PRINT January 2013

Tom McCarthy

Chris Marker, Slon Tango, 1993, video, color, sound, 4 minutes 15 seconds.


THAT STRANGE ELEPHANT. I must have first seen the short in 1999, at the Beaconsfield gallery retrospective that introduced me, like so many other Londoners, to Marker’s work. The four-minute video from 1993 was running on a loop inside a small, decrepit classroom (the building was a former Ragged School), and the accompanying vinyl wall text seemingly contained a typo. Slon Tango? Slow, surely. Then I remembered that slon means “elephant” in various Slavic languages. And bang on cue, this big Slovenian elephant came lumbering his way across the screen.

There were no cuts, no edits, and none of the essayistic monologuing Marker had raised to an art form: just some music by Stravinsky—tango music, oozing the type of melancholic longing that pervades Marker’s oeuvre. And, as though pervaded by it too, the elephant, almost surreally, as he plods his way round his enclosure, starts to tango. He takes one step forward, one step backward; his front left calf wraps itself around his front right shin; his back left calf does likewise with its neighbor. As he performs these moves, the animal’s corporeal architecture—four legs instead of two—has the bizarre effect of mimicking two dancers locked in an abrazo, sensuously running sequences of ganchos and paradas. These dancers, though, would be (to use a Markeresque term) tangoers without heads, their upper bodies merging, Siamese twin–like, in the vaulted underbelly of the elephant before the fleeting and provisional mimesis gives over to an indeterminate gray mass of flank and stomach.

An elephant—any elephant—points, of course, to the most essentially Markerian motif of all: memory. Is this particular beast remembering some courting ritual or prefight psych-out shuffle that he used to do when he was “free”? Or is he obediently performing a trick his trainer has taught him? Or is the dance a routine he has developed and elaborated in a bid to while away the long days of his captivity? If so, it’s a sad, rather than defiant, gesture (tango, of all things!), played out against the backdrop of a wall. Like Nabokov’s charcoal-and-paper-endowed monkey, this creature seems—maybe knowingly and sardonically, or maybe (and this would be even sadder) quite unconsciously—to be drawing the bars of his own cage. And all the while, with his long trunk, he showers himself with dust, as though enacting Hamlet’s metaphor of man as this material’s quintessence.

All Marker’s animals have political connotations, from the tragic African giraffe felled by colonial bullets in Sans Soleil (1983) to the mechanical parrot in Level Five (1996), whose increasingly degraded verbal repetitions as its battery runs down signal the entropy afflicting historical memory, to the ubiquitous owls and cats whose relentless gazes seem to assert some kind of exterior, residual social conscience. In 1967, Marker helped found a filmmakers’ collective dedicated both to producing politically aware work and to tooling up industrial laborers with the means to create films themselves. Its name was the Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles—or, to give it its acronym, slon. It didn’t last. Appearing in Slon Tango a quarter century later—at a point in Marker’s career when not only was he still making nostalgia-saturated films but his own early work itself formed part of this nostalgia’s object-landscape—the Slovenian elephant becomes, almost by default, a multiply scrawled-on palimpsest. (“Marker,” remember, is a pseudonym, and one with quite specific nuance; any worn, cracked surface, any leathery hide or parchment with which he presents us, has to be seen in this context.)

But what makes this animal truly fascinating is that he’s both more and less than this: In his vast, multitude-containing bulkiness, his ponderous, wrinkled, smeared, dust-covered, sheer, dumb there­ness, he remains inscrutable, unreadable. He struts and frets and shambles, then he exits, to the left—against the flow or syntax of both cinema and history, which move from left to right. Perhaps this, and not the tango, is the animal’s small gesture of defiance. Then again, perhaps he’s simply tired, and is retiring to a shed to sleep his long, slon sleep.

Tom McCarthy is the author of the novels Remainder (Metronome, 2005), C (Knopf, 2010), and Men in Space (Vintage, 2012).