Acclaimed French filmmaker, writer and video artist Chris Marker, continues to challenge and push the bounds of both form and content in his inimitable handling of the documentary genre with this, his 1997 return to film making, “Level Five”. The results, predictably, are as ever intriguing and often utterly perplexing, though always thought provoking and occasionally moving: just what one should expect by now from the maker of that unusual time traveling sci-fi romance in the style of noir-tinted photomontage, “La Jetée” (1963), and the dreamlike freeform documentary-essay/drama “Sans Soleil” (1983). Both of those ground-breaking films have also recently been released in the DVD format by Optimum Classics and reviews can be found elsewhere on this site.
Conceived as an experimental narrative drama but with serious documentary content, “Level Five” can never quite equal the potency of the spell woven by the two extraordinary films mentioned above, and it often struggles to maintain a sellable link between Marker’s by now familiar signature themes. Those themes are (once again): modern societies and how they negotiate an active and on-going relationship with their pasts; the content (or not) of one’s own personal experiences in memory, and its intimate connection with the forging (in both possible senses of the world) of a public history. Marker’s longstanding interest in the history and culture of Japan, along with his abiding fascination with technology and its interface with the human mind (a theme which, in this film, now expands outward from being in effect merely about computer games, to incorporating the emergence of the World Wide Web -- still a relatively novel concept for most people in 1997) are both key to this particular project; the film is at once an historical documentary account of real events -- complete with eye witness testimony and expert analysis -- and a sprawling, frequently portentous exploration of love, grief and loss, which is here related in an aphoristic, poetic-meditative (but fictional) form that toys with the conceptual framework of a then modish cyberpunk genre, along with the tropes of authenticity associated with the camcorder-shot video diary ‘confessional’ monologue.
It’s a challenging experience for the viewer, and one that doesn’t entirely cohere in a truly satisfactory way. While “Sans Soleil” was able to convey something of the tone of a waking dream, casting a hypnotic audio-visual spell which in effect lulled one into participating in the strange experience of viewing it and accepting its abstract linkage between pseudo-biography, essay, history and cultural ethnography -- “Level Five” remains a problematic exercise in the juxtaposition of diverse contents and editing technique. The film’s frequent references to William Gibson’s novel, “Neuromancer”, which provides it with its conception of digital cyberspace and the idea of virtual interactions between people in online ‘avatar’ form, nevertheless also still identifies it with a very specific period, dating from the late-‘80s through to the mid-1990s. The now everyday concepts of web-based research (the ubiquity of information making the computer the’ keeper of our memories’), and of the possibilities of complex, multilevel online war-gaming were all back then, off course, shiny, contemporary, strange and almost ineffably exotic ideas -- but their realisation here now retrospectively seems hackneyed and rather prosaic in our post-Matrix, WikiLeaks, Second-Life, World-of-Warcraft CGI world; and of course the visual representation of such online activity occurs in the form of some laughably primitive vintage graphics from the mid-‘90s which were doubtless meant to look futuristic, but now look merely charmingly retro; for nothing ever dates quite so resoundingly as ‘the future’. While much of Marker’s work often feels like it occupies a timeless realm outside the events it depicts, despite the clear historicity of the material from which it is constructed, “Level Five” is always unintentionally screaming its period origins at us in a distractingly loud voice.
The specific historical event which the film sets out to examine and then to use as a philosophical springboard for much more freeform meditations on the making and conception of history in general (and how this process can in turn ‘make’ and ‘conceive’ us, with sometimes devastating results), is the Battle of Okinawa. This was the last major land battle of the Second World War, and occurred between April and June, 1945. It would come to be known as the bloodiest and most bitterly contested of all the skirmishes that took place in the Pacific Theatre. Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu group of Islands and the closest to the Japanese mainland, and so was clearly going to be a vital stepping stone in The Allies’ invasion plans. Both sides threw everything they had into a ferocious battle which led to a devastating loss of life on both sides. Japan suffered over 100,000 troops killed or captured and at the end of the conflict the Allies were presented with at least 50,000 casualties among their own. A huge number of Allied ships and armoured vehicles laid siege to the heavily populated island during an 82-day campaign, and the infamous Japanese Kamikazes inflicted a horrendous amount of damage on the allied ships in return. The battle has also become historically infamous because of the very large number of Japanese civilian lives claimed as a result of the Allied fire-bombardment and for certain controversial and shocking events which Japan as a nation has struggled fully to come to terms with ever since. The film features many video interviews with eye witnesses, Japanese historians and commentators and even filmmaker Nagisha Oshima, as well as archival film taken during the battle itself. The documentary also considers how the event is now thought about, viewed and remembered by modern Japan today (or back in 1997 anyway), with footage of contemporary museum displays and of tours of key sites etc.
This might sound on the surface all fairly straightforward but, as has already been hinted previously, Marker’s approach to his subject is anything but simple. The film is as much about the role history plays in the shaping of our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as collective societies and about how this in turn impacts on events which then also become history, as it is about simply relating an account of a set of those historical events themselves. The very process of reiterating the story of the battle becomes inextricably tied to this central question; for the events at Okinawa seem to have been in large part dictated by an historically determined set of conditions which then affected how the players behaved at the time; Japan’s ‘sacrificial’, defend-to-the-last-man strategy (which the leadership hoped would dull the American appetite for invasion, thus preserving the Japanese Imperial system and avoiding the shame of surrender), went on to have particularly cataclysmic consequences for the nation: namely, the Allies’ decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a means of avoiding further American casualties.
The film attempts to address such matters using a fictional framework in which the French actress Catherine Belkhodja plays a writer called Laura who has inherited an unfinished computer programme for a war game from her dead lover, which attempts to recreate in the finest detail all the events of the Battle of Okinawa. Laura has to progress through the game levels completed thus far in order to finish the work as a sort of memorial tribute to her lover, amassing information in the form of documentary evidence, interviews and archive material, and by interfacing with Marker’s version of the internet, which is here called the Optional World Link (O.W.L. – Chris Marker likes owls). The film combines sometimes lengthy monologues from Laura on video with the Okinawa historical material. Some way into the film the fictional narrative created by these monologues reveals that the character’s name isn’t really Laura and that it is in fact a nickname given her by her deceased lover as a reference to the couple’s favourite film, the 1944 Otto Preminger film noir, “Laura”, starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews.
This is no casual, throwaway reference: that film was about a detective investigating the murder of an advertising executive called Laura Hunt. During the course of his investigations into her death he conducts numerous interviews with the dead woman’s colleagues, relatives and fiancé and comes to fall in love with her based solely on the detailed picture he builds up from their combined testimony! The constructed nature of memory and its confluence with the imaginative process; the effect this process has on history itself: both then are central to a film which also references Alain Resnais’s “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961) and “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959), as well as, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (see previous review). Laura’s rather floridly poetic meditations on the ever-changing nature of the memories she retains of her dead lover become central components in the film’s attempt to examine the historical events at Okinawa, as she uncovers one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole episode: that of the mass suicides which were performed by large numbers of ordinary Japanese citizens then living on the island, after they had been encouraged by the Japanese military to view the American invasion force as animalistic rapists and murderers ,and were led by them to believe that they would be saving their loved ones from a fate worse than death by killing them themselves! There is even blurry archive footage, captured at the time, of a group of island women throwing themselves off of a cliff to avoid such a fate. One of the film’s most disorientating moments comes from one particular frozen image of a Japanese woman who appears to turn and stare at the camera moments before sending herself plunging to her death. It leads to Laura pontificating on how the act of reporting events and documenting them for future posterity might actually influence the way those events unfold – not a new idea, but one that is particularly piquant for us in our age of rolling news and instant on the spot analysis.
The way both sides viewed each other, how this view has often been formed and sometimes purposely manufactured in the process of reporting events or relating history is a constant inescapable process captured in the central conceit of the film: Laura is led to try and complete the computer game she used to watch her lover writing, by reaching the mythical Level Five – the highest level of the game and one which demands total accuracy. However, the more precise she manages to make her virtual reconstruction of the battle, the more difficulty she finds in holding on to her original memories of shared experience with her lover. The game can never be completed, just as total recall of past events is impossible; memory is dependent on internal myth-making yet thrives on information which has now expanded into a digital realm of virtually derived meaning.
All this feels very similar to some of the ideas put forward by French social theorist Jean Baudrillard – who has been widely mocked for contending that ‘the Iraqi war did not take place’ since it was so entirely defined and experienced through media – but, however odd or ridiculous such a claim may be, the feeling that imagination and reality have increasingly merged in the modern world of on-tap information, to create ‘a system of reference with no referents’ -- a sort of hyperreality -- is increasingly hard to shake these days, especially with the dominance of world financial markets in everyday life. “Level Five” is a very freeform, unsystematic exploration of these types of ideas, and its disjointed, abstruse nature is probably largely intentional, which makes it feel a bit like we are taking part in the scene from “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, when David Bowie’s alien, Thomas Newton, watches a bank of television screens at once, a wall-full all tuned to different channels. The themes emerge in frustratingly fractured form; one minute we are watching the moving real-life testimony of an elderly man recalling how, as a child, he came to murder his entire family precisely because he loved them and thought he was sparing them, the next we’re perplexed as actress Catherine Belkhodja talks to an electronic toy parrot, shaking it when it runs out of batteries and screaming ‘speak to me! Speak to me!’ The film is rewarding if you’re prepared to indulge its acute eccentricities but it’s a much tougher watch than, say, “Sans Soleil” , doesn’t have the same audio visual intensity as that film and requires a great deal of work by the viewer if he/she is to make any kind of sense out of it at all. I’m reluctant to use that fact against it as a criticism, but some degree of familiarity with other work by Chris Marker is probably essential if you’re to stand much chance of lasting the distance.
“Level Five” was shot largely on video and is framed in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio with French 2.0 stereo audio and English subtitles. There are no extras included with Optimum Classic’s disc.