ALL OF THE CATS OF THE WORLD ARE IN MOURNING. YESTERDAY, CHRIS MARKER DIED. ONE OF CINEMA’S MOST RESTLESS, PROBING SPIRITS (SEE BELOW), HE WAS 91. Dennis
THE CASE OF THE MISSING CAT (Chris Marker, 2004)
A sequel of sorts to Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977), Chats perchés finds Chris Marker, the world’s most celebrated lover of cat-images, in a frisky, playful and, now that he is in his eighties, elegiac mood. In 2001, all around his Paris, on this building and that, close to the ground or high in the sky, toothily smiling Cheshire Cat-faces suddenly appeared. What are we to make of this catfiti?
For Marker, there is less possibility now of looking ahead. Like a cat he can get cranky—and be direct. Thus, when youthful demonstrators revise an old song ca[s]tigating Pétain, the traitorous leader of Vichy France, replacing his name (in 2002) with that of Prime Minister Raffarin, Marker (through his narrator) notes, “It’s a great asset in life not to know what you’re talking about.”
Discussing mostly French politics, Marker nonetheless opens Chats perchés by referring to the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York. He recalls the frontpage sentiment, “We Are All New Yorkers,” which the whole Western world immediately shared with France, and asks who is to blame for its not lasting. His own response raises a chuckle and grazes the heart: “Certainly not the cats.”
Listening to a consideration of the gradations of Leftist politics in France or elsewhere fascinates. In the U.S. there is no organized Left, only stray individuals and a left-of-center liberalism that the Far Right nevertheless demonizes as “the Hard Left.”
An actual subway cat, who gets a paw trapped in an escalator, disappears; where has this cat and the other cat-faces gone? Doing his best to hold onto a vision, Marker indulges in a special effect, conjuring a diaphanous gigantic cat-face: humanity’s creation of God in the image of a cat.
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS TO COME (Yannick Bellon, Chris Marker, 2001)
Written and directed by Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon, the daughter of French photojournalist Denise Bellon, Le souvenir d’un avenir takes its title from a poem by Claude Roy, who had died a few years earlier. The film is dedicated to Roy and to actress/playwright Loleh Bellon, Yannick’s younger sister, who had died even more recently. (Childhood photos show the two girls “always together”—and they remained so.) It consists almost entirely of their mother’s photographs—although an inserted sliver of archival film footage has the effect of the single bit of motion in Marker’s La jetée (1962), which otherwise consists of stills. That film involves a mind-trip to the future in order to grasp and redeem the past; this one, set in the past, is full of anticipation of darker days to come in the Second World War. It goes back in time, then, to look forward a little—say, back to 1938 to look ahead to 1940. However, the “look back” to Denise Bellon’s photographic record valuably reclaims some of the past that might otherwise be lost to us. A 1944 attempt to conquer Franco in Spain—Republican forces had surrendered to Franco in 1939—was documented by Bellon’s camera. The commentary notes that the failure of this post-Spanish Civil War Republican attempt devastated Spain’s Communist Party, adding: “These photographs are perhaps the only trace [of the event] that remains for history.” Victors write history—and, when advantageous, suppress it.
Identifying Surrealists (though not all) with love of freedom, the film is framed by two Surrealist exhibitions in Paris, in 1938, with the war coming, and 1947, with the war over. Time is put on hold; the Olympics to be held in Helsinki in 1940 were because of the war delayed until 1952. An image of gas masks intended for fresh use invites this comment: “France is still preparing for World War I”—a forward look to the backwardness that in some sense always attaches itself to war. In Finland, which is readying for war, “pacifist forces are hunted down.” Survivors of the First World War “testify to what war did to them,” the commentator notes, adding, “Everyone knows what followed.” “Europe was to program its own suicide.” Look, outdoors, at these celebrants; from our vantage, their upbeat mood seems “empty.” They “will leave a field for the exterminators.”
The filmmakers weave together Bellon family history, French national history, world history, renewing the excitement of early photojournalism. Long-distance aircraft and “the compact, professional camera” coincided; the photojournalist’s camera acquired a responsible role, “capturing the moment, discovering the world.” A wonderful long passage coordinates Denise’s photographs in French Colonial Africa: “She saw the work in the forest. She followed the cycle of exploitation in the diamond mines.” Continent-crashing, withering irony: “The literacy campaign in black Africa is finding a practical application: reading the posters for army mobilization—the same ones being put up in towns all over France.” Europe drew “recruits” from Africa, its back yard. An official replacement there, the commentator notes, had it not occurred “might have changed the course of the war.” In France, look at the field of donated and accumulated scrap metal: future bullets. See the dark passageways leading to future “hiding places” for the Resistance. Everything looks ahead—to uncertainty. Every face is a prisoner of time.
The closing photograph, humorous, chills: Surrealists—participants in the 1947 exhibit—outdoors together, each one wearing an identical mask. The recent past gave them much to hide from—and they are looking at us.
In 2001, Yannick Bellon was 77; Marker, 80.
ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVICH (Chris Marker, 1999)
Until this morning I thought that Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-9; 1998) was the only documentary about films that itself is a work of great art. Now I know better. Chris Marker’s—Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve’s—Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevich, about Andrei Tarkovsky and his films, is a brilliant piece of work. It was originally broadcast as an episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps (Filmmakers of Our Time).
Scenes of Tarkovsky on his hospital bed—Tarkovsky died of cancer in 1986—are moving, most of all, not because of the sadness of his waning health but because of his unabated joie de vivre. Given how sober his films are, I was surprised at how upbeat Tarkovsky is shown to have been during the shooting of his last film, The Sacrifice (Offret, 1985), despite the single chance left for the filming of an exceedingly complicated shot, not to mention his ongoing self-exile from his beloved Russia, which in its Soviet incarnation contested his freedom of expression throughout his career.
Most of Marker’s endeavor, generously employing clips, however, provides extraordinary critical commentary on Tarkovsky’s films. For instance, they are shown to “come full circle,” from the opening shot of a young boy by a young tree in Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962), to the shot of a child lying under a dead tree in The Sacrifice.
Drawing upon his own insights and, perhaps, remarks by Tarkovsky himself, Marker addresses a handful of materials that Tarkovsky’s cinema embraced, including the four elements (earth, air, water, fire), a shot sometimes employing two of these simultaneously, lofty camera placements emphasizing ground rather than sky, and Tarkovsky’s Orthodox Christianity, with a crisp aside as to its difference from Roman Catholicism.
THE LAST BOLSHEVIK (Chris Marker, 1992)
Perhaps because he gave it expansive treatment in his 1977 Le fond de l’air est rouge, Chris Marker nowhere mentions in the alternately glib and thoughtful commentary in his depressing documentary partly about filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin’s rocky relationship with the Soviet state, Le tombeau d’Alexandre, a critical source of his sourness vis-à-vis Soviet history and Sovietism: the failed outcome of revolutionary sparks in Paris in May 1968, itself proceeding from the divorce the previous year of France’s socialist and communist factions. Indeed, do we not see a trace of the shadow of this behind the premise of the film that is being called The Last Bolshevik in the States? Medvedkin, about whom he made his brilliant 1971 documentary Le train en marche, chided Marker for not writing him more often; one reason that Marker did not may have been the humiliating blows that Marker suffered because of Leftism’s failure at home. This new film of his about Medvedkin, begun after Medvedkin’s death in 1989 and amidst and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is framed as a series of six letters to his deceased friend, with an entr’acte, between letters three and four, featuring a cat (of course!), huge in closeup, catnapping on the keys of a piano, with one paw occasionally striking a key—for us, silently: whether an image of the U.S.S.R. or of idealists, like Medvedkin, resisting the reality of the U.S.S.R. I’m not quite sure. But you know what Freud might say: Sometimes a cat is just a cat.
One of those interviewed for the film, writer-actor Viktor Dyomin, summarizes Medvedkin’s situation as “the tragedy of a pure communist in a world of would-be communists.” It turns out that Medvedkin, feeling alienated, however, tried his best to “fit in” so that he could continue to make films. Ranging well beyond the launching example that the director of Schastye (1934) provides, though, Marker homes in on the relationship between Stalin’s Russia and filmmakers and on images that Soviet films fashioned to replace a Soviet reality that was drab, and worse. Some images attempted to rewrite Soviet history; but Marker is just plain wrong about the Odessa Steps massacre in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), as I have previously explained: “Eisenstein’s fiction remains true to political circumstance in Russia. His fabricated event captures the cruelty and oppressiveness of tsarist rule, creating for these a stark, fiercely lit metaphor.” One does not blame the poet for telling, or showing, the truth so compellingly that viewers mistake it for fact. There was no intention of deceiving—only a successful attempt to get to the heart of the matter.
SUNLESS (Chris Marker, 1982)
Taking its title from an 1874 cycle of Mussorgsky songs, Chris Marker’s Sans soleil bounds over four continents in its anthropological, philosophical travelogue combining documentary materials. Marker interrelates numerous issues, including space, time, memory, history, computers, street festivals and commemorations, appearance versus reality, such as in a public ceremony that projects political unity when in fact contrary feelings, suppressed from view, will eventually erupt into a violent change of leadership. Filmmaker and friend Jean-Pierre Gorin has called the film “a grand map of how the imaginary functions,” and summarizes its theme as “what it means to be human” in our time.
Different things fascinate Marker’s eye: Japanese girls, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), happiness and unhappiness, cats (real and sculpted ones of all kinds), eyes. “We do not remember,” Marker suggests. “We rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten.” Moreover, Hayao Yamaneko contributes special effects that digitize filmed images, distorting their appearance—or, do I mean, distorting their reality? Or, showing the truth?
This is indeed a film that variously, and intriguingly, plays with its materials. (Remembering, we are told, is not the opposite of forgetting but, rather, its lining.) The film opens and closes with an image of three children, walking on an Iceland road, that supposedly crystallizes happiness; but the black blank screen with which the image is occasionally interrupted leaves us uncertain as to what the “meaning” is. The entire film is structured as a series of letters read aloud by their recipient; the fictitious author, Sandor Krasna, has shot the images that the disembodied voiceover conjures for us in her recitations. We are at a tourist’s remove from what we see; yet any moment we may become a part of what is visible, seduced by what Lévi-Strauss calls “the poignancy of things.”
THE BATTLE OF CHILE: THE STRUGGLE OF AN UNARMED PEOPLE—PART III (Patricio Guzmán, Chris Marker et al., 1979)
It may disconcert, to say the least, to find Salvador Allende again alive in the third part, “El poder popular,” of Patricio Guzmán’s tripartite La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas, when his death—assassination officially announced as suicide—is included in the second part. But this final installment, whose title translates as “People Power,” goes back in time to detail efforts by workers, inspired by Allende’s rhetoric and example, to organize locally into groups opposing Allende’s right-wing opposition. These groups took over a whole range of activities, including running farms and factories, to undo the right’s efforts to stymie Allende’s operation of the economy and the nation’s smooth operation in its effort to expand citizen opposition and thereby help justify the upcoming military coup. Allende had been extraordinarily successful in nationalizing major privately owned industries; but for his own reasons, one being his commitment to Chile’s legislative process, he found himself opposing those who were opposing his right-wing opposition—supporters of his. For Guzmán, therefore, this return to the material finds him, in effect, facing ghosts of the recent past and his own untarnished view of Allende.
It is a film full of talk, from citizen interviews, voiceover narration, and members of these local groups attempting to realize Allende’s socialist dream; but from Allende himself, from whom we generously heard in the first two parts, we hear nothing. He is a mute figure—a silent ghost. In addition to his death, this suggests the degree to which other Chileans will continue to be haunted by Allende’s role in Chilean history. Others will have to “restore” Allende’s “voice” by pursuing Allende’s aims of social and economic justice.
GRIN WITHOUT A CAT (Chris Marker, 1977)
A massive journalistic essay on the post-colonial failures of Leftist radicalism and revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, Le fond de l’air est rouge (literally, The Base of the Air Is Red), by Chris Marker, a Leftist, marshals a wide range of archival materials, including newsreel excerpts and interviews. The titles of its two parts, “Fragile Hands” and “Severed Hands,” chart the direction in which the thing moves. The launching perspective is the rupture of political tissue connecting socialism and communism in France.
The first part addresses the 1968 university student protests in Paris, in particular, unionism’s co-opting of these by assigning strikes to their tail. Unions perhaps perceived a relationship between these protests against societal oppression, citizen apathy, and the Vietnam War (the colonialist Indochina War that the U.S. had taken over from France) and their own interests, or simply an opportunity to impress these high-profile protests to their own ends. Thus Marker challenges the myth of Leftist coordination and solidarity, finding little political potential in the heady revolutionary atmospherics in which Paris had become immersed. Ranging the globe (the Congo, Bolivia, Chile, etc.), his film proceeds to deal with numerous events, such as right-wing assassinations and the confrontations between citizens and police throughout Europe.
Alas, I saw the U.S. version, which is reduced by an hour—and not by the editor, Marker himself. Rather than collating different examples of the failure of radicalism and revolution, this version sometimes lurches forward from one example to the next, with only a sentence of narration forging a connection between them, and no mention is made of a country’s revolution’s becoming mired in pre-revolutionary history, culture. Moreover, a wan British voice has replaced narrators Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, whose disllusionment with Sovietism after Prague ’68 was bone-deep.
THE BATTLE OF CHILE: THE STRUGGLE OF AN UNARMED PEOPLE, PART II (Patricio Guzmán, Chris Marker et al., 1977)
We hear the tumult in the street in Santiago before we see it; the opening credits of El golpe de estado, the second part of La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (top prize again, Grenoble), are blocking our view. The first part begins similarly, but in this instance the procedure formally resonates; for, with the launch of “el golpe”—the coup—against him, Salvador Allende does not quite “see” the people—about a third of the electorate had voted for him—who are so willing to defend his presidency at ultimate personal risk to themselves. Rather, he focuses on the Chilean legislature in pursuit of a course for resolving the crisis that would not “de-legitimize” his presidency nearly three years after his historic election. Ironically, the U.S.-backed Christian Democrats, who continue to oppose him, meet with Allende, to give the appearance of underway negotiations, only after the Catholic Church publicly prays that such meetings take place. Politics are merely forestalling the inevitable military ousting of Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president.
As with the first part of Patricio Guzmán’s monumental black-and-white documentary, light gray predominates; but this time there is at least one jolting scene in which the faces of people in the street are dimmed to darkness.
Speeches and public pronouncements by all sorts of individuals and groups now become the film’s principal mode of content; this, added to the continuing voiceover narration, creates a stream of talk that eventually makes the announcement of Allende’s death a seemingly slipped-in thing. Ironically, one might almost miss the momentous news: Augusto Pinochet has seized power.
Cumulatively, the second part is overwhelmingly sad, tremendously moving.
From Cuba, Chile, France.
THE BATTLE OF CHILE: THE STRUGGLE OF AN UNARMED PEOPLE, PART I (Patricio Guzmán, Chris Marker et al., 1975)
On-the-spot documentaries can capture the most unshakable things. La insurreción de la burguesía, the first part of La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (top prize, Grenoble), the immense tripartite film directed by Patricio Guzmán and produced (and partially shot?) by Chris Marker, ends with a stunning moment. Democratically elected Salvador Allende, a Marxist, aimed to bring social justice to his nation. One of the soldiers opposing a crowd of Allende supporters after Augusto Pinochet’s September 11, 1973, military coup faces one of the film’s cameramen. Guzmán freezes the frame in which the soldier takes aim at the cameraman; the restoration of motion thus finds the Argentinean, whose camera falls into darkness, recording his own death.
This 3-hour-plus installment spans the election of Allende’s Popular Unity government and its legislative and military opposition. (The U.S. had backed the right-wing Christian Democrats, one of the political parties opposing Allende’s election.) The black-and-white film is blessed with clear, soft, mostly gray cinematography by Jorge Müller Silva that moderates the pulsating hand-held camera work, much as Abilio Fernandez’s measured, soft-spoken narration moderates the political turbulence we watch unfold.* Guzmán’s tack is to bring meditative calm to the material so as not to exploit and cheapen this material. The purity this tack cumulatively achieves astonishes; the result is deeply affecting.
One of the most complex passages addresses a copper miners’ strike whose organizers aimed at undermining the government following Allende’s nationalization of the mining industry. Guzmán presents here an unusually sensitive portrait of individual versus national interests that freshly illuminates familiar material.
Guzmán’s cameras, everywhere, record everything: faces; an overhead view of massive humanity. The film is from Venezuela, France, Cuba.
* What I originally saw at the movies in the 1970s included bogus English narration. Since I have now seen the film on DVD, where the original, authentic narration is included, I have decided to compose a new entry, this time restricting the entry only to the first part of the tripartite film, and taking up the remainder of the film in separate entries.
EMBASSY (Chris Marker, 1973)
All political directions have gone bankrupt.
Another extraordinary film by Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, a.k.a. Chris Marker, L’ambassade constitutes an anecdotal response to Pinochet’s September 11, 1973, military coup against Chile’s democratically elected Allende government. It risks charges of coyness and rank manipulation in order to create a compelling pseudo-documentary portrait of two things: the chaos that the coup wrought; the wider implication for democracies elsewhere. At the last we learn that what we thought was the French embassy in Santiago is really some other embassy in Paris. It is in Marker’s France that dissidents are being rounded up daily and mass executed nightly. One wonders whether Marker was familiar with the sixties U.S. Twilight Zone episode in which Agnes Moorehead wars with tiny alien invaders, who it turns out are the U.S. military.
The set-up lays claim to serendipity. Some unidentified cameraman, whose voiceover we listen to, is among those who have reached sanctuary in the embassy and await safe conduct out of the country. People bond as the ambassador, to encourage that everyone pull together, vacuums the floor in their suite. Armed with his handheld camera, the speaker shoots everything in Super 8, achieving a raw facsimile of cinéma-vérité. The silent footage protects the final surprise awaiting us but also consigns the pulsating present to an archival repository of repetitive fascist history. By degrees dissidents become contentious, revealing the fractiousness of the Left that, Marker implies, facilitates right-wing inroads and coups. There are so many “Lefts” confronting the Right, a monolithic beast that can count on the support of the C.I.A.
Marker therefore takes aim at the complacency of those “good guys” who fail to grasp that their potential to ward off political demons resides in their solidarity, not their free expression or creative individualism.
LONG LIVE THE WHALE (Mario Ruspoli, Chris Marker, 1972)
In the 2007 English-language update of Mario Ruspoli and Chris Marker’s Vive la baleine, voiceovers compete: the masculine “master,” disseminating facts about whales and whaling, and the feminine “interior voice,” expressing feelings (“Whales, I love you”), questions, surmises, wonder. Marker, who wrote and edited this masterpiece, synopsizes the history of whaling against a backdrop of engravings, paintings, photographs. A film snippet glimpses the modern practice of whaling; but, towards the end, such film graphically overtakes the visual content, much as the “interior voice” has overtaken the “master voice.”
Marker discredits the Japanese with turning the whale into industry, but—keep in mind this film was made during its Southeast Asian war—he reserves equal contempt for the United States: “. . . at the end of the nineteenth century the birth of the biggest modern empire was accompanied by the birth of a powerful whaling fleet. The Americans helped themselves to all the resources needed for beginning their industry, and you[, whales,] were no exception. Your oil would make machines run and lights softly burn. . . .” The havoc that America is willing to wreak in its quest for oil (and other resources) has found, since, other targets.
Marker: “Americans reduced you[, whales,] to a commodity on the Stock Exchange.” But it is a Norwegian who invented the “exploding” harpoon-gun that moved whaling from a small-scale practice to “industrial extermination” conducted “aboard factory ships.” Yet this vicious weapon becomes American-by-association when Marker likens it to an “atomic bomb.” Marker: “Every whale that dies hands down to us, like a prophecy, the image of our own death.”
The zip of the harpoon-gun; the unearthly moans of the struck whale; the blood: Not since Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949) has there been a documentary like this.
THE TRAIN ROLLS ON (Chris Marker, 1971)
Perhaps Chris Marker’s masterpiece, Le train en marche has three distinct parts—an unwieldy structure for a half-hour film. The film opens and closes with a silent train in motion, but this Cocteauan sandwiching only underscores the film’s split quality. This “splitness,” however, serves Marker’s overarching theme.
The first part is the most identifiably Markerian, a tone poem haunted by hypnotic voiceover: “Soon after October [the 1917 Revolution] the trains begin to roll, and through the trains surges the blood of the Revolution. . . . Through the trains the voice of Lenin was heard across the Soviet Union as far as the republics of Asia, where young Communists were bringing literacy to women in shackles.”
Archival materials also dominate the second part, which refers to the 1930s. A different voice introduces Aleksandr Medvedkin’s CineTrain, by which “cinema was to become something created out of contact with the people.”
When the film flashes forward by forty years, Medvedkin speaks directly to us, recalling the CineTrain’s traveling film studio. The object was to “film our people, show these films to our people, and thereby help them construct a new world.” Faults at a steel works, for example, were shown so that workers themselves could devise a plan to correct these.
Medvedkin now is old. (Of the CineTrain’s 32-member crew, only eight are still alive in 1971.) Not a single shot from the films remains. The Soviet Union, tarnished by Stalinism at home, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the fifties and sixties, no longer encapsulates the world’s hope. Now, nothing does.
But, like the peasant in Medvedkin’s satirical Happiness (1934), one must persevere to come close to happiness. “The biggest mistake would be to believe,” Marker says, “that [the train of revolution, of history] had come to a halt.”
THE SIXTH FACE OF THE PENTAGON (Chris Marker, François Reichenbach, 1968)
If the five sides of the pentagon seem impregnable, attack the sixth side.” — Zen proverb
Forty years ago, during the U.S. mayhem in Vietnam, one of the first books I taught was Norman Mailer’s autobiographical “nonfiction novel” The Armies of the Night (1968), in part about the massive antiwar demonstration that proceeded from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 1967. Chris Marker and François Reichenbach’s documentary La sixième face du pentagone covers this event. The French filmmakers, journalistically amidst and spiritually amongst the protestors, thus created the footage for their eyewitness account. Marker cinematographed and also composed the commentary. I assume it is he whose voiceover narration we hear.
The day before, people at phones mobilize for the peace march; nearly a thousand draft cards, we are informed, “will be solemnly deposited” at the Department of Justice. A largely apathetic university campus turns activist, in the name of academic freedom, when officials overreact to a student peace demonstration. Marker summarizes this remarkable expansion of radicalization as we witness an on-campus ocean of student faces: “It is from universities such as this one that demonstrators took off for Washington, some already having made their choice, the others siding with them, but all conscious politically.” The film is indeed greater because it begins a day early.
The absent hero the next day is Che Guevara, whose death less than two weeks earlier elicits now a moment of silence. Marker: “[Che] is the common denominator for the battle against the Vietnam War, for the revolt of the [black Americans], for solidarity with the Third World, for the will to transform society.” What is even more stirring here than the mythologizing of Guevara, which is stirring enough to make one’s heart burst, is the expansiveness of vision that relates a single peace demonstration to the antiwar movement it is a part of and to other political movements, activities and impulses this is akin to, assisting in the creation of historical testimony to the flush of political possibilities at that moment that can help future generations understand the withdrawal into reactionaryism subsequent to the soon-after Leftist failures in both France and the United States. This film ranges brilliantly beyond what the filmmakers wanted or could possibly know at the time, clarifying the imminent massacres of hope, and anticipating what would become a central theme in Marker’s cinema: the failure of the Left, its causes and consequences. Indeed, the spectacle of the clubbing of Oct. 21 demonstrators, in restrospect, gives one an awful premonition—and, ironically, it restores their resistance.
For those of a certain age, the sights and sounds of that day now strike nostalgic and poignant chords: the invocation by the Yale University chaplain; Peter, Paul & Mary singing; speeches; past celebrities; pacifist pantomime shows. (Marker: “If you give the military all the power to defend you, who will give you the power to defend you against the military?”) It is a dynamic day. The film captures that; ah, but it does much more than that. In our hearts it revives the audacity of hope.
THE KOUMIKO MYSTERY (Chris Marker, 1965)
Chris Marker met twentysomething Koumiko Muraoka by chance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Marker’s voiceover tells us (Marker never appears in Le mystère Koumiko), “She is not an example of anything.” She is irreducibly herself, hence mysterious. “Japan is all around her”—Japan, which can be categorized, its people statistically analyzed, but to little avail, for Koumiko exemplifies the mystery of everything, everyone, everywhere.
Hiding behind his pseudonym, one mystery contemplates another. The gaze he casts upon Koumiko’s face recalls Alain Resnais’s upon the woman’s face in Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). Koumiko is mysterious even to herself. Born in Manchuria, she was educated in a Franco-Japanese school. “I must be Japanese now,” she says, but she speaks in halting French and finds that Japanese men speak too quickly for comprehension. She confesses to being “not completely Japanese,” “all mixed up”; but somehow Marker suggests that each of us, if we aren’t complacent, has a similarly confused identity.
Everything belongs to a complex web of associations that multiplies and deepens the meaning of every kaleidoscopic bit of reality. A boxing match sandwiched into a series of shots of buildings at night, for example, becomes mysterious, unfathomable. Everything means more than it appears to.
Recounting how she stepped on a rabbit, accidentally killing it, Koumiko isn’t exactly guilty, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, but haunted nevertheless. The past, she says, is a “cold and cruel,” unforgiving, eternally “silent” mirror.
We see neither Marker nor Koumiko as (supposedly) they drive forward in the rain. Marker asks, “What do you think of—?” and a series of images rather than words completes the question. Is it war? Violence? Progress? “It is a wave over the sea,” she answers, adding, “The wave advances bit by bit and finally reaches me.”
LE JOLI MAI (Chris Marker, Pierre Lhomme, 1963)
Following Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Chris Marker’s 3-hour Happy Month of May is dedicated to “the happy many” (Rouch had asked people in the street, “Are you happy?”), whose numbers, and whose happiness, prove elusive to find in Paris despite the end of the Algerian War, which has given France an unaccustomed taste of peace.
In the first of two parts, those interviewed are bound up in their own lives. This is a Paris “made up of solitudes,” as in the case of a woman who grows flowers for no other reason, she believes, than that she loves flowers. When she reveals she grew up in the country, we realize (although she does not) that the motive behind her favorite activity, and possibly her whole life, is one of separation and loss. A couple of 21-year-olds anticipate their marriage. When they were fifteen, they met at a wedding; so Marker interrupts the interview and shows a noisy, chaotic wedding dinner before returning to the couple. The boy, in the military, is about to leave for Algeria. Politics have nothing to do with them, the two say; they don’t think about politics, and in any case they are powerless to influence events.
The darker second part is social; it is about shared Parisian lives, although the “sharing” sometimes is a matter of conflict. The opening event, though, is a sharing of grief: a funeral march in the streets, attended by more than 500,000 people, commemorating eight of their lives lost in February: people demonstrating for an end to the Algerian War. The police unnecessarily fired on the crowds; fleeing to a subway platform, eight “were crushed and bled to death.”
Marker’s tremendous documentary combines smooth classical long-shots and in-the-rough cinéma-vérité.
. . . A VALPARAÍSO (Joris Ivens, 1962)
Three brilliant documentarians worked on the French and Chilean . . . A Valparaíso: its maker, Joris Ivens; in his twenties, Patricio Guzmán, Chile’s future premier political documentarian, who assisted Ivens; Chris Marker, who wrote voiceover commentary suited to Ivens’s images.
Valparaíso, Chile, evidences landmarks from as many countries as have come to port there through conquerors and ordinary seamen. It is a city, we are told, “created, forged, peopled by sailors.” A montage shows buildings designed and constructed to resemble ships and boats.
It must have been the Valley of Paradise prior to development; now it is something else. Down below is the commercial city; at various tiers above, built on hills, is a “cluster” of 42 residential villages, one per hill. It is a system of ramps and stairs. It is a kind of Hell, where the poorer that people are the higher up they live, the farther away they are from the sea, which is the city’s “truth,” and the closer they are to the sun, which is the city’s “lie.” There, considerable effort is required to bring water up from down below. Life’s a struggle.
A one-legged man is shown climbing 121 steps. Marker: “One needs a strong heart and a good memory.” An overhead shot shows another man struggling up different stairs. Nature as well as geography mocks him, for the next thing we see is a chicken springing up the steps.
It’s easier for children—but also damaging. Their lungs, their breathing, are stressed, and they need to work at their play. Their profusion of kites in the sky—a visual echo of seagulls—may be expressing an unconscious dream for themselves of lightness and flight.
A posh woman prods a penguin with her parasol.
Artwork memorializes centuries of Spanish colonial rule.
LA JETEE (Chris Marker, 1962)
With affinities for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Robbe-Grillet and Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Godard’s upcoming Alphaville (1965), Chris Marker’s black-and-white “photographic novel,” La jetée, explores “the paradoxes of time.”
On the pier at Orly, a boy espies a woman with a winsome smile. If he were grown, they might fall in love.
Marker’s film consists of stills and solemn voiceover. Paris, razed in World War III, is “rotten with radioactivity”; in subterranean passageways, “the victors stood guard over a kingdom of rats,” submitting prisoners to mind-experiments calling up past and future “to rescue the present.” One of these prisoners is the grown version of the boy at the beginning. Attached to the image of the woman he saw on the pier, he is sent into the past, where he, as he is now, and the woman do become lovers; but the man realizes that the woman was killed in the war. Having her is a kind of perpetual loss. Moreover, his captors yank him out of this past to send him to the future, where he discovers that Paris has been rebuilt. Narrator: “Since humanity had survived, it could not refuse to its own past the means to its own survival.” The future accepts him, but the man opts to return to the past, hoping that his beloved will be waiting for him. There she is; he runs toward her—an event shown in an agitated montage resembling freeze frames. At the film’s beginning, on the pier, was a dead body. Alas, the man now knows this was he. “There is no way out of time.”
Earlier, a series of dissolves of his sleeping beloved culminated in the film’s one spot of motion: her eyes opening. Now the dreamer’s eyes are forever shut.
DESCRIPTION OF A STRUGGLE (Chris Marker, 1960)
Yet another remarkable documentary by Chris Marker, Description d’un combat (Hatzad Hashlishi Shel Hamatbaya) comes from France and Israel. It is about Israel: according to an ancient promise, the land that would come to be. Made when modern Israel was not quite thirteen years old, the film finds Israel poised for the future and in it; the opening montage, strikingly futuristic, reminds us that two years hence Marker would make La jetée. Angled, low overhead shots in the public marketplace in Tel Aviv suggest an alien point-of-view: we the audience as visitors from some other planet.
That “other planet” has a name: Europe. It is the Holocaust that required this new homeland, forged from endless desert—the wasteland that a phenomenal passage surveys. One connection to the past is ironic: a city’s Orthodox sector revives the European Jewish ghetto. A startling image is poetic, inconsolably tragic: invoking the Holocaust, the bare skeleton of a small tree inhabited by Jewish children, the living forever commemorating the dead.
Indeed, this is a film full of children and therefore full of hope. One patiently works on an ice cream cone. Another, in art class painting something we cannot see, “will never be Anna Franck,” the voiceover assures us. But there can be no holding back the truth: “threats . . . surround her.”
Shards of 1947 newsreels, set to alien mechanical sounds, show a shipboard exodus of displaced Europeans. “They fled from us,” meaning Western Europe, we are told; the British, to whom they appealed for help, put them back into camps. They have “the right to an ordinary life, paid for with Jewish blood.”
Others did not foresee the depth of Arab meanness that would attempt to deny a people their home.
Such heartlessness must have seemed unimaginable.
LETTER FROM SIBERIA (Chris Marker, 1957)
Marco Polo called it the Land of Darkness; Chris Marker, the Land of Childhood, romance and electrification. Witty, mysterious, poetic, Marker’s first solo film, Lettre de Sibérie, draws upon his direct observation, boundless imagination, and the Dovzhenko films Ivan (1932) and Aerograd (Frontier, 1935). The mirror-like river; the taiga.
Marker’s narration (read by someone else) expresses the wonder of myriad possibility. Legend has it that the Devil made the birch forests of Siberia; since the covered area is the size of the United States, maybe the Devil also made the U.S. “Life and death are separated by nothing more substantial than a breath of air. Bring back the breath and the body is ready to live again.” The long frozen winter eventually yields to summer. Siberia is the Land of Resurrection as well as the “frozen Devil’s Island” to which miscreants were exiled.
This country is in the process of transformation. In the wilderness, a power plant is being built; two pans survey residential construction.
This film is full of animals: sheep, birds of prey, wolves, bears. “Ducks are collectivist by nature. There are no kulaks among ducks.” (Here, Marker is inspired by Dovzhenko’s Earth, 1930.) We see animals work, migrate, be. We see their humanity.
A mock-cartoon promotes reindeer as the perfect “product.” An “imaginary newsreel” is another of the film’s varied components.
Among animals, perhaps the most firmly rooted in the legendary status of the region is the mammoth. An animated passage explores mammothology. We learn that the Chinese word for mammoth means “mother of mice”—and we learn why.
Images unite what Siberia unites: past and progress. Marker wishfully projects that spiritual attributes will follow material progress.
Set to haunting folk music, Marker’s Letter always arrives when we most need it.
STATUES ALSO DIE (Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, 1953)
Alas, I have seen Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s Les statues meurent aussi only in the infamously truncated version that the French government permitted for forty years. Even so, it’s a thing of passionate politics and dark, dazzling visual beauty.
The film opens in primordial darkness; a disembodied voice speaks: “When men have died they enter history. When statues have died they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.”
Light appears, revealing public sculptures; even outdoors, these are objects of art such as one might encounter in a Western museum. A passage in such a museum that cuts between a piece of art and a patron gazing at it underscores the point; the reality of the piece relies on the patron’s perception. This patron has entered the museum precisely to “see art”; seeing it is something she does in her life. It isn’t a part of her life. The piece no longer belongs to the person who created it and that person’s community.
African art is part of people’s everyday lives. But by uprooting it, colonialism has usurped its identity. This is emblematic of colonialism’s assault on African communities and human lives.
A tracking shot surveys piece after piece enrobed in darkness, but that is followed cuttingly by a montage of pieces, each one separate, isolated. Our eyes have replaced those of the patron. A montage of brilliantly grotesque death masks, intended to frighten away Death, now suggests labored curiosities: the impression on this art and its black African creators of Western museumitis. Elsewhere, scenes of Africans singing and variously working suggest the vitality from which African art has been cut off.
Statues also die when they aren’t growing in the vibrant garden of a people’s communal existence.
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