‘These images are not replacing my memory, they are my memory’, says the narrator of the film Sans Soleil (1983), one of the most famous and available works by the French cineaste, photographer, multimedia artist and writer, Chris Marker. Published in the last year on blue ray disk, along with the even more legendary title La Jetée (1962), the reputable American publisher Citerion spiced it up with a short documentary Chris on Chris. The accidental viewer would expect, judging by the title, a bountiful featurette in which Chris Marker explains himself, but Marker would not be who he is if he had not made it harder for his supporters. This addition says at the very beginning that there would be no interview with the author, because he mainly did not do interviews, and neither would there be any photographs, because the author of the most famous film photo-novel did not allow his face to be photographed. His followers and collaborators talked about Marker, and not only in the Criterion’s bonus track, but he himself never did. Only on two random occasions was Marker talked into an interview, and the existing photos of him were taken secretly. With the onset of computer use, he additionally reduced his appearances: he was reachable only by e-mail and he visited his exhibitions and screenings secretly. He even stopped signing his work with his name, but only pencilled his cat’s silhouette. His need to keep his private life hidden was not difficult to understand, but there was still this more rigid part of avoiding microphones and cameras. Reductions, whether aesthetic or in content, Marker obviously applied to himself, like a scientist who first experiments on his own body.
The experiment was successful, so Marker, actually Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, is considered one of the greatest names of French, and not only French, film. He was born on 29 July 1921, allegedly in Ulan Bator in Mongolia, although some sources claim it was also one of his jokes and that he was born in Paris. His date of death is, however, not a joke; he died last year, on his birthday. While numerologists research the significance of the numbers 29-07-21 and 29-07-12, Marker’s scarce public appearances witness he was not a mystic, nor a typical experimenter. For his later works, as well as some of his earlier ones, out of the total of 54, he would say they simply failed to achieve, let alone exceed, the value of a common tv report. In one rare, perhaps, even his last, statement for Paris’s Libération in 2003, given by e-mail in the form of 4 topics with a maximum of 10 questions, Marker explained the ease with which he changed his working formats during the half century of his career. From photography and film, to video, cd-roms and multimedia installations. ‘To own a digital video camera does not magically grant you talent,’ he said and added: ‘No matter how miniaturized, film will always require talent.’ Marker’s legacy includes, among other things, the notion of media democratization, the case that did not choose how and where to record, but what is meant to be said. It seems he always attempted to be the instrument of truth, or his truth, so that the initial pacing later scattered into diary entries of events recorded by the available camera and equipment. He would also add an off-screen commentary, an essay structure and some scattered opinions, all without a classic film-makers’ preoccupation with images. It may sound inaccessible, but actually it was: many hours of Marker’s neo-Marxist soliloquies (Le fond de l’air est rouge, 1977) would wear the audience down, but this very structuralist disorder gave birth to something we today call video blogging.
It was Chris Marker who was the first, archetypical video blogger, in a similar way that Kenneth Anger invented the musical mtv spot in the 1950s and 1960s, although it was not called that at the time. To connect all Marker’s preoccupations would shortcut the circle: La Jetée belongs to the genre of sf, it is a story of a character from the future travelling back in time, in order to use his memories to discover something that would save humanity from extinction after the Third World War. The premise was used by Terry Gilliam for his film 12 Monkeys (1995), who directly quoted the story as the source for his film. The Monty Python member saw La Jetée in the French original, barely understanding the language, but was fascinated, as were many others later. The reason is Marker’s almost anti-film plotting by photography instead of movie frames. Except in one minor scene with motion, literally the blink of an eye, La Jetée is a series of static photographs creating a cinema-novel, as the introduction clearly states. Marker’s procedure is perfectly appropriate considering the motifs: memories are fragmented, generally some pieces of time that may hardly be placed within the given film motion, so that photographs are a best match. Stylistically, though, the film achieved what many fail to achieve by motion – a dynamic, impressive story told only by montage, choice of images, framing and their order. This, even for today, unusual process of filmmaking from static photographs (a recent Croatian example is a
short film Onda vidim Tanju, ‘And then I see Tanja’, by Juraj Lerotić) was truly avant-garde for those times. Made in 1962, La Jetée redefines the traditional relationship of photographs and film: are photographs static and motionless, and is film motion by definition? Another year passed and Andy Warhol used the reverse procedure to separate film from motion and bring it closer to the static photograph. Warhol’s first film, consisting only of a scene with a sleeping man (Sleep, 1963), is a pure expression of time passing. Classic film theorists see a photograph as a raw, elementary unit of film, one of the 24 (or 25) that is articulated only when circulated in a projector, says David Campany in his book Exposures: Photography and Cinema (Reaktion Books, 2008). What Marker showed is that static photographs may be movie motion, while movie motion, vice versa, may be so static that it is actually a photograph in time, as Warhol showed.
A film such as La Jetée without doubt marked Chris Marker’s career, in the way that all comparisons of his opus turn first to this film, and later on to others. Among those others, because they do not attempt to repeat the same formula, not even the same genre, the author’s documentary work dominates with occasional trips to fiction or fiction-documentaries. The style is the same, just like sf from the future exteriors, because all Marker’s works bear the principal features of essay film. This form, as Timothy Corrigan said in The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker (Oxford Press, 2011), is often called generally a meta-documentary, a reflexive or personal documentary film. An essay is a personal view presented as a public experience and, according to Aldous Huxley, should balance between three main directions: personal and autobiographical, then objective, factual and concrete, and finally abstract and/or universal. Some authors satisfy one requirement, some all. Marker’s opus satisfies them all and is a key example that an essay film need not be linked even to film, but may cross over to other platforms, as he did with the cd-rom publication of Immemory (1998). La Jetée was an essay on the future, in the same way that Sans Soleil, a film about a camera man travelling the county and facing different survival methods, maintained the author’s preoccupations regardless of form, platform or execution. Marker’s oppressions are memories, the loss of them, history and society; not as propaganda, a history textbook or a guide, but, as he wrote once in relation to the form of his essays – only a conversation with an intelligent and cultivated person (the viewer), who is informed of the main events. The form is, actually, not important; sometimes it is fiction, sometimes a documentary, a montage of a flow of thought and often a philosophic commentary. The last should not sound odd because Marker studied philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1930s.
The curiosity also goes another way. By not placing himself in the position of an artist, but rather presenting himself as a person respecting others, even at the level of a fan, his obsessions with famous film authors appear. Scenes from Hitchcock’s Vertigo found their hommage in La Jetée and Sans Soleil; he made a documentary on Akira Kurosawa in 1985, under the title A.K.; while he dedicated Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch in 1999 to Tarkowski. The last of his preoccupations is at the same time the most strange. At the end of his life he decided not to sign his works as Chris, but with a drawing of a cat, actually his beloved pet. Marker regularly showed cats in his films: alive, stuffed, made of porcelain or contained in a digital noise. His last video works, such as Leila Attacks (2007), are about cats and still available on the existing YouTube profile Kosinki, where Marker also published his in memoriam to Steve Jobs, called appropriately iDead. Chris Marker was 91 when he died. He was always filming, as he said, ‘life at the moment when it becomes history’. The last Berlinale Talent Campus held a symposium called in his honour ‘The Future has Vivid Memories’. Judging by Marker, the future really has vivid memories. And has already become history.