PRINT January 2013

James Quandt

Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1983, 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 103 minutes.


PLUCK ANY APERÇU from the Montaigne-like musings of Chris Marker and it soon effloresces into manifold meanings. “A hiker walking in a straight line is always sure to get lost in the forest,” the narrator observes in Letter from Siberia (1957), a warning, perhaps, to the unwary who attempt to traverse his labyrinths of spiraling time and unreliable memory. “I write to you from a far-off country”: That film’s opening line establishes the epistolary, globe-hopping mode of Marker’s cinema, though every distant land represented in his films—Iceland, Cuba, China, Guinea-Bissau, and (most often) Japan—inevitably comes to reside on the same metaphoric continent, the far-flung made adjacent by the artist’s memory.

Marker’s Proustian pronouncement “I claim, for the image, the humility and the powers of a madeleine” suggests the primacy of time and remembrance for the director of Sans Soleil (1983), who discerned in the whorl of Kim Novak’s blond chignon in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Marker’s film fétiche, a figuration of time’s helix. There, the past imposes—few filmmakers knew or cared as much about history—never relinquishing its dominion over the future: avenir forever becoming souvenir, as the French title of his late film Remembrance of Things to Come (2001) suggests. In the catacombs of Paris and on the deserted pier at Orly in La Jetée (1962), Marker located a futuristic landscape in which temporality literally becomes torture.

“We do not remember,” the nameless narrator of Sans Soleil intones; “we rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten.” Vigilant guardian of his own persona, Marker revised his past, effectively suppressing his pre-1962 films by disallowing any screenings, despite having protested the Onassis Foundation’s censorship of his epic essay on Greek culture, The Owl’s Legacy (1989). When I was organizing a retrospective of Marker’s work in the early 1990s at Toronto’s Cinematheque Ontario, we debated his decision by fax, his “Stalker” e-mail address not yet extant. (Ever generous, Chris inclined toward homage, in this case to his beloved Tarkovsky.) The thermal fax paper on which we waged a long and passionate argument has faded to nothing in the intervening decades: a Markerian instance of ephemeral technology turning words into “immemory.”

“For two centuries now,” Marker avers in Le Joli Mai (1963), “happiness has been a new idea in Europe, and people are still getting used to it.” He lived to witness a new discontent surge through the Continent, though his own happiness, to invoke the name of his other favorite film, by Aleksandr Medvedkin, never seemed in doubt. Marker died as two of his long-held obsessions, the Olympics and Vertigo, once again commanded the news.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.