Chris Marker: Staring Back

“Back to that balcony at the place de la RÈpublique where all huge demonstrations have always started or ended. I manage to frame again the top portion of my old photograph. In between I have been in Japan, Korea, Bolivia, Chile. I have filmed students in Guinea-Bissau, medics in Kosovo, Bosnian refugees, Brazilian activists, animals everywhere. I covered the first free elections in East Germany after the fall of the Wall, and I sniffed the first moments of perestroika in Moscow, when people weren’t afraid to talk to each other anymore. I traded film for video and video for computer. In the middle, on the balcony, the tree has grown, just a little.

Within these few inches, forty years of my life.”

Thus writes 86-year-old Chris Marker in Staring Back, his beautiful new collection of black-and-white photographs and video stills taken between 1952 and 2006. Virtually all of his subjects are the faces of people encountered in his travels–protesters, filmmakers, workers, immigrants, police–taken in isolation; some looking away, many gazing directly at the camera. “Frankly,” says Marker’s narrator in his essay film Sans Soleil, “have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?” And just as he illustrates this point by freezing the face of a young woman in Cape Verde, his photography here captures a multitude of people gazing wistfully, bemusedly, at the camera, calm faces with only the slightest glimmers of a bountiful range of emotions. Occasionally accompanying the images throughout the book is Marker’s prose, typically as brief as it is pithy, suggesting context, identifying details, musing philosophically on their interrelationships.

The book is divided up into various sections according to gazes (“I Stare” and “They Stare”), as well as animal photographs and documentation of the kinds of political demonstrations referenced above. The latter carries with it particular dramatic force, iconifying anonymous people caught in struggles that may span continents and decades, but share–as the narrator says in Sans Soleil–“the utopia of uniting in a common struggle those who revolt against poverty and those who revolt against wealth.” (The collection is ironically dedicated to France’s then-Prime Minister, de Villepin, “since he passed a law that triggered the demos that lured me to film them,” Marker wryly notes.)

The book also includes the script for Marker’s recent documentary, The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004), and is published by MIT Press on the heels of a summer exhibition curated by Bill Horrigan at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, which in 1995 became the first American arts institution to commission a Marker installation. Horrigan contributes an informative and engaging account of his correspondences with Marker and the impetus behind what would become the first exhibition of Marker’s photographs in any country, threading insightful connections between pivotal Marker films interspersed with email excerpts from the filmmaker himself. “[My] editor’s syndrome functioned automatically,” Marker writes, “and [photographic] ‘pairs’ materialized, some graphic, some geographic, some thematic . . . I give [examples] for what it’s worth, but sometimes instinct has its merits.”

In short, Staring Back is an evocative and compelling account of past times and current times, and the artist who binds them together. It’s a rare token of the work of one of our most elusive but commanding of filmmakers, and a revealing portrait of the unspecified faces lingering in his–and now our–ongoing memories.

One thought on “Chris Marker: Staring Back

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