Chris Marker is widely perceived by those who still care to think about such things to be one of the most innovative and influential French filmmaker of the postwar era. A maverick of the Left Bank group of directors who came to be associated with the French New Wave of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Marker has actually worked across many mediums in a lengthy career which has included photography, journalistic and creative writing, vérité documentary and experimental filmmaking, and a number of multimedia art gallery installation projects; all of these skills have been woven into his film work at various points in profound and revelatory ways. The films of this most enigmatic and elusive of artists have consistently been concerned with the exploration (mostly in a series of offbeat, idiosyncratic cinematic essays which blur the lines between poetry, travelogue, documentary fact and philosophical rumination) of the construction and shaping of human memory and how it impacts on and forms our experience of history, shapes the politics of the present and maintains our notion of ‘truth’. Born in 1921, Marker is now 90 years old and still boasts a reputation as an innovator, especially in the realm of digital technology, which has developed an increasingly dominant importance with regard to his continuing exploration of such themes through a variety of multimedia outlets. Although Marker’s work might sound off-puttingly intellectual and difficult to grasp to the uninitiated, many of his film works harbour an eerily compelling power to transfix the viewer through their masterly combination of poetic narration, insidious sound effects and images which sear their way into the consciousness. In a lengthy filmography of works there are at least two which are still held to be completely original and ground-breaking masterpieces of cinematic art, both of which have exerted an incalculable influence on a wide and diverse body of filmmakers -- among them Terry Gilliam whose “12 Monkeys” is in effect a multimillion pound remount of the first of the works to be looked at here -- and which are now appearing together on a single Region 2 disc, as part of the UK’s Optimum Classics range.
“La Jetée” (1962) is the more conventional of the two, in the sense that it belongs in a clearly defined category of narrative storytelling -- namely the genre of science fiction. The film lasts for only 28 minutes and consists almost entirely of a series of still frame photographs overlaid by a meticulously sculpted soundtrack in which a male voice-over renders a narrative telling of the story’s events, accompanied by mood setting sound effects and atmospheric, sometimes moving use of incidental music. There is no dialogue.
This might sound like a tedious arthouse experiment that requires the viewer to buckle down, grit his or her teeth, and prepare to concentrate with a furrowed brow -- but in fact what’s remarkable about Marker’s approach is just how utterly entrancing it is. This is a story about time travel, in which memory is both the subject and the underlying theme in hand. By imposing the mechanics of cinema on the photomontage technique, Marker is able to precisely control our response to and our perception of the significance of each moment passing in and outside time with a remarkable degree of versatility. Sometimes we seem to be clicking through a series of posed images at regularly spaced intervals, as though we are looking at scenes from a slide show or leafing through an old photographic album, other times Marker increases their rate of flow to suggest a rapid pace of action or to create tension in the characters’ own experiential sensation of events -- despite the always essentially staggered nature of the images on display. Dissolves are utilised to further augment the effects of time manipulation, or else the director pauses occasionally on a single image as though that which is being depicted has come to stand outside the interval-dependent nature of time itself, frozen in a platonic realm as in a museum of memories -- the voiceover commentary lending it even more of a luminous significance. The scenes which are being displayed throughout in still image form are staged with an artistic precision and economy, yet are always entirely cinematic, each looking like a production still from a lost French masterpiece. The visual style at times suggests elements of the stark monochrome geometry present in Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad", but it also pre-dates the earthy noir sci-fi of the Goddard of “Alphaville” -- while certain key images at the beginning of the film foreshadow the minimalist beauty of Michelangelo Antonioni’s great tetralogy. The aesthetics of the optically printed black & white imagery suggest the texture of faded archive newsprint, with inky graininess lending the film a stylistic quality that falls amid the vast borders of a no man’s land located somewhere between documentary reportage and expressionism.
The film opens with the sound of an aircraft taking off, the volume increasing on the soundtrack as the camera pulls back on an image that is eventually revealed to be an ariel shot of the viewing peer (the jetée) at Orly airport, France. Silhouettes of lone figures are dotted along the railings of a stark white modernist-style outdoor viewing gallery. The sonorous sound of an operatic requiem musical piece fills the soundtrack, before the hushed tones of a narrator (Jean Negroni), tell us of a particular Sunday at this place where parents take their children to watch aircraft taking off: ‘The things we remember are moments like any other. Only later do they make themselves known by their scar’. The narrator tells how one particular moment, experienced as a child on this platform, was to provide an obsessive memory for one particular man (Davos Hanich). It is the face of a woman (Hélène Chatelain) – a face which was to mark him for his whole life. The succession of images from the viewing platform freezes on that of a woman with windswept hair, her expression then morphing from that of a smile to one of shock: ‘Only later did he realise he has seen a man die!’ says the narrator, as just out of view, a figure collapses on the tiled flooring during a rapid succession of shots.
Soon afterwards, we are told, World War III started and Paris was destroyed. An image of Paris from above with the horizon doctored to produce a vision of the effects of some kind of atmospheric conflagration is followed by numerous shots of bombed out ruins as the requiem mass flowers on the soundtrack. We learn how radiation made the surface of the planet uninhabitable, so the survivors retreated underground. Here, scientists from ‘those who called themselves the victors’ conduct experiments in the dark, damp galleries beneath the Palais de Chaillot. Expressionistic images of decaying, broken statuary – creepy cherub figures displayed haphazardly in darkened mossy recesses below ground, are interleafed with the proto-science fiction imagery of the survivors themselves in their underground ’empire of rats’, dressed in monkish hoods with binocular attachments taped to their eyes. Here prisoners from the losing side are experimented on in ganzfeld-like experiments which attempt ‘to project emissaries through time and summon the past and future to aid the present.’ Tied to a hammock with their eyes taped over to reduce any outside stimulus, the prisoners are induced to project their minds into the past. But the human mind balks at such a prospect: ‘to wake in another time is to be born again as an adult.’ The experimental subjects all go mad.
The protagonist -- the man whose story is that which is being told -- is brought forth because his vivid peacetime memory of the woman in Orly is thought to be an anchor which can be used to successfully send him into the past: ‘He had heard of the chief and expected to be confronted with a mad scientist … a Dr Frankenstein. But he found a dispassionate man who said the human race was doomed.’ The sound of the protagonist’s heart beating ever more violently and rapidly grows louder on the soundtrack as a quick succession of images of his tortured blindfolded head, contorted in pain, flow past, before random images of the earth in peace time eventually begin to fill the contents of his consciousness and become the images that pulse before our eyes too.
Eventually, fractured images of the woman from his former peacetime memory appear before the subject. After numerous attempts, the subject finally makes contact with her and, in a series of discrete, chemically induced episodic bites controlled by the whispering scientists in their darkened bunker back in postwar Paris, a love affair ensues between them, although the time traveller never knows ‘if he is dreaming her … or dreaming of her.’ Eventually, the traveller is pulled back to the present and told the conditioning has worked, that his affair in the past has been merely preparation, and it is now time for his true mission to begin: he is to be sent to the world of the future to summon help for the present from the descendants of the human race. This paradoxical mission, which can only succeed because the human race is still around in the future to be saved, which means the mission must have already succeeded, occurs with the time traveller knowing full well that he will be murdered by his captors once it has been completed to protect the integrity of the past, present and the future. So he makes a deal with the advanced humans of tomorrow (who all sport third-eye Hindi symbols on their foreheads and like to pose in black polo neck jumpers in mimicry of the cover of the “With the Beatles” album), taking a source of power back to his captors in the present but also asking for himself to be taken back to the moment of his treasured boyhood memory on the Jetée at Ory -- where another paradoxical event will finally cement the importance of that momentous image.
Filled with resonant sounds and images that linger on long after they’ve passed before us, a wistful air of doomed romance pervades this short fiction in photo essay form. But the film does feature approximately three seconds of live action film footage, which works its way into a collection of stills that show the mysterious love object from the protagonist’s past viewed as she sleeps: in one of them the figure suddenly opens her eyes and gazes directly at the camera. This simple effect is hugely powerful and mysterious and provides through simple means a moment of transcendence which far outstrips most attempts to portray on film the phenomenological experience of falling in love. Such moments, combined with Trevor Duncan’s score, which is a clear cousin to a key passage from Bernard Hermann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, puts “La Jetée” on a different plane from most other films of any genre. In fact “Vertigo” is probably the closest fictional precursor to what it sets out to achieve, and that is no accident. Marker even includes a scene which recapitulates, in homage, a moment from Hitchock’s 1958 film when Kim Novak and James Stewart, as Madeline and Scotty, view a cross-section of an ancient sequoia trunk on which various historical events have been marked to illustrate the great age of the tree in relation to the history of human affairs. In the film, Madeline points to a spot between the concentric age-measuring lines, which would have indicated and subsumed both her birth and her eventual death (‘for you it is just a moment, like any other,’ she intones. Words paraphrased earlier in Marker’s film). The same sequence is restaged in “La Jetée” with Davos Hanich’s time traveller pointing to a spot beyond the tree section itself, to a region presumably outside of time.
“Vertigo” turns out to be probably the most important film for Chris Marker’s entire project. In the second film on this disc, “Sans Soleil” (1983), a meditative essay on travel and memory in pseudo epistolary form, there is an entire section devoted to it: ‘only one film has been capable of portraying impossible memory -- insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, says the female narrator, supposedly quoting from letters sent to her by a (in reality fictitious) globe-trotting cameraman called Sandor Krasnor. “Sans Soleil”, in English “Sunless”, is an hallucinatory experimental film essay composed of documentary images shot by Marker with a 16 mm camera, but which also includes stock footage, clips from other films, adverts and TV shows all woven together and juxtaposed with the narration of a female reader quoting lines from fictional letters which represent the filmmaker’s attempt to capture the elusive nature of experience as it is reconstructed in memory. The title comes from a song cycle by 19th Century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, and the film’s recursive, dream-like structure also posits it as the title of an unmade science fiction film, a synopsis of which is included as an addenda to the wide ranging body of anecdotes, observations, personal recollections and historical analysis’ which makes up the content of the recited letters.
It is an eerie, often times unsettling, sometimes jarring approach to the documentary form, conscripting images shot in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo and the Northern island of Hokkaido in the early ‘80s and interposing them with other sequences filmed during a trip to Guinea-Bissau in Northern Africa to make a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness attempt to approach the content of time and memory in an inventive way which disregards any overall narrative structure -- flitting backwards and forwards and from place to place, drawing parallels and gradually making connections between a flow of disparate ideas while in the process of delivering short ethnographical vignettes on the history, cultural practices, customs and political developments of the regions the traveller has visited -- all anchored to the images that flow past as though they are memories in a museum dedicated to the act of remembrance. Some early words of the unseen traveller give some clue as to the aim of the film: ‘I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?’ The connections between personal recollection and the public forging of historical remembrance is the key theme of the film, if any salient one is there to be detected. The film starts with an image, apparently shot in 1965 and which the writer of the letters posits as an isolated image of happiness. It’s of three blonde haired children on a road in Iceland, its texture and colour that of an old home movie perhaps shot on 8mm. The image returns again at the end of the film, when we learn that the same spot depicted in the city of Heimaey, had since been subsumed by volcanic ash after the eruption in 1973 of Mount Eldfell.
The largest bulk of the film serves as a fascinating time capsule film archive of Japan in the early eighties. The capture of such historically rich material is something which only increases the potency of the film’s wistful ruminations on the impossibility of ever fully realising an objective reconstruction of lived experience. Instead, it meditates on the different and varying cultural experiences of time as developed across the world, and in images that now resonate with an extra sense of their being moments in a vanished past being reconstructed afresh in our own particular historical vocabulary, we watch Japanese commuters communally dozing on a speeding Tokyo bullet train, sharing a common fund of dreams in a culturally evolved social context which is for the most part fascinatingly, sometimes charmingly, enumerated during an evocative series of portraits of the city of Tokyo: the constant bustle; the drunks directing traffic in the street; the giant posters gazing down from vast billboards on the sides of skyscrapers; the Japanese street dancers -- the takenoko -- performing their weird group robotics in the park; the now retro, then cutting-edge video games (noisy arcades full of Pac-Man machines!): all of it a part of the collective dream that made up the Tokyo city experience as lived back then.
This detailing of the ’folklore of dreams’ includes short mini spoken word essays on Japanese horror films and a documentary portrait of a shrine to lost cats that feels like it should be the ultimate in kitsch, with the painted ceramic statuettes arranged in rows, but actually comes across as rather sweet and moving; there are poetic elaborations of stories from Japanese legend, personal recollections of places with an emotional importance for the author, and sociological deliberations on certain rituals such as “coming of age day” for Japanese girls; then there’s an examination of the nature of Japanese right wing political movements, and even a phenomenological analysis of the quality of light on a station stairwell in the month of January when all the Japanese women wear their fur collared winter kimonos: ‘I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather, I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory.’
‘The entire city is like a comic strip; it’s planet Manga!’ exclaims the narrator at one point. It’s hard not to find agreement in the images that show us an insane clamour of people hurrying along crowded Tokyo streets with their noses buried in their graphic novels while surrounded by garish painted poster hoardings of anime characters and giant posters of movie stars staring down from the heavens, while a creepy robot waxworks John F Kennedy is seen in a shopping centre singing English language lounge versions of his most famous speeches, and a temple cum museum is seamlessly adjoined to a sex shop.
There is no logical progression from subject to subject and the images jump across space to include a discourse on a trip to North Africa, where the letter writer encounters a local population that peer intently into his camera lens. ‘Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?’ the narrator wryly notes alongside these images recorded from the jetty on Fogo in the Cape Verde Islands. When he reaches the marketplace of Bissau he finds the women there constitutionally unwilling to meet the gaze of the camera, but he captures a fleeting look from one of them which is frozen in the viewfinder and feels as significant as that of the living gaze of Hélène Chatelain captured in those three seconds of film during “La Jetée”: ‘I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.’
A journey to the once colonised Bijagós archipelago leads to meditations on the guerrilla uprising that once took place there against the Portuguese, and its eventual disintegration into a series of bloody internal wars. These sequences come from another documentary source but they are presented as images recorded by the traveller whose thoughts are being related by the narrator – faked memories woven with real ones, images that denote the author’s true memories interspersed with archive and stock footage from elsewhere, but incorporated in the service of a wider truth: ‘I'm writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances,’ quotes the narrator; ‘in a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.’ Throughout the film, the narrator talks of someone called Hayao Yamaneko, who creates video games by manipulating these filmed historical images in a synthesiser, calling the resulting computerised space ‘the zone’ after the Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky. Highlighting their artificially manipulated, constructed nature helps us to evade the illusion that there is such a thing as ‘a portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality.’ A thought which, finally, leads us back to “Vertigo”, as the traveller goes on an extended pilgrimage across San Francisco, visiting all the key locations of the film which he finds almost all still to exist, exactly how they were presented in Hitchcock’s film – real historical traces of a cinematic dream of impossible memory, now made a part of yet another historical construction, reflections whirling amid Chris Marker’s kaleidoscopic whirligig of poetic discourse, history, memory, fiction, reportage. The film’s spoken monologue is accompanied by atmospheric sound effects, weird avant-garde musical electronica and eerie rumblings which add to the heightened dream-like (sometimes nightmarish) tone of the complete 100 minute work.
Both “La Jetée” and “Sans Soleil” feature on one duel layer DVD disc in excellent transfers with clear mono soundtracks, both featuring the original aspect ratios of 1.66:1 with the option of either the English language or French dubbed version, the latter including English subtitles. Strange, unique and bizarre, these films defy complete understanding but stand as fascinating testaments to the power possessed by film to function as a compelling adjunct to the mysteries of human understanding.