Thursday, August 16, 2012

Time Folder: Remembering Film Essayist Chris Marker

"Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place"
                    (T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday)

"L'Éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps."
(The distance between countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of time.)
                                                                                                            (Jean Racine, Bajazet)

Since French filmmaker Chris Marker’s death on July 29th at the age of 91, I've been considering his importance in my own development as a writer and critic. As I rewatched his two best known and influential works this past weekend – the short film, La Jetée, and the feature Sans Soleil – I've come to realize even more his major impact on my writing life. I may have only seen two of his dozens of shorts and features, but the ideas he was working through in them – the nature of time, loss and memory – have been a constant in my own work. From my novel, The Empire of Death, to my critical pieces, especially where I use memoir to decipher my understanding and reaction to a work, the ideas of memory and the inexorable passage of time are always present.

The Woman at Orly in La Jetée

I first encountered Marker's work in the Film Studies program at the University of Toronto in 1979 or 1980. U of T's film program was not about learning the craft of filmmaking, but rather to study films as text (just as one would a novel, poem or historical period). In one class, my professor showed us Marker's remarkable 29-minute short, La Jetée. La Jetée is about a man in the future who has a vivid memory from his childhood of a single incident at Orly Airport in Paris. In the memory, he is with his parents on an outing to watch the airplanes land and depart. At the end of a jetty, the man remembers seeing a beautiful young woman. As he studies her face he also witnesses someone being killed. The memory is not complete, it is just a fragment, and he is determined to understand it. Many years later, after a cataclysmic war, a group of scientists develop a technique to push people into the past (or into the future) in order to find a way to save those who still survive in the post-apocalyptic present. The man with the memory, now a prisoner of the scientists in an underground realm, is chosen because his one vivid recollection of that day is very strong. After several failed attempts, he manages to go back to a time just prior to the incident in his memory. He finds the woman and, during several journeys back, he starts a romantic relationship with her. I will leave the rest of this fine film for you to discover.

Chris Marker
What is so compelling about the film, where it becomes the perfect visual metaphor for memory, is that the whole film (except for one very brief moment) is composed of stills with a narrator describing/clarifying what we are seeing. Marker uses these images (many in repetition) as a representation of how our memory works. Most times when we recall the past we remember it only in fragments. These fragments often get mixed in with other memories, too, as our brain zooms through its 'attic' making up its own associations and connections. Many times, these memory fragments do not play like movies, but instead still images; captured moments. (Ironically, film itself is actually a series of still images that are shot at 24-frames a second which, when projected, tricks the mind into thinking it is seeing a moving image. In fact, all we are seeing is a still image followed rapidly by dozens of other still images cut together to tell us a story.)

Marker is also making references to influences on his own work, be they writers (Jules Verne), philosophers (Roland Barthes) or filmmakers (Alfred Hitchcock, especially his film Vertigo). He also takes one brief five-second moment to eschew still images. As we look at the beautiful young woman sleeping on a bed she awakens, looks at the camera and smiles slightly. But these aren't stills, this is actual film. The woman moves. It is deeply erotic sequence, even startling, in a film that, except for this, is made up of stills. It is as Spalding Gray once said in one of his own filmed essay/lectures, "a perfect moment." 

I'm not the only one who has been inspired by this film. David Bowie, for his video, Jump They Said (1993 – from the album Black Tie, White Noise) used several ideas from the film. Terry Gilliam's 1995 film 12 Monkeys is a remake/variation. Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel (and the 2009 movie made from it), The Time Traveler’s Wife, is also clearly inspired by La Jetée. There are several others.

African Woman's Gaze in Sans Soleil
My next encounter with Marker was not until 1983 with a screening of Sans Soleil (1982) at Toronto's Festival of Festivals, as it was known then. Between the making of La Jetée in 1962, and Sans Soleil twenty years later, he had spent many years in a leftist film collective where he worked as an often-unidentified member of the filmmaking group. Though he made a couple of other personal films before Sans Soleil, after leaving the group, none had the impact of this mediation on travel, memory and time. My own memory came into play here and I was excited when I saw the film programmed in the festival. What helped me decide to see Sans Soleil, beyond the fact it was a Marker film, was that, during that time, I was obsessed with all things Japanese, and Marker's film was strongly focused on Japan.

I don’t think the film is actually a documentary. In fact, I actually think it is a work of fiction that just happens to use non-fiction imagery to tell its story. Sans Soleil appears (at least on the surface) to be a travel documentary from a cinematographer named Sandor Krasna. Krasna, who is obviously a fictional version of Marker, is a restless filmmaker. He has spent his life travelling the world shooting imagery of places and things he loves (places he loves: Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Île-de-France, San Francisco; things he loves: cats, owls and people's faces). In a series of letters to an unnamed woman read to us by her (in the English version, Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart reads; in the French version it's Florence Delay; in the German version, Charlotte Kerr; and in the Japanese version, Riyoko Ikeda), Krasna/Marker talks about his observations and discoveries as he relentlessly films and tries to make sense of the images he is capturing. At one point, he says, “You cannot live with memory without falsifying it.”

Sans Soleil is challenging and it demands you keep up, because Krasna/Marker has structured it like the flickering, frantic memory flow. The film makes connections and commentaries on seemingly unconnected events, ideas and memories, only to return to them later to clarify what has happened sometimes 45 minutes before. For example, one moment the narrator might say (she does some editorializing on the letters, it’s not all Krasna/Marker), “He used to write to me from Africa. He contrasted African time to European time, and also to Asian time. He said that in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time,” as we watch a bird in a pond in Africa, and suddenly we see a shot of an emu, and the narrator will say, “By the way, did you know that there are emus in the Île de France?” The film then jumps to a young woman’s face somewhere in Africa where Krasna/Maker explains that the young girls, and not the young men, pick their spouses. This all seems so incredibly random, but it does add up by the end (the emu makes a return visit at the end that makes this strange association make sense).  

I feel the need for a few Marker inspired “by the way” moments of my own here. Chris Marker was as much of an enigma as his films. His real name was Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve and he was born on July 29th, or maybe July 22nd in Mongolia or maybe the Belleville area of Paris. He fought in the Maquis (the French Resistance) during World War II, or maybe it's a myth. He became a journalist and was one of the first writers hired by André Bazin for Cahiers du cinema. There were few photographs taken of him after the 1970s. Yes, those last two bits are true. Oh, and one other thing, the two quotes I started this piece off with? The one by Eliot appears at the start of the English language version of Sans Soleil, while the one by Racine starts the French version. Back to the narrative. 

Takenoko Girl in Sans Soleil
A further example of the interconnections he makes – the fragments of memory (and passage of time) – is perfectly encapsulated in a moment around the 45th minute. In the 1980s (when the film was shot), in Tokyo a group known as Takenoko was popular. In the film, the Takenoko Krasna/Marker shoots footage of is a group of colourfully dressed girls and some boys (unsurprising for this society, the boys are in charge even though they are hugely outnumbered) who meet in a central square in Tokyo to dance to pop music from a boom box, but more importantly, to be seen doing so. And yet, they don't seem to notice they are being watched. Krasna/Marker says in one of his letters, “they live in a parallel time sphere separated by a kind of invisible aquarium wall from the crowd they attract.” These groups are made up of only young people 20 and under. After they turn 21, they are no longer allowed to be part of this parallel time sphere and must join society. And yet, this final connection is not made for us until almost the end of the film where Krasna/Marker presents a group of young women (presumably over 20) who, now wearing traditional kimonos, are given small gifts in a ritualized ceremony as they pass into adulthood and are accepted into society. We are expected to make that connection; Krasna/Marker doesn't do it for us.

What is so compelling about Sans Soleil (Marker is unafraid to let a sequence  of, say, a local Japanese street festival  –  go on for a moment or two without narration) is how he seemingly finds the connections between a moment of perfect happiness in Iceland (at the very start of the film), and then twists and turns it in on itself by the very end. In a side-trip to San Francisco he brings forward his obsession with Hitchcock's Vertigo again, as he did in La Jetée. Does Marker identify with the obsessions of Scottie, played by James Stewart, as Scottie desperately tries to remake another woman in the image of the woman of his dreams who he believes has died? Probably, because in some ways La Jetée is a remake of Vertigo just like 12 Monkeys is a remake of La Jetée. But in La Jetée, instead of trying to remake someone in another's image, the time traveller actually goes back in time to be with the woman who haunts his memories.

In Sans Soleil, the restlessness that stalks this film is not just time and memory, but desire and longing. But where in La Jetée it was a man travelling in time to be with the woman of his dreams, in Sans Soleil it is a restless man who travels (haunts?) the world trying to find connections to bring all that he has seen, and all that he has discovered, into a coherent whole.

Elephant in Goa - Photo by David Churchill
At one point in a letter, Krasna/Marker says, “I wonder how people remember things who don't film, don't photograph and don't tape.” As I watched that moment in the film this past weekend, it opened up avenues into my own memory and my own past. In January 1996, my wife and I travelled to Goa, India (her family is from there, though she was born in Kenya). During the journey, I obsessively shot roll after roll after roll of film. I lived behind my camera. Wherever we went I always had the camera with me to record what I saw in a manner that was not dissimilar to Krasna/Marker. (Except mine were still images – my own La Jetée?). 

One day, a family friend, William, offered to take us on a brief trip into the nearby city of Margao to run a couple of quick errands. Since we were only going to be gone 20 minutes I didn't bother to take my camera. What I forgot was that William, knowing it was my first time there and the first time in many years for my wife, was anxious for us to see as much of Goa as we could. On more than one outing, he took us here, there and everywhere. And yet, this time I left my camera behind. Our 20-minute jump into Margao became a two and a half hour journey through the back roads, through small villages and, in one magical moment, into an old Catholic monastery. It was still being used as a monastery, and normally it was off limits to outsiders. But William was known by everybody and welcomed seemingly everywhere. He took us into the courtyard and showed us an old hiding area that led underground. He explained that inside the underground area was a tunnel so the monks, in the past, could escape if the monastery was ever attacked. At one point, I remember glancing up at a long second-floor corridor that was mostly open to the courtyard. As I looked up, a monk, very dark skinned and dressed all in white, looked down at me. He caught my eye for a second with a look of irritation on his face. The expression said, “What is this outsider doing here?” Then he heard William's voice, glanced beyond me, saw him and moved off, his expression changing from irritation to understanding. There was one other element that haunted me about that day: there was something about this monastery that made me feel that it was one of the holiest places I'd ever been to. (I've been to monasteries and never before, nor since, have I had that feeling.)

We came home that day completely filled to bursting with what we had seen, and I did not have a single image of it. But, contrary to Krasna/Marker, I remember that day because I have to, I have no choice. My brain became the camera and my memory was the holding place of that day and all that I saw. Sure, it's now fragmentary (the strongest image for me is  like the woman is for the man on the jetty in La Jetée  the dark-skinned monk dressed in white gazing down with irritation until he saw one of his own, plus that feeling of holiness I felt there), but I remember that day with much greater clarity than any of the journeys I took on that trip to Goa when I had a camera. Krasna/Marker even backs this last fact up when he writes, "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."

Moment of Death in La Jetée
Marker's two greatest films continue to inspire and haunt me. While doing research for this piece, without planning to, I created my own montage of Marker images. Having rewatched La Jetée (I watched Sans Soleil the next day), I decided to see other Marker works I'd not seen. So I thought, look on YouTube (and since Marker was so in love with technology I'm sure he adored YouTube). Over the course of an hour, I watched the first 15 minutes of Marker's 1985 documentary on Akira Kurosawa, called AK, about the making of Ran (well, that's what it was supposed to be about; but it ended being a study of Kurosawa the man as he made the film rather than a straight doc on the making of Ran). I then checked out the opening sequence of his take on the rise and fall of the New Left in a documentary from 1977, A Grin Without a Cat, and finished my journey by watching a short Marker shot of his cat lounging on his sound system one afternoon called A Cat Listening to Music (even Chris Marker had cat films on YouTube!). These bits and pieces became like my own version of Sans Soleil as I tried to fill in the huge gaps of what I had not seen of the work of Chris Marker.

I continue to return to these two great films again and again because, just as Vertigo fed Marker's obsession, these films feed mine. Time passes so fast and memory is indeed fleeting. So that may be why Marker wondered how anybody could remember without filming, photographing or taping. In time, my memory will begin to fade and those fragmented moments will become even more fragmented. At least if it's on film, that one frame from that occasion brings the whole day into focus.

I hope I never forget Chris Marker and his remarkable work, but, alas, forgetting seems to be an important part of memory. Regardless, to paraphrase the man himself (and in this moment in Sans Soleil he was talking about a cat that had died), “Chris, wherever you are, peace be with you.”

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. I first saw La Jetee in 1963 as part of my university film society subscription. It was programmed to open before the feature. I -- and most of the audience --was devastated by its impact. So much so, that we requested a much longer break before the feature began -- while we regrouped.

    There is a direct line between La Jetee and Memento, also done by another "Chris".