Thursday, July 29, 2021

On the centenary of Chris Marker

I have documented many times both here and on the Funhouse TV series my fascination with, and love for, the work of Chris Marker. On this day, the 100th anniversary of his birth, I can only say once again that the discovery of the short sci-fi romance (one of the greatest love stories ever) “La Jetée” (1962) when I was in college changed my life. Everything that came after that — seeing Marker’s brilliant documentaries, his film “essay” meditations on cultures, war, the passage of time and memory, and even his cute and silly videos about animals — made me respect and love the man and his work even more.

Currently, we are lucky to have his work readily available on disc and streaming. Icarus Films has made a practice of putting out all of his major features, there’s a Criterion release of his two most famous films (“La Jetée” and Sans Soleil), and his shorts and “lost” features (including two he suppressed because he fell out of love with countries he formerly celebrated, thanks to their oppressive policies) are tucked away on YouTube, for those who have the curiosity and want to see how this master storyteller and cameraman “framed” the world around him. 

To become acquainted with his work, one must first see “La Jetée.” Everyone should see “La Jetée” — it is a perfect work, a curio in that it is a fiction film by an artist who produced scant fiction, a superb montage of photographs by a master filmmaker, and a sublime work on the strength and importance of memory by a man who now himself is a memory (but a strong one). 

Here is the film with English subtitles:


What should one see after “La Jetée”? It’s hard to say which direction to go in — since Marker went in several before and after his signature work. (Arguably the most important being a series of “engaged” Left-wing political film essays.) The best intro used to be paging through his amazing photography on his Gorgomancy site, through the corridors and closets of his CD-ROM collection of his photographic work, “Immemory.”

But the death of Flash has killed that glorious interactive experience – just as Apple screwed the original CD-ROM incarnation of Marker’s digitized “museum” by making all of its updated OS systems incompatible with earlier systems. The Gorgomancy site still exists, but lacking the seminal labyrinth of “Immemory,” it is primarily for those who already know Marker’s work and are looking for a deeper dive. I explored the other works on the site (and “Immemory”) in this 2011 blog post about Marker.

What we have left now (unless some master-animator can recreate the “museum” in another format that won’t die like Flash did) is a video that shows what the experience USED to be like. It was like rummaging through Marker’s mind, the memories of his past, and a deep, deep trove of his exquisite photography.


The Net archive that is most useful for one who is curious about Marker as an artist and a person is the remarkable, which has articles on many aspects of Marker’s work and life. I would also toot my own horn for a second and point you to my Deceased Artiste tribute to Marker

The only problem with my piece? Many of the embeds went down — but the photos and text are still there, and they still reflect my ongoing Marker obsession. This problem of films being uploaded and then being taken down led me to go strictly for the photos when I wrote about the 2018 exhibit at the Cinematheque Francaise of Marker artifacts and films. I’m quite proud of that piece as well, and here it is.

What I can offer on this, the centenary of Marker’s birth, is another “survey” of what is available online. Icarus Films has, again, the full-length features available on disc and in streaming form. Good intros from their trove are Marker’s film/video “essays” The Last Bolshevik and The Case of the Grinning Cat. If one is interested in history, you can’t do better than his Grin Without a Cat, his superb account of what tore the world apart in 1968.


As for the many other items — the shorts, “lost” films, and the videos he made in his final years (which range from glorious to very slight, but the last ones were made when he was sick with cancer) — they are still gloriously online (and most with subtitles, even!). 

If one is looking for “another ‘La Jetée,’’’ the immediate answer is Marker’s only other straightforward (although that is hardly the right word) sci-fi scenario, “Les Astronautes,” a collage-animation short made with Walerian Borowczyk in 1959. It follows the adventures of a man with a home-made rocket ship.


The other film that recaptures the genius of Marker for “making photography into film” was his short “If I Had Four Camels” (1966), which is comprised of nothing but photographs and spins a tale of a photographer and his friends.


The other film besides “La Jetée” that received the biggest distribution in this country is Sans Soleil (1983), which is one of his most engrossing “essays.” It purports to be a collection of letters from a cameraman (with a pseudonym, Sandor Krasna, that Marker himself often used — as he also composed the music in the film under a pseudonym). 

The entire film is on YT but can’t be embedded — not because Janus/Criterion has taken umbrage at it being offered for free online, but because one Japanese company that owns the Japanese TV footage we see go by in the film wants to receive hard cash from YouTube! Check the entire film out here. 

Marker's earliest films are beautiful visually, but his play with the notion of what images represent was first introduced in “Letters from Siberia” (1958). Here he presents the same footage with three different narrations: a Soviet aggrandizing one, an American put-down, and the truth, which is firmly located in between those two poles.


As mentioned above, Marker pulled two of his features from distribution. In both cases he was initially infatuated with the governments of countries that then turned out to be oppressive in their own special ways. The first was Israel, in “Description of a Struggle” (1960). 

The whole film can be found in Hebrew here. But this is a nice minute from the version of the film with English narration:


The other government he fell out of love with was Cuba. Here is an English-subtitled (turn on the Closed Captions) version of his missing “Cuba Si!” (1961).


Certain countries Marker remained in love with until the end of his days. One of those was Japan — where he was honored with a bar with a “La Jetée” theme! Here is The Mystery of Koumiko (1965), his beautiful meditation on the country and on a certain Japanese girl. (Marker was in love with women the world over, and his camera captured them in beautiful and unforgettable ways.)


One of his most curious shorts is “The Embassy” (1973). It’s shot like a documentary, but in fact is a work of fiction — by saying this I blow the surprise ending, but the film itself is still a marvel, given how authentic it looks and sounds. This is the version with a (muffled, but that’s the way it always sounds) English soundtrack.


Marker moved ahead with the times — he was enraptured by the Internet, dove right in when it came to CD-ROMs, and had at the time of his death at the age of 91 both an active Instagram account and a YouTube channel. A few of the YT videos seems quite slight, but that, it must be revealed (and it finally was, in the book that accompanied the Cinematheque exhibition), was because Marker was battling cancer and was forced to stay in Paris for treatment at that time. (He was a world traveller who shot photos, if not film/video, on most of the continents.) 

I will spotlight four of these videos, put up on YT on the Kosinki account. One of the most important aspects of Marker’s work was how it ranged from playful to deeply moving, as his work betrayed his love for the arts (and people). The first lovely/bizarre creation is “Pictures From an Exhibition,” his display of his own digital-collage creations:


His last major photography exhibit was comprised of photos he took in the Paris Metro. Again, Marker’s love of women came to the surface, as he showed us the faces of women traveling on the Metro. In the book that came from the exhibit, he contrasted the faces of his “passengers” with women from classic paintings:


Here we see the art of his editing at its finest. This time the photos are not his, but those of others (taken from news publications) depicting the Egyptian revolution of 2011.


And finally, a playful, very short piece (that doesn’t involve animals!). A meditation on cinematic masters (two American, two French) that ends with a silly but amusing riff on a very famous photo that appeared after a specific terrorist leader was killed. (The image of Godard with “Karina glasses” alone is miraculous to those of us who revere Uncle Jean.)


There are currently several hundred Marker uploads on YouTube. The ones on the Kosinki account were put up by him, but there is also a tribute account (seemingly with access to some very “inside” footage), which contains clips from his films, shorts, extremely rare items, and Marker-esque videos of a current vintage. (Some of these work well; others not as well…) The account is named for Marker’s beloved cat (and alter-ego) Guillaume-en- Égypte. 

The most miraculous thing to greet Marker fans is the sight of Chris himself (he had hidden from cameras for years)  born Christian Bouche-Villeneuve on, of course, July 29, 1921. Here, the camera is turned on the photographer, as we see Marker riding the Metro wearing his camera-sunglasses (yes, he was an inventor as well as an artist).


And finally, in his most common mode, video recorder in hand on May Day, 2009. To quote the man himself (on the subject of the filmmaker finding connections in his own work that he hadn’t suspected were there), “You never know what you might be filming.”

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