Wednesday, July 4, 2018

'Une vraie' Second Life: Chris Marker at the Cinematheque Francaise

The mysteries of art can be solved with personal interpretation, or by absorbing the opinions of experts and historians. The mysteries of those who made the art can never be solved, and we are probably all the better for that.

In the case of Chris Marker (in the top rank of Funhouse favorites), we encounter an artist who refused to let himself become a media personality the kind of artist who explains his work and ultimately draws attention away from it. Marker’s creation of a personal “absence” was the best way of letting his work speak for itself.

So what to make of the beautifully rendered tributes that have appeared since his death in 2012, in the form of articles, books, film retros, gallery shows, and now a comprehensive retrospective and exhibit at the Cinematheque Francaise (running through Marker’s birthday, July 29)? Marker changed his opinions about a lot of his early work thus his withdrawal of films that espoused political beliefs he no longer had, and his continued reworking (for a quarter century) of one of his masterpieces (Le fond de l'air est rouge).

One can imagine he would have appreciated the careful arrangement of his work in the Cinematheque exhibit, as well as its focus on his techniques and the hopeful messages with which he ended even his most tragic accounts of political turmoil. He might have even been okay (I emphasize that “might”) with the many photos of his face that are on display.

Marker was a world traveler for most of his professional life, but he always kept an apartment in Paris as his HQ. It’s only fitting therefore that the most comprehensive retro of his work should appear in that city, in his native France (he was born Christian Bouche-Villeneuve), where serious film appreciation isn’t viewed as a specialized or “cult” course of study. The fact that the Cinematheque is the premier cinephile institution in the world makes it even more perfect for Marker to be saluted there.

This exhibition comes at an excellent time: when Marker’s films have nearly all been released on DVD in France (the most famous titles have been issued in the U.S. as well). But Marker’s other work as an essayist, a novelist, and a multi-media artist – isn’t readily available (unless you want to shell out big bucks for certain items on eBay or

One of the rarest bits of footage in the exhibit:
a surreal short Marker codirected for TV in 1949!
La Clef des songes is a tribute to, and spoof of, the surrealist films.
Marker was a lifelong bachelor who, while having several serious relationships, never married and had no children. The fact that he left no will has made rights issues complicated since he died, but his papers and possessions ended up in the proper place in the archives of the Cinematheque.

The many boxes containing the contents of his apartment are still in the process of being indexed, but the discoveries that have already been made are incredibly enlightening. These include many documents relating to Marker’s personal life, clarifying the details of his time as a fighter in the Resistance during WWII, his short stay in prison for crossing the wrong border (surely ironic, given his later traveling around the world), his time fighting with the American Army, his pseudonymous post-war writing, and the “militant” period in which he worked within a filmmaking collective and wasn’t credited on the films he edited or directed.

The book that has been written to accompany the exhibit is thus the best-researched and most reliable account of Marker’s life to date (although with little to no mention of his love life that, for the present, will remain a succession of secrets) and his work in several fields, from writing plays, reviews, poetry, and short stories in the post-war period to putting up a website that contained the bulk of his photography and a few complete films (at and his final works (brief videos made for YouTube).

The book, it should be noted, is in French (naturellement), but one hopes for an English translation in the future. (The writing style isn’t academic, so it is a fairly straightforward read for students of French.) There are several standout essays in it, including: the first handful about Marker’s life, pre-filmmaking; Raymond Bellour’s brief but still fascinating (and amusing) explanation of what was in the 576 (!) cartons of Marker’s archives that wound up in the Cinematheque; and Jean-Michel Frodon’s piece about the relationship between Marker and Godard (which wasn’t super-friendly, but remained cordial until CM’s death).

There are several amazing items in the CInematheque exhibit. Two of the most mind-blowing are the many scrapbooks containing surrealist collages he made and collected...

...and the the sunglasses-camera he wore to take photos in the Paris Metro. His last photography project was the beautiful "Passengers," images taken on the subway that liken the tired but beautiful passengers to figures in classical paintings. 

Marker did, on rare occasions, send photos of himself to his friends. This is one he particularly seemed to enjoy, in which he is wearing his camera-glasses. (His good friend Alain Resnais did say that Chris was an "alien" who didn't seem to require sleep....)

The most surprising inclusion in both the exhibition and the book is the number of photos of Marker. One of the most important pieces of his mystique as a filmmaker was that he didn’t let himself be photographed or filmed, but apparently, he did keep copies of all the pictures his friends took of him after the early Sixties (the point at which he “disappeared” from public view).

The cat on the prowl -- Marker in the late Sixties.
The photos show an intense but mostly unremarkable-looking man (somewhat hawk-like in appearance, shaved head, rarely if ever photographed smiling). The descriptions his friends have given of the “uniform” he wore when out in public are more memorable he preferred to wear boots, shirts with many pockets, and affected the look of a “soldier” (although I’m thinking the many pockets aspect was key for a photographer/filmmaker).

The Cinematheque screenings included the films he withdrew from circulation, due to changed political opinions about the countries profiled: Dimanche √† Pekin (China), Letter from Siberia, Description of a Struggle (Israel), and Cuba Si!. He wasn’t fully satisfied with anything he had made until 1962, in which his landmark short La Jetee was released (one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly his best-known work), followed shortly after by his only “cinema verite” feature, Le Joli Mai, inspired by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961).

The biggest rupture in his work, as with that of many of his filmmaking colleagues, was his commitment to radical Left-wing politics in 1967. The Cinematheque exhibition offers us ample documentation of that period, in which Marker even erased his name from his films, which were signed by the collectives he was in, SLON and Iskra.

A vintage '68 poster included in the Cinematheque exhibit.
The artifacts from Marker’s militant period are particularly timely this year, as many countries are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the events of 1968. In France, May ’68 was a turning point the moment at which the unions joined the students in their protests against the government, and it looked as if the Left had won a major victory.

Marker beautifully summarized ‘68 and what followed in his masterful Le fond de l'air est rouge (1977) (Grin Without a Cat in the U.K. and U.S.), which is one of the best records in any medium of the tumultuous events that occurred in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Grin was a turning point he made it at the end of his militant period as a “summing up” of sorts and continued to re-edit it for the next quarter century.

May '68. Photo by Chris Marker. In the CF exhibit.
The Cinematheque exhibit reviews the many legacies that Marker left us. La Jetee is one of the greatest science-fiction love stories of all time; it challenges young directors to break filmmaking down to its core: moving images (in this case, photographs made to move via their sequencing and editing) and jarring sound. His best nonfiction features offer a clear path for documentarians the essay film, which wove together journalism and tenets of the finest fiction. (American political filmmakers like Michael Moore have fully developed “stories” but avoid any traces of fiction which, as Marker discovered, reaches a greater truth – opting instead for the “confessional” or “op-ed” mode of address.)

Marker also did pioneering work with video, the CD-rom format, cyber-"traveling" (in the simulated environment Second Life, in which both he and Guillaume-en-Egypte "lived" as computer-animation figures), and the Internet. But perhaps his most valuable legacy, especially in a time like this, was his faith in the future. His militant films dwell entirely in the present as with Godard’s radical cinema, it was a case of a filmmaker who had never “commanded” the viewer to come to a specific conclusion telling his audience what they *had* to think.

The "tech" area in the Cinematheque exhibit.
Marker’s best political films emphasize hope not the hollow hope promised by U.S. politicians, but more of a non-spiritual belief in the possibilities offered by the future. The conclusion of Grin Without a Cat offers a sharp metaphor for the manner in which the New Left went astray in the Seventies (with the obvious message being to avoid that pitfall). The Last Bolshevik (1993) and The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004) look to youth as the answer.

As he grew older, Marker didn’t disappear into the comforts of the past but continued to look forward to future struggles, to be carried on by young people who have been enlightened by alternative sources in the new media the kind of media that grew out of or reflects Marker’s pioneering work.

Marker abandoned writing conventional fiction in the late Forties after publishing one novel (Le coeur net) and a short story. But storytelling remained his strong suit, a storytelling based on details of his own life viewed through a fictional frame and powered by incredibly precise and moving images. As we await a definitive biography of Marker, we can only experience his life through comprehensive film festivals and exhibitions like the one at the Cinematheque.

However, he did supply some clues. One of the best autobiographical nuggets, and one of the purest illustrations of his tagline “You never know what you might be filming,*” appeared in the “Staring Back” show of photography that was first mounted at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the Spring of 2007 (and then was put on in the fall of ’07 at the Peter Blum Gallery in NYC and a portion of the show was included in the MIT exhibition called “Guillaume-en-Egypte” in October 2013).

In the exhibit and the accompanying book, Marker had one set of photos arranged chronologically. They were pictures from different demonstrations that took place over four decades. Visitors to the gallery were asked to look at the photos in a strictly chronological sequence because Marker had discovered something as he went through his pictures of “demos.”
The 1961 photo, by Marker.
He starts out in the book version with the exhortation to “Watch the tree.” Then he describes how, on Feb. 13, 1961, he shot photos of a public gathering in Paris to honor those who had died in the preceding week’s demonstration against the Algerian War. Marker sets up his metaphor: “Straight in the middle of the frame, on the balcony, among those tense faces, a young tree recently planted. Forget the faces for a moment. Just watch the tree.” [Chris Marker, Staring Back, Wexner Center for the Arts, 2007, p. 1]

He next includes pics from the 1967 march on the Pentagon, and Paris in May ’68, offering more faces and actions to contemplate. He closed this sequence out with pictures taken at a protest in early 2002 in Paris at a time when “the consensus is that the French youth are fed up with politics.” The protest was held to condemn the positions of the ultra-right wing candidate for president, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Picture from a 2002 demonstration by C. Marker.
“At once the youngsters invade the street. Many for the first time. Thanks to Mr. Le Pen, a new generation takes the baton.” [ibid, p. 21]. The next 21 pages show the pictures Marker took at that protest. Marker declares that “Today’s mottoes deal with unemployment, income, fears of uncertain retirement (at 20… and yet in the long run they’re right). As my lens slips inside the crowd like an inquisitive snake, what it frames is, despite the apparent cohesiveness of the groups, the everlasting face of solitude.” [ibid, p. 27]

The photos from '61 and 2002,
by Marker. Via
He ends the section with a picture taken on that day in 2002, showing the exact same location seen in the 1961 photos, in Paris’s Place de la Republique. He tells us how many, many moments of turmoil (and hope) he had seen around the world in the four decades that came between the two photos taken on that street.

“… In the middle, on the balcony, the tree has grown, just a little.

Within these few inches, forty years of my life.” [ibid, p. 43]

One is struck by the sincerity and emotion that drives Marker’s political cinema. To him, though, it clearly was the product of a seed he was given early on by mentors and friends, a seed that kept growing over the decades until…. well, you get the picture.

"I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don't film, don't photograph, don't tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.” – CM, San Soleil 

The Cinematheque exhibit is at the Cinematheque Francaise until July 29.

Marker’s website “Gorgomancy” has remained fully operative.Visit it!

The best English-language resource online for information about Marker is the “Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory” blog at

Merci beaucoup to Jean-Michel Frodon and Ody Roos for their insights into Marker the artist and Marker the man. (It was a helluva birthday present for me this year!)

*The line has been translated in English as “You never know what you are filming,” “You never know what you’re filming until later,” and “You never know what you may be filming.” I have stuck with the clearest variation on this phrase.

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