PRINT January 2013

Patrick Keiller

Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme, Le Joli Mai (The Merry Month of May), 1963, 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 165 minutes.


CHRIS MARKER was one of a number of innovators with careers most usually dated from the 1950s who had participated in World War II (John Latham [1921–2006] and Kurt Vonnegut [1922–2007] were others); he was born in the same year as his friends Yves Montand (1921–1991) and Simone Signoret (1921–1985), who would each narrate his 1963 film Le Joli Mai, Montand in French and Signoret in English; like Alain Resnais (b. 1922) he was older than Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) and François Truffaut (1932–1984) and only a few years younger than Jean-Pierre Melville (1917–1973); like Melville, Marker adopted a pseudonym, was active in the French Resistance, and had an interesting relationship with American culture. For my generation in the UK, born in the 1950s and growing up in the ’60s, still in the shadow of the war, these were serious people, veterans, experienced in a way it was unlikely we would ever be. In this sense, too, Marker wrote to us “from a far-off country,” as his Letter from Siberia (1957) famously begins; it was a country we might yearn to inhabit, or at least visit. In 1968 or thereabouts, we were the same age as Marker had been in 1939, so that for us, the corresponding period is the late ’60s and early ’70s, when I, and I imagine many others, initially encountered Marker’s films.

I first saw La Jetée (1962) in January 1969, in a late-night program that was, I think, part of some longer event in which the films weren’t individually listed, so that it came as a complete surprise. I was an architecture student, and while it never occurred to me to make anything like a film until ten years later, I very often recalled Marker’s extraordinary work; when I did attempt some cinematography, it was the form of La Jetée that encouraged me. If I hadn’t seen it when I did, it’s quite likely I would never have made any films, so while I would never wish to implicate Marker in anything, I owe him a great deal: the thought to begin; the realization that one can work simultaneously in word and image; and, later, the idea to make a film about the city in which I lived, which struck me quite suddenly while watching Le Joli Mai for the first time, in July 1989. I’m always surprised at how few people are or have been at once imagemakers and writers. Marker was writer, photographer, and cinematographer. I can’t think of anyone else who has explored the reciprocity of images and words to such effect.

I never met him. My only glimpse beyond the films was on a Sunday evening in September 1983, when, approaching Paris from Marseille in end-of-holiday traffic, we passed a sign to Orly and thought to visit the location of the legendary film. No longer Paris’s principal airport, Orly had become the gateway to many of the world’s more Markeresque destinations: in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Asia. For just a moment, it felt as if we were inside Marker’s head.

Patrick Keiller’s work includes the essay films London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010), the last adapted as “The Robinson Institute,” an exhibition at Tate Britain, London, last year.