of my sporadic interests is reading travel books–not the sort of glossy tourism guides that litter the discount racks of large bookstores, but the adventurous, personal nonfiction of established novelists (like Theroux) exploring the world in their own terms. And in the cinema, there is one filmmaker who has made this a genre all his own: Chris Marker. Though he, too, often doesn’t seem to know where he’s going, his powers of visual and aural juxtaposition and literate, poetic commentary are such that I don’t care–I’ll gladly tag along just for the ride. Whether it’s a political portrait of world events (A Grin Without a Cat) or the life and work of a colleague (One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich) or both (The Last Bolshevik), whether it’s a sprawling time capsule of life on planet Earth (Sans soleil) or a cultural summary drawn from a single artist’s oeuvre (Remembrance of Things to Come), Marker’s essay films are among the most personal and evocative media documents of the 20th century.
Paradoxically, this most subjective of artists is also one of the most invisible–the above photo is one of the few photographs that exists of him, and if his off-centered pose in frame right reflects his anonymity, it fails to suggest his fame. Born in 1921 in either France or Outer Mongolia (both have been cited) and having created films for over 50 years, Marker has garnered a passionate and loyal following. In Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980), Richard Roud writes: “More than any other director, Marker fulfilled [Alexandre] Astruc’s famous prophesy of the camÈra-stylo, writing films as one writes a book.” “We do not yet send letters to our friends that are sixty-minute films as informative, entertaining, and personal as Marker,” adds David Thomson in The Biographical Dictionary of Film (1976), “But we will, otherwise we must leave reports of foreign lands and strange ideas to the strident opinions of documentary TV, which invariably forsakes experience, research, and soul.”
Marker often uses a detached, ironic perspective, but it’s to record and complicate subjects we think we know rather than belittle them. His touches of humor enliven his seriousness of theme and his cerebral meditations on time, memory, and the visual image. Marker is an auterist enigma, however, a supremely idiosyncratic voice who employs actors to read his narrations in serene modalities. His presence is both immediate and absent, essential and teasingly elusive, like cats and owls, the nocturnal animals that frequently appear in his work. According to the credits of A Grin Without a Cat, the film has no director or writer–merely an editor and soundtrack creator named Chris Marker.
An early devotee of home computers and digital graphics, Marker lovingly utilized his Apple IIgs computer for many projects and even developed a multimedia CD-ROM, Immemory, for the Macintosh in 1998.
Last weekend, the American Cinematheque screened several of Marker’s better known works. Here are my summaries:
Statues Also Die (1953) 27 min.
This early short film in Marker’s career was co-directed by Alain Resnais (Marker also edited Resnais’ Night and Fog) and while its tone is somewhat dated, its message isn’t, offering a critical look at cultural imperialism through France’s conquest of Africa and its reshaping of African art and culture. Marker wrote the narration, which suggests that statues and other works of sacred art “die” when they’re removed from their cultural origins and placed behind glass in European museums. The film grows progressively more didactic towards the end and it’s little wonder that it wasn’t screened in France in its completed form for fifteen years.
La Jetée (1962) 30 min.
“This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood.” Conceivably the most famous (and acclaimed) short film of all time, as well as Marker’s only wholly fictional work, this haunting science fiction narrative about time travel, love, and death is really a poetic meditation on images and their ability to plunge us into the past or propel us into the future while leaving us in the present. Virtually the entire film is comprised of evocative still photographs edited into a hypnotic rhythm and accentuated by sound effects with a magisterial score taken partly from the Russian Liturgy of the Good Saturday. Remade by Terry Gilliam in 1995 as the Hollywood pseudo-art film, Twelve Monkeys, you can easily guess which of the two films exhibits the purest form and most lingering affect.
A Grin Without a Cat (1977, 1993 coda) 180 min.
Its original title, Le Fond de l’air est rouge, is an untranslatable French idiom meaning something is “in the air” but hasn’t quite “solidified” yet. In this case, it’s the worldwide social revolutions of 1967-1977 (what Marker terms “the third world war”) sparked by international outrage against the US war in Vietnam. Grin is a three-hour compilation film of diverse footage (protests, interviews, speeches) that has been described as a cinematic encyclopedia–and anyone who isn’t already familiar with such subjects as the US and French student protests (and those in Mexico City and Japan), Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, Che Guevara’s guerilla warfare in the Congo, the CIA coup in Chile, Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution in China, the Czech Prague Spring, Watergate, and much more, will probably find themselves hanging on with a tenuous grasp. The film blazes along from one end of the globe to the other detailing the rise of the New Left which, for numerous reasons Marker suggests, never fully materialized. As he eloquently puts it, the inspiration was “a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat.” It’s an invigorating, expansive mosaic of political impressionism.
Sans soleil (1982) 100 min.
If Grin is an encyclopedia, Sans soleil is a hyperlinked multimedia blog of global culture, jumping spontaneously from such places as Guinea Bissau, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Iceland, collecting odd points of interest and developing philosophically along the way. The premise is an elaborate fiction: a freelance cinematographer travels the world and writes letters to a female friend (who reads them aloud), the footage is sometimes digitized by a Japanese artist, and Chris Marker decides to (in his own words) “grab hold of the situation” and assemble the elements “like a musical composition, with recurrent themes, counterpoints, and mirror-like fugues.” The result is a densely-layered and beautiful portrait of the world and its inhabitants, often cited as Marker’s magnum opus and one of the greatest documentaries ever made.
The Last Bolshevik (1992) 120 min.
Filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin was born in 1900 and every year of his life numerically corresponded with Soviet history: the ’17 revolution, Stalin’s five year plan in ’27, the German invasion of ’41, Khrushchev’s seven year plan in ’59, Brezhnev’s five year plan in ’66, the invasion of Afghanistan in ’79, Gorbachev in ’85, and Chernobyl in ’86. But he died in ’89 just one year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, so Marker dedicates his film to Medvedkin in the form of six posthumous letters to his friend and colleague. Medvedkin was a maker of controversial satires (namely, 1934’s Happiness, a forgotten film Marker helped introduce to the West in the ’70s), an idealist whose work was constantly rejected by the authorities but who nevertheless never lost hope in his country’s potential–a bolshevik to the end. Marker’s film is both a tender reminescence and a critical overview of Soviet history, a moving and highly informative portrait of an artist in his time.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (2000) 55 min.
Another Soviet-era filmmaker, but one radically different in tone, Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) created some of the most lush and lyrical films in the history of the cinema and tragically died of cancer at the age of 54 in a Paris clinic. Marker respectfully documents his friend’s last days (in which, among other things, Tarkovsky was reunited with his son for the first time since defecting from his homeland in 1982). Marker intercuts this footage (which also includes Tarkovsky making editing decisions for his final film, The Sacrifice, from his deathbed) with a career-spanning critical interpretation of Tarkovsky’s work that is both sensitive and observant, mystical and adoring–qualities intrinsically appropriate for the spiritually-commited Russian filmmaker. While it’s no substitute for watching Tarkovsky’s films, it’s a substantial commentary and a nuanced, loving tribute to a cinematic poet.
Remembrance of Things to Come (2001) 42 min.
Marker’s latest film, which he made at the age of 80, is a typically dense and multi-faceted work, which focuses on the many photographs of Denise Bellon (1902-1999) and her images from the ’30s, a period just after one world war and just before another, offering Marker ample opportunities to do a bit of La JetÈe-style time traveling of his own. Composed entirely of Bellon’s photos, every subject seems to comment simultaneously on a past culture and a future catastrophe. Parachutists will become paratroopers, disfigured victims of the war will become images of the Holocaust, a rare photograph of Henri Langlois‘ collection of films stored in his bathtub (“the first cinÈmathËque,” Marker notes) prefigures the way reels were smuggled in Nazi-occupied France within baby carriages. Co-directed with Bellon’s daughter, Yannick, the film is an illuminating montage of a world in transition and Marker’s narration ennobles Bellon’s photography by peering deep within it, one world traveler to another.