Essays

A Documentarian of Memory

by Michael Blum on August 21, 2014

Chris Marker, still from 'Level Five'

Chris Marker, still from ‘Level Five’ (all images courtesy Icarus Films)

Chris Marker’s death two years ago, on the day of his 91st birthday, heralded a surge of renewed interest in the enigmatic French filmmaker. In global unison, restorations, exhibitions, and graffiti tributes have since paid affectionate homage to Marker — some efforts even attempting to exhume aspects of his career that have long been overshadowed by his two best-loved works, La jetée (The pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (Sunless, 1982). With an impressive retrospective centered on a digital restoration of the film Level Five (1997), the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presses on with the project of rehabilitating the fringes of Marker’s career.

Paradoxically, such a project presents as many questions as it does answers. The initial “Chris Marker? I know the name but … ” blossoms and swells with each additional encounter with his films. The questions multiply: Who was this nearly anonymous man, one of the best-known unknown artists in film history? Who was this documentarian whose films casually sidestep distinctions between reality and dream, yet seldom abandon an acute ethical commitment in the process? Who was this strange poet who was spamming the scene with cat content long before the advent of the internet? Who was this routine biographer, preoccupied from start to finish with the lives of others, who nonetheless revealed almost nothing of his own?

Chris Marker, still from 'The Case of the Grinning Cat'

Chris Marker, still from ‘The Case of the Grinning Cat’

Before long one realizes that there is not one Chris Marker, but several. Navigating his filmography can therefore be a dizzying task. Few others, if any, have managed to weave together distant genres, disciplines, and themes so skillfully, rendering the seams between them so hardly noticeable, while leaving their respective forces intact. In his films, agitprop fuses with poetry, documentary with fantasy, science fiction with anthropology, biography with zoology. To say Marker’s work is sui generis would no doubt be to resort to journalistic cliché, but it at least helps explain why his work has been so resistant to description.

As so often, there may be no better place to look for bearings than the beginning. Marker’s filmmaking career started in the 1950s during his stint as a critic for mainstay publications of Parisian film culture, Cahiers du cinéma and Positif. Besides fashioning a script for Alain Resnais’s groundbreaking Les statues meurent aussi (Statues also die, 1953), Marker wrote and directed several travelogues of far-off locales (Sibera, Peking, North Korea, Cuba), in which he was already practicing his idiosyncratic balancing act of nimble wit and prudent social commentary.

In his travelogues, Marker’s aptitude for the essayistic is transposed from the pages of Parisian journals to the cinema screen. The images — unfurling in a fluvial, virtuosic montage — are accompanied by the fluent, epigrammatic narration Marker sharpened as a critic. These films largely do without ambitious sociological theses or heavy-weighted anthropological pronouncements, without a plot or concentrated focus. Rather, they’re comprised of ruminative excurses, of an elastic chain of digressions on things as seemingly unrelated — as in Lettre de Sibérie (1958) — as archeological finds of mammoths and rhinoceroses; the Lena river, “the only highway in this land without highways”; telephone repairmen who “go through the motions of shoemakers at the altitude of tightrope walkers”; and industrial miracles like the Irkutsk power plant amid the surrounding rural expanse (Marker narrates a shot of a lorry passing a donkey-drawn cart: “the shot no worthwhile film about a country in the process of transformation could possibly leave out: the contrast between the old and the new,” playfully adding “take a good look because I won’t show you them again”). All of these scenes, despite their incidental quality, are brought together in such a way that binds them in an elliptical affinity, as though each referred to another, and each in turn to the combined whole, which could perhaps be called history.

Chris Marker, still from 'A Grint Without a Cat'

Chris Marker, still from ‘A Grint Without a Cat’ (click to enlarge)

This patchwork mosaic of the everyday intermingled with the extraordinary became essential to Marker’s film practice. Equally essential was the political dimension that came to imbue his works, beginning most candidly with Cuba Si! (1960) and Le jolie mai (Lovely May, 1962), a documentary about social and political issues — as well as widespread negligence thereof — in Paris at the close of the Algerian War. Marker, true to his intellectual heritage as a leftist who’d lived through occupied France, always maintained an unyielding solidarity with the oppressed, most prominently in We Maintain that it is Possible (1973), TV News in the Camps (1993), and the sprawling A Grin Without a Cat (1977), whose end credits read: “The true authors of this film are the countless cameramen, technical operators, witnesses and activists whose work is constantly pitted against that of the powers that be, who would like us to have no memory.”

Above all this last word, “memory,” remains the open sesame of all Marker’s films, his perennial subject and heartfelt passion. He probed and played with memory, as well as its corollary, history, in a number of forms: as cultural or collective memory, as science-fictional meta-history, as histories of individuals (subjects from Akira Kurosawa to the inimitable but unknown Denise Bellon), as well as oppressive revisions of history and the mutilation of the historical record. Marker’s incisive poetics makes the history deeply embedded in mute, estranged, or negligible things quiver, as when he investigates the “small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life” in Sans soleil. He turns his camera into a precision instrument for measuring the banal in the world-historical and the world-historical in the banal.

Chris Marker, still from 'The Last Bolshevik'

Chris Marker, still from ‘The Last Bolshevik’

Level Five, the anchor of BAM’s retrospective, is animated by all of these tendencies, albeit with a melancholy unsurpassed in Marker’s other films. Using the science-fiction genre as a conduit for gazing into to the past rather than the future, Level Five follows Laura, a video-game developer at work on a strategy game based on the Battle of Okinawa. For her research, Laura has at her disposal a kind of omniscient “web 5.0,” a total information network that — for all its glitch-art phantasmagoria — appears endearingly primitive today, though undoubtedly visionary for 1997.

The film’s sci-fi premise gradually wanes as Laura grows preoccupied with dire events that occurred away from the fighting: fearing defeat, the Imperial Japanese Army coerced over 100,000 people in Okinawa to end their own lives, slaughtering many of those who refused or resisted. Due to extensive whitewashing, the historical record of these grievous events is still opaque, to the extent that they remain a point of serious contention in the Okinawa Prefecture to this day.

Level Five flits between Laura’s forays into the virtual archives and her digressive commentaries, which hopscotch from reactions to her research to mournful soliloquies on war and time. All this is accompanied by ghostly voice-over narration that shrewdly interjects now and then, as in a comment on the heart-wrenching testimony of a witness named Kinjo: “He offers his memory to help others decipher theirs … He wants what nations and men are least capable of: that memory be faced and forgiveness asked.”

Level Five is as much about the burden of remembrance as it is about the violence of forgetting. “The sting of time, the sting of an invisible insect you can’t ward off,” Laura laments, as she explains having “time-aches the way other people have headaches.” The camera homes in on her as the film nears its end, producing a spatial claustrophobia congruous with her malaise over the damaged state of the memory of the fallen at Okinawa.

Chris Marker, still from 'Level Five'

Chris Marker, still from ‘Level Five’ (click to enlarge)

At one point Laura remarks “Until we get the ‘smellies,’ like the ‘talkies,’ war films just don’t exist,” invoking at once the Proustian motif of sense-impressions that provoke recollection (Marker would return to this in his CD-ROM Immemory, 1999), as well as the idea of the limits of the representation of history, the impossibility of a true rehabilitation of lost or damaged pasts. So much of Level Five’s melancholy resides in its profound questioning of the impassable realm of real, living memory — that even working alongside an infinite archive, Laura’s project of remembrance can’t be realized.

Is memory representable? What is the power of an image? These questions dovetail in Marker’s films, not ever arriving at an answer, but gracefully pointing the way.

Level Five is screening at Brooklyn Academy of Music (Peter Jay Sharp Building, BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through tonight. The Chris Marker retrospective continues through August 28.

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