Life Is But A Dream, An Eternal Memory

Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events.
-Albert Einstein

The collective consciousness is ever present. There is no past, no future, but only the present. Nothing really dies as everything we know and are was a shift from a former present, and that from a former shift, and that from the former, etc. How is it that we can capture history’s memory? As a still frame, one-twenty-fourth of a second caught on film? Would these moving images do the past justice? They can no better explain the unique, individual experience of a single moment in time than one’s memory can comprehend the ever evolving human consciousness. Even Chris Marker, director of Sans Soleil asks himself if the images he has recorded end up being his memory.

“Events, once happened, lose reality, alter with a glance,” says Alan Lightman in his novel Einstein’s Dreams, which depicts the dreams of a young Albert Einstein battling with the idea of the Theory of Relativity. In the novel, we are taken through curiously inventive scenarios with people who have different concepts of time; from those who constantly live out an event from their own past in the present and those who cannot conceive the premise of “the future.” Although this novel was published almost a decade after Marker’s film released, we are taken in a similar manner in Sans Soleil, wholly absorbed in the images and narration, altogether forgetting our notions of time.

To call this film a documentary about the people, customs and points of interest from Japan, France, Iceland, Republic of Guinea-Bissau, et al, would diminish the poetry Marker presents to his audience. From the perspective of a camera, he invites us into his memories. When Marker’s thoughts recount the voyeuristic culture of Tokyo as seen through flicks of samurai battles, or when he shows us the “empty, vertical” people of Cape Verde, or when he retraces the trek that James Stewart’s character undergoes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – we catch a glimpse into the reality of things as they were, as they are, ever-changing, yet still the same. For example, Marker compares festivals of Guinea-Bissau to those of Japan, and then he takes it one step further by explaining that the traditions of the Japanese are to recall their own ancient customs, which now dwindle into the practice of the mundane, everyday activities…but somehow manage to keep a mysterious charm.

Marker even lets us in on a secret, “The Zone”: digitally synthesized video clips of images he has already shown us, images that, by the end of the film, we are able to recall not only because they are burned into our minds, but also into the very fabric of time. It’s here that Sans Soleil is hinting at the concept of materialism. The materialist nature of the film is shown throughout, but “The Zone” leaves more of an emotional and psychological impression on the audience through the eerie shifts of people, places, and events using moving pictures, oral word, and music — the title itself nods its head to Russian composer Modest Moussorgsky’s song cycle “Sunless.” We see a collage of images of the living and dead, reality and fiction, victory and capitulation, and a series of emotional makeup that comprises what we are, which once was and will always be. To take a few lines from the film:

They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.

So the question is posed: what is memory but a stream of collective consciousness that can never truly die? Memory is awareness of former shifts of the present, and the universe is a perpetual shift, a continuation of its own consciousness, a self-awareness that experiences itself subjectively. How fitting, then, that Sans Soleil begins with a ride on a ferry, where we are shown many Japanese slumbering, taking a break from their limited consciousness. After all, it was the ancient Japanese samurai who were intrigued by the philosophy of immediacy, an idea that suggests that life is but a dream and that to die, thus returning to the universe, is to be awakened from that dream. Chris Marker manages a way to encapsulate his fondest memories into a single film, relate it to its overall place in time, and then cuts to black, essentially killing his own poetry, leaving the viewers to continue their own poetry from that moment forward.

By Luis Limon

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