PRINT January 2013

Nora M. Alter

Chris Marker, La Jetée, 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 27 minutes. The Woman (Hélène Chatelain).


A cat is never on the side of power.
—Chris Marker, A Grin Without a Cat (1993)

IN A REVIEW of Chris Marker’s Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, 1957), the French critic André Bazin extols the film for its formal innovations, editing style, and animated sequences. Singling out the production’s essayistic quality as its most important feature, Bazin describes Letter from Siberia as “an essay in the form of a filmic reportage. . . . An essay documented by film.” The term essay film stuck and subsequently came to describe a new genre of filmic production, with Marker (born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Paris in 1921) as one of its leading practitioners.

But Marker was much more than a filmmaker. By the time he made Letter from Siberia, he was already an established writer, editor, poet, cartoonist, actor, and activist. In the decade following the occupation of Paris, he published three monographs—Veillée de l’homme et de sa liberté (Vigil of Man and His Liberty, 1949), Giraudoux par lui-même (Giraudoux by Himself, 1952), and the award-winning Le Coeur net (The Forthright Spirit, 1949)—and coedited Regards sur le mouvement ouvrier (Reflections on the Worker’s Movement, 1951). From 1954 to 1958, he edited Petit Planète, a series of books that specialized in texts with illustrations, graphics, and photographs from different countries, and these led him directly to the production of “photo essays” such as Coréennes (Korean Women, 1959), which rely heavily on image-text combinations. Also in the 1950s, Marker contributed over a hundred items—including poems, cartoons, reviews, and more substantial essays—to the Paris-based journals Esprit and Cahiers du Cinéma. The topics of these texts range from cultural criticism and social commentary to film analysis and painstaking explanations of technical matters related to animation, trick films, and Cinerama. But as Marker became more involved with filmmaking, the quantity of his writing decreased; he traded his pen for a camera and began to produce cinematic essays.

Marker completed his first feature film, Olympia 52, in 1952, and the short Dimanche à Pékin (Sunday in Peking) in 1956. During these years, he also collaborated on a number of movies with Alain Resnais, including Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), and Toute la mémoire du monde (All the Memory of the World, 1956). The highly pictorial nature of his Petit Planète books and of his photo essays found its way into photo-films such as La Jetée (1962), Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (If I Had Four Dromedaries, 1966), and Le Souvenir d’un avenir (Remembrance of Things to Come, 2001). Over six decades of filmmaking that ended with the trailer Kino (2012), made for that year’s Venice Film Festival, Marker produced more than fifty motion pictures. He facilitated and supported the production of many more, though, modest almost to a fault, he often refused credit for these. Shunning the spotlight, Marker rarely let himself be photographed.

In his first decade of filmmaking, Marker made extensive trips to China, the Soviet Union, Israel, and Cuba. He was fascinated by the utopian promise of the new societies emerging in these revolutionary contexts. Letter from Siberia explores the Soviet Union four years after the death of Joseph Stalin; Sunday in Peking casts a glance at China only six years after Mao Tse-tung’s victory; Description d’un combat (Description of a Struggle, 1960) examines Israel twelve years following the birth of the nation; and Cuba Sí! (1961), perhaps the most optimistic of the four, celebrates the two-year anniversary of the Cuban revolution. In each instance, Marker’s camera probes beneath the surface, always questioning and never hesitating to expose contradictions. Indeed, the films are devoid of blind patriotism and informed by a social philosophy that aligns with those oppressed by power, regardless of their ideological leanings or nationality.

In the 1960s, Marker returned to Paris to make two important films: La Jetée and, with Pierre Lhomme, Le Joli Mai (The Merry Month of May, 1963). Shot in the style of cinema verité during one month in the spring of 1962, Le Joli Mai romantically describes Paris as the “city that one wishes to see without any memories, where one wishes to return after a very long absence in order to find out whether the same keys still open the same locks, whether it still displays the same blend of light and fog, dryness and tenderness, whether an owl still calls at dusk, whether a cat still lives on the island.” The film features interviews with people in the street interspersed with a commentary that imparts information ranging from the number of hours of sunshine in May to the amount of meat and potatoes consumed by the city’s population each month. Percolating close to the surface are the underlying currents of state politics (including the French-Algerian conflict), police violence, and urban renewal. The strategy of interviewing anonymous passersby and recording the banalities of everyday life in order to gain an understanding of the contemporary context would be employed by Marker in many subsequent films, including Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam, 1967), Le Fond de l’air est rouge/A Grin Without a Cat (1977/1993), and the more recent Chats perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat, 2004).

Chris Marker, Chats perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat), 2004, video, color, sound, 58 minutes.

If Le Joli Mai is grounded in a recording of the “real,” La Jetée crystallizes Marker’s foray into fictional filmmaking. His best-known work, it is a quasi-science-fiction production composed almost entirely of black-and-white still photographs. The story, which would subsequently form the basis of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), is set in a postapocalyptic Paris, devastated by nuclear catastrophe. The narrative defies the logic of memory and undermines concepts of time: A prisoner is haunted by an image from his childhood—an image, it is revealed at the end of the film, that depicts his own death. In both formal and thematic terms, the film plays on the idea that memory is structured not as a continuous narrative flow but as a discontinuous series of snapshots. The relationship of memory to images, their inscription in history, and the medium that conveys them function as leitmotifs in much of Marker’s work.

In the 1960s, Marker’s cinematic practice became increasingly engaged with topical political issues. The experience of making À bientôt, j’espère (Be Seeing You, 1968), which focuses on a workers’ strike at the Rhodiaceta textile factory in Besançon, France, led him to the realization that a genuine, progressive transformation of social conditions might only be realized if the subjects captured on film were active in the production process. This led Marker to form the Medvedkine Group, a collective in which the workers made their own motion pictures. Initially funded by Marker’s production company slon (Société pour le Lancement d’Oeuvres Nouvelles/Company for the Launching of New Work), the Medvedkine Group made twelve films. The idea came from Aleksandr Medvedkin’s ciné-train of the 1930s, which traveled the Soviet Union with the aim of using film as an instructional tool to help citizens understand and resolve conflicts. Marker substituted, for the idea of a train lab, new lightweight cameras and the video Porta-Pak, both of which carried the promise of facilitating audiovisual production and radically democratizing film distribution. slon produced more than fifty titles between 1967 and 1976. Marker was directly involved in several of these, including La Sixième Face du Pentagone (The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, 1968), La Bataille des dix millions (The Battle of Ten Million, 1970), and the “counterinformation” series On vous parle . . . (Let’s speak about . . . , 1969–73). Even long after the dissolution of slon, Marker’s interest in channeling media to better social conditions never dimmed. A case in point is Le 20 Heures dans les camps (Prime Time in the Camps, 1993), a twenty-seven-minute report from Bosnian refugee camps in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where the peripatetic Frenchman helped refugees to create their own media platforms. Marker’s politically engaged films have provided a model for committed filmmakers and collectives the world over.

One of Marker’s most sweeping political films is Le Fond de l’air est rouge, reedited and released as A Grin Without a Cat in 1993. The film probes the dismal fate of the progressive social movements of the ’60s. From the collapse of the Left in France to the suppression and failure of revolutions around the world, Marker tries to understand what happened to the utopian promises of political modernity. The 1977 production ends with a striking juxtaposition of jubilant scenes from postrevolutionary Portugal (in which people flash the V sign for “victory”) and a sequence of men with guns in helicopters methodically culling the wolf population. Fifteen years later, Marker would comment on more recent phenomena, including boat people, aids, Reaganism, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and terrorism’s supersession of Communism as the public embodiment of evil. This time, the film concludes with the Markerian narrator marveling at the “ingenuity of history, which always seems to have more imagination than we do.”

Marker supplemented his political filmmaking with audiovisual portraits of individuals. One of these, Le Mystère Koumiko (The Koumiko Mystery, 1965), focuses on a young woman who serves as a segue into the culture of Japan. Marker explains that the protagonist of The Koumiko Mystery “knows she hasn’t made history, but she is history, like you, like me, like Mao Tse-tung, the pope, and the opossum.” While Koumiko remains relatively unknown, many of Marker’s film portraits feature prominent cultural figures such as the Chilean painter Roberto Matta (Matta ’85 [1985]), the Bulgarian sculptor Christo (From Chris to Christo [1985]), and the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (A.K. [1985]). Marker also pays homage to several recently deceased individuals, including Simone Signoret (Mémoires pour Simone [1986]), Medvedkin (The Last Bolshevik [1993]), and Andrei Tarkovsky (Une Journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch [One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, 1999]). As with The Koumiko Mystery, all of his film portraits encompass a larger dialogue about history.

Chris Marker, Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men, 2005, eight-channel digital video, color and black-and-white, sound, 19 minutes. Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Just slightly less known than La Jetée, Sans Soleil (1983) is a tightly woven, meditative study on memory and the technologies that record and mediate it. The narrative is framed as a series of letters to an unknown woman from one Sandor Krasna, a cameraman who travels the world. The film probes the interface of time and space as it cuts back and forth from one location to another—primarily between Japan and the African nation of Guinea-Bissau—creating a seemingly disjointed montage. A significant portion of Sans Soleil is devoted to an exploration of how technology makes the manipulation and transformation of images possible. Level Five (1996) also focuses on new technology. The ostensible subject is once again Japan, except that this time the country is an entirely virtual entity accessed only via a computer screen. The protagonist, Laura (Catherine Belkhodja), sits at a workstation from which she seeks to discover the key to reconstructing the Battle of Okinawa. The film explores the myriad new resources that our ever-evolving and expanding digital archive provides for rethinking history.

Marker made a point of remaining at the forefront of developments in technology throughout his career, and he constantly explored novel formal possibilities. Resnais has recalled that Marker was one of the first French filmmakers to use a 16-mm camera in the postwar years. Le Joli Mai was made with what was then the newly developed handheld sync-sound camera, and L’Ambassade (The Embassy, 1973) was shot on Super 8. Formal experimentation continued to drive Marker’s practice in his later years, leading to the creation of the CD-rom Immemory in 1998 and to the opening in 2008 of his memory museum in the virtual world Second Life. The public-access promise offered by new media was of special interest to Marker over the years. For instance, he embraced videotape not only because of its democratic imagemaking prospects but also because of its enormous exhibition and distribution potential. Along similar lines, he explored the potential that museums offered for the dissemination of his work.

Marker produced his first video installation, Quand le siècle a pris formes (When the Century Took Shape, 1978), for the exhibition “Paris-Berlin 1900–1930” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Experimenting with the opportunities that a three-dimensional exhibition space might provide montage, he set up two monitors on which footage from World War I, the Russian Revolution, the onset of the Great Depression, and other significant historical events played. When asked to contribute to the Pompidou’s 1990 exhibition “Passages de l’image,” Marker greatly expanded his design to include fourteen video monitors, thirteen laser-disc players, and just as many loudspeakers. The title of this multimedia installation—Zapping Zone: Proposals for an Imaginary Television—obviously gestures toward television, a medium with which he frequently engaged: In the 1950s, he proposed the ill-fated show La Clé des songes (The Key to Dreams), and A Grin Without a Cat was initially made in two parts for broadcast. Perhaps his most ambitious stab at television was The Owl’s Legacy (1989), a thirteen-episode meditation on the history of philosophy. He recognized the political potential of the medium from the outset. As he notes in Le Joli Mai, while the camera pans across a dismal one-room living quarter, “for many Parisians, television is the only window open on the world, and this window is all the more needed when the room is small.” The Internet replaced TV as that crucial window in his post-1990 work.

One of Marker’s most considerable film installations is Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men, 2005, based loosely on T. S. Eliot’s 1925 poem and commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The project is a meditation on the ephemerality of memory. Raising to another register the tension between the kineticism of film and the stasis of photography that characterizes Marker’s early work, Owls at Noon Prelude features digital images that are at once still and in motion. The subtle inner movement of the pictures projected on eight screens suggests a dialogic concept of history and time.

During the final two decades of his life, Marker employed a variety of techniques to explore the world of possibilities opened up by digital media. Increasingly, he came to find that the potential for three-dimensional installations offered by museums was outweighed by the severe institutional limitations of these spaces. This led him to turn more and more to techniques such as computer animation and 3-D modeling, which facilitate the construction of nonlinear montages with multiple perspectives and yet are seemingly free of the constraints imposed by museums. For instance, Immemory is designed as a form of personal history or archive. The user is encouraged to click on one of a variety of subject headings or images that open up onto the artist’s musings. In a similar way, Marker’s platform in Second Life allows visitors to become immersed in a virtual world. As in Immemory, the spectator-cum-visitor is guided through multiple platforms by Guillaume-en-Egypte, a striped orange cat commemorating Marker’s late and beloved pet. But Guillaume-en-Egypte also serves as an avatar for the artist, who, like a cat, never aligns himself with power.

A toast is proposed in “Philosophy, or the Triumph of the Owl,” the final episode of The Owl’s Legacy. “Let’s drink to death with dignity, like philosophers,” cheers the voice-over. On July 29, 2012—his ninety-first birthday—Marker succumbed to life’s inevitable end in the small, jam-packed studio that he kept for many years on the rue Courat in Paris. Playing on his monitor was Chat écoutant la musique (A Cat Listening to Music, 1985). A large effigy of Guillaume-en-Egypte stood nearby.

Professor and Chair of Film and Media Arts at Temple University in Philadelphia, Nora M. Alter is the author of Chris Marker (University of Illinois Press, 2006).