Letter from Siberia, 1957. One of the highlights of the 2004 New York Video Festival was Jacqueline Goss’ disarmingly whimsical and tongue-in-cheek, yet witty and incisive ethnographic video essay, How to Fix the World – an animated reenactment based on the cognitive studies of psychologist Alexander R. Luria that preceded the Soviet government’s mandate to promote Western education and literacy (and consequently, communist party allegiance) throughout the rural villages of Uzbekistan. Having recently revisited one of Chris Marker’s earliest films, Letter from Siberia, it is not difficult to imagine the spirit of iconic film essayist imbuing every frame of Goss’ charming film. On one hand, both essays assume the point of view of a distanced – and somewhat bemused – cultural outsider who objectively chronicles quotidian observations of an indigenous culture at the crossroads of profound and irreversible transformation – a historical record of a way of a life that will soon cease to exist – a reality that is (or will soon be) no longer real. On the other hand, the narrator also serves as a reflexive witness and facile commentator on the cultural repercussions of imposed assimilation, modernization, and Westernization on an Asiatic people during the Soviet government’s cross-country campaign towards collectivization and political centralization. However, while Goss’ film is rooted in the underlying interrelation between social psychology and cognition (in particular, logical deduction and problem-solving methods) that often lead to cultural misunderstanding, Marker’s perspective proves to be more amorphous and open-ended.
This stream-of-consciousness approach is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence in the film in which the camera pans from an industrial dredging site to a line of trees as the narrator changes narrative course to the Siberian taiga by commenting that a hiker cannot attempt to traverse the forest in a straight line without invariably getting lost. In a sense, the film, too, necessarily diverges even as it retains continuity from its visible line of sight as adjacent, juxtaposing images reveal the intrinsic bifurcations that open up to other points of departure – to other uncharted frontiers of exploration. Rather than focusing the complexity of observations towards a point of convergence within an overarching logical argument, the validation of the argument itself becomes secondary to the documentation of ethnographic observation. In this respect, Marker’s film proves to be groundbreaking because it diverges from the conventional cinematic approach of using montage to direct arguments towards the validation of postulate theory. Instead, Marker uses montage to underscore the contradictions and, therefore, negate the existence of a simple and encapsulable overarching theory that can neatly define the essence of a societal culture and history.
Moreover, the juxtaposition between the unnamed narrator (a prefiguration of the fictional globetrotter, Sandor Krasna in Sans Soleil) and the vanishing culture of the Siberian nomads becomes a intriguing study of the phenomenon of collective consciousness as a continuum (a theme that would also pervade Aleksandr Sokurov’s cinema): an organic transference of memory, ideas, and collective cultural history without a physical medium of exchange (a fictional photojournalist, an extinct way of life, a projected film). It is in this examination of the ephemeral nature of information exchange that ultimately elevates Letter from Siberia from exoticized (albeit idiosyncratic) travelogue to seminal exposition on the study of human consciousness, an audience transcendence from passive, curious spectator to integral lifeline within the interconnected fabric of all human history.
Le Joli mai, 1963. Before Chris Marker would deconstruct the 1930s, postwar photo-reportage of Denise Bellon in Remembrance of Things to Come to unearth what would prove to be subliminal portents within the zeitgeist of seeming halcyon days that would prove to be a harbinger of an inevitable second great war to end all wars, he would first cast his critical gaze towards Paris in the spring of 1962 after the signing of the Evian accord that effectively ended the Algerian War, a hopeful season that similarly held the elusive promise of peacetime following years of political agitation and terrorist insurgency. The resulting film is Le Joli mai, a two-part exposition inspired by Jean Rouch’s groundbreaking Chronicle of a Summer assembled from candid interviews of ordinary people on the meaning of happiness, an often amorphous and inarticulable notion that evokes more basic and fundamentally egalitarian ideals of self-betterment, prosperity, tolerance, economic opportunity, and freedom. The image of a near imperceptible man scaling, then descending the symmetrical apex of a modern building provides a curious introduction to the film’s first chapter, Prayer from the Top of the Eiffel Tower, as a narrator similarly suggests adopting a different vantage point of observation for this seemingly auspicious time – to see Paris at dawn with the estranged familiarity of someone returning after a long journey, “without memories, without habit.”
For a high school educated apparel salesman, happiness is earning enough disposable income to afford a second television set or similar commodified luxuries in order to make his wife and children happy, even as the ephemeral notion of free time itself contradicts the very mechanism of productivity and leisure that serves as the socioeconomic basis for obtaining these articles of luxury. For a pair of boys spending idle time in the financial district, happiness is growing up to become a person of importance, a captain of industry whose wealth and power can single-handedly influence the dynamics of the stock exchange. For an impoverished mother living in a one-room tenement in an Aubervilles slum with her husband and eight children (including one adopted niece), happiness arrives in the form of a long awaited mid-day telegram from the housing authorities notifying the family that its application for a three-bedroom apartment has finally been granted. Segueing into a conversation with contemporary artists, intellectuals, and inventors – a recurring theme of eccentricity and innovation that is underscored by images from a space exploration exhibit – Marker presents an image of the local population that cannot be reduced to a commonality of interchangeable archetypes but rather, reveals an underlying iconoclasm that often borders on narcissism – a preoccupation towards self-absorption and, consequently, away from the collective needs of society – that is reflected in the comment, “if we dissect this many-faced crowd, we find that it is the sum of solitudes”.
While the first chapter reinforced the idea of separateness and social myopia innate in the individual pursuit of personal happiness (as epitomized by a young couple professing eternal love, the sad irony of their woeful ignorance over current events rendered even more absurd by the young man’s status as a soldier awaiting impending deployment overseas), the second chapter, The Return of Fantomas places the hopes of the individual within the context – and limitations – of one’s social station. An African immigrant becomes a first-hand witness to the malleability of history when he disputes the “official” colonialist version of the conquest of Dahomey. An ex-priest recounts his difficult decision to renounce his faith in order to take up the Marxist cause, unable to find compromise within the two competing ideologies of moral service. An Algerian young man recalls with dispiriting resignation and sense of exclusion his traumatic experiences with racism in the workplace and police brutality at home when he becomes the victim of petty retaliation in both his native and adoptive countries. Like the evocation of the elusive master-criminal Fantomas in the chapter title, the lingering, unresolved issues of racism, marginalization, social inequity, labor struggles, and colonial exploitation cast a pervasive, sinister shadow on the prospect of a lasting peace that, on the surface, seemed possible after the resolution of the Algerian conflict. Inevitably, it is through this dual image of Paris as a city of hope and despair, promise and chaos, liberation and imprisonment that the film serves, not only as an encapsulated document of the spirit of the times, but also a prescient prefiguration of the social turmoil – and ideological revolution – to come.
The Koumiko Mystery, 1965. Channeling the zeitgeist of the French new wave, The Koumiko Mystery assimilates Jean-Luc Godard’s enraptured clinical deconstructions of the feminine mystique (as well as a penchant for structuring these ruminations within the framework of noir) with Jacques Demy’s achingly nostalgic evocations of elusive, romanticized longing into a whimsical, organic, and fractured, yet quintessential Chris Marker exposition on culture, identity, contemporaneity, and strangerness. Consisting of a series of conversations with – and observations of – an attractive, French-speaking, twenty-something Tokyo resident named Koumiko Muraoka, the film is set against the backdrop of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a critical milestone for postwar Japan to demonstrate to the international community that the nation had not only recovered, but also culturally evolved from its feudal, militarist history into a modernized, free economy, democratic society. In its characterization of a complex, historical city as an organic, self-propelled, and autonomous personality (and specifically, as an enigmatic woman), the film can be seen, not only as an homage to Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City but also as a prefiguration of Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her in which the ambiguously attributed “her” of the title becomes an interchangeable allusive reference to the city of Paris, the actress Marina Vlady, or her fictional character Juliette at different vertices within the film. As in Godard’s subsequent film, a great city is shown at the cusp of transformation, regardable as both a quaint, hometown with indigenous character, and as a bustling, constantly evolving city on the threshold of becoming an impersonal – and intrinsically characterless – modern metropolis.
For Marker, a visual survey of European-featured mannequins at a department store and advertisements for cosmetic products that purport to create the appearance of enlarged eyes and narrowed noses illustrate this subconscious dissolution of identity in the face of globalism, even as Koumiko considers her own features to be too classically Japanese – a face more suited to the Heian period, she muses – and lightheartedly argues that she wishes that she had a more in vogue, “funny face” instead. This seemingly anecdotal exchange precisely articulates Marker’s sense of alterity in this cultural encounter, as he interprets these aesthetics of contemporary fashion as a subconscious desire to neutralize Asiatic features – to erase the otherness that attracts him to the culture (and to the heroine) – even as she seeks her own sense of otherness in a culture of (perceived) monoethic sameness. The theme of conformity and erasure of identity is also presaged in the images of an Everyman comic strip that prefaces the film in which the interpenetration between occidental and oriental cultures is depicted as resulting in a superficial mimicry of the other in an attempt to model Japanese postwar society in the manner of “civilized” nations, and eludes true comprehension of either culture. In this respect, Marker’s intrinsic sense of strangerness is the folly of melancholia for a lost, exoticized past that never was confronted with the curiosity for the mundane reality of an assimilated traditional and modern culture that is the identity of a “new” Japan, and it is this intrinsic bifurcation that inevitably captures the enigma – the ephemeral mystery – of Koumiko.
The Embassy, 1963. Filmed in the wake of the staged military coup d’état on September 11, 1973 that overthrew the leftist government of elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, Chris Marker’s The Embassy is something of a cross between the immersive docufiction of Peter Watkins and the reflexive diaries of Jonas Mekas in its clinical dissection of the zeitgeist of transformative history. Prefaced as an amateur, vérité-shot Super 8 found film recovered at an unspecified embassy in the immediate days following a coup, the unidentified narrator’s pre-emptive declaration, “This is not a film” serves as both a portent and potent statement on the myth of cinema as a direct representation of reality. In a sense, Marker reinforces the idea of the camera gaze as an invariably compromised one: arbitrated by the limitations of placement (as political refugees passing time in relative comfort inside the embassy rather than dissidents struggling to evade capture – and summary execution – outside diplomatically immune walls), resolution of information (selectively filtered through disrupted media outlets and limited channels of communication on the state of unrest), and subjectivity of human sentiment.
Marker alludes to this assignment of perspective and consequent narrowing of filmed – and filmable – representation in a sequence that illustrates the refugees’ makeshift activities as they struggle to pass the time while waiting word on their safe passage by playing games and recounting stories of their ordeals, remarking that for these displaced people, outside has become synonymous with before, residing not only in a state of limbo, but also at a point of no return. Framed against the images of a photojournalist continuing to take photographs that remain undeveloped, their existence becomes emblematic of their own irresolution and dislocated identities, a state of figurative transcendence that is reflected in the narrator’s observation of a mother and child singing together at a kitchen table that, in its innocence, also evokes a sense of irretrievable loss: “What we call ‘past’ is somehow similar to what we call abroad. It is not a matter of distance, it is the passing of a boundary.”
Moreover, in depicting the ideological intransigence and petty infighting that continue to surface in the aftermath of the coup, Marker also converges towards Nagisa Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan in its self-critical deconstruction of the failure of the left movement, where the attempted radicalization of the bourgeois through engagement has, instead, produced a contamination of values, abandoning the plight of the working class and bartering ideology for privilege (a betrayal that is implied in the narrator’s observation of the absence of workers who seek refuge in the embassy). It is this specter of unreconciled factionalism and disconnection from ideals that is also invoked in the film’s subverted final shot, a reopened moral wound that integrally connects the deflated idealism of May 68 with the end of the Allende presidency in Chile – the collapsed dream of a social revolution.
Le Fond de l’air est rouge, 1977 (A Grin Without a Cat). An off-screen narrator (speaking in first-person narrative for the filmmaker) recalls early memories of Battleship Potemkin as a series of images from the film converge towards the moment of the sailors’ call to arms – and revolution – with the singular word “Brothers!” before the order to fire from the bridge of the battleship is given. A complex montage of protest, defiance, mourning, solidarity, procession, and riot control provides, not only distilled visual summary of the inevitable fate of the New Left, but also a global context to the images of struggle as left-wing activists and intellectuals (such as Chris Marker) sought to achieve a “universal standard of civilization” that would elevate the human condition beyond the societal illusion of an improved quality of life afforded by material gain and competitive economy. To this end, the filmmaker juxtaposes footage from a contemporary television commercial to underscore the delusive irony and false panacea of created demand and consumerism, as a pleasantly surprised elderly couple receives a second television – an anniversary present from their family – and proudly boasts, “We’re a two set family now!”. However, for Marker and the socialist movement, the sentimental war resided away from these disposable, saccharin images of “advanced” civilization and was, instead, waged in the distant fields of Vietnam: a campaign for national self-determination that plays out against an intrusive, international politics of an escalating Cold War. In an archive footage, a French communist party official remarks, “Never before has history placed a nation at such a point of convergence for all the world’s modern contradictions. And it’s because people around the world felt concern for the Vietnamese struggle that they are fighting now for independence, for socialism, and for peace.”
Tracing the seeds of May 1968 to an ideological synchronicity among several global events, the film examines the evolution of the counter-culture movement from a philosophical, armchair intellectualism to a more aggressive and militant approach to demonstration and political resistance of the New Left: a willingness to endure personal sacrifice for a greater cause that was instilled in Paris during the protracted Saint-Lazare workers’ strike in 1967, the June 2, 1967 student protests in Berlin against the repressive regime of visiting dignitary, the Shah of Iran, the revolutionary campaign of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia, the Bolivian arrest (while following Guevara’s troops) of French journalist Régis Debray, author of the seminal publication, Revolution Within Revolution? (a work inspired by Fidel Castro that served as a manual for conducting guerilla warfare), the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong in 1966 and the birth of the Black Panther movement later in the same year.
The themes of historicity and temporal and international convergence are also explored within the context of contemporary German Olympics history: first, in a modern-day encounter with a South Korean Olympian who, in 1936, had been filmed by Leni Riefenstahl in the propaganda documentary Olympia as (then) a Japanese Olympian competing for the empire in the Berlin Games, then subsequently, in the (repeated) politicization of the 1972 Munich Games, this time, by Palestinian terrorists who kidnapped members of the Israeli Olympic contingent in a hostage crisis that ended in the athletes’ death. For each point of reference, the film becomes a cogent reminder of the transience of history, (collective) memory, and identity. Visually, Marker reinforces the incestuous (and inseparable) interrelationship within the sphere of international politics, global commerce, human exploitation, and the conduction of the Olympics by juxtaposing archival footage of the games with a morbidly wry, tongue-in-cheek art exhibition of skeletal sculptures posed in various forms of athletic competition.
For the European New Left, away from the bastardization of socialist ideology under the repressive, totalitarian regimes of notorious political figures such as Joseph Stalin (and the continued paranoid, ingrained threat of a Red Scare in the U.S.), the great (and perhaps, last) hope for a national transformation into a true socialist democracy (and political model for laying the groundwork for a relevant socialist party within democratic states) lay in the election of physician Salvador Allende in Chile. However, the inevitability of a Marxist democracy under an Allende administration would immediately come into the crosshairs of the Nixon administration who sought to undermine the democratically elected Allende’s incoming government by initially attempting to stage an unsuccessful coup in order to prevent his inauguration (in a botch operation that would lead to the kidnapping and assassination of General Rene Schneider on September 11, 1973, and whose family would seek to make Henry Kissinger and other members of the Nixon-era administration accountable by filing a lawsuit on the fateful day of September 11, 2001), then sought to destabilize the Allende government by instituting crippling economic embargoes even as it provided financial and tactical support for the (Allende opposed) military that would ultimately lead to Augusto Pinochet’s successful coup in 1973. A subsequent footage of Allende’s daughter, Tati, delivering news of her father’s death to Fidel Castro, post-processed through a monochromic blue filter, reinforces the image of mourning and death – the dissolution of an embodied ideological hope and political progress reflected through the aural breakdown of distorted, down phased sound of the audience clapping, and subsequently punctuated with the solemn postscript of Tati’s own death on October 12, 1977 in Havana – not in the throes of armed struggle by an archetypal Che Guevara revolutionary, but from suicide – her death seemingly representing the collective despair and figurative collapse of the ideological dream.
Le Tombeau d’Alexandre, 1993 (The Last Bolshevik). The film opens to an insightful and relevant excerpted passage from author and critical thinker George Steiner’s book, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture: “It is not the literal past that rules us [save, possibly, in a biological sense]. It is images of the past.” Composed in the structure of montage (an homage to the characteristic editing and filmic language of pioneering Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko, and Vsevolod Pudovkin), the film is a series of posthumous video letters (narrated by Michael Pennington) to film essayist Chris Marker’s personal friend, mentor, and fellow filmmaker Alexander Ivanovich Medvedkin, examines the trajectory of Medvedkin’s life and career from within the context of the evolution of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and in the process, provides a broader, incisive meditation on the nature of reality, fiction, art, ideology, and history.
Born in 1900, Medvedkin was 17 during the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. A staunch believer in the communist ideology, he fought with the communist Bolsheviks against the tsarist White Guards during the subsequent Civil War (1918-1921) that led to the creation of the USSR under Vladimir Lenin. Commissioned with an agit-prop train (a post-revolution Soviet method for disseminating agitation and propaganda materials throughout the country for political education of the population), Medvedkin developed an in-house film production and development laboratory within the ‘film train’ in an attempt to provide a more direct and instantaneous conduit for chronicling real life and achieving documentary realism (an ideal similarly held by Vertov who envisioned the camera as a surrogate for the human eye, kinoeye). A politically suppressed artist whose reputation was ‘rehabilitated’ in post-Stalin Soviet Union, Medvedkin was re-discovered by a new generation of film students and cineastes both within the Soviet Union and internationally, most notably, by the activist Marker (whose own espousal of cinéma vérité was conducive to the Russian concept of kinoeye) for his excoriating (and idiosyncratic) carnivalesque peasant satire, Happiness (1932).
However, as writer and critic Viktor Dyomin comments, Medvedkin’s plight was “the tragedy of a pure communist in a world of would-be communists”, and it is in this innately irreconcilable dichotomy between personal ideology and state implementation of doctrine that Marker illustrates the systematic destruction of artistic creativity and ideology at the hands of insincere, political opportunism, state-sponsored information control and manipulation, and demagoguery. Citing fictional events in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin – specifically the heroic insurrection and subsequent massacre at the Odessa steps – whose dramatic images have become ingrained and preserved in Soviet society as historical truth, Marker provides a provocative chronicle on the role of film as a medium for social commentary. In illustrating the temporal metamorphosis of fiction into accepted cultural reality, Marker creates a compelling examination of the imperfection of memory and the transformation of myth.
Level 5, 1997. Exploring similar territory as Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov on the continuity of collective history, spiritual desolation, and immanence, Level Five also serves as a thoughtful and reverent homage to Alain Resnais’ films on the interpenetration of memory and the subconscious. Presented as a series of video feed confessionals by a woman (Catherine Belkhodja) to her recently deceased lover as she articulates her increasing frustration over her inability to finish his video game by reaching Level Five, a game of strategy that, in order to cross over, entails a victory in what would prove to be the final, decisive battle of the Pacific War: the Battle of Okinawa. At first, the task seemed simple enough – repositioning planes and troops to defend the region that, during the actual landing by the Americans, were nowhere to be found. But the seemingly expedient strategy of logistical re-appropriation has an adverse affect on the game and causes the system to crash. Gradually, the woman who calls herself Laura (a name given by her lover after the enigmatic, titular siren of the Otto Preminger film) begins to reconstruct a true historical portrait of the decisive battle through information derived from an internet-styled, global virtual network known as Optional World Link (or OWL, a tongue in cheek reference to Marker’s production company Argos Films and its emblematic mascot), further retreating into a hermetic world of immersive retrospection and irreconcilable grief – an unlikely union of kindred souls between a woman who lives within the memories of her past and a contemporary, increasingly Western-assimilative nation suffering from a “collective amnesia” of its cultural history.
While Marker makes direct allusions to the Resnais films, Hiroshima mon amour (Laura refers to her Level Five quest as an “Okinawa mon amour”) and Last Year at Marienbad (in her interaction with a Marienbad game that curiously “ends” with the inconclusive prompt, “I won, but we may go on.”), the film is also a thematic reference to Je t’aime, je t’aime and lastly, in particular, Muriel: the former, as the past plays out in a recursive loop in the present from which only death can offer an escape, and the latter, as the hidden transgressions of the past resurfaces in the consciousness of the present. Furthermore, the bifurcation between “official” history and personal memory that pervades Resnais’ Muriel and La Guerre est finie – a theme foreshadowed by the genesis of the heroine’s name – is similarly explored through interlaced interviews, historical documentation, and news footage that reveal Okinawa, not as a battle lost, but one never fought – a sute-ishi or a piece sacrificed to the save the game in Go – in which civilian casualty (through bombings, armed combat, and mass suicide) greatly outnumbered military casualty. Another aspect of the film’s exposition lies in the impossibility and limitations of perfect memory, a realization that a state of total recall cannot be achieved because of its inevitable assimilation into consciousness. As in Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, the heroine’s realization that a perfect re-enactment of human tragedy is unfilmable similarly pervades Laura’s despair in her inability to reconstruct the battle completely without wholly existing in that past. It is this state of total immersion (a state achieved by the womb-like apparatus of Je t’aime, je t’aime) that is reflected in Laura’s final recording, as she increasingly magnifies the camera focus to the point of indeterminate abstraction: a kind of cognitive visual equivalent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in which a perfect assimilation of the past is impossible without creating irresolvable ambiguity with the existential state of the present.
Remembrance of Things to Come, 2001. A visual essay into – or more appropriately, a thoughtful process of signification for – a montage of photographs from Denise Bellon’s photo-reportage from the period between the two world wars (as the “grand illusion” of a lasting peace during the mid 1930s after the Great War gradually unraveled to reveal an inexorable path towards another devastating world war), Remembrance of Things to Come resolves to reconstruct the evolution of European (and colonial) history during the early half of the twentieth century by examining the prefiguration of documented images taken by Bellon during that era. The first of these prefigurations appear in the idyllic, stylized poses of the uninhibited body for a print advertisement – celebrations of the precision and strength of the human body that would come to represent the proletarian images of totalitarian regimes such as the torch bearing athletes that metamorphosed into the iconic hammer and sickle Kolkhoz sculpture that became the symbol for the Soviet Union. Another prefiguration occurs in the documentation of the “shattered faces” whose disfigurement would bear witness to the barbarism of war and provide a glimpse into the inhumane physical consequences brought by the advent of technological weapons of mass destruction (such as the disfigurement caused by the atomic bomb). Even quotidian images from the reconstruction prove to be prescient as seen through Bellon’s gaze as migrant workers from the French countryside foreshadow the influx of immigrant workers into the city, both classes of workers representing the notion of foreignness in the mindset of deeply entrenched Parisian sensibility (if not implicit chauvinism). From images of film archivist and Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois’ legendary bathtub that was used to store film cans during the Occupation, to the brothels in Tunis that de-exoticized the pleasure industry that grew out of the profitable economy of serving colonial forces stationed throughout the French Empire (in essence, putting real faces of suffering in the trade (and cycle) of human exploitation), to the little-documented, forgotten history of the failed uprising against Franco by Spanish Republicans in the Aran Valley, Bellon’s camera would also serve as a unique and irreplaceable chronicle of early 1940s zeitgeist.
Perhaps the most emblematic prefiguration of Bellon’s gaze is in the photography of a gypsy bride that would be published for the cover of Paris Match, an issue that would also contain excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The mental image of “gypsy”, already a connotation for displacement, outcast, and marginalization, would later be inextricably bound with another shared history with Hitler through the human tragedy of their racial targeting for extermination during the Holocaust: their grim connection foretold through the portentous association of a glossy magazine. It is in this analytical deconstruction between the integral art of composing an image and the cognitive assignment of significance behind the captured image that filmmakers Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon create a compelling exposition on the processing and (subconscious) self-actualization of human memory.
Acquarello 2003-2008 [reprinted]