Chris Marker

Some purists rue the monkeys in Terry Gilliam’s new film, but none of them complain about seeing Chris Marker’s name again in theaters (Twelve Monkeys having been inspired by La Jetée). Marker, with Godard, one of the grand old men of revolutionary film in France, has been missed. Missing the slash La Jetée, 1962, froze in the mind, staying close, mesmerized—by Sans Soleil, 1982, wondering what he was doing, for such a man does not completely leave or go idle, even at night. Not knowing that Marker has in recent years been using video on his travels. He returns, as always, with even more existential surprise in his arms.

This time, he might have titled it Happiness.

It is called, more prosaically, Silent Movie, 1994–95, an installation commissioned by the Wexner Center, and is currently touring American museums. It is and is not a movie: at its core five monitors are stacked one on top of the other, a vertical tower releasing the softest flow of counterpoint and chord. In the tower, clips taken from old black and white films yield to Marker’s long black and white portrait of the beautiful Catherine Belkhodja seen over many days and moods. Still, like La Jetée, the memories from a man’s childhood trade against the sights of his present. Whole expanses of time charted within a self detach. Can they become images? Feet tightrope-walking sidewalks, fast trains of faces—hers, Asta Nielsen’s, Kiki de Montparnasse’s, cats’—Marker’s idea of TV is not much like anyone else’s. By the way, the tower is not silent.

Yet Marker himself does not speak.

Those waiting were not expecting that. Silent Movie forgoes his voice, the quiet one that used to muse over the spiraling images, a voice-over resetting tempos, temporarily calling halts. His language seemed to provide the ground for all reflection, the alter-mirror that would not tell you who you are and were. No one can forget such language. He used it in Sans Soleil to say:

“Poetry is born of insecurity, wandering Jews, quaking Japanese. By living on a rug that jesting nature is ever ready to pull out from under them, they’ve got into the habit of moving about in a world of appearances, fragile, fleeting, revocable, of trains that fly from the planet, of samurais fighting in an immutable past. That’s called the impermanence of things.”

Unsilvered reflections pulled vocal threads from the image, stretching them out from it or across it into webs, or better, a thick expanding edit, an edit that seemed to deny the dialectical cut of classic montage, an edit of layers where words opened up spaces and behaved like colors, an edit capable of cruel kindness and vertical clouds. Sometimes the language would speak of these things:

“I’m writing all this to you from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other, an impossibility. Legends are born out of the need to decipher the indecipherable. Memories must make do with the delirium, with their drift. A moment stopped would burn like a frame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector. Madness protects, as fever does.”

People used to like to speak of this as écriture but was it?

To say so takes away the spiral’s twist. Sans Soleil was full of these twists:

“The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images. He wrote me, one day I’ll have to put it at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”

It was simple. The language kept its ground in a notion of direct reference that most fans of écriture can neither read nor see. Threads tied. Black led. Marker’s references tied words right into images, to points like the Icelandic road in 1965, form touching particular people’s lives, as well as their parallel lives. Ties were not equivalents, not reductions of one thing to another. Chris Marker is no vulgar realist. He travels, like his friend Alexander Medvedkin, in the company of Bolsheviks. They know better than to think utopia issues from words. From people, perhaps. But not even their secrets have managed to carry the promise of revolution out.

In Silent Movie Marker falls back on others’ voices and uses them, not his own, in the silents’ way, most prominently as intertitles that stream through the center screen, paced against the repeating image of a cardiogram monitoring a beating heart. It makes a broken poem of 94 lines. No one actually speaks.

She bore that distracted look women bear, who have been loved by kings.

Thou hast murdered sleep.

Against them—or is it with them?—play the single-word titles on the other monitors; in descending order one reads them like chapter headings: the Voyage, the Face, then comes the monitor of the intertitles, then the Gesture, and at the bottom, the Waltz. Each of these words appears in various foreign languages that punctuate image flows from present to past and back, or is it ever back? Is it ever forward? The time here is not linear, there is no story either, the density in time and self builds into endless detachments produced both by the editing and the random playbacks sprung by a hidden computer. You never see the same occurrence twice. A montage in quintuplicate keeps moving into new combinations, past images looking at present ones and words finding new objects to inflect, in the process losing their attachment to authority. It would be misplaced to speak of the face through the concepts of Balázs and Deleuze. Misplaced as well to summon the face of the woman in La Jetée. In Silent Movie every face is more than a crystal physiognomy or a psychostructural episteme or scar-cum-madeleine. Every face belongs to a memory and to a person, to one mind and another’s body; it is a matter between people, not concepts; even the size of the monitors keeps the scale human. The same shots of the same faces travel to the other monitors and become gestures and voyages and waltzes, no face a limitation. Faces are Bolsheviks too.

There is hope.

The space between people is expressed as flows. All the images push to a lyric pitch: a robot, a bull’s eye, a heartbeat, a phone, the waltz, the spiral from Vertigo, and Garbo’s face and Catherine’s, talking on the phone, her lips moving, visible, the rest of her face in shadow. La Belkhodja rolls a toy car from her bosom, the image cuts to an old bell jar, then a roulette wheel on the monitor below, a proud stallion, writing, and rings slipped on hands and gloves, and a hand closing slowly, gripping nothing.

Are you sure this world was meant for you?

Why won’t he speak?

Marker has confined himself to editorial gestures. They suffice. Most important, for the flow might seem too full of its own endless loveliness, he makes the expansion of reference come with contractions: so much but no speech and no color, only black and white. In his catalogue essay Marker breaks the silence to make quite a point of this. He cites the work of Claude Gudin, who has posited color to be integral to nature’s own systems of seduction, even at the level of the microorganism, so much so that color might be called sex. Marker extrapolates, sees the black and white of early cinema to be a sensory deprivation that in turn produced other modes of seduction. In the movies they would be unnatural and somehow replete.

Tears are perfect for coded messages.

Tender is the night.

Stop now to consider expansions and contractions without dilemma or dismay.

It is not a dialectical process.

You cannot learn it as writing or rote.

This goes beyond the stuff of mediums or media.

The expansion has carried film clips into video and has made video suffer some of the linear and coloristic contractions of film. They seem less separate enterprises as a result. It so happens that the various venues of Silent Movie are serving to bring out its different sides. At the Museum of Modern Art it was shown as part of last summer’s “Video Spaces,” a dark display of gems, most of them exchanging the didactic light of the usual TV fare for something more considered, but still didactic, still a little stuck in Conceptual art’s cement. Film precedent did not structure most of those spaces; they held themselves away, sometimes hysterically, from the theatrical lights of directors and stars. Marker was the anomaly, he might say the dinosaur, the one still trodding the old remembered paths of montage while exploring the insane parallel zones, the one who sees no contradiction between paths or media or spaces, just contradictions stemming from oppression, the kind of contradiction that leads people to fight to the death.

At Berkeley, the Pacific Film Archive lent its great stores to the Silent Movie, showing some of the films from which the short clips come, returning them to their own stories and spells. And the Silent Movie there seems so much more a video meditation, layering the contractions in black and white into thousands of other layers, focusing them into geometric figures, sliding scenes into faces, recomposing shots from the inside out. The linear cutting is flooded by waves of digitally wrought montage, expanding the contractions again. The people portrayed do not drown in this sea of times and moments, they keep rising to the surface, respecting the counterpoints, showing feelings, returning to the light. They never stay for long. We have come to the land that Wittgenstein used to explore, where language fails the emotions and color becomes a logical impossibility, the land from which Marker has returned speechless with happiness.

Silence is filled by music in Silent Movie, perhaps a contraction, perhaps not. Duke Ellington playing Lotus Blossom, Scriabin’s mazurkas, Tchaikovsky’s June, strains of Scott Joplin and Mompou are heard while the Silent Movie plays on. It gives the rest a kind of horizon without meaning, a sound to hold the slips of the eyes and smiles. At the very end of The Last Bolshevik, 1993, Marker’s homage to Medvedkin, another old Bolshevik, Tolchan, asks Marker to stay on with him a moment and listen to his favorite music; if nothing else, he still could believe in that. And Marker’s voice there tells us “that [music] was his version of the black hole, a whole era condensed into one life, a whole life condensed into a few notes.” Life extracted from matter, a few notes held over, now air. Silent Movie achieves the same effect with more.

To speak would profane it.

Molly Nesbit

Silent Movie will travel to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, where it will be on view from 20 October 1996 to 12 January 1997.