Chris Marker, the photographer, writer, multimedia artist, and director of the haunting time-travel classic La Jetée (1963), was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on July 29, 1921. The Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona is celebrating the centenary with an exhibition (on view through September 30) and a film series (running through August 26). As Daniel L. Potter writes at his outstanding site dedicated to the director’s multifarious works, Marker kept even the most basic outline of his biography “willfully obscured by his playful misdirections, his use of multiple pseudonyms, the enormity of his anonymous work (especially film commentaries and editing for other films), his well-known avoidance of interviews, and in general, aversion for being in front rather than behind the camera.”
We do know that he studied philosophy, joined the French Resistance during the Second World War, and wrote for the literary journal Esprit, where he first met André Bazin, the critic and theorist who would become one of the cofounders of Cahiers du cinéma. Marker traveled the world as a reporter and photographer and edited Petite Planète, a series of books on countries and their cultures. During the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, he made his first film, Olympia 52, and the following year, he worked with Alain Resnais on Statues Also Die, a documentary on African art that won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo.
With Sunday in Peking (1956), shot during a two-week tour of China, Marker began to forge his own essayistic style. “Sunday in Peking is not a reportage with commentary, however intelligent it is,” wrote Bazin in one of three texts on Marker that the online magazine Sabzian has posted this week. For Bazin, Sunday was “an original work of literature, cinema, and photography all at the same time. A new and modern reality based as much on language and words as on the power of the image.”
Marker carried on reinventing the travelogue and experimenting with form in Letter from Siberia (1957) and ¡Cuba Sí! (1961). “Through these films,” wrote Catherine Lupton in 2007, “Marker honed a distinctive style of inquisitive, offbeat cultural reportage, which adopted an engagingly intimate tone of address and cunningly played on the separation of images from voice-over commentary to question the ways in which different nations and cultures are represented—both for themselves and to others.”
In May 1962, just weeks after the end of the Algerian War, Marker began working with Pierre Lhomme on a project closer to home. Le joli mai, released in 1963, is a portrait of France made up of on-the-street interviews with the directors’ fellow citizens. For the first time in twenty-three years, the nation was no longer at war. The wide range of views on politics and personal concerns is peppered with mischievous inserts, music by Michel Legrand, and narration read by Yves Montand in the French version and Simone Signoret in the English version.
During breaks from shooting, Marker took the photographs that he would shape into the story of a man with a vivid memory of a moment from his childhood, a memory so powerful that a mysterious circle of whispering scientists believes that it may be the key “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.” The “present” in La Jetée is a perhaps not-so-distant future in which the Third World War has decimated Paris. Save for one brief, breathtaking shot, the twenty-seven-minute film proceeds as a series of black-and-white still images. “Not once does it make use of the time-honored conventions of traditional science fiction,” wrote J. G. Ballard in his 1966 review for Science Fiction: New Worlds. “Creating its own conventions from scratch, it triumphantly succeeds where science fiction invariably fails.”
While La Jetée springs from the dread that permeated the Cold War era, a hot war on the other side of the world was radicalizing Marker and his friends and collaborators. In 1967, he oversaw and edited Far from Vietnam, a collaborative essay film with contributions from Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein (who had appeared in La Jetée), Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, and his close friend, Agnès Varda. He founded S.L.O.N., the Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles, a collective that encouraged workers to make films, and in 1975, he made La Spirale, a documentary about the 1973 military coup in Chile.
By 1977, ten years after Far from Vietnam, Marker was looking back on the political upheaval of the late 1960s from a more ruminative perspective. “An account of French politics from the tumult of ’68 through the 1977 break-up of the Communist-Socialist alliance, A Grin Without a Cat is cinema of temporal striation, layering TV reports, guerrilla newsreels, government propaganda, and interviews to create an all-over account of what Marker cleverly calls the Third-World War,” wrote J. Hoberman for the New York Review of Books in 2012. “A Grin Without a Cat begins by evoking Battleship Potemkin and, although hardly propaganda, continues in that tradition—a ‘dialectical montage’ featuring a mass hero. Unlike Eisenstein, however, Marker is not out to invent historical truth so much as search for it.” Hoberman pairs Grin with The Last Bolshevik (1993), “which encompasses much of the ‘short twentieth century’ defined by the Russian Revolution,” and is “Marker’s long goodbye to its utopian dreams, political and aesthetic.”
Between these two “essayistic historical epics,” Marker made what Hoberman calls “his quintessential film,” Sans Soleil (1983), a collage of stock footage, clips from Japanese films and television, and outtakes from his own work. “The most fully distilled example of Marker’s outlook, the film is a prismatic puzzle box, in which memory is fragmented among a number of points of view until all reasonable reference points are completely stripped away,” wrote Eric Henderson for Slant in 2007. “Pitched somewhere between prayer and jet lag, Sans Soleil is, in a literal sense, the supposed correspondence from a globetrotting cameraman (‘Sandor Krasna,’ a pseudonym) read aloud by the woman to whom the letters were sent. It’s not clear who between the two is fully in control of the film, but it hardly matters; with each passing moment, it reinvents itself almost organically.”
In one of the three aforementioned texts up at Sabzian, Edwin Carels writes about Marker’s lives and works in virtual worlds, such as Second Life, and about Guillaume, the cartoon cat that “can rightly be considered as the first and still most important avatar with which Marker took the step from cinema to new media.” In the other piece that also first appeared in 2008, Bill Horrigan considers Marker’s work as a photographer. Elsewhere, at around the same time, Horrigan, the curator at large for the Wexner Center for the Arts, wrote: “Although Marker is widely regarded as one of the few indispensable, inimitable figures of post-World War II international cinema, it becomes clear that, for him, cinema is simply one expressive domain, one ‘zone’ and perhaps, at that, an interim or intermediate one.”
In 2012, not long after Marker died on his ninety-first birthday, the editors at Sight & Sound gathered tributes from artists and filmmakers Thom Andersen, Jem Cohen, Kodwo Eshun, John Gianvito, José Luis Guerín, Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit, Sarah Turner, and Agnès Varda. “He first entered my life in 1954, as a voice,” wrote Varda. “He used to telephone Resnais, who was editing my first film. His intelligence, toughness, and tenderness have been one of my joys throughout our long friendship.”
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