Features | Out of Time: Notes on Marker

By Andrew Tracy

An oeuvre made up of fragments naturally spawns fragmentation in its wake, but the erratic and haphazard appearance of Chris Marker’s films on DVD is less a distortion of his work than a peculiarly apt form of presentation. The least proprietary of filmmakers, Marker nevertheless seems immune to misrepresentation. Regardless of his assorted pseudonyms, effacements, and evasions, Marker has managed to exert a remarkable degree of control over his work by the sheer distinctiveness of his textual method. The enshrinement of Sans soleil (19821) and La jetée (1962) on Criterion does not isolate them from the rest of his career (“that despicable word,” he writes)—elegant constructions both, the sensibility from which they issue so clearly travels beyond their borders that they serve as gateways into, rather than summations of, Marker’s work.

The invaluable and motley assortment of Marker titles being released by Icarus Films in North America thus evades the typical problem of release-due-to-availability through the built-in beneficence of Marker’s method. If we can trace lines of evolution, and even discrete periods, within Marker’s assorted output, the films—and the ongoing history they chronicle—so often double back on their predecessors that the effect is of a palimpsest. Reusing, reconsidering, eking out new meanings and possibilities from the images captured by himself and others over the years, Marker’s practice eradicates the distinctions between “major” and “minor” works—though short of labelling every film, video, or installation a masterpiece, shall we say that some are leaner than others.

If Marker slyly complicates our commonplace notions of auteurism, his various oeuvres also relieve us of the heavy lifting required to extract a personal “essence” from unyieldingly impersonal material, as well as any tiresome existential wrestling with questions of authenticity. Marker’s games with authorship have always been perpetrated with a Barthesian wink, and it’s precisely as play—as the motions of a resolute, if whimsical, intelligence—that his various mediations, humble self-designations, or telling absences should be interpreted, rather than grafting them on to trendy academic clichés of unfixed, protean fluidity. “Rather than static, his identity has been labile, changing, dynamic,” opines Nora Alter in her recent monograph, Chris Marker. “In that spirit, the author/artist should be decentred when contemplating the films that bear Marker’s name, and the interpretative and analytical stress should be placed on the deep sociopolitical structures that determine textual production.”

Best of luck decentring Marker’s distinctive voice when even the most “anonymous” film among the new releases, The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (1967), notes in its opening minute that the titular structure has the world’s highest concentration of military personnel per square foot, “cemeteries excluded.” The nature of Marker’s practice makes him a godsend for such academicized triteness, his unmistakable textual personality and thematic preoccupations enabling a cohesive reading of the work, while his ostentatious relinquishment of the verboten role of author/creator allows the academic to feign the role of autonomous investigator while dutifully following Marker’s lead, as Alter inevitably does. (It should be noted that Catherine Lupton’s Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, the only other comprehensive monograph in English thus far, is far more honest in its assigned task of coherently summarizing and sympathetically commenting on Marker’s work and practice.)

Fitting Marker for a structuralist straitjacket would be as blinkered as unquestioningly celebrating him as the “creative genius” which his own practice archly repudiates. Marker neither disappears into his texts, nor does some irrepressible selfhood ceaselessly break through the mantle of self-imposed anonymity. While repeatedly emphasizing the need to give voice to the voiceless, from the “ordinary” Japanese girl at the centre of The Koumiko Mystery (1965) to his collaborations with the two branches of the Groupe Medvedkine collective, Marker also remains inextricably attached to a romantic view, relentlessly lucid though it may be, of the exemplary individual, to the artist (Medvedkin, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky), the activist (François Maspero) or the progressive political leader—the same romanticism which he has craftily brought to bear in fashioning his own evasive legend. Quite apart from a displacement of the individual, what Marker offers instead is a remarkably untroubled appreciation of how the individual and the collective flow together—the same fluidity he espies in images, their irrefutable concreteness coexisting with their perpetual indeterminacy.

Yet Marker’s eye for chance, the ironic, and the absurd is not a complacent celebration of meaninglessness or a shrug in the face of history, but a subtle elegy for meaning; a recognition that the exercise of power by small groups of elites, whether capitalist, communist, or nakedly fascist, unseats the certainties and equilibrium of the world, and rewrites the rules of perception along the lines of their own naked self-interest. It is thus that, like the televised Japanese phantasms of Sans soleil, Marker seeks to give the world’s horrors a face and a name: the Chisso chemical company in southern Japan that polluted the waters around Minamata with mercury, producing serious illnesses and birth defects in the local human (and feline) population (A Grin Without a Cat, 1977); the forces of reaction and their timid middle-class enablers, eliminating dissent, justice, and thought, in a possible France as much as in an all-too-real Chile (The Embassy, 1973); the Norwegian and Japanese whaling fleets “ploughing the ocean” and affording us, with each massive, pitiful victim, “an image of our own death” (Vive la baleine, 1972).

Marker’s games of image and identity are played out upon a foundation of the utmost reality, his humour and whimsy—often expressed via his beloved animals—grounded in the utmost seriousness. “And always the animals—from each trip you bring back a gaze, a pose, a gesture that points to the truest of humanity better than images of humanity itself,” he writes in Immemory. It’s precisely because the human world has introduced such horror to this common planet that Marker can happily take refuge in the name and caricatured likeness of his feline compatriot Guillaume-en-Egypte, whose peaceful contemplation of a piano solo provides a graceful pause between the two parts of The Last Bolshevik (1992). Who wouldn’t welcome refuge in the serenity that can only arise from natural guiltlessness—a guiltlessness that even Marker’s friends and heroes, from Alexander Medvedkin to Fidel Castro to Yves Montand, ultimately proved incapable of sustaining?

Marker is always at his most clear-eyed when regarding those who have placed themselves at the service of progressive causes, neither discrediting the movements via the personal faults of their leaders and figureheads nor sanctifying the movements absent the shaping hands of those exemplary figures. The foibles and failings of Marker’s heroes, from the farcical (Castro’s problems with an unyielding Moscow microphone in A Grin Without a Cat) to the tragic (The Last Bolshevik’s doleful list of the many brilliant Soviet directors, Medvedkin included, who renounced their ideals and creativity in acquiescence to Stalinism), do not simply “humanize” his chosen subjects. Rather, they reveal the divergence between the people themselves and the larger, palpable force that their strength of personality has allowed them to fleetingly incarnate: the consuming, overflowing desire for change, for art or life that is better, grander than the present moment will allow.

While Marker is certainly not foreign to retrospective second thoughts or even a certain measure of rue, there is a strong and persistent current in his view of politics and those who practice it. At the conclusion of The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, the narrator opines that “What the effect of [the march] will be…may seem a derisive question to ask today. But the least one may say about that segment of the university generation which expressed itself at Washington is what we were told spontaneously by a 15-year old girl protestor: ‘I have changed’”; in Sans soleil 15 years later, returning to the decade-long protest against the construction of an airport in the community of Narita, Japan, the pseudonymous Sandor Krasna notes that even the eventual “victory” of the construction companies has left their airport a besieged camp, surrounded by a community that “has come to know themselves through the struggle—concretely it had failed, but at the same time all that they had gained in their understanding of the world could have been won only through the struggle.”

Marker’s return to “personal” filmmaking after the collective projects of the ‘60s and ‘70s thus bespeaks not a retreat into the self from the disappointments experienced in the political arena, but a continuing articulation of what was inherent in those projects in the first place. Marker’s films and film practice speak not of a tension or opposition between individual and collective, but of their confluence, the points where the two fuse and diverge—and where the sovereign individual, whether the mobilizing political leader or arranging artist, can no longer lay claim to what they have helped set in motion. Exemplary figures fire imaginations to such a degree that they cannot control what is made of their images or ideas. As per Che Guevara’s posthumous, unwilled flight into iconic ubiquity (which occupies an important section of A Grin Without a Cat), they are lifted out of history even as they define it.

Marker in no way contends that Guevara’s burnished image or fiery words remain locked within the confines of his own historical person and context, however. In Sans soleil, Guevara’s injunction that he “trembles with indignation whenever an injustice is committed in the world” hovers above the Narita protestors, and is ultimately adopted as the watchword of all those, like Krasna’s imagined time traveller, who feel it their duty to remember the past that others—the servants of capital or communism, with their various degrees of violence—have so diligently sought to efface. But even as Marker looks with fond, if tentative, hopes at the later generations of youthful idealists who scour the past for models and slogans, he also remains wary of a capitulation to image in lieu of action, a simulacra of politics whose evocation of past struggles profoundly misunderstands the content of those struggles. As he wryly reflects in The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004), while overhearing a WWII anti-Pétainist anthem resurrected to slur the current French prime minister, “It’s a great asset in life not to know what you’re talking about.”

Yet if one facet of Marker’s fascination with images thus takes issue with the ways in which the image supplants reality, he nevertheless remains more interested in the existence that precedes any corrupted essence. “It is not the literal past that rules us, it is images of the past,” reads George Steiner’s epigraph preceding The Last Bolshevik, but this does not mean that those fictions have nothing to tell of their vanished referents. Marker’s tour through the shadow kingdom of Stalinist Russia not only reveals a world composed of images cut loose from their bearings in reality—where a statue at the top of the Odessa Steps commemorates a historic massacre that exists only by virtue of Eisenstein’s invention, where Stalin’s screen vicar conveys more reality to the Soviet audience than the man himself—but also, as Catherine Lupton notes, a world where “artifice can preserve a vanished reality.” Marker well understands the ability of images to exist as facts in the world, not (or not only) as simulacra that precede reality, but as placeholders for realities long denied. At the conclusion of The Last Bolshevik, accompanying Costa-Gavras and Montand to the first ever showing of The Confession (1970), their dramatization of the 1952 Artur London trial, in the Soviet Union in 1990, Marker relates that “We recalled what we used to say during the shooting: the day this is shown in the USSR, something will have really changed.” Fabricated, 20-year old images of an officially repudiated reality, speaking the actual words of the trial to an audience which had never been allowed to hear them, become a vehicle, a marker (pardon) of latter-day change—images not ruling the present, but acting as a tentative guide through a reality that had just emerged from a reign of fiction.
Pace Baudrillard, then, reality can exceed the images that had sought to define it; and the other facet of Marker’s interrogation of images is accordingly that which reads the image as accident, as against the intentionality of the image-as-simulacra. “You never know what you may be filming,” notes one of Marker’s narrating surrogates in A Grin Without a Cat, as footage of the Chilean equestrian team at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics gives a glimpse of Lieutenant Mendoza, later to be General Mendoza in Pinochet’s junta. Marker’s excavation of history inevitably projects itself forward, to deaths foretold or possibilities not yet stifled. The chance image that heralds disasters yet to come, as in Denise Bellon’s photographic chronicle of “a post-war world becoming a pre-war world” in Remembrance of Things to Come (2001), is balanced by the chance image that offers an egress from the human world’s fateful cycles. If the successive waves of protests running through the Parisian streets in The Case of the Grinning Cat replay the tragedies of the past as something of a farce—the legacy of the Popular Front invoked as the union members of the FO call for a general strike, even though their own union was created with the aid of American money to challenge the Communist-controlled CGT, while, meanwhile, anti-striker conservative youth adopt their rallying cry from the Communist poet Paul Eluard—the laughter is not entirely bitter. In the incongruous, beaming icon of M. Chat (a found object, a Marker invention, or perhaps a bit of both?) that suddenly appears plastered across the walls and streets of Paris before its glorious apotheosis in the anti-Bush rallies, the chance image defies the drudging logic of a stultifying reality, anarchically disrupting the repetitions of history enacted by both sides.

While John Gianvito’s conclusion to Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007) invokes a passing of the torch from the dead past to a new generation, reading old struggles over new, Marker’s progressive hopes are paradoxically pinned on the extinct and absent: on the hunted wolves in A Grin Without a Cat, on the dinosaurs (literal and figurative) evoked at the conclusion of The Last Bolshevik, or on M. Chat himself, whose grin suddenly vanishes from his perches throughout Paris. “The prototype of the 19th century man,” Resnais once called Marker, “perhaps a man of the 22nd and the 18th centuries,” David Thomson once speculated, and accordingly it is to a space somewhat out of time that Marker looks for possibilities. The not-yet-foretold future that recurs throughout the films—the space outside of the tree’s rings in La jetée, the time traveller’s sad utopia of total recall in Sans soleil—is not a forlorn fantasy, but a utopian possibility that repeatedly intersects with our own time, a fleeting yet persistent suggestion of that desired shape that the present stubbornly, sadly refuses to assume.

It’s thus that Marker’s indelible commentaries have ever assumed the quicksilver form of the epiphany as opposed to the weighty sloganeering of a Godard, and thus as well that that great disruptor of cinematic norms has rather assumed the mantle of the last of the museum-ready European Masters as opposed to the suppleness and nimbleness of his former Left Bank compatriot. Which is not to say that Marker is now or has ever been the herald of a post-cinematic age; there’s nothing iconoclastic about his abandonment of film for successive ventures into new media. For all the hand-wringing about the imminent demise of Cinema as we know it, Marker retains a remarkably untroubled relationship with the term. (“A manifesto for one kind of cinema, one of several possible kinds of cinema, that’s all,” he said of his 1996 video feature Level Five; “To call it anything else would be foolish.”) Perpetually out of time as he is, Marker’s projected cinema future has an aura of handmade, artisanal craftsmanship—a return to a cinema past that never existed to create a future which few will follow.

It’s a Marker-worthy irony that one of the few great filmmakers who sought to develop a truly pedagogical, democratic mode of cinema practice is also one of the hardest to emulate. Godard will forever be with us, but whither Marker? It would be apropos to posit his fate as that of Level Five’s protagonist Laura (Catherine Belkhodja), one day suddenly disappearing into the matrix of apparatuses with which Marker has constantly revisited his and our past for us, taking leave of any corporeal form (of which there is precious little physical evidence in any case) and truly becoming the living memory—rather the living function of memory—he has long served as.
Helpfully, Marker’s already projected his own future for us—as a second-life avatar, of all things. (Perfect: futuristic and archaic all at once, a technological fantasia that could have been conceived in a 19th century salon or a 1980s basement.) A guided tour through a virtual museum of Marker’s store of film images, this “Farewell to Movies” (as per the opening title) characteristically undercuts the supposedly valedictory air with tantalizing glimpses of a cinema history heretofore unknown: Breathless as “un film de Raoul Walsh,” Remembrance of Things Past directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Rin Tin Tin, Bruce Cabot and Adolphe Menjou in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Dog as directed by “Oliver Stone Sr.” The storehouse of images already catalogued is nothing compared to those that have not yet even been imagined. For Marker, and for the grand conception of cinema that he has assembled piecemeal, postmortems are always premature.

“The Second Life of Chris Marker” is viewable at www.lesinrocks.com