“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.
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.