Jaime Wolf on Filmmaker Chris Marker Jaime Wolf on Filmmaker Chris Marker
Issue 013

Jaime Wolf on Filmmaker Chris Marker

by Jaime Wolf

December 8, 2008
"May you live in interesting times," that sly curse, reputed to come from ancient China, is actually apocryphal, no more Chinese than the fortune cookies it shows up in; than Robert Kennedy, who quoted it in a 1966 speech at Cape Town University; or than Chris Marker, the elusive French filmmaker who sometimes claims to have been born in Mongolia. As much as anyone fated to live in these interesting times, however, Marker, who turned 87 this past summer, has succeeded in chronicling, questioning, and illuminating them in extraordinary ways.Marker rose to prominence in the early 1960s alongside brainiac New Wave provocateurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. His films elude easy categorization: Neither fiction nor documentary, they're more like cinematic essays, ranging kaleidoscopically and drolly across politics, anthropology, history, and observations on daily life. Yet they remain yoked to a strong and compelling storyteller's impulse. Refusing personal appearances and foregoing interviews-when asked for a photo, he sends a picture of his cat-Marker has acquired a devoted cult that counts David Bowie, Wim Wenders, and the late Susan Sontag among its members.Before sampling and before blogs, Marker cultivated an aesthetic based on referentiality and visual and literary quotation. But to watch Sans Soleil-a collection of dispatches from Tokyo, Iceland, Guinea-Bissau, and San Francisco-and to learn that Marker also shot in North Korea in 1958, in Cuba following Castro's ascension, and in Soviet Russia, is to feel he has been everywhere and knows everyone. Like Jorge Luis Borges, Marker is encyclopedic yet self-deprecating, projecting the kind of welcoming intelligence that invariably leaves you feeling smarter from the encounter.
If you've seen a Marker film, chances are it is La Jetée, a 28-minute mindfuck composed almost entirely of still photographs, made in 1962. The film is set in a devastated post-World War III Paris and tells the story of a man whose attachment to a scene remembered from childhood proves key to a time-travel experiment that saves the human race from extinction. (Terry Gilliam would later use it as the basis for 12 Monkeys.) The film is also a meditation on memory, temporality, loss, and the meaning and resonance of photographic images-subjects that underlie all of Marker's work.From the furious lyricism of La Jetée, and of 1983's Sans Soleil, Marker's second most available film, it's easy to think of Marker primarily as an aesthete. Sans Soleil invites comparisons to lapidary travel writers like Bruce Chatwin and Pico Iyer. But Marker has always been equally committed to documenting social struggle: His early films depict the French response to the Algerian War and Cuban life after Castro's takeover. In 1967, when more than 100,000 people marched on the Pentagon, Marker and his camera were there to capture it. Each of these episodes has furnished material for individual films, but A Grin Without a Cat, his three-hour consideration of 1960s and 1970s political currents in France, the United States, Latin America, Russia, Vietnam, and China, is indispensable viewing. Here, Marker dispassionately sorts through party politics, revolutionary rhetoric, and deadly propaganda to come to terms with what he has characterized as "the utopia of uniting in a common struggle those who revolt against poverty and those who revolt against wealth."Equally essential is The Last Bolshevik, about the Russian filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin, through whom we see the tragic failure of Soviet communism. Progressive without being programmatic, Marker has written: "If I ever had a passion in the field of politics, it's a passion for understanding. Understanding how people manage to live on a planet like ours. Understanding how they seek, how they try, how they make mistakes, how they get over them, how they learn, how they lose their way. … That immediately put me on the side of the people who seek and make mistakes, as opposed to those who seek nothing, except to conserve, defend themselves, and deny all the rest."Marker's restless Whitmanesque ability to witness-to observe and catalog people and events-adds an undeniable gravity to his reflections and pronouncements. What's equally remarkable, however, is his buoyancy. He shows that there is as much to learn from Fidel Castro's nervous habit of adjusting the microphone while making speeches, the trope in Russian cinema involving tractor breakdowns, and the mysterious appearance in Paris of Cheshire cat graffiti as from the politics and history surrounding them. Unhampered by jargon or academic obscurity, Marker effortlessly reads the signs and symbols of culture in revelatory ways. And if anyone can make semiotics seem unpretentious, if anyone can also justify cute cat photos, it's him.
Sans Soleil/La Jetée (1983)Two masterpieces on a single DVD. Sans Soleil's early 1980s Japanese sections are astonishingly prescient, showing how the collision of ancient and ritual practice with technological innovation would come to define our postmodern world.
A Grin Without A Cat (1977)An epic history of progressive politics between 1967 and 1977. Analyzing party factionalism and revolutionary mythology (spotlighting neglected icons like Regis DeBray and Douglas Bravo), its tone is mournful without indulging sentimentality.
Immemory (1998)Marker's personal archive, a CD-ROM version of a 1997 Pompidou Centre exhibition.  Containing hours of stills, texts, film clips, and digital art and music, it brilliantly fulfills the nonlinear potential of Marker's films.
Staring Back (2007)A collection of photographs spanning 1952 through 2006.  Where La Jetée was a film made from still photos, the stills in "Staring Back" consist of frame enlargements isolated from Marker's films and videos.
Remembrance Of Things To Come (2001)Sifting through the 1930s work of photojournalist Denise Bellon, Marker discovers "the moment when postwar became pre-war": an issue of Paris Match which included Bellon's pictures of a Gypsy wedding alongside excerpts from Mein Kampf.
The Last Bolshevik (1992)A dazzling examination of Alexander Medvedkin, the Russian filmmaker who set out across Russia to capture farmers and factory workers in their attempts to build a new country, and then instigated auto-critique by showing them the footage on-site.

Jamie Wolf, a journalist and screenwriter living in New York, is a regular contributor to GOOD. He wrote about the U.S. Olympic table-tennis team in GOOD 010.
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Jaime Wolf on Filmmaker Chris Marker