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June 14, 2007

DVD Journal: Chris Marker

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


I see that Criterion is about to release a disc containing two of my favorite movies: Chris Marker's 1962 "La Jetee," and his 1982 "Sans Soleil."

I adore both of these films, which also happen to be two of the most distinctive movies in all of film history. "La Jetee" -- the only fiction film Marker ever made -- is a 20 minute-long, no-budget, time-traveling, Moebius-strip narrative told almost entirely via still photos and voice-over. "La Jetee" was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's not-bad feature-length "12 Monkeys," which co-starred Madeleine Stowe at her most gorgeous.

"Sans Soleil" is a feature-length .... well, what descriptive label to give it? "Documentary" sort of fits, as does "travelogue." But neither word really does the film justice. It's part diary, part blog-before-the-fact, part essay, part poem, part sci-fi fantasy.

It's mainly personal musings that ricochet off of many, many subjects: our move into an electronic media universe; the connections between dreams, memories, and movies; Tokyo as a 21st century city; the many forms that our fantasies of utopia take; the enduring fascination of "Vertigo"; revolution in Africa; our relationship to the animal world ... In one sense it's nothing but a big bag of loopy free associations. In action, though, Marker makes it all make a kind of swirling poetic sense.

A little note here, as well as fair warning: Chris Marker's work is nothing if not complicated, as well as modernist / post-modernist -- "Sans Soleil" in particular is as four-dimensional and dense with allusions and connections as "Ulysses." His work also comes out of a froggy-lefty intellectual matrix. But I urge even the most froggy-averse and modernist-averse to give the disc a try. Despite the complications, watching a Marker movie is anything but heavy going; he's also the rare lefty of his generation who woke up out of the dream, er, delusion, er, whatever. His tone is mainly light and poetic: amazement, melancholy, playfulness, surprise, lyricism, and heartbreak abound. And he moves fast.

His films offer all the complexity and lyricism of Jean-luc Godard's movies, minus the snottiness and the pissiness. (I blogged about a Godard movie here, and provided some Godard linkage here.) It's interesting that, while an infinite number of brain-splitting volumes have been penned about Godard, the intellectuals and academics have never made much of Marker. I'm not entirely sure why. I suspect that it may be because his work isn't primarily intellectual, let alone scolding or strict. Though he's mainly a diarist and an essayist, Marker works via intuition and imagination: His movies make me think of a cross between the philosopher Montaigne and the surrealist poet Charles Simic. But who knows: Perhaps the intellectuals don't make much of him simply because he has moved on from his early leftism.

Marker, who is now well into his '80s, is a cat-like, elusive creature himself -- one of the more unclassifiable figures from film history. Although he's often associated with the New Wave generation, that isn't quite accurate: he's a little older, and he emerged as part of another posse, alongside Agnes Varda and Alain Resnais. He's a deliberately mysterious figure: "Chris Marker" is a pseudonym; few photos of him exist; and he seldom speaks in his own voice -- even the narration in "Sans Soleil" is cast in the voice of a fictional character, and is read by an actor. (Here's one of the few photos of Marker that I've ever seen. It was taken while he was filming a documentary about Andrei Tarkovsky.) But the indirection isn't just a tantalizing pose. It's part and parcel of his general approach, even of his subject matter: How to capture -- or register -- memory, imagination, history, and love with a technology that is so mechanical, and so wedded to reality?

Part of what's intriguing and inspiring about Marker is how freely he has worked, and how serenely he has gone his own way. He has never confined himself to filmmaking; he has also worked as a writer and a photographer as well as a political organizer. His early films took the form of film "letters" -- audiovisual jottings to a nameless friend about his travels through the world. (A small personal aside: Marker's strategy -- of using pseudonyms and making use of the letter-to-a-friend format -- had its influence on 2Blowhards!) Technology-wise, he was quick to take to 16 mm cameras, and was later quick to shift over to digital.

Talk about an "independent," by the way: Marker never battled studios, never tried to make a career in the biz, any of that. He just did his thing. (How has he paid the bills all these years? I wish I knew.) He has made his films with the kind of freedom and directness that present-day bloggers take for granted. Perhaps partly as a consequence, he's such a distinctive and out-of-the-mainstream figure that, despite his gifts, he's barely acknowledged in typical film histories. There simply doesn't seem to be a place to slot him. I just leafed through Mark Cousins' "The Story of Film," for instance, and in its 500 text-dense pages Chris Marker merits only one quick mention.

Incidentally, I've seen a lot of Marker, and much of it is vamping and noodling -- self-indulgent, silly, and tedious. But so what? His films are his jottings and notebooks. And the good ones -- where he pulls himself and his material together -- are real mind-benders. In them, he seems to reinvent what movies are, and to offer an alternate version of what movies might be. His half-a-dozen terrific movies are so head-spinning that, after watching a Marker film, you'll probably never find the big names of presentday nonfiction moviemaking -- Ken Burns, Erroll Morris, Michael Moore, etc -- quite so impressive again.

It isn't entirely unfair to think of Marker as a videoblogger or a nonlinear multimedia-maker who got there long before the technology did. (In fact, when the technology did become available, he made his own CD-ROM, the 1998 "Immemory," a lovely work in its own right.) But it's probably more accurate to say that his great topic was the yearning for utopia -- for, among other things, liberation from linearity. Was film the great medium of the industrial age? Was it the beautiful dream of the 20th century? Perhaps -- but if so, perhaps it can be said that Marxism and Naziism were two of the great 20th century dreams too. Uh-oh.

Chris Marker was one of the people most involved in doing direct self-expression using audiovisual-thru-time materials. This has been an underrecognized strand in film history. Generally speaking, film history is thought to run along two rails: the realist one and the fantasy one. This other branch deserves mention too: Along with a few other filmmakers, Marker has done his best (for all his foxiness) to use cameras and editing tools as directly as writers use pencils and painters use brushes. Now that we've made it to where he always hoped we might one day go, I wonder if he's fascinated by girl vloggers, as well as heartbroken that he lived most of his own life before these tools -- which would have suited him so beautifully -- became available.

Wikipedia has a good entry on Marker. This guy takes an offbeat look at another of Marker's best movies, a documentary called "The Last Bolshevik," about an old Soviet filmmaker who started off as a visionary revolutionary and who wound up making Stalinist propaganda. I'm sorry to see that "The Last Bolshevik" isn't available on DVD or VHS -- it's a beauty. Perhaps Criterion will bring that film out on DVD soon. Here's Netflix's page for the Criterion disc. In one of the few interviews that Chris Marker has ever given, he confesses that he loves Animal Planet.



posted by Michael at June 14, 2007


This is great news! These are also two of my all time favorites; I've had Sunless on a lousy VHS dub for years, and also had La Jetee taped from a late 80s broadcast until my wife lent it to a friend who promptly lost it. Both I saw originally at DC's Hirschorn Museum, which had a great film program in the mid 80s.

I think your post beautifully sums up Marker's very elusive charm, Michael.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on June 14, 2007 5:01 PM

Which 1/2 dozen would you recommend? Marker is one of those I haven't gotten to yet.

Posted by: Thursday on June 14, 2007 8:27 PM

Clive James has an interesting essay on Marker in his great new book, "Cultural Amnesia".

Posted by: grandcosmo on June 14, 2007 8:28 PM

Along the lines of Marker's "inside the postmodern rabbit hole and out again", I was wondering what you think of a writer like Milan Kundera? While I'm certainly not fond of the excesses of postmodernism, namely its themes of obliqueness for obliquenesses sake and suchlike, I'm still quite fond of folks who use it with a deft touch.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on June 14, 2007 9:43 PM

Todd - We Marker fans may not be numerous, but we're fervent, no?

Thursday -- Unfortunately you don't have much of a choice. He's made dozens of hours of movies but the only thing Amazon carries is this Criterion disc. (And the Cd-Rom I mentioned.) If you can find a way to see some of his other pix, I'd suggest "The Last Bolshevik" and "The Koumiko Mystery" especially. But give this disc a try -- after it you'll know whether his work appeals to you or not. Be sure to let us know how you react!

Grandcosmo -- I had no idea Clive James even knew of Marker's existence. Erudite guy. Thanks for letting me know.

Spike -- Kundera's a very apt comparison. I was a big fan of early Kundera (up through "Laughter and Forgetting"), but pooped out on him soon after. (I love the the film "Unforgettable Lightness" a lot better than the book. And the novels that followed struck me as gracefully written but inert.) He does have a special touch, though. Are you a fan? Have you had a chance to check out Marker?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 14, 2007 10:04 PM

If I had to vote for a greatest living filmmaker, Marker would be my guy. I can't even think of Sans Soleil or The Last Bolshevik without going all mushy headed and falling over myself in an effort to explain my feelings.

Of the ten or so of his works that I've seen, the Big Ones are definitely La Jetee, The Koumiko Mystery, Sans Soleil and The Last Bolshevik. But I also really enjoyed the more modest Letter from Siberia and Sunday in Peking, as well as the bizarre, only-partly-successful Level Five.

Aside from Michael's great points, I think what's interesting about Marker is his ability to get himself into his work and bring the viewer into his personal musings and mental processes. He plays with objectivity, even letting anonymous stand-ins narrate some of his films, but his movies are nothing if not showcases for his own neural processes.

And yet they usually don't feel hermetic. Rather, watching something like Sans Soleil you may feel as though you've been enlarged through the process of watching Marker discover himself--that through poeticizing his own experiences, and mixing them up with random observations and found objects, he's managed to suck you into some, I don't know, shared soup of human experience.

Anything that gets close to Marker's sphere--a stray photograph, a snippet of late night TV, a local legend, a half-glimpsed cat in a corner alley--might be assimilated into that soup. This is a good metaphor for the way perception and memory often work, but it's also evidence of a generous, playful spirit--someone who's having fun filming things, jotting things down, and making connections. Marker's definitely a lefty, but there's a pagan quality about him as well. He loves totems, coincidences and folklore.

It's the personal, taking-apart-and-reassembling-my-brain-on-the-editing-table quality of Marker's work that seems to be missing from the films of his that I'm not really wild about--things like Le Joli Mai and A Grin Without a Cat. Grin, a sort of elegy for Leftism that seems to go on for 12 hours, has a tendency to grind along as it strains to draw a line from Mao to France to Castro to Che to whomever. But it springs to life when Marker allows for the interjection of some poeticism or a silly aside, such as his noting Castro's penchant for adjusting his microphones while speaking.

The more topics, the more threads and connections, Marker can bring to bear on a work, the better he gets. He's completely nonlinear, intensely lyrical and a master editor.

Boy, I'm a windbag.

In any event, it's great to finally have these movies on DVD in the States. If anyone has a region-free DVD player (or computer), there's a terrific French edition of The Last Bolshevik, which includes English subtitles as well as Medvedkin's Happiness.


Posted by: Ron on June 15, 2007 8:49 AM

Glad to hear La Jetee will finally find a decent release on dvd. I saw it on the kinda big screen at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago (on a double bill with Alphaville) and fell in love with the film, though when I saw the YouTube versions recently the tiny screen just couldn't capture the one scene with movement. If you've seen it you know what I mean, though I won't give it away for others. I can't think of anything in another film so subtle, yet so effective that it made my hair stand on end, of course stemming from the still structure of the film.

After seeing the film at Facets, I was lucky enough to find the book on the film designed by uber-designer Bruce Mau. I'll admit that if any film translates well to a book, it's La Jetee. I'd recommend it, but now it costs 200 bucks at Amazon!

Posted by: John on June 15, 2007 10:48 AM

Nice post. I've always found Marker interesting, but the two films you mention are the only ones I've seen. You mention Burns, Morris and Moore as the big names of contemporary nonfiction filmaking. Better than any of those, if not quite in Marker's class, is Ross McElwee, whose most famous movie is the unclassifiable "Sherman's March" (1986). Nearly all his work is available through Netflix. If you haven't seen his work, do give him a try.

Posted by: Michael P on June 15, 2007 11:41 AM

Finally! I've only seen La Jettee once, unintentionally when it was on HBO or something in the 80s. I was transfixed and it never left me. I almost jumped out of my seat at the last scene. Amazing how context is everything. A simple movement can be jarring.

Anyway, it's now on my wishlist. Thanks for the heads up.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 15, 2007 11:41 AM

btw, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more gorgeous woman than Madeline Stowe at the time 12 Monkeys filmed. Just perfection.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 15, 2007 11:50 AM

Sorry, another comment only tangentially related to the topic at hand. But I just read that interview with Marker where he mentions watching "An American in Paris" on his iBook. He's the same age as my grandfather, who was absolutely bewildered by his VCR and grew old very quickly. And then last year I met my brother's wife's grandfather, and man in his 90s who talked passionately about his new laptop (another iBook, coincidentally) and the conversation was not the childlike ones I had with my grandfather.

I don't really know where I'm going with this. I'm just always struck by elderly people who embrace change, by how alive and present they are. How fear of change is the death of us all.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 15, 2007 12:25 PM

Yeah, I'm something of a large fan of him, I agree with your analysis, when he switched to writing in French and getting more philosophical he got a certain unlikeable turgidity. As for Marker, a friend of mine in a writer's circle I was in loved him, though he liked Godard much much more. That writer's circle is one of the reasons I'm here. Unlike most university writing groups it was composed of people who rejected the English department ethos and sought a more integrated approach to writing. In other words we had high postmodernists along with genre writers and self proclaimed hacks all critiquing each others works. I think it was enlightening for all involved and since we were friends outside of writing, it didn't explode over creative differences. Too bad everyone graduated.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on June 15, 2007 3:08 PM

What a beautiful write-up. Thank you! I've had the La Jetée/Sans Soleil DVD for a couple of years, but I've only seen the former, which was, I must admit, a disappointment. This was undoubtedly in part because I had already seen "12 Monkeys", which had become one of my favorites.

I've seen Marker's Tarkovsky film, but I remember only the ending where it was said that Tarkovsky's first (feature length) film "Ivan's Childhood" starts with a young boy standing beside a young tree, while "The Sacrifice", T's last film, ends with a young boy lying beside a dying tree.

Perhaps I'll watch "Sans Soleil" today.

Posted by: jl on June 17, 2007 7:27 AM

I think this is what I love about 2 BHs. Michael spends a goodly amount of time yawning loudly over Ulysses and admonishing us "Read your genre lit!" like pushing a plate of powdered mashed potatoes and canned green beans at us and then he turns around and praises Chris Marker to the skies. I love it!!

Posted by: Doug on June 17, 2007 1:19 PM

I sure do like Youtube.

Posted by: Brian on June 17, 2007 4:18 PM

Doug -- I wonder how arts people who make a big deal out of consistency manage, don't you? They must work themselves into tiny little boxes awfully fast.

jl -- I'm baffled. According to Criterion, the disc is brand-new, in fact not even released yet. Yet you've had one for years. Where did you find it?

Brian -- I wonder how Marker reacts to the presence of bits and pieces of his movies on YouTube. Maybe he loves it!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 18, 2007 10:34 AM


Obviously mine is not the Criterion release, but the one whose cover art you pasted at the top of your post. It was released in Britain a couple of years ago (see: ).

I didn't get around to watching "Sans Soleil" yesterday, but I'm going to see it one of these days.

Posted by: jl on June 18, 2007 3:31 PM

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