Thursday, October 6, 2011

The coolest old men in the world (2): Chris Marker

While the first and second generations of “Old Master” filmmakers are now gone, we still have a few of the most important members of cinema’s third generation with us. That includes filmmakers from the French New Wave: Resnais is 89, Varda and Rivette are 83, and Uncle Jean (aka JLG) is a mere kid of 80 years old.

Now that Eric Rohmer has left us, the status of “oldest New Waver” has passed to a filmmaker who for me surpasses all superlatives, Chris Marker. Marker turned 90 in June, and you’d never know it, for two reasons: he and Rivette have been the “forgotten” men of the New Wave in the U.S., never achieving great notoriety over here (and thus free to just keep making great movies). Also, Marker continues to behave not like a nonagenarian, but like a kid fresh out of film school who is intoxicated by creating images and toying with the new technologies that surface on a near-weekly basis.

I have saluted Marker a few times on the Funhouse TV show and still heartily urge those who are unfamiliar with his work to first check out his short film masterwork La Jetée:

I have also posted updates on this blog concerning which of his film and video projects have shown up on the Net. My entry from 2008 has links to a bunch of Marker’s video-art clips that are still active; the 2009 entry finds a few broken links (most notably the only head-on footage I’ve ever seen of Marker behind the camera shooting something, and Les Astronautes, the sci-fi short he made with Walerian Borowczyk, which is now available here!). The link to his 2006 feature Chats Perchés (2004), the original un-narrated French version of his Case of the Grinning Cat, is surprisingly still active.

I wrote those entries when Marker’s work was impossible to find on DVD in the U.S., and he had no Web presence. Happily, that situation has changed in the time since, thanks to a number of his best recent-vintage works becoming available from Icarus Films, and Marker himself creating an official website with six projects (two of them massive!) available for free. He also appears to be sanctioning the very thorough website/blog that keeps track of his activity.

Four of the six works on Marker’s Gorgomancy site are my focus here, as I belatedly celebrate the gent’s 90th birthday. The other two films available on the site are Marker’s portraits of his friends Yves Montand and Simone Signoret — and beware trying to go through the main door at, which produces only an “under construction” screen. Click the links I have provided to the site, which are working fine.

The first major item on Gorgomancy is Immemory, his colossal CD-Rom, which has been in print twice in the U.S., but both editions were only viewable with a certain build of the Apple “octopus.” To watch the copy I bought (and I am a Mac user), I had to sit for a few hours in an office I worked in that had outdated iMacs with OS9 (since my home computer was too new to view it); the later edition of the disc is for the platform after the one I have.

Marker has solved all these problems by making the copious contents of the disc available online for free. Yes, the text is in French, and while the text is very important to understanding why he grouped the images the way he did, and what personal significance they have for him, Immemory is first and foremost a celebration of the possibilities of the image, and as such can be appreciated whether you comprendre la langue or not.

Immemory is constructed as a museum of Marker’s photos — he’s been working as a photographer since the Fifties, but obviously his fascination with images began a lot earlier than that (here he dates it to the movies he saw as a child in the Twenties and Thirties, including Dracula with Lugosi and Wings). The categories in Immemory include poetry, war, photos, cinema, voyages, and the most important one, memory. Here Marker returns to one of his favorite themes, exploring Proust’s “madeleine” and linking it to Kim Novaks’s Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (his favorite film, and one he ably dissects in part of Sans Soleil).

Marker’s “museum” offers a deeper examination of the themes that distinguish his La Jetée (1962) and his brilliant, more complex works about politics, the media, and the power of imagery (Grin Without a Cat, The Last Bolshevik, Case of the Grinning Cat). One viewing tip (which is present on Gorgomancy, but is, of course, in French): when you want to move forward, run your cursor over the middle right-hand side of the screen to find a right arrow. If you want to go back to the menu, run your cursor over the middle-bottom of the screen to discover a down arrow.

I can’t think of another filmmaker who could’ve created such a huge, fascinating odyssey for his fans. Take the trip here.

“Ouvroir” is a half-hour film that Marker made using the online virtual “world” Second Life. Here his cat cartoon alter-ego (and real life feline friend) Guillaume-en-Egypte leads us through a gallery of some of the works not found in Immemory. Thus, in this informal video, you journey through a virtual “museum” that includes parts of his photography exhibit Staring Back, excerpts from his “Silent Movie” and “Hollow Men” installations, and some of his “Xplugs” (photo collages).

This video doesn’t have the depth or overwhelming brilliance of Immemory, but “Ouvroir” is definitely fun for those who already know Marker’s work (and the intertitles are in English).

Stopover in Dubai is a chillingly straightforward piece, with intertitles in English, that Marker made in 2010. It depicts the execution of a Hamas commander (himself a killer) in a Dubai hotel exclusively through security-camera footage. The piece plays like a thriller without the thrills, as Marker’s opening titles explain the killing and tell us that within 24 hours of the murder, the culprits’ identities were known (according to what I’ve read, none were ever caught). This is most likely because every motion they made was caught on camera (read: they were being observed, without being studied).

Marker’s use of the phrases “the victim,” “the surveillance team,” and “the execution team” lets us know that everything we’re watching is predetermined in a way. As has been stated by insightful political pundits (in this “post-9/11 world”), just because we can see the criminal’s every move doesn’t mean the crime will be prevented (in fact it rarely if ever is). No one watches the recordings made with these cameras until AFTER the crime has been perpetuated and the killers have gotten away. So much for the “deadly accuracy” of Big Brother….

Immemory is definitely the “must-see” item on Gorgomancy, but the biggest discovery on the site for Marker fans is the unreleased-in-the-U.S. TV miniseries The Owl’s Legacy. The 13-part series is Marker’s exploration of ancient Greece’s influence on modern society and is present on his site in the original French version.

The series was produced, however, with an English-language variant, and that version can now be seen online, thanks to the terrific Seventh Art blog. The blogger has made all 13 episodes available, with the only caveat being that the last ten minutes of the last episode are missing — not as big a problem as it sounds, since the show’s episodes function independently, and you can catch up to the missing segment on Gorgomancy (yes, in French only, but hey, it’s all free).

The Owl’s Legacy is an unusual Marker production in that it seems fairly “normal” for his work — meaning less whimsical editing and many more talking heads. Perhaps the linearity of the series was due to the involvement of a corporate financial backer (the Onassis Foundation), or maybe it was a case of Marker waiting to underscore the points made by his talking heads.

In any case, the series is still terrific and finds brilliant minds discussing political, social, and cultural concepts — something that can rarely (if ever) be found on American TV. Marker conceived of the show as a “symposium” that would address big ideas an episode at a time: democracy, nostalgia, language, music, mythology, and tragedy, among others.

One of the most interesting things about the show is the open acknowledgment that while the Greeks did indeed create civilization as we know it, they also failed at honoring all of their citizens (discussed in the “Misogyny, or the Snares of Desire” episode, and a discussion of slavery), and the government eventually failed and died out.

The series blends the thoughts of Greek, French, British, American, and Japanese experts on Greek culture. The only instantly recognizable names are Elia Kazan (now he and Marker do indeed make a very odd couple), Theo Angelopoulos, and Vassilis Vassilikos (who wrote the novel Z, which was adapted by Marker's friend Costa-Gavras).

Since the episodes stand on their own, I will merely recommend two of them for those who are interested but are not sure if they want to make the time commitment. Episode 6, “Mathematics, or the Empire Counts Back,” discusses math and its connection to poetry, logic, and the eating habits of animals. (If there is any animal that fascinates Marker more than the cat, it has to be the owl).

The math episode is the single most entertaining entry in the series, but the single most important scene for movie buffs and Marker fans alike is the conclusion to episode 9, where Marker finds the modern corollary to “Plato’s Cave” is a movie theater. Seated in his “Cave,” among others, are actresses Arielle Dombasle, the late and wonderful Juliet Bierto, and Catherine Belkhodja, Marker’s real-life partner for a time and the mother of actress and filmmaker Isild Le Besco. The film? Well, why not his friend Alain's seminal work on memory, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

Certain topics are Marker’s métier, and none more so than cinema — here he asserts that the movie theater as Cave (not, mind you, watching a movie on a TV, computer, laptop, phone, or iPod, you solo viewers!) has the power “to negate the Cave, disarm the Gorgon, to tie itself to the thread of human creation and, finally, to create its own myths.” Bravo.


Other online morceaux d’Marker can be found on his Flickr photostream and his YouTube channel under the name “Kosinki” (not Kosinski). His latest short videos are thus going straight onto the Internet and the offerings run a wide range, beginning with charming (yet slightly strange) cute-animal stuff, like his cat Guillaume-en-Egypte in cartoon form and household-pet hijinks punctuated by his most succinct self-description, “Chris Marker, the best-known author of unknown movies”!

While he has turned back to his original love, photography, on the streets (and in the Metro) of Paris, he has also busied himself creating photo-montages about important international events like Obama’s election, the Egyptian revolution, the riots in London, and even the British royal wedding. As I wrote this blog entry, a new video (with a great image of Uncle Jean) appeared that leads you in one direction, and then (much like the martial art of aikido) sends you flying in another.

The two most creative uploads are his “Pictures from an Exhibition” (utilizing his “Xplugs”):

And a montage of his Metro photos, showing both his admiration for (and adoration of) women, and his keen eye for human expression:

As one digs further down into Marker’s work, one is staggered by the imagination, profundity, and wit he has put in his films and videos, and yet he has never acquired an “arthouse” reputation in the U.S. This is primarily because of the layered quality to most of his works — and, of course, the sheer absence of curiosity in most Americans. He will most likely get his just due over here when he has left us. In the meantime, thanks to Gorgomancy and the DVDs, we now have the chance to discover his work while he is still among us, still crafting beautiful imagery and sublime commentary on a regular basis.

NOTE: Thanks to Zach for passing on the initial link to Gorgomancy and this tribute to Marker by his friend Agnes Varda, which features the few clear images of him that we have to date. (He's avoided being in public view for five decades now.)

1 comment:

Abdelhaq said...

Great blog!
L. Deneulin
VUB University of Brussels