PRINT February 2003


Chris Marker’s Immemory

MOST OF US COLLECT MEMORIES and a few relics, but photographers and filmmakers literally assemble traces of the world, build a piece of an archive every time they go to work. Chris Marker’s extraordinary CD-ROM Immemory is an attempt to make such an archive available in the form of a visual essay. Only visual? There are snatches of sound here and there, but Marker mainly invites us to see things, in every sense—and then remember and meditate. He gives us poems, pages of prose, book covers, postcards, book illustrations, paintings, posters, telegrams, letters, clips of film, and above all, hundreds of photographs taken in dozens of places: China, Cape Verde, Korea, Japan, France, Iceland, Cuba, Russia. The disc is an immense album of faces, gestures, buildings, statues, and landscapes, a fragmentary recollection of the last century.

“My working hunch,” Marker says in a note accompanying the disc, “was that any memory, once it’s fairly long, is more structured than it seems. That after a certain quantity, photos apparently taken by chance, postcards chosen according to a passing mood, begin to trace an itinerary.” But what is the itinerary of Immemory? And why does Marker insist that it is not an autobiography, if all the photographs and souvenirs are his?

Marker was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, near Paris in 1921, although all kinds of alternative legends have been associated with his origins. He is best known for La Jetée (1962), a film about memory made entirely of stills except for one breathtaking frame that shows the movement of an eyelid, and for Sans Soleil (1982), a film essay on Africa, Japan, travel, the future, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and much else. Immemory was made in conjunction with the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and was released in France in 1997. It’s good to have an English-language version, of course, but why did it take so long to get here? The disc has seven large areas of interest, which Marker calls zones, entitled “Memory,” “Poetry,” “War,” “Photography,” “Cinema,” “Travel,” and “Museum.” You can enter each of them and follow the path down which their mesmerizing images lead you, or you can chase names up in the index (try Allende, Hong Kong, Kafka, King Kong, Kurosawa, Rilke, Tolstoy, Verne), though, of course, there are countless moments of intersection, when a cue will take you to another zone and back. If you click on “Memory,” for example, you get a lovely double portrait of Marcel Proust and Hitchcock, followed by a page of Proust, followed by a set of Marker’s own mementos: a postcard from Singapore, a DO NOT DISTURB sign from an Amsterdam hotel. A madeleine, Marker says, is not just Proust’s little cake, it is all the things that “can serve as triggers for the strange mechanism of Memory.” And, of course, it is also the name of the character played by Kim Novak in Vertigo, a slim coincidence, Marker says, which is still “enough to enthrone Alfred alongside Marcel.”

If you click on “War” you get a bright screen filled with the word war in several languages, and then a clip of two World War I airplanes crashing into each other; a family photograph (“A strange childhood, wedged between two wars like a book stuck between two bronze elephants”); four little poems by François Vernet, who died in Dachau; and an assembly of photographs from many other wars. If you click on “Photography” you get a set of names of countries, plus the mysterious “Fairies,” and the scrambled “Erewhelse.” If you click on . . .

But it’s absurd to try to list, or even summarize, the profusion on this disc. There are two threads, though, that point toward an itinerary, or at least mark out a couple of recognizable roads: disasters and human faces. However beautiful and haunting the images here, many of them are associated with historical pain or horror, or as Marker himself puts it, “The balance sheet to which most of the texts and images on this disc bear witness is totally disastrous.” And yet there the proposition can be turned around, because there are the faces, luminous, reflective, memory-laden, full of grace and courage, and silently speaking of life beyond and outside disaster. They are often the faces of young women, but also of old women and men of all ages. “Probably a cop,” the caption on one Russian image says, “but quite a face.” People can put up with anything, these faces say. All the more reason not to put these people through everything. And these elements of the disc, the roads through the disasters and the luminous faces, also provide the beginning of an answer to our question about autobiography. The images are Marker’s, but they are not his alone. In his notes he expresses the wish that his memories will be replaced by ours, but of course we don’t really need to replace them: They are already ours. This was our century, from revolution to revolution, from war to war, from madeleine to madeleine. Even the ghosts are real. “It’s banal to say that memory misleads,” Marker writes on the disc. Not because memory isn’t often wrong, but because even its errors are part of our immemorial history.

Michael Wood is professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton University.