Magic Marker

Nick Pinkerton on Chris Marker's Level Five

Chris Marker, Level Five, 1996, Betacam SP, color, sound, 106 minutes.

CHRIS MARKER, the French multimedia artist who more than any other individual has been identified with creating the essay film, was always an outlier, an anomaly, and this exceptionalism continued even after his death in 2012 at age ninety-one. Marker was remarkable, if not unique among artists of his generation, in having designed a digital monument to his own body of work, an online footprint that would remain once he himself was gone. This was Le Musée de Marker, an archive and gallery located on the island of Ouvroir, in the online virtual world of Second Life, which since 2003 has provided a canvas on which users can create their own domains. In the weeks and months following Marker’s death, mourners pilgrimaged to this shrine in droves, there to find Marker’s nimble mind still freely at play.

That Marker clearly foresaw the age of Internet afterlife while most of the world was still learning to check e-mail is evident in his 1997 film Level Five, which begins a seven-day run at BAMcinématek on Friday, August 15. This, the film’s North American theatrical premiere, will run concurrent to the beginning of BAM’s two-week Marker retrospective, which spans from his early boots-on-the-ground travelogues like Sunday in Peking (1955) and A Letter from Siberia (1957) to the twenty-first century and an engagement with the new digital unrealities of the fin de millennium.

Level Five comprises two primary narrative strands which twine around each other. The first concerns a woman named Laura, who appears to direct-address the viewer from a cluttered, windowless office. (The part is played by artist-actress-director Catherine Belkhodja, a polymath like Marker.) As it comes out, Laura is in fact speaking to a lover who has logged off of this mortal coil under mysterious circumstances. She has been attempting to complete his final project, a virtual replay of the Battle of Okinawa, the last real engagement of World War II, which was accompanied by catastrophic civilian casualties when islanders instructed by Imperial Japan not to allow themselves to be captured alive committed suicide en masse. Laura hopes to “rectify malignant fate” by undoing the tragedy of the event, but she finds that the virtual world that her lover has left behind is not so pliable, stubbornly resisting her attempts to alter the physical facts of history. The film’s other strand consists of images from Japan and Okinawa, purportedly footage taken by Laura and her partner and given to Marker for editing. Included in this is archival footage and interviews with the likes of filmmaker Nagisa Oshima and, most affectingly, Shigeaki Kinjo, a proselytizing Christian who, as a teenager, helped to massacre his family according to the nihilistic, scorched-earth dictates of the Japanese army.

This is devastating stuff, but part of Marker’s brilliance lies in realizing that groaning solemnity alone does not properly denote meaning or understanding. He personally narrates much of the film, and his particular authorial voice is everywhere, its defining note combining the heft of authority with sheer lightness, the feeling of being borne along by a mind that skips across centuries and national boundaries without the slightest evidence of strain. Around every corner there are unexpected digressions—to Napoleon’s reported contempt on hearing of the gentleness of the Okinawans, to John Huston’s pioneering PTSD study Let There Be Light (1946), or to the history of the David Raksin–penned theme for Otto Preminger’s Laura, a work whose relationship to Level Five is as crucial that between Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). In combining Laura’s story with that of the Okinawans, Marker examines the memory of tragedy on both the individual and historical scales. The unifying element is loss: Laura’s lost love, the Okinawan loss of identity…and a loss that is still to come, which Marker already sees clearly. Says Laura: “If some future ethnologist sees these images, he’ll ponder the funeral rites of the strange tribes of the late twentieth century. I’ll be pleased to give details. Yes, it was customary for such tribes to address a familiar and protective spirit known as a computer. They’d consult it on everything. It kept their memory. In fact it was their memory.”

This is more than prescient, and miraculously so when we consider what a tough time cinema has had with the Internet—think of the wave of Web-novelty movies roughly contemporary to Level Five, titles like The Net and Hackers (both 1995), which today are punch lines unto themselves, or of Michael Haneke’s recent announcement of a forthcoming film to be called Flashmob, which warrants a tidal wave of preemptive eye-rolls. Level Five manages to buck this trend, in large part because it puts no premium on trying to seem cutting-edge. Laura accesses a social network called O.W.L. (Optional World Link) using V.R. goggles that resemble nothing so much as the top of a popcorn popper, while the hypermedia effects are fuzzy and homemade, the results of Marker’s self-taught dabbling in HyperStudio. Level Five is lo-fi sci-fi, a mode that Marker’s time-trotting La Jetée (1962) might be said to have invented—while in using deliberate obsolescence as a tool to interrogate the new digital realm, the artist’s aesthetic is Tumblr-wave Web 1.0 retro avant la lettre.

Marker shunned the festival spotlight while puckishly cultivating an air of mystery about himself. In his separation of private individual and public avatar—in his case, a cartoon cat alter ego named Guillaume—as in his leapfrogging rhetoric, he was distinctly proto-Internet. We can say that Marker was almost certainly not born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, as he insisted he was, but the truth of his life is no less strange and improbable. He came into a world where the Russian Civil War and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial were making headlines, and exited in the era of military drones and social networking. In his passage through, he never ceased in his efforts to understand the whole mad world, to comprehensively synthesize the sum total of knowledge to date. Now gone from the earth but floating in “a Sargasso sea full of binary algae,” he is a sane, compassionate, and humorous guide, one to be returned to time and again.

Chris Marker’s Level Five has its North American theatrical premiere August 15–21 at BAMcinématek. The premiere is part of a retrospective of Marker’s films that runs August 15–28.