I have always felt an indefinable kinship towards Chris Marker’s films that were not particularly related to the overt intellectuality of his work or his espousal of left-leaning ideals. However, it was not until the first chapter in Catherine Lupton’s book on the filmmaker, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future that this gravitation took on a certain clarity and provided a kind of Rosetta Stone to contextualize this resonance. On the surface, there was the sympathetic approach in his characteristic pursuit of self-effacing anonymity and seeming penchant to recede to the background innate in his assumption of a series of pseudonyms – Chris Villeneuve, Fritz Markassin, Sandor Krasna, Jacopo Berenzi, Chris.Marker, and Chris Marker – in lieu of attributing credit for his work under his birth name of Christian-François Bouche-Villeneuve, and his practice of using avatars (an owl, a cat) to represent his image rather than publishing a photograph or self-portrait for identification (except for the one Marker-approved shot of him behind a camera and looking into the apparatus as the photograph is taken). But beyond Marker’s mono no aware sensitivity for one’s sense of place, Lupton reveals an even more accessible dimension to the near mythical filmmaker’s methodology.
Specifically, Lupton examines Marker’s postwar literary work for Esprit, a journal founded by philosopher Emmanuel Mounier who was, as Lupton describes “the primary intellectual force behind personalism, a philosophical and social movement that developed in France during the 1930s as an effort to reconcile Catholicism with left-wing political ideals. Personalism focused on the nature and potential of the human person, conceived as an amalgam of material, social, and spiritual dimensions. It aimed to foster human development on all these fronts: through political change, interaction with other individuals in human-centered social communities, and inner spiritual conviction.” Esprit assembled a formidable collective of postwar thinkers such as philosopher Paul Ricoeur, writer and literary critic Albert Béguin, publisher and poet Jean Cayrol, and film theorist André Bazin whose creative sphere extended beyond the progressive journal towards fostering an organic, free exchange of ideas through Round Table dialogues and led to his association, not only with Bazin, but with other socially attuned filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Alain Resnais, as well as activist actors such as Simone Signoret and Yves Montand (the couple would each become the subject of two subsequent Marker films, Mémoires pour Simone and Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer). True to form, Marker discounts his contributions to his early collaborative short film essay with Alain Resnais, Les Statues meurent aussi, even as Resnais himself underscores his colleague’s indelible imprint on the film, most notably, in composing the critical narrative for the colonialist imperative of mission civilisatrice that argues, as Lupton comments, “that statues die once they are entombed in museums, no longer looked at as part of a living culture”.
Lupton also provides a comprehensive examination of Marker’s decade of creating militant political films and counter-information newsreels, starting with the 1967 film Far from Vietnam, a period that also marks his involvement in the formation of the film collective, Société pour la Lancement des Oeuvres (SLON) (originally registered in Belgium in order to circumvent censorship restrictions, but was later re-established in France as Images, Son, Kinescope, Réalisation Audiovisuelle (ISKRA) in order to take advantage of French film subsidies) that sought to empower people to document the worker struggle through direct cinema. This politically charged decade would also document such zeitgeist, counter-culture international events as the anti-Vietnam War march on the Pentagon in The Sixth Face of the Pentagon (a segment that was initially filmed for Far from Vietnam) and domestic events such as the 1967 Lyon textile factory strikes in A Bientôt, j’espère: a worker protest that Marker would subsequently re-evaluate as the true prefiguration of revolution (and not May 1968) in A Grin Without a Cat. Similar to the interrelation between Far from Vietnam and The Sixth Face of the Pentagon, unused footage from A Bientôt, j’espère also provided a springboard for the subsequent film, A Grin Without a Cat. Examining the evolution and collapse of the New Left movement from a more distanced perspective of memory, nostalgia, and hindsight, the film appropriately represents an elegy for this phase of Marker’s career, turning once again to the realm of personal filmmaking of such social and ethnographic films as Letter from Siberia, The Koumiko Mystery, and Le Joli mai and Sans soleil. Integrating the contextual re-evaluation that came with the personal history of A Grin Without a Cat into his recurring preoccupations of cultural legacy and collective consciousness, Sans soleil can be seen, not as a departure from his militant, film collective works, but as a logical evolution towards reconciling the failure of the social revolution with his own memory of its once seemingly unstoppable progression – an inherent dilemma posed by the Krasna’s references to a Japanese friend named Hayao Yamaneko who has devised a synthesizer that converts film images to abstract visuals that belong to a created world called The Zone (named after Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker). As Lupton comments:
There is a sense in which these characters represent two conflicting models of memory: Yamaneko the truism that memory is always a selective reinvention of the past to answer the needs of the present, and Krasna a residual faith in Proust’s madeleine – the inconsequential experience that can restore a moment of the past in its entirety – despite his routine affirmations such as ‘we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten’.
It is this sense of ambiguity that is also reflected in Lupton’s comment in her analysis of Marker’s thirteen episode series, The Owl’s Legacy:
Two aspects of Greek culture have a particular resonance with Marker’s ongoing concerns. One, already mentioned in passing, is the idea that for the ancient Greeks, all the different intellectual disciplines that sought to understand both the physical world and the realm of human experience were seen as an integrated continuum. Modern division between the sciences and the humanities, logos and mythos, theatre and life, as well as the either/or choices imposed by monotheistic religions, are antithetical to the Greek belief that all such modes of enquiry are profoundly interconnected, and to the Greek acceptance of ambiguity or uncertainty as a legitimate philosophical position.
In the end, it is again Marker’s overarching sense of place and assumed role as rootless, humble universal traveler that defines his infinite curiosity to attempt to make sense of the totality of the world around him, a tireless passion to explore the interpenetration of all cumulative human phenomena – history, culture, memory – not to attempt to understand them, but to sincerely express the depth of what we as human beings cannot begin to understand.
Acquarello, 2006 [reprinted]