PRINT January 2013

Lucy Raven

Chris Marker, Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia), 1957, 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, color, sound, 62 minutes.


EVERY CHRIS MARKER FILM I’ve seen I’ve watched, at least the first time, on a burned DVD, the titles Sharpied on by one friend or another in my loose Chris Marker Appreciation Society. These discs were given to me over drinks or sent through the mail; sometimes I swapped copies of films I’d already gotten hold of. Not long ago, I watched a fuzzed-out, samizdat copy of one of my favorite Marker films—his early, hour-long essay called Letter from Siberia (1957).

The things I’d remembered most clearly about that film were its incredible (and incredibly funny) animation sequences, made by the French studio Équipe Arcady. There’s the ode to woolly mammoths, ten of which parade across the landscape in time with a rhyme about their habits and history in Siberia. There’s the commercial Marker inserts later in the film; it’s meant “not to sell you some new miracle product but to remind you of an ancient, irreplaceable product-to-end-all-products: reindeer.” (Another animal—one of Marker’s favorites, the owl—appears in the ad, wearing an I HATE ELVIS button, promoting a brand of breakfast cereal called Horn Flakes.) The advertisement is funny because it holds reindeer up as the ultimate product for household consumption, gently spoofing economic reforms that were just taking hold in Khrushchev’s newly thawed Soviet Union. (What else could Siberia use to sell itself besides reindeer?) Marker, who made the film just as other communiqués from Siberia were beginning to trickle out revealing the horrors of the gulag, trains a wide lens on the region’s history: the oceans that covered it, the nomads who peopled it, and the mammoths that lie frozen in its tundra.

None of Marker’s other films contain anything like these animated sequences (though he would again deploy animation in his CD-ROM project, Immemory, in 1998), but the miniature owl and hand-drawn mammoths do prefigure the real cats, owls, and other animals that populate his later works (often as insert shots, or cinematic asides). In fact, much of what you see in Letter from Siberia (insofar as you can see it at all, given its woeful lack of distribution) contains the DNA of Marker’s best-known films.

Take, for instance, the slightly disjunctive edits. Watching Letter from Siberia again, I was reminded of André Bazin’s description of the technique Marker innovated here: He called it “horizontal montage” and argued that the film’s meaning emerges not from the sequencing of shots but from the relationship between narration and image, the transmission of information “from the ear to the eye.” One effect of the relay Bazin describes—that slight lag between sensory organs—is something I always associate with (and appreciate about) Marker’s style: a delay that gives slow readers like myself an extra beat to process the beginnings of a verbal idea before I take in the associated image.

Lucy Raven is a New York–based artist.