Chris Marker, 1921-2012

I had barely digested the fact that SIGHT & SOUND’s decennial blue-ribbon international panel officially supplanted CITIZEN KANE with VERTIGO as the all-time best movie. Then, just hours later, I learned of Chris Marker’s passing. It figures. It’s as if he literally said, “Well, my work here on earth is done.”

It was fall 1971 when I first encountered M. Marker’s work. Accompanied by my new bride (beautiful girl, lousy idea: the 21-year-old me wasn’t yet fit to be anybody’s husband), I’d moved to Athens, Georgia to pursue a graduate degree in the Journalism sequence entitled “Radio/TV/Film.” I was in a Film or TV Production class, can’t remember which since I took both, and the dozen or so of us crowded into a control room ca. 1962. (A Big Three network had donated lots of pre-color gear to the university, which handed out the annual Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting – now it’s “electronic media,” dontcha know. Not a quid pro quo, but a nifty writeoff since the net had to replace everything anyway.) We gathered round a black-and-white monitor, bigger than an iPhone but smaller than your parents’ console, and our instructor rolled a “quad,” or two-inch, tape – smaller, more manageable home video formats had not yet appeared – without comment. Twenty-six minutes later, our minds had been duly blown, and some of us were left wondering why the hell we were in a production class at all. Which, of course, had been our realistic prof’s intention: you think you’re creative?

LA JETEE (1962) is almost a “photo-roman,” a cinematic work composed of still pictures, narration, music, and sound. Any movement in frame is limited to the camera itself. You’ve seen a couple of them if you’re a Ken Burns fan: THE CIVIL WAR is probably the most prominent example of what I’m talking about, the “animation-stand” movie. I say almost because there is a short passage in LA JETEE, can’t be more than three seconds, of actual 24-fps film footage. Blink and you’ll miss it. But if you don’t miss it, your entire viewing platform is upended and you’re forced to consider the medium as well as the message. As Stephen King once put it, you fall through a hole in the page. This artistry, this self-reflection, is precisely what separates Chris Marker from Michael Bay.

The story is a piece of “science fiction” which begins and ends on a platform (the “jetee”) at Orly Airport in Paris. After a holocaust which forces the survivors to go underground and…nope, I’m saying no more. If you can’t find a mere 26 minutes to spare, then you should just move on to the nearest hyperlink. M. Marker is a poet, a philosopher, a filmmaker, an aesthete. He sucked the oxygen out of that 1971 room with a bunch of still photos! And we all thought we were trying to understand cinema! (If you’ve noticed an innate ontological contradiction, remember that I was still only 21 and not nearly as wise as you are now.)

I thought, “Damn. That expat Chris Marker showed those Frenchies how to do it back when JFK ruled!” But M. Marker reveled in mystery, as did/do J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, and “Trevanian,” among others who prefer to let their art speak for itself. (It’s easier for writers, who are anonymously shut up inside their studios in the best of circumstances.) If you’d like to know the mundane details, such as M. Marker’s given French name, etc., then click on his Wikipedia page. For our purposes here, he will remain “Chris Marker,” even though we will not give back the cinematic terms we’ve inherited from the French tradition: genre, montage, auteur, homage, film noir, femme fatale, mise-en-scene, and cinema verite are only the ones which come to mind within a few seconds.

I had not yet seen Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958) when we screened LA JETEE that day in 1971. M. Marker had, though, time and again. The film concerned his favorite subject: remembrance. He even recreated iconic instants from VERTIGO within the static but kinetically bursting frames of LA JETEE, just as the James Stewart character attempted to recreate a beloved woman from his own memory. Those references went over my head at the time, but there was so much more there to keep me occupied. Those 26 minutes inspired dozens, hundreds, of filmmakers. David Bowie’s video “Jump They Say” and Terry Gilliam’s big-budget feature 12 MONKEYS are only the most obvious works to bow down before LA JETEE. If M. Marker had done nothing else, he would be assured of a place in film history. But, of course, he continued to work.

The VERTIGO connection eventually became apparent even to dummies like me, because it was spoon-fed to us during M. Marker’s second most famous film, released twenty years later. SANS SOLEIL (1983) couldn’t be farther from LA JETEE, nor could it be closer. It’s a feature-length film, in color, with moving images. But in its way it is as haunting as the groundbreaking “photo-roman” of two decades before. Now M. Marker – who has always been a student and critic of advancing technology – travels the world to ruminate in poetic, quotable words (I heard them in English!) and indelible images about the fragility of cultures and the almost alien dichotomies that exist among one single species on our one simple planet.

The cinematic technology is grab-and-growl: the images are all silent, there is no “sync sound,” though you’ll have to pinch yourself a few times after you notice this, because the post-production sound-effects editing is sublime. Though we go elsewhere – frequently through stock footage that M. Marker makes his own – we constantly compare the bustling Tokyo to the hardscrabble Guinea-Bisseau. Furthermore, this is at the dawn of the video era, which fascinates the director; a colleague can take even the most emotion-laden images, touch them up with video effects, and reduce them to mere dispassionate visuals.

Even though I’m a card-carrying movie nerd, I am by nature more readily attracted to well-chosen words than to well-rendered images. The screaming achievement of SANS SOLIEL is that both my itches are scratched. The “narration,” read by a woman as if letters from her “globetrotting photographer friend,” is glorious, poetic, emotional. During your first viewing, you will want to have a note pad handy, because you will want to write some of this stuff down to…um, remember…later. I should warn you that there are some images in SANS SOLIEL which you may not have preferred to see on your own. But they are part of your journey, a very human, individual one that makes something like the much more tidied-up KOYAANISQATSI (lovely though it is) just a pretender.

Then we turn to VERTIGO, as the “photographer” (Spoiler Alert: M. Marker himself, in case you’re the last one to catch on) moves to San Francisco itself and recreates Hitchcock locations, even being so audacious as to refer obliquely back to LA JETEE. The constant thrill and wonderment is how an increasingly technological society (played here by Tokyo’s city center and, in fairness, somewhat applauded by the filmmaker via his hedonistic use of video-altered images) can coexist with a culture so attuned to its past. There are rich veins to tap in VERTIGO, and there will be many more people in the mines now, thanks to its current position as Best Film Of All Time.

Chris Marker made many other films, including A.K. (1985), the best look ever at Akira Kurosawa, and one very influential CD-ROM called IMMEMORY, but it is these two which will make true cineastes – get out of here, Frenchies! – weak at the knees for years to come. Repose en paix, M. Marker. You live, as you knew you would, in our memories.

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