Remembering Filmmaker Chris Marker, Meditator on Memory and National Flux

Remembering Filmmaker Chris Marker, Meditator on Memory and National Flux
The unforgettable woman at Orly: Hélène Chatelain in Chris Marker's "La Jétee."
(Argos Films)

Chris Marker, one of cinema’s most innovative philosopher-explorers (and latterly a multimedia artist), has died one day after his ninety-first birthday. Though best known for his sole fiction film, “La Jetée” (1962), the globetrotting, left-wing French filmmaker directed a host of experimental essay-documentaries, some never completed or released, that variously analyze the nature of memory, probe how different societies respond to transition, and deconstruct the notion of history as truth. The films he made in Peking, Siberia, Cuba, Israel, Japan, and his native Paris pose alternative views of those locales to the kind force-fed by conventional documentaries and television reports.

Marker’s death during the Olympics is not without a certain poignancy since he twice used the games as a backdrop. “Olympia 52,” shot in 16mm 60 years ago in Helsinki, was his first film. “The Koumiko Mystery” (1965), filmed at the time of the 1964 Olympiad, is based on an interview with a modern Tokyo woman that shows how globalism had eroded the Japanese national identity.

Although he encouraged the myth that he was born in Ulan Bator in Mongolia, the habitually secretive and determined non-celebrity Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve probably hailed from Belleville in Paris or from Neuilly-sur-Seine in the city’s Western suburbs. A philosophy student before World War II, he fought in the French Resistance during the Nazi Occupation and may (or may not) have served as a paratrooper with the United States Air Force.

After the war, Marker began work as a journalist, poet, and fiction writer on the Marxist magazine Esprit and also contributed film reviews alongside his friend André Bazin, later writing for Bazin at Cahiers du Cinéma. He started to travel extensively as a journalist, wrote a novel about aviation published in 1950, and an illustrated essay on the playwright and novelist Jean Giraudoux.

Affiliated with the Left Bank Film Movement, Marker befriended Alain Resnais. In 1953 they made the African art documentary “Statues Never Die,” so critical of French colonialism that it was banned in France. He also assisted Resnais on his Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog” (1955), partially filmed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Madjanek.

He next made his first essay film, the documentary short “Sunday in Peking” (1955), which constantly draws attention to the filmmaker and his audience’s outsiderdom by drawing attention to the manufactured performance aspect of Peking life served up for Western tourists.

“Letter From Siberia” (1957), Marker’s first feature, describes the erosion of Siberia’s cultural identity through the use of footage shot in the region by the director himself, newsreel footage, cartoons, and stills. At one point Marker points out a resemblance between a Siberian and André Gide; at another, he inserts an image of Mad’s Alfred E. Neuman. The film is most famous, though, for the inclusion three times of the same sequence of streets, a bus, and workmen repairing a road to make different ideological (or non-ideological) points.

Marker’s “Description d’un combat” (1960), woven from original and archival footage, offers an intricate portrayal of modern Israel, incorporating kibbutzin, orthodox Jews, and the Arab minorities. The battle of the title is not military in nature but of the struggle of the people of a new nation to form an identity.

In January 1961, Marker interviewed Fidel Castro and the pro-Revolution Cuban priest Joris Bialin for Cuba Si!, which ends with an anti-American epilogue about the Bay of Pigs fiasco. It attempted in Marker’s words, to capture “the shudder, the rhythm of a revolution,” but appears less ideologically Marxist than a celebration of the Cuban people’s vitality espoused in revolutionary songs. It was made to counter the negative reporting of Castro in the French press by emphasizing his program of national reforms. As a result, the film was banned in France,  the authorities fearful of the effect it could have on opinion about the Algerian War of Independence. It was eventually released uncut in 1963, by when Algeria was independent.

In 1962, Marker published a collection of cinematic photographs and essays about everyday life in post-Civil War Korea – in which he refused to demarcate North from South – that reflected his visit there in 1957.

“La Jetée” similarly blurs the distinctions between film and photography, comprised as it is of stills and only one live-action sequence. Set in the aftermath of World War III, it concerns a prisoner who, subjected to time-travel experiments by scientists, constantly recalls the face of a woman he saw on a boarding platform at Orly Airport before he saw a man die there – she became his lover in the pre-war period but seeking to rejoin her after a visit to the future, he learns that the man killed, by an agent working for the scientists, was himself. Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys” (1995) was a partial hommage to Marker’s 28-minute sci-fi masterpiece.

Marker simultaneously made the two-and-a-half-hour vox pop documentary “Le joli mai” (1963), filmed by Pierre Lhomme, on the streets of Paris – its subject of personal happiness inflected by people’s feelings about France’s social and political future. In 1967, Marker curated Loin du Vietnam, a film protest against the war with segments directed by himself, Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens, Michele Ray, and William Klein.

Putting his own filmmaking activities (and his habitual solitariness) on hold, he meanwhile founded the collective SLON (later ISKRA, after Lenin’s newspaper) to encourage industrial workers to form their own film collectives. One of the fruits of this organization was “The Train That Never Stops,” which is about the cine-trains on which the Russian documentarist Aleksandr Medvedkin and his team traveled as they filmed the new Soviet state; it was shown as a prologue to Medvedkin’s “Schastye,” which the group had had re-released in France.

Marker then made two films about Chile: one about his friend Yves Montand’s benefit concert for Chilean refugees; the other, “La Spirale” (1974), about Allende’s election, his assassination, and the 1973 coup which led to Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

“A Grin Without a Cat” (1977), Marker’s analysis of the socialist movement before and after May 1968, contrasts early hopes with later disillusion. His last great film was “Sans Soleil” (1982), an ambitious philosophical meditation on Japan, Africa, technology, how different times and nationalities converge, and memory, the latter leading Marker to invoke Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

Never restricted by the limitations of what a filmmaker should be or do, Marker made “Immemory” (1998, 2008), an interactive CD-ROM that sends the user into a music-and-laden Proustian mystery story set in different zones of travel, war, and cinema. As with Resnais, memory was his ultimate subject, not ideology.

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