If you had taken a walk in Paris last autumn, you might have come across grinning cats graffitied on walls and buildings. The person responsible for this was Chris Marker: cats play an important role in his latest film, Chats perchés. Very little is known about Marker himself; there are perhaps 12 photographs of him in circulation, and even fewer interviews. But he has been enormously productive over the last fifty years. Before the age of thirty he had published poetry, short stories, a number of articles and a novel. With Alain Resnais, he made Les Statues meurent aussi (1953) and the ground-breaking Nuit et brouillard (1955); he then became a major figure in the French short film industry of the 1950s and 1960s, pioneering a new genre, ‘the essay-film’, in a series of documentaries from around the world. In all, he has made more than forty films and published seven books of photographs; in the 1990s, he released a CD-Rom and curated four multimedia installations for art galleries, the most recent at MoMA. Marker is identified with no particular group or movement; his work is at once lyrical, political and satirical. But his primary concern has been to document the century: he is preoccupied with the images that come to define our collective and personal memories.
Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, Marker (one of his many pseudonyms) spent his childhood, depending on which story you believe, in Cuba, Mongolia or l’Ile aux Moines in the Morbihan. He attended the lycée Pasteur in Paris with Simone-Henriette-Charlotte Kaminker (later the actress Simone Signoret) and took a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne. At 24 he joined the Resistance with the Communist Francs-Tireurs, who sent him to the US to train as a parachutist. In 1947, he joined the journal Esprit, where he met Resnais and André Bazin. He took swiftly to film, and from the outset his documentaries – Olympia 52, Dimanche à Pékin, Les Statues meurent aussi and Lettre de Sibérie – were self-reflexive and had political undertones. It was Bazin who credited Marker with the invention of the essay-film, in which, he suggested, meanings and associations are produced not so much in the way that shots are stitched together as through the relationship between commentary and image.
The early films caused controversy. Les Statues meurent aussi, an indictment of colonial France, was censored until 1963, when it was released at the same time as another banned work, ¡Cuba sí!, a partisan documentary on the Cuban Revolution. The Petite Planète series of books published by le Seuil between 1954 and 1964 was founded by Marker and combined photographs and text in radical ways. A compulsion to record or photograph is evident in these early works. That people don’t record what they see seems to Marker a wilful submission to the obliteration of memories by time. Perception without form is ‘tiring’, he said in an interview with Libération in 2003, and taking photographs, writing letters or making lists are all ways of marking the passage of time; they also provide the structure for most of his films.
Marker is best known for two films made twenty years apart: La Jetée (1962) and Sans soleil (1982). La Jetée, his only fully fictional film, is set in post-World War Three Paris, and tells the story of a man troubled by two images. One is of a windswept woman standing on a pier; it is from his childhood, but he is unable to place it. The other is of a man dying on the same pier. The two images must be related but the man cannot make any connection between them. He agrees to take part in a time-travel experiment run by sinister scientists. Compelled by his memory of the mysterious woman, he finds her in the past and begins a doomed love affair.
The film is composed almost entirely of still images, a series of black and white photographs accompanied by a narrator’s voiceover. There are other sounds, too – a soft and indecipherable whispering, for example, during the sequence depicting the experiment – which give life to the frozen stills, pulling them into the immediacy of cinematic experience. The form of the film works to suggest that the past can never quite be past, but returns – becomes present again – as memory. This idea is conjured in the film’s most extraordinary moment. Suddenly, and just for a second or two, the still images give way to movement: the woman wakes, looks into the camera, blinks, turns her head slightly. The effect is astonishing: in the passage of just a few frames, one medium is transformed into another.
In addition to the large body of interpretation the film has attracted, there has been a remake, La Rejetée, by Thierry Kuntzel in 1993, and a Hollywood version, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1996), as well as a Bowie song and a bar in Tokyo, which Marker himself named after it. The film resembles no other of its time, and reflects the extent to which Marker was motivated by philosophical ideas that he could interrogate through film. The formal inventiveness of La Jetée notwithstanding, it was never his intention to revolutionise film, as many of his peers sought to do.
Accounts of his early career tend to place him with the Left Bank group of artists including Resnais and Agnès Varda, as distinct from the Right Bank’s Cahiers du cinéma ‘critiques-cinéastes’ – among them, Truffaut and Godard. Early on, the former were more overtly left-wing, and had a closer relationship to Modernist tendencies in the arts, especially to the fiction of Duras and Robbe-Grillet; by 1962, Cahiers had belatedly turned to Modernism and semiotics, and the distinction no longer held. The energies of the Left Bank group were so dispersed among the arts that it couldn’t be thought of as a cinematic movement in the manner of the Nouvelle Vague of 1959-61. Nor can Marker’s films be assimilated to the body of work that came to be known as cinéma vérité, despite the apparent similarities between his documentary Le Joli Mai (1962) and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s sociological study of Paris, Chronique d’un été (1961). It is more instructive to trace Marker’s influences back to the 1930s and the tradition of Vigo, Buñuel and Painlevé. Their films were inspired by the Surrealist conception of an everyday full of strange and disturbing images that could undermine rational thought and be used to disrupt conventional narrative logic. The documentaries Resnais or Franju made after the Liberation adopted this mood, which contrasted strongly with the social documentaries produced in the 1930s by John Grierson, who subordinated questions of aesthetics to the dispassionate recording of reality.
Marker disavowed cinéma vérité, describing his own documentary style as ‘ciné, ma vérité’; he makes no attempt to erase his own presence. Le Joli Mai, despite its inclusion of extensive interviews with market-sellers, young bourgeois couples, Algerian and African immigrants and newly housed working-class families, was not a sociological project in the sense that Rouch and Morin had seen their study. Instead, it was made with the future in mind. ‘This film,’ Marker has said, ‘would like to offer itself as a fish-tank for future fishermen casting their nets into the past. It’s for them to sort out what has left a real impression from what will turn out to have been only froth.’
Although Marker was not a leading public figure in the events of 1968 in the way that Godard and other directors were, he was heavily involved in the film experiments that followed. Between 1967 and 1977 he was part of the Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles (SLON), whose first effort was the portmanteau film Loin du Vietnam, made as a protest against US military intervention. One of SLON’s innovations was to credit everyone involved in a film’s production; no special status was given to the director. For that organisation (and its later incarnation, ISKRA, or Images, Son, Kinescope, Réalisation Audiovisuelle), Marker went on to contribute numerous films and commentaries, in particular to the series On vous parle, a ‘magazine of counter-information’ which documented political struggles as they unfolded in Prague, Paris, Brazil and Chile. L’Ambassade (1973), for example, is a political allegory on the aftermath of Pinochet’s 1973 coup and the anxieties and divisions it provoked on the French left. La Solitude du chanteur de fond (1974), one of his portrait films (others have featured Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Signoret), replaces critique with lament, as it charts the rehearsals and final performance of Yves Montand’s concert for Chilean refugees at Paris Olympia. Allende’s fate was also dealt with in Patricio Guzman’s La Batalla de Chile and the collective film La Spirale, both from 1975, to which Marker and SLON contributed funds and commentary and on which they co-ordinated production.
Throughout this period and subsequently, Marker was inspired by Alexander Medvedkin, the Russian film-maker described by Eisenstein as the ‘Bolshevik Chaplin’. In the 1920s, Medvedkin had travelled around the Soviet Union on a train equipped with a laboratory, editing room and cinema, teaching workers and peasants film-making techniques and showing them the results of their work. In the 1960s Marker saw Medvedkin’s Stschastje (‘Happiness’, 1934), a film promoting collectivisation. Le Train en marche (1971) and Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (1992), which documents both Medvedkin’s life and the history of the Soviet Union, were made as tributes to the director. Marker himself attempted to teach film-making to workers in industrial regions of France. ‘Perhaps the only coherent part of my work,’ he has said, is ‘to try to give the power of speech to people who don’t have it, and, when possible, to help them find their own means of expression.’ It couldn’t be said that this gesture of giving a voice to the Other, which also colours Marker’s recent films from Kosovo, was part of Medvedkin’s intention. But then Marker has always rejected the role of cinéaste-engagé. Politics, he has claimed, ‘bores me deeply. What interests me is history, and politics only to the degree that it represents the mark history makes on the present.’ With his 1977 film Le Fond de l’air est rouge, a retrospective of his militant years, Marker signalled the end of his involvement in collective political film-making. Comprising four hours of footage collected from newsreels, archives, militant films and other sources, the film is an ambivalent document of the history of the left over the previous ten years. More specifically, Marker was concerned with where to position himself in relation to the Communist Party after the events of 1968. For the influential critic Jean Narboni, this was of little interest: it was evidence of Marker’s outmoded conception of politics, too bound up with party structure to appreciate new social movements. There was also criticism of Marker’s way of working by analogy and association, which, it was thought, made for political confusion. ‘Since Marker likes both metaphors and cats,’ Narboni commented in 1978, ‘one could say that in the dark night of repression all cats are grey.’
Taking stock is part of the Marker process. He goes through his archives, reels of footage, albums of photographs and recorded testimonies in order to sort out the paraphernalia we produce as we go along, always with Cocteau’s suggestion in mind: ‘Seeing as these things are beyond us, let’s pretend to be the organiser of them.’ He looked back on his early travels in the books Commentaires I (1961) and Commentaires II (1967) and the film Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (1966). Shifting from personal to public archives, he then began to think about the formation of cultural memory. As well as Le Fond de l’air est rouge and Le Tombeau d’Alexandre, there has been the CD-Rom Immemory (1997) and, in 1995, Level Five, which includes previously unseen footage dealing with a blank spot in Japan’s collective memory, the mass suicide in Okinawa in 1945.
Sans soleil elaborated on this process of excavation from a more personal and poetic perspective. It is now so celebrated that it is on the syllabus for the French baccalauréat. The film largely takes the form of an address: ‘He wrote me . . .’ the anonymous narrator keeps repeating, as he quotes from letters a traveller has sent him, describing what he has seen and heard. There are images and sounds from Africa and Japan – the bustle of the city streets, market chatter – but their anthropological potential is snatched away by the idiosyncrasy of their selection. ‘Only banalities interest me now,’ the traveller explains. There is no attempt to efface the camera’s presence, which at times makes for uncomfortable viewing: in one African market scene, a woman stares back at the camera with disarming hostility. For Marker, the camera is necessarily intrusive, and as the inclusion of the woman’s stare indicates, he is always aware of the ambiguity of his enterprise.
Sans soleil takes the form of one of Marker’s ‘lists to quicken the heart’, collections of little things in the world that bring pleasure but are never assimilated to something larger: a waltzing elephant in a zoo, passengers sleeping on a subway train. The film’s first scene presents an old image of three blonde children surrounded by green fields; it bears no relation to the subsequent ones from Japan and Africa, and is quickly replaced by a black screen. Images, for Marker, record the truth of a situation at the time of filming, but this truth is understood only later, if at all. The constant narration, which is also a feature of countless other Marker films, suggests how little he trusts the image, despite basing so much of his work on it. He invites us to consider the many images he has collected, then intervenes in our reflections, suggestively rather than authoritatively. His commentary provides form, however loose and lyrical the effect.
Since Sans soleil Marker has worked more and more in other media. He has described himself as a ‘Sunday Programmer’, passionate about new technology but an amateur user of it. His CD-Rom, Immemory, invites the user into a vast, endlessly layered gallery of his memories. Its seven zones (memory, poetry, war, museum, cinema, travel and photography) contain images, and long and short blocks of text; these are sometimes accompanied by bursts of sound. The mood differs from portal to portal. There is an austere section on Japan, for example, while the treatment of cinema is irreverent: you are invited to explore Marker’s ‘trois films clefs’, but before entering the passage leading to Vertigo you are warned by the cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte, that if you haven’t seen the film, ‘there’s no point in going further.’ Immemory is a playful excursion through Marker’s personal and creative history (at one point, there is a flashback to the Cuban childhood he may or may not have had). At the heart of the venture was an attempt to communicate: users must find their own way around the CD-Rom, and Marker’s hope was that ‘there should be enough familiar codes here . . . that the reader-visitor can gradually replace my images with his, my memories with his, so that my Immemory can serve as a springboard for his own pilgrimage through Time Regained.’
Catherine Lupton’s is the first complete study of Marker in English, and she has produced a succinct, comprehensive account of his work. The book was completed before Chats perchés was screened on Arté in December 2004. In the film, footage of protests in Paris against Le Pen and the war in Iraq, about Aids or the hijab, intermittently gives way to images of grinning cats painted on walls and superimposed on placards. The cats – ‘painted by an unknown’ – are in fact of Marker’s own making; they present an irreverent counterpoint to the documentary footage and Marker’s commentary on the protests and their causes. He has been encouraged by the anger of the public response to Le Pen’s first-round success in the elections of 2002 – ‘Who said this was an apolitical generation?’ – yet sceptical as to its real substance or impact.
The editing of Chats perchés suggests Marker’s disillusion with contemporary public politics. One protest follows another without any indication of their outcome, and the marchers seem laid-back, not incensed. Images of politicians are slowed down so that they slur absurdly. The cats (and the accompanying ‘bestiare’ of short films of other animals also included on the DVD), the usual fascination with minute details, the film’s playfulness and its provocative montage (pictures of Parisians on escalators are accompanied by a recording of the first bombings of Baghdad) – all this is typical Marker. Some doubt remains as to whether the film truly engages with its apparent political concerns. His grinning cats can seem futile, perhaps even mocking, emptying public protest of its seriousness, rather than animating it. But as with most of his films, Chats perchés is at its best when it captures trivial moments that expose ideological hypocrisy, or epitomise a body of thought.
The few physical descriptions we have of Marker conjure an image of a spaceman captivated by Earth. Resnais thought him a benign emissary from another planet, and the artist William Klein recalls meeting him in his office at le Seuil: ‘There were spaceships hanging everywhere from threads, he wore futurist pistols in his belt. And he looked like a Martian.’ Marker has always sought, as a photographer and film-maker, ‘the vantage point of the future’, in an attempt ‘to keep hold of a moment for a time yet to come’. After more than a half-century in film-making, it is now clear that for Marker, cinema has been only a phase for the image, one that has created remarkable moments, but will have no second century. The loss is not so tragic, he seems to say, for the death of cinema leaves with us an immense memory; Marker’s ambition has been to be its idiosyncratic index.
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