Thursday, August 30, 2012

He of the rapier tongue: Deceased Artiste Gore Vidal

As America again endures two horribly boring political conventions, I must surely pay tribute to the most significant departure of the last few weeks, novelist-essayist-pundit-polymath (and uncannily articulate wiseass) Gore Vidal, a man who — among several hundred other honors — distinguished himself on television at a political convention many years ago (see below).

Vidal wrote over two dozen novels, several plays, many more teleplays and screenplays, but will forever be best known for his exceptional work as a commentator on American politics. He possessed a razor-sharp intelligence and an absolutely savage dry wit that ensures him immortality in the minds of those folks who still care about having a mind.

The most important thing about Vidal for me was his very deep appreciation of what America could be and isn't. Like the extremely talented writers who made up his generation of novelists —Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, etc — he was a veteran who opposed war and a political theorist who loved exploring the ways in which this country pursued “imperial power” in the years that followed WWII, up to the present day.

Vidal’s place as a writer of fiction is secure for two reasons: his well-regarded series of historical novels about American history, and The City and the Pillar, one of the first novels with gay protagonists to gain mainstream attention (Vidal attributed this to the fact that his characters were all-American boys, the novel had “no hairdressers in it”). I will confess to only having read two of his novels, both of them smaller achievements — one in which he seemed to be channeling Terry Southern (Myra Breckinridge) and one where he seemed to have taken a leaf, unsuccessfully, from Pynchon (Duluth).

His literary pedigree was indeed very strong, but, much like his nemesis and rival (and eventual friend) Norman Mailer, Vidal will most likely be best known for his incredibly strong presence as a political theorist and pundit. We were quite lucky to have him among us for as long as we did (he died a few weeks back at 86), since I believe that he, Mailer, and the other writers who discussed the concept of America on popular talk shows (yeah, there was a time when those shows didn’t just bring out one hype-driven guest after another) were doing very important work — even if some viewers saw their appearances as merely being fueled by ego (which of course they were, but these men were SO brilliant that the egos were indeed well deserved).

So, I salute Vidal for being a great American — not in the Sean Hannity sense (which isn’t hyperbole, it’s stupidity), but because he questioned everything the government said (*always* a good policy) and because he dared to explore the darker sides of this nation’s love of power and empire-building. His mind was a national treasure, and even though it has now stopped functioning in a biological sense, he left decades’ worth of writings and public appearances that I hope will be discussed for a long, long time to come.

One of Vidal’s greatest facilities — a really rare one in this day and age — was his ability to coin aphorisms: “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.” “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” The timeless (and timely) “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought ten times over.” And, of course, his personal motto: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

The single best introduction to Vidal as both personality and author is the two-part BBC Omnibus documentary “Gore Vidal’s Gore Vidal” (1995). The filmmakers include talking heads like Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and George McGovern. But, as always, Vidal is the whole show.

In this docu, we see him in NYC (a city he hated), LA (a city he loved, and the one he died in), and Ravello, Italy, where he lived for many years. He also attends a Gore family reunion in the South and takes time to dispute the auteur theory. He discusses his historical novels in depth, and also tells us what Tennessee Williams thought of JFK (“you know, that boy has a cute ass”).

In part two of episode two, Gore receives a toast from his old nemesis Norman and discusses acting in film with Kurt Vonnegut. What was interesting about Vidal was that he would take verbal swipes at rather sedate souls like Vonnegut. He confirms for Kurt that he did indeed utter the nasty line about Capote's demise attributed to him (that Truman's dying was “a good career move”)

The third part of the second half of the documentary includes him speaking about his appearance in Fellini’s Roma and one of his TV appearances that I vividly remember but is nowhere else on YT. Years before he did brief voice cameos on The Simpsons and Family Guy, he played himself on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman — if I remember correctly, though, the character turned out to be “a man who believes he’s Gore Vidal.”

Speaking of Fellini, Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini are used as punctuation in the BBC docu found above and also in this 1980s German TV documentary. In part one there is a great discussion of Christianity (Vidal, to put it mildly, was not a believer). He also holds forth on JFK as a shallow president.

In part five he again lets loose with his anti-auteurist sentiments (he did in fact write an article in American Film that was later responded to by Andrew Sarris). The cause for his belief that the writer was the true author of a film is pretty obvious, but here we learn that decades later he was still furious with Arthur Penn for firing him off of The Left-Handed Gun, which began as one of his teleplays (and later was made into a cable movie with Val Kilmer, with a script approved by Vidal).

Here is the only time I saw him comment on the movie version of Visit to a Small Planet with Jerry Lewis (he refers to it as a “low comedy”); it was commonly known that he hated the movie adaptation of Myra Breckinridge. He also takes the time to bitch out Mailer (“he looks like Colette these days”) and his true nemesis Truman Capote. (“a pathological liar”). The documentary ends with Gore labeling beliefs in an afterlife and reincarnation as being “not only ridiculous but tragic.”

One YT uploader, a heavy Vidal fan, has assembled a montage of clips that includes Gore on Johnny Carson. He’s seen discussing how the true American art is that of the television commercial; he also talks about U.S. leaders, aging, and death.

There were writers that Vidal respected and befriended (like Tennessee Williams) and others that he openly despised (Capote), but as the years went on it was interesting to hear him reflect on younger writers, including Christopher Hitchens, whom he had called his “successor” when Hitch was leftwing; when he swang wildly to the right, Gore took back his endorsement of the younger writer.

There was a mutual admiration between Vidal and Noam Chomsky, who is thankfully still with us. Chomsky is of course one of the most brilliant voices of the Left, although he is such a sedate and scholarly type that one can’t imagine him qualifying as “appointment television” on a talk show the way that Vidal and Mailer did. Here Vidal talks about his respect for Chomsky.

And, as this is being written in the week of the 2012 convocation of heartless bastards that is the Republican Convention, I must spotlight the series of in-studio televised debates that Vidal had with William F. Buckley during the ABC broadcasts of the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968.

Labeled “controversialists,” the two certainly represented the more intellectual wings of the Left and Right. The debates from the Republican convention have surfaced online in color, but the much more heated one from the Democratic convention can only be found in grainy b&w (just as it would’ve been seen by most Americans back at the time it originally aired).

The initial debates, which aired every night of the Republican convention, started off with Vidal reflecting that “Republicans are not a party…. They’re a class.” He says their platform amounts to “socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor” (oh, how times haven’t changed!). He calls Nixon a “hollow man” and discusses Buckley’s history of advocating bombing of America’s enemies. For his part, Buckley has ammunition at the ready concerning Vidal’s then most-recent book, Myra Breckenridge.

As the debate proceeds, Gore shows his flair for the aphorism by noting that “[Buckley] is always to the right and almost always in the wrong.” He also calls attention to what he terms Bill B’s “Latinate and slightly inaccurate style.”

By the fourth debate, Vidal takes time to call attention to the fact that Buckley is sweating on camera, but even more importantly (and quite profoundly) remarks that “this is one of the strangest countries on Earth, that nobody’s record ever matters at all. I must say I think the public’s memory is four weeks at best. I say this sadly on all issues….”

The debates between Vidal and Buckley might have been sharply acidic during the Republican convention of ’68, but the one from the Democratic convention that is vividly remembered by everyone who saw it (including mine own parents) was an electric encounter. The two are very calm at the beginning, with Gore taking the part of the protestors outside the convention hall in Chicago, and Buckley saying the police who rioted were indeed “bad apples” (but then noting that they had reason to act violently).

By the third part, Vidal extends an invitation to Buckley from “our mutual friend Norman Mailer” to see how Buckley’s “beloved cops are behaving” in the streets. The fourth segment is the killer, though, as it represents the moment that Buckley lost his cool – and the debate – in one fell swoop.

The topic is, as it always was, the Vietnam War, and Vidal once again condemns the behavior of the police outside the hall. Buckley defends it, and Vidal calls him a “crypto-fascist,” leading Buckley to call Gore a “queer” and to threaten “I’ll sock you in your goddamned face and you'll stay plastered” (Bill was not very poetic when he was angry).

A great-looking copy of the essential clip can be seen here, but the full context can be found here:

Thankfully we also have access to what followed this explosive moment. Buckley was obviously frazzled – notice the large grin that comes over Vidal’s face when Bill threatens him with physical violence (thereby completely ceding control of the argument and losing his renowned cool). Vidal’s summarizes his position with the question, “what are we doing fighting in Vietnam if you cannot freely express yourself in the streets of Chicago?”

The debate with Buckley established Vidal’s unflappable killer instinct in debates and remains the nastiest anyone ever got with him on TV (so much for Buckley’s much-vaunted gentility), but the piece de resistance, the crème de la crème of Vidal’s TV debates, is his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on December 15, 1971 (journalist Janet Flanner is the other guest on the program).

I heard about the show from my dad the day after it aired, and it certainly was “water cooler TV,” in that you had two extremely famous authors (seen right in later years, when they were friends, with Sontag and Talese) tearing each other down verbally, while one of them insinuated physical threats (the only author-on-author violence actually occurred before the show, when Mailer headbutted Gore in the dressing room).

The clip below gives a taste of one of the tenser moments in the show, but my two personal favorite moments (both of which I will paraphrase, since I don’t have access to the show on tape) involve Gore saying that he respects Mailer as a man, has no problem with him personally, but that Norman’s prose had gotten flabby (as with the “crypto-Nazi” remark to Buckley, Vidal knew how to set an opponent off).

My favorite Mailer moment (you can see the moments just after it here) occurs when he stops to ask the audience, in true heel wrestler style (at his most gonzo on TV, Norman resembled nothing less than a heel wrestler or a forerunner of Johnny Rotten), whether they were applauding more for Vidal because they agreed with his points “or because you’re all morons.” Priceless.

Vidal was always eager to be interviewed on television (see his maxim about television and sex above), so here is he at the outset of the Reagan presidency (January 1981) on The Merv Griffin Show. He mocks Reagan’s hair, insists that his election was not a mandate since so few people voted, and once again cuts right to the quick by saying that Reagan swore to “get government off the backs of the people – I wonder where he will then put it.”

He also discusses how religions should not be tax-exempt (huzzah) and notes that abortion seems more important to the right wing (at this time represented by “the Moral Majority”) than unemployment or inflation. (Another timeless observation.)

Continuing on the theme of religion, which Vidal knew quite a bit about thanks to his voluminous historical research, I turn to his appearance on a London Weekend Television talk show in 1999. The show is hosted by the great Melvyn Bragg, and Gore delivers quite a lot of salient points.

He defines his own feelings about spirituality as aligning with the Atomists — ”we are forever part of the universe, like it or not.” When discussing the possibility of an afterlife, he says that that notion makes God “a blackmailer, the warden of the prison.” He notes the ways in which the Christian church appropriated signs and myths from older religions, and makes the common-sense point that “’being a good Christian’ is merely being a good human being.”

Vidal had been a strong presence in the last fifteen years, during the rise of “alternative media.” Here he is on Democracy Now on the subject of George W. Bush (“a little terrier”) and the “craven media” who failed to question his decisions.

Vidal on the BBC talk show HARDtalk, again on G.W. Bush and the fact that he considered the U.S. a police state in the 2000s. He also debunks the notion of “a good war” and says straight out that “we [Americans] have been immoral from the beginning.” His forecast? “The going out of business.”

He did indeed seem extremely downbeat and negative in his final television interviews (notice I didn’t say misguided or inaccurate). On “The Real News Network,” he discusses the fact that fighter planes were clearly told to “stand down” on 9/11. His prescription for an American revival was a restoration of the Constitution in full, including the right of habeus corpus.

The single best lengthy on-camera interview I found with Vidal was, once again, conducted by Melvyn Bragg on a 2008 episode of The South Bank Show. Too often Vidal’s interviewers would let him continue on without contesting what he said; Bragg at one point in this chat jokingly notes that Vidal is not as uncertain as he claims (telling Gore with a smile, “I’m not having it”). Vidal also spotlights the touching "Old Lions" photo to the right, which depicted three WWII vets, all great American writers, who opposed George W. Bush's foreign policy.

The single most interesting statement in the program (especially given the fact that many of us who admire and endlessly respected Vidal were not avid readers of his fiction) is his pronouncement that “essays will last longer than novels.” The reason he supplies is that “our educational system is designed to kill all curiosity. That killing of curiosity killed the novel.”

Bragg also gets him to discuss the subject of the “gay identity” (he didn’t believe there is one). And yes, there is some mud slung when Gore mentions what he calls “Updikery” in fiction. He notes that Updike was “very modest… with good reason!”

And, since it’s always best to close out with a song, I have put a spotlight on this privately shot footage of Vidal at a party warbling Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

His mind will be missed, but his ideas live on.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Polls, what are they good for? Absolutely nothing (well, then again…)

I mentioned below the recent announcement of the Sight and Sound poll of “The Greatest Movies of All Time.” Since there are very few “news” stories that involve classic and foreign film — you know, the  sort of intelligent, important filmmaking that never plays at your local cineplex and is harder to acquire from the lazyman’s video rental scheme (Netflix) — I did want to set aside the seemingly unending flow of Deceased Artistes (a bunch of whom I am leapfrogging over) and talk about the poll and its importance. It’s an excuse to discuss the relative merits of classic and timeless cinema for a bit, which is never, ever unwelcome.

You won’t find me discussing at any length any of the other “greatest film” polls, generally because they are voted upon only by folks in one country (usually America), and they mostly contain whatever is thought to be the best at any given moment (thus, the entry of Titanic into the AFI roster after it had become the biggest box-office hit of all time).

The importance of the Sight and Sound poll is four-fold: it includes a better class of movie; it is voted on by a more serious kind of voter than participates in, say, the Oscars, or a survey conducted by a mainstream magazine or website (I still say “magazine” first — I’m old-fashioned); S&S only conducts the poll once every ten years; and the poll’s results rarely include anything that could be deemed “spankin’ new.”

For me, the last consideration is the most important since, as noted, polls of great movies are constantly littered with what the voters saw most recently, or what has made a lot of money, or has been discussed an enormous amount. The main "news story" concerning the 2012 results of the Sight and Sound poll for me wasn’t the topping of Citizen Kane by Vertigoit was the fact that not one but three silent films (from three different countries) were in the Top Ten.

Instead of Wings or a Griffith classic (too controversial these days, anyway) or Metropolis, the silents in the Ten were three undisputed masterworks: Murnau’s Sunrise, Dreyer’s truly transcendent Passion of Joan of Arc, and, a surprise for me, Dziga-Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera.

Sunrise is, along with L’Atalante (also on the list at No. 12), one of the greatest movie love stories ever. Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most visually beautiful, well-acted, and spiritually transformative films ever. Dziga-Vertov’s classic is a harder-to-categorize mixture of documentary, essay film, travelogue, and “reality transformed” fiction film. All the films in the Top Ten of the poll deserve to be there, but the presence of Man indicated right off the bat that this was indeed a truly serious survey.

As for the Vertigo vs. Kane “furor,” it’s a non-starter. Kane still came in at No. 2, is on any short list of the greatest films ever made, and is an eternal model for filmmakers (plus an astonishing accomplishment for a first-time, 26-year-old director). Vertigo, on the other hand, is a wildly imperfect film, and that is one of its most alluring aspects.

For me, the importance of Vertigo doesn’t have to do with Hitchcock’s visuals, which are exemplary as always, or the eye-grabbing primary color scheme. Vertigo  is one of the few films in which Hitchcock seemed to surrender to the hero’s plight (The Wrong Man is another). Instead of using Jimmy Stewart as a chess piece or a victimized puppet (as he did with Cary Grant, Farley Granger, Ingrid Bergman, and many more, including a procession of icy blondes), Hitch *inhabits* the character and seems to be sharing his dilemmas.

The trumped-up “battle” between Kane and Vertigo was situated in the online press as being a debate over the relative merits of Welles and Hitchcock which brings us back to the quote from critic Mark Shivas that I used in my tribute to Andrew Sarris: "Welles is concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people."

What this shifting of positions in the poll more accurately represents, though, is the difference between a perfect film (Kane) and an imperfect one (Vertigo). Hitchcock was clearly so bound up in his protagonist’s emotions and moods that he decided to forego the mystery entirely and reduce the moments of suspense to a single, dreamlike situation — falling from a great height — played over and over again.

This is not to negate Hitchcock’s enormous talent, it is to acknowledge that the film that has become one of the best-regarded of his works is one of the few in which he “lost control” and surrendered to emotion. I remember that when I finally saw the film (at an NYU screening, when it was virtually impossible to view in the early Eighties) I was surprised at its depth of emotion, as well its overt fetishism (there is always fetishism in Hitchcock, but it is front and center in Vertigo).

Thus, in my opinion, Kane would still be the film that can best inspire and instruct young filmmakers (since it has what McLuhan called “an inventory of effects”), while Vertigo is an un-duplicatable character study/melodrama (I know, I know, Brian De Palma's countless "homages" in the Seventies and Eighties… I like some of those pictures a lot). It is a one-off that offers far less of a class in film structure, visual composition, and editing than Kane and the other best-known Hitchcock films.

And while Kane still remains one of the most perfect pics ever made, it’s good to see it occasionally moved aside on the list by yet another revered classic. The strength of the Sight and Sound poll is indeed that the “canon” of classic films does stick around on the list, while newer challenging features by other critical favorites join them.

Thus, the list includes the old masters (Ford, Eisenstein, Fellini, Bergman, Dryer, Lang, Murnau, Antonioni), as well as those who learned their art from watching films (Kubrick, Truffaut), those who went to film school (Coppola, Scorsese), and the modern masters (Lynch, Wong Kar-Wai, Kiarostami, Tarr),

Certain filmmakers scored more than one film in the full list of fifty. Tarkovsky scored three, and out of the seven films he made, that’s a cool half of his output — Vigo’s timeless L’Atalante represents one-fourth of his work, but that’s because he died at such a young age.

One of my all-time favorites, Godard, is represented by four films: A bout de soufflé, Le Mepris, Pierrot Le Fou, and Histoire(s) du Cinema, which qualified as the second newest movie in the countdown, since its last installment was released in 1998 (the latest was from 2000 — In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-Wai). Clearly the amount of great films that Godard has made split the vote four ways, so none of his films hit the Top Ten — I’m sure he cares nothing about this accolade, but it’s interesting to consider that his slot may well have been taken by one of his heroes, the man he named his Marxist filmmaking collective after, Dziga-Vertov.

As far as items missing from the fifty films? I’d note that comedy is underrepresented — one Chaplin (City Lights), one Keaton (The General), Playtime by Jacques Tati, and Some Like It Hot by Wilder. No Duck Soup, Annie Hall, The Apartment, or Dr. Strangelove, but then again humor is just as personal as what turns a person on (and there ain’t a single erotic film on the list — unless you want to count the lesbian scene in Mulholland Dr.).

It was interesting to see one musical on the list, Singin’ in the Rain — which is indeed a comedy, but works far better when it’s a musical.

Also missing is any inclusion of a film by the three best-known members of the loosely knit community of filmmakers labeled the “New German Cinema.” I assume that, if Fassbinder was considered, the sheer amount of great films he made once again split the vote. No one would want to go for the most celebrated film, The Marriage of Maria Braun, when he made many better and more challenging works, among them Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Perhaps Wenders is no longer in fashion, but some of his films are among the best road movies and character studies of all time. Herzog remains a major force in world cinema (if also now a show-biz personality whose public persona is better known than his films to many folks). One would think that Aguirre, the Wrath of God would’ve qualified for the list, but perhaps that is “out of fashion” at the moment with critics and academics. I can only think that the German filmmakers of the Seventies will return to this poll in the near future, since several of their films are definitely “for the ages.”

And connecting this all back to my last post, I will note that not only was Chris Marker’s favorite film, Vertigo, voted in at No. 1 on the poll, but his best-known short film — in my opinion another perfect film — La Jetée came in under the wire at No. 50. It would no doubt please Chris that his film was at one end of the poll, and Vertigo — which spawned the tree-trunk scene in La Jetée (see my Marker tribute below) — was at the other.

No. 1: Hitchcock on Vertigo, from the Truffaut interviews (“… she has stripped, but won’t take her knickers off…”):

No. 50: La Jetée with English narration:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

“You never know what you might be filming”: Deceased Artiste Chris Marker

“In another time I guess I would have been content with filming girls and cats. But you don’t choose your time.” — Chris Marker, Staring Back

Like everyone else who knew and loved his work, I was introduced to Chris Marker through a screening of La Jetee (1962), this one at the Bleecker Street Cinema. The film opened my mind up in new ways and made it necessary for me to find out anything I could about the guy who made it. If you haven’t seen it, please take the plunge right now — it’s best in French with subs, but here it is in its entirety with English narration.

With Marker’s death last week at 91, an important chapter in film history — the creative life of a quiet cinematic genius — comes to a close, while another begins — namely, the ongoing discovery and rediscovery of his work. La Jetee is one of the finest films ever made, but it is only the tip of the Marker iceberg.

He didn’t normally write fiction (even though he proved with one deft stroke that he could, expertly — and very few of us have read his one and only novel, published in the early Fifties). He was leagues above the folks crafting today’s best documentaries, since he played liberally with the notion of first-person cinema by creating anonymous fictional narrators who reflected on real events and people.

The label “documentary” only fits his work if one was indeed pressed for a label for something like shelving in a library. Marker (at right, with his friend Alain Resnais), who usually added a period after “Chris” in his onscreen credit, was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921 in either Neuilly or Mongolia (he loved to report the latter to people, but there was no proof of either location). His first films are idiosyncratic travelogues and studies of social phenomena that were filtered through his own innately stylized and imaginative point of view.

His films are unlike the “personal documentaries” produced by current-day American filmmakers, from Michael Moore on down, for the simple fact that Marker was, like Godard, never “sealing” his films in an airtight way. The narratives were always open, and we were always aware of the storyteller at work.

Early on in his filmmaking Marker announced “I detest everything symbolic. I am concrete and want to be understood as such.” In a later interview, he noted that he equated the cinema with dreaming and television with thinking (but, he was quick to add, “television declaws the facts”). The dream-like quality of Marker’s work is something that is not remarked upon often, because he was overtly political and so clearly capable of a straightforward intellectual discourse.

The old adage says that “reading is dreaming with your eyes open,” but I believe that Bertolucci got it right when he updated it to the cinema producing the same effect (we’ll be getting back to this on the Funhouse TV show in the weeks to come). Marker was well aware of this (his favorite film was Vertigo after all — about which, more below) and brought the viewer along on associative odysseys in his best film and video work. The disorienting techniques that he was fond of, from using electronic music and presenting solarized images, to his recent, playful Second Life videos using his cat as a cartoon avatar, only added to the dreamy façade of his work.

Even when doing expert reportage on an era (Grin Without a Cat) or profiling a filmmaker (The Last Bolshevik or his Kurosawa and Tarkovsky portraits), he moved through landscapes in a hypnotic fashion. The narration was equally deceptive — it seemed as if it tied us down to the “facts” of an event or a career, but it was actually moving us further into a reflection about images from, or the memory of, said event.

It’s quite possible to see a Marker movie, completely forget what it was about, and yet retain the imagery (I’ve done this several times with Sans Soleil and also with Remembrance of Things to Come).

Marker was an essayist in the classic French tradition of Montaigne. His films were often narrated in the first person, a choice he made because, he maintained, “all I have to offer is myself.” He himself was a fascinating character, since he avoided being interviewed and photographed for more than a half a century — which he must’ve known, being a crafter of imagery, made him all the more unusual and mysterious as a character in his own work.

So the best way to pay tribute to him is to revel in his films and videos, which, thankfully have been showing up in large clumps on the Internet. My last post on Marker, written to celebrate his 90th birthday, ran through the Marker films and videos that had been placed on the Internet by Marker himself. I am very proud of that post and urge you to read it here.

The most interesting update I can add to that piece is that Marker’s Gorgomancy site has some additional items on it. These include newer photos from French street protests and links to his cute and bizarre collage contributions to an e-zine called Poptronics.

In the days since Marker’s death was announced, the person or persons now running his Gorgomancy website has removed one of Marker’s “barriers” to the homepage: initially, going to the homepage would bring you to an empty page that had a tinier link on it saying “Return to site.”

Once you pressed that you reached a “title page” that said “Under Construction,” as if there was nothing more to be seen. Then if you clicked on the logo, you were allowed admission. Now when you visit that URL, you simply click on the logo — “Under Construction” has now sweetly changed to “To be continued” — and you are granted admission.

The single most important new feature on the site is the entirety of his content-rich CD-rom Immemory in English. Leave it to Marker to find a way to give us all of his collected works as a photographer in one fell swoop, albeit a swoop that requires moving down “hallways” and “corridors” in a museum of the imagination.

Immemory is one of his ultimate creations — he released it on disc in 1998 when he was still actively shooting video (the photography continued until the very end). It represented the tying off of a loose end and the re-emergence of work that had been “hidden” for years (his photo-books having having gone out of print many years before).

One of the most remarkable things about Marker was his self-sufficiency as a filmmaker. From the Seventies on, he seems to have not required producers to be able to initiate and complete his films — with a sole exception, the overwhelming TV miniseries The Owl’s Legacy (1989), an extended essay about the influence of ancient Greece on the modern world. Funded by the Onassis Foundation, the series has its share of Marker-esque moments and is still an incredibly impressive and brilliant piece of work, but it is the filmmaker at his most reserved and certainly his most “normal.”

His final technological love affair was of course with this hydra/rabbit hole known as the Internet. He stated in an interview with the newspaper Liberation that the central thrust of his work was “How do people manage to live in such a world?” Thus, the curious cat-lover threw himself headfirst into placing his work onto the Internet (as explored, again, in my last Marker blog post). His final interview (from 2009) and the last cartoonlike image he composed appeared on the Poptronics website (created by the Bazooka design group).

The interview, which is here, found him masquerading as his online alter-ego, his cartoon cat Guillaume-en-Egypte (based on a real pet whose identity he assumed when the cat died). The interview is mostly light and playful, as was most of the work that Marker did online — Stopover in Dubai being a chilling alternative, and one of his best final works.

The interview ends with these words: “C’est Chris qui m’a appris ça. Il fait des films, et tout le monde croit qu’il traite de sujets sérieux. En fait, ce sont tous des messages personnels." ("It’s Chris who taught me that. He made films and everyone thought he was treating serious subjects. In fact, they were all personal messages.”)

It’s been both thought-provoking and very touching to read the encomiums for Marker that have appeared online. In a way it’s entirely appropriate that we, his fans, felt he was talking directly to us, even when he was concocting fictional missives from an anonymous traveler (as he did in If I Had Four Camels and San Soleil). The cat was let out of the bag at the end (bad feline puns are unavoidable when writing about Marker): the films were his private messages to all of us.


Now on to the films by Marker that are “hidden in plain sight” on YouTube. I should note that anyone reading this who wants to become acquainted with Marker’s finest work should check out his best films, which finally became available legally in the U.S. on DVD just a scant few years ago: La Jetee and Sans Soleil as a Criterion release, and the following seminal titles available from First Run/Icarus: Grin Without a Cat (1977, revised 1993), The Last Bolshevik (1993), and The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004). Also, of course, visit the Gorgomancy site!

The opening of Grin Without a Cat gives an indication of the kind of montage that Marker could create from very disparate sources. Here he counterpoints Battleship Potemkin with various pieces of footage from around the world shot in the late Sixties:

Now, onto the films available without English subtitles: for those who can understand French:
Dimanche a Peking (1956);

— the extremely rare Cuba Si (1961);

— one of the last films he worked on with the SLON collective (as an editor rather than director), On vous parle du chili : ce que disait Allende (1973);

— the whimsical computer animation short about Noah, logic, and mathematics Theorie des ensembles (1991); and

— the wonderful study of photographer Denise Bellon, Le souvenir d'un avenir or Remembrance of Things to Come (2001).

Marker’s first solo feature Olympia ’52 (1952), with narration written by Roland Barthes. The copy is pretty eye-watering, but this is a very hard film to obtain:

From this point on, videos with English subtitles: The 1953 short co-signed by Alain Resnais and Marker that focuses on African art, and thus discusses colonialism, for which it was banned in France for quite a while, Les Statues Meurent Aussi:

The *wonderful* cutout animation short Les Astronautes (1959), made by Walerian Borowczyk, in collaboration with Marker:

Marker’s first film about Japan, Le Mystere Koumiko (1965), in which he follows a young Japanese woman, exploring her thoughts about Asia and Europe. This is an absolutely awful copy, but then again, it does say “New Yorker Films” on the opening credits:

Junkopia (1981), filmed during the shooting of Sans Soleil in Emeryville, California:

A.K. (1985), his study of Akira Kurosawa as he filmed his masterpiece Ran:

2084, a sci-fi short made in 1984 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of trade unions in France. Marker’s narration speaks of “the nostalgia for the future that in other times was called revolution” and warns of “the techno-totalitarians” who will attempt to control technology. Interesting he should find that to be a seminal issue back in ’84, when no one had ever heard of the Internet:

One of the best moments from his barely seen TV miniseries The Owl’s Legacy (1989). In this sequence he updates the story of Plato’s cave to embrace the phenomenon of cinema:

Back to Japan again for Tokyo Days, a video that was part of Marker’s 1991 museum installation “Zapping Zone.” Just a simple verite portrait (although CM preferred calling it “cinem, ma verite”) of life on the streets of Tokyo. The most notable aspect? That he begins to reply to a counter lady’s greeting in Japanese — and then dubs in the song “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain:

Another extreme rarity: his short Silent Movie (1995), which was also part of an installation (thus the first half moves, the second half is a still frame). The lovely lady being studied and transformed by Marker’s camera and editing board is actress Catherine Belkhodja, supposedly his real-life companion at the time:

One of his last full features, Level 5 (1997) is yet another exploration of memory, history, politics, video games, and, yes, owls (also starring Catherine Belkhodja, the whole thing was assembled in his apartment):

Level 5, by Chris Marker (1997) from dieubussy (Eastern Mind) on Vimeo.

Marker’s last feature was Chats Perchés, (2004), aka The Case of the Grinning Cat. This is the original French version, which featured a very layered soundtrack but no narration — the “storyline” of the essay was conveyed in intertitles. When the film was packaged for the U.S. and U.K. an English narration was layered over the impressive sound mix. This was most likely because of the references to French politics of that era. The film in any iteration is a brilliant piece of work:

One of Marker’s latter-day experimental shorts, “Pictures at an Exhibition” (2008). In his final years he got incredibly playful with the notion of art. Here, he reworks classic paintings with computer technology; the results, which he called “Xplugs,” are alternately touching and wonderfully silly.

In the past few years Marker has been spotted shooting video and taking digital photos on the streets of Paris. Here is one video that emerged of him at work:

He allowed his long-time friend Agnès Varda to interview him (with him off-camera, natch) for her 2011 TV series Agnès de ci de là Varda. The whole segment is here, but this upload has English subtitles:

Marker was posting quite a bit on his YouTube channel, but he sort of gave up the ghost at the end of last year. These videos are cute and imaginative, but none of them are major works in any way. They are charming (and often intentionally very silly) diversions, akin to his final “bestiary” videos (which can be found on YT), simple studies of his favorite animals.

It was noted in many of his obits that he died on the day after his 91st birthday. He will be missed incredibly, as his work really does change the way you view cinema (as well as the documentary form, TV news, science fiction — and, yes, cats and owls!).

One also wishes he could’ve stayed around for one more day, so he could’ve heard the news that the very credible Sight and Sound poll announced that, for the first time in 50 years, Citizen Kane had been unseated in the No. 1 slot by the film that was Marker’s all-time favorite, a film he evoked in his work time and again, Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Besides the tour of Vertigo locations included in Sans Soleil, one of the most blatant citations from Hitchcock's film is found in La Jetee when our time-traveler shows his love where he comes from by pointing to the rings on a tree trunk (the original is above; the Marker variation is to the right). 

And thus I’ll close out with one last link, to an article that Marker wrote about Vertigo for Positif in 1994. It can be found in English translation on the indispensable Chris Marker — Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory website. That website, plus some tips from friends Zach and Paul, has been invaluable in putting together this obit.