Chris Marker: Memory’s Apostle

La Jetée (1963) and Sans Soleil (1983), made a tidy twenty years apart, are the twin peaks of Chris Marker’s creative achievements and his best-loved and most widely seen films. But who is Chris Marker? Writer, photographer, editor, filmmaker, videographer, and digital multimedia artist, Marker was until recently one of cinema’s better-kept secrets, famously reclusive and shrouded in protective layers of legend and pseudonym. The whisper of his adopted name was for those in the know a password to another country: an alter ego of the everyday modern world, transfigured by the insight of a wise, funny, and profoundly humane intelligence, populated with owls, cats, and mysteriously beautiful women, a place where, as we learn in Sans Soleil, “every memory can create its own legend.” Today, thanks to a growing body of exhibitions, film festival retrospectives, and publications, the secret is becoming more extensively known and shared, and Marker is garnering recognition as one of the most significant and seminal figures of contemporary visual culture. Yet this octogenarian polymath remains a tantalizingly impenetrable enigma. Still active, and utterly uninterested in resting publicly on the laurels of his long and remarkably varied creative life, Marker retains an allure that is amplified by the fact that only a handful of his works are widely circulated and seen, especially outside his native France.

When Marker came to make La Jetée, in 1962, he was already in the process of confounding the expectations set up by his early career. Emerging first as a critic, poet, and novelist in the ferment of postwar Paris, Marker moved into photography and filmmaking in the 1950s, supported by a modest but effective state funding structure for short-film production that also assisted his close friends and fellow filmmakers Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda. By the early 1960s, Marker had gained a reputation as the director of a handful of idiosyncratic personal travel documentaries: A Sunday in Peking (1956), Letter from Siberia (1957), Description of a Struggle (1960, about Israel), and Cuba sí! (1961). Through these films, Marker honed a distinctive style of inquisitive, offbeat cultural reportage, which adopted an engagingly intimate tone of address and cunningly played on the separation of images from voice-over commentary to question the ways in which different nations and cultures are represented—both for themselves and to others. One famous sequence in Letter from Siberia shows footage of a Yakutsk town bus, road menders, and a squinting passerby three times, with three different commentaries: a pro-Soviet eulogy showcasing progress and efficiency, an anti-Soviet critique emphasizing backwardness and discomfort, and an “objective” sketch of Marker’s own impressions—which, he is quick to point out in the film, has no more purchase on the truth of Siberia than either of the others. As critic André Bazin noted when he reviewed the film in Cahiers du cinéma, the main force at work in Letter from Siberia was a penetrating intelligence, one that wore its erudition gracefully and was unafraid to upset ideological sacred cows. Bazin’s assessment served to cement Marker’s association with that singular branch of documentary called the essay film, which might be characterized as setting out to depict the process of thinking around a given subject, with all its attendant messiness, hesitations, and sudden insights intact.

In the spring of 1962, Marker began work on a documentary project with a radically different scope and approach from his travelogues: an expansive, interview-based examination of contemporary French society in the immediate aftermath of the Algerian War, which was released a year later as Le joli mai. Together with Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1960), Le joli mai remains one of the key works of French cinema verité, although Marker was quick to rephrase as “ciné, ma vérité” (cinema, my truth) Rouch and Morin’s quasi-scientific-sounding translation of Dziga Vertov’s kino-pravda, signaling that he had no intention of abandoning personal expression as a means of engaging with the world. Marker’s drily nonconfrontational interview style allowed his subjects plenty of space to express their views, but he then freely used editing to let his own reactions—sympathy, outrage, boredom (cue yawning cats)—show through. From this point on, the interview would remain a central feature of Marker’s filmmaking, a testament to his compassionate, if never uncritical, fascination with other human lives, and a ready complement to the distinctive, private sensibility expressed through his commentaries.

During time out from shooting Le joli mai, Marker began to take photographs for a story that would eventually become La Jetée, his most definitive foray onto the terrain of narrative fiction film and one of cinema’s most elegant and remarkable meditations on its own nature as a medium, despite (or rather because of) its being composed almost entirely of still photographs. Inimitable and provocatively influential—Terry Gilliam’s 1995 feature film 12 Monkeys being the best-known homage—La Jetée is simply unlike any other film in the history of cinema. It is certainly not the only film to be composed out of still images, but its triumph is to harness them, using the classic grammar of the narrative fiction film, to the ultimate spare, stripped-down storyline (a mere twenty-seven minutes in length): a postapocalyptic science-fiction tale of tragic heroism and lost love, which turns on the fatal attraction of images and the price paid for that desire. The use of still photographs distills the essence of cinema’s appeal and its impossibility: the desire to fix that which is forever in motion, the desire to possess the presence of that which is forever absent, the willful suspension of disbelief that will create the illusion of reality from a projected stream of immobile representations. La Jetée can be amply enjoyed along these lines, as a timeless reflection on cinema as a time machine, but it is also very much the product of its own historical moment and the circumstances of its making. It is as if Marker, absorbed in the contemporary attitudes and concerns expressed by the interviewees of Le joli mai, had pulled them inside out and across the border into science fiction, where the unsayable could be given a voice. The dystopian future imagined in La Jetée mirrors the murky global fears of the cold war and the Cuban Missile Crisis (which unfolded as Marker was working to complete the film), not to mention the dirty domestic secrets of a France that had used torture during the Algerian War and then ruthlessly censored public knowledge of the fact, raising the specter of national complicity with the Nazi occupation during World War II (La Jetée’s prison-camp experimenters whisper portentously in German). It seems no coincidence that the action of the film takes place underground, location par excellence of the unconscious and the repressed.

Then, in 1967, with his leading involvement in the collective Vietnam War protest film Far from Vietnam, Marker began a decade of working closely, and often anonymously, with the French left-wing militant film collectives SLON and ISKRA, producing counterinformation newsreels and campaigning films on political struggles in France, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, and quietly lending a hand to fellow committed filmmakers like Patricio Guzmán, whose landmark film on the downfall of the Allende government, The Battle of Chile (1975), reputedly owed to Marker an indispensable gift of film stock. At the end of this period, Marker produced his own magisterial assessment of the rise and fall of the militant left, the epic A Grin Without a Cat (1977), which showcased his extraordinary gift for montage to excavate the complexities of a radical history that, by the late 1970s, was fast succumbing to the whitewash of right-wing historical revisionism.

Following this immersion in collectivist political cinema, the release of Sans Soleil, in 1983, was greeted as Marker’s triumphant return to personal filmmaking. Sans Soleil is Marker’s tour de force as a cinematic essayist, all playful musings and meandering digressions, in which passing observations on such apparently banal subjects as pet cats and video games yield profound insights into the big issues of twentieth-century civilization: history, memory, political power, the function of representation, ritual and time. The premise of Sans Soleil is a woman reading out letters from a globe-trotting cameraman, who we learn in the closing credits is named Sandor Krasna. Krasna is drawn especially to Japan and the former Portuguese West African colonies of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau; he also visits Iceland, Île-de-France, and San Francisco, being obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. We must lean on these bare coordinates all we can, since nothing can fully prepare the novice viewer for the exhilarating kaleidoscope of ideas, associations, and fleetingly gorgeous visions that Sans Soleil offers. Like a piece of music, it does demand (and generously repay) repeat viewings. Through Krasna—whose presence is itself filtered through the sensibility of the woman who reads, and occasionally comments upon, his letters—Marker fuses the urbane wit of his earliest travel films to the persona of the political militant, now somewhat disabused by the collapse of the struggles he has supported, but not so shortsighted as to deny the value of those who, “like Che Guevara, tremble with indignation every time an injustice is committed.”

If, in these respects, Sans Soleil looks back to Marker’s earlier incarnations, it also heralds his growing interest in computers and digital multimedia, which would become an important platform for his work during the eighties and nineties, resulting in the multimedia gallery installations Zapping Zone (1990), Silent Movie (1996), and Owls at Noon (2005), the interactive CD-ROM Immemory (1998), and the pivotal role played by the Apple IIGS computer in both the narrative and the creation of his 1996 feature film Level Five. In Sans Soleil, the avatar of this fascination with digital imagery is Krasna’s Japanese friend Hayao Yamaneko, who designs video games and, as a sideline, obsessively feeds film images into a synthesizer, so that they are transformed into flat, shifting fields of vivid, pixelated color.

In treating images this way, Yamaneko insists that they are literally marked with traces of the inexorable passage of time, and that memory continually fabricates new versions of past events to suit the immediate interests of the present. This holds a key to this intricately worked film’s central themes and obsessions. Marker has always been concerned in his work with probing what Krasna calls “the function of remembering,” both how memory serves to constitute an individual’s sense of self and the public or collective process of forging an official version of history. Marker’s films abound with incisive interrogations of the multitude of experiences that get repressed or denied in the interest of manufacturing history and national identity, and in Sans Soleil we find the synthesized images used to show precisely aspects of Japanese culture that don’t officially exist: reasonable, anti-Imperial kamikaze pilots and the burakumin underclass, a vestige of the medieval caste system.

What makes the treatment of memory in Sans Soleil so compelling, though, is that it is never merely the dry object of the essayist’s inquiry but the very impassioned dynamo of the film’s structure and unfolding. The film flits from one idea or visual association to another, and in it we can trace the habits of our own inner processes of recollection, which condense, displace, plunge us abruptly into forgotten recesses of our past. The fugitive allure of Sans Soleil’s images owes much to the feeling that they are something more than simply records of places and events in the world—they are things that have been cherished and remembered by somebody, because they have momentarily quickened the heart, like the list in The Pillow Book, a collection of writings by the tenth-century noblewoman Sei Shõnagon, that Krasna takes to his own heart while filming. Marker is alert to memory’s self-serving distortions, but even more so to our deep human need for memory as a form of protection, a shield that keeps at bay the losses imposed by time, forgetting, and forced obliteration, even as our emotional investment in a memory exists in a direct ratio to whatever absence brought it into being: “Memory is not the opposite of forgetting but its lining.” This is why Krasna cannot find a place for the delicately flickering image of three Icelandic children that opens Sans Soleil until their hometown is destroyed by a volcano. The poignancy of the image only stands out against the blackness, the annihilation, the absence of the sun. It is also why, deep in the labyrinthine passages of Sans Soleil, La Jetée is enfolded as the memory of another film, replaying its own allusion to Hitchcock’s Vertigo in a slice of sequoia trunk, where a hand points to a place outside conventional time. For La Jetée is the story of a man’s memory of a woman’s face, which he held on to in the teeth of war and destruction, but which led him back ultimately to a more fearfully intimate moment of nothingness. And for Marker and Krasna, Hitchcock’s once maligned masterpiece is the ultimate story of “impossible memory”: Scottie’s doomed drive to re-create through Judy his lost love, Madeleine, because his precious memory was already that which was gone forever.

At the time he made Le joli mai, Marker was already wondering what that film would mean to people in years to come—a feeling that doubtless inspired the specter in La Jetée of contemporary Paris transformed into a distant, prewar memory of the future. It is tempting, and not unjustified, to speculate that one reason for Marker’s growing visibility and popularity is that, as a culture, we have now finally caught up with works that once seemed like dispatches from another planet (recalling that Marker was long quite seriously rumored to be a denizen of such). The subjective documentary viewpoint, which Marker did so much to pioneer, is now the norm rather than the outrageous exception: witness Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000), Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003), or Gary Tarn’s Marker-inspired Black Sun (2005), among others too numerous to name. Marker’s early and enthusiastic embrace of electronic communications and new media technologies as a vehicle for creative expression now seems (at least from some angles) a far more prescient manifesto for the future of filmmaking than anything from the doom-mongers who think cinema will be seen off by the digital revolution. And Marker’s preoccupation with the lures and conundrums of memory has gone mainstream, from Total Recall (1990) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). At the same time, we bind Marker to the preoccupations of the present at our own risk. The Cat Who Walks by Himself, he has always moved one step ahead by elegantly flouting expectations, and it would be rash to believe that he has nothing left to unveil to us of our deepest cultural memories, disavowals, and desires.

 This piece originally appeared in the 2007 DVD edition of La Jetée/Sans Soleil.

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