PRINT January 2013

Duncan Campbell

Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Ghislain Cloquet, Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die), 1953, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 30 minutes.


IN A LETTER written by the great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg to Luise Kautsky, after the latter had visited her at Breslau Prison, Luxemburg lauded her friend for retaining the “groping, searching, anxious” qualities of a young woman. (Kautsky was then in her mid-fifties.) Such uncertainty was, to Luxemburg, not merely a personal but a political virtue, since, as she warned in her essay “The Russian Revolution,” written from the same prison, socialism is an open-ended process, an improvisation, not a “sum of ready-made prescriptions.” It is difficult to know where to begin in speaking of Chris Marker, but perhaps the deepest source of my admiration (for a reason similar to that which prompted Luxemburg’s praise of Kautsky) has to do with the place he assigned himself in relation to his filmmaking and the fact that this relationship between self and subject matter was continually open to question.

Even the intensely political aesthetic of Statues Also Die (1953)—made in collaboration with Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet, and one of Marker’s earliest works—does not exempt the filmmakers’ authority from dispute: Their gaze, our gaze, is complicit in events of the present and the past. Going a step further in the late 1960s, even before the events of 1968 in Paris, Marker committed himself entirely to the film cooperative Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles, or slon. I have always been struck by the weight of this decision. It was a deeply principled repudiation of the idea of a personal vision: a social antagonism that, at that point in time, he attempted to overcome by subordinating himself to the collective organization. Yet in the mid-’70s, he becomes consciously present once again in his work. Of this, he commented in a rare interview, “The process of making films in communion with oneself . . . need not be now solely experimental. . . . Contrary to what people say, using the first person in films tends to be a sign of humility: ‘All I have to offer is myself.’”

Of course, Sans Soleil (1983) is a masterpiece of this modification of thought. Marker offers himself, but once removed, as one Sandor Krasna, a cameraman whose letters provide the film its narration. Marker’s voice is fractured between the cameraman whose images convey a great solicitude toward their subjects, a dreaming sometimes, even a trace of romantic idealism, and the (same) man who reflects on this footage in letters to an unnamed friend. All of this is mediated through the calm, intent voice of Alexandra Stewart (in the English version). The literal and temporal distance—this returning with second thoughts and third thoughts—gives rise to what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls an “ambiguity of causes, of agency, of direction itself.” About halfway through the film, after paying homage to Amílcar Cabral, the assassinated leader of the nationalist movement in Guinea-Bissau, Marker-Krasna writes of the unraveling of revolutionary potential in that Portuguese colony:

That’s the way the breakers recede. And so predictably that one has to believe in a kind of amnesia of the future that history distributes through mercy or calculation to those whom it recruits: Amílcar murdered by members of his own party, the liberated areas fallen under the yoke of bloody petty tyrants liquidated in their turn by a central power to whose stability everyone paid homage until the military coup.

The statement is not final, merely the latest iteration in a process of emendation. The old tension—between Marker’s private and social realities as they emerge through fractured voices and personae—gives it a powerful, unassertive quality. There is still space for him and for us to change our minds. The great achievement of this film is to imbue irresolution with such vigor, to make it seem necessary, something there like any other part of the world.

Duncan Campbell is a Glasgow-based artist whose films include Bernadette (2008), Make It New John (2009), and Arbeit (2011).