A Sunless Chris Marker

Audiences will be most familiar with Chris Marker through La Jette, the 1962 short film he directed twenty years before Sans Soleil. La Jette served as the source material for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, on which Marker is credited as a writer. Prior to making his own films, Marker assistant directed 1955’s Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ vivid documentary about the horrors of Nazi Concentration Camps. Two years prior, the two co-directed Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), a thirty minute documentary which opens with:

When men die, they become history.
Once statues die, they become art.
The botany of death is what we call culture.

Les Statues Meurent Aussi was one of the first films to take on colonialism and was banned in France almost instantly after its first screening.

Marker wasn’t just a filmmaker (although I’m sure all filmmakers say the same about themselves). Marker was also a writer, a documentarian, multi-media artist and a photographer. (SoHo’s Peter Blum gallery recently closed “Passengers”, a photographic exhibit featuring over 200 digital photographers taken by Chris Marker on the Paris Metro.) Several of Marker’s films, including La Jette, are composed of nothing but still photos. Sans Soleil follows this format and includes asides and photographs depicting life in the twentieth century, using Japan and Alaska as its poles. Narrated by an unknown woman reading letters from a friend, the story also includes a stop in San Francisco, retracing the locations of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Sans Soleil gets its title from Modest Mussorgsky’s Song Cycle, itself a montage of music. Just as Marker pieces together images from Hitchcock, Mussorgsky was known to make his compositions out of other composer’s works.

Marker did not give interviews, was hardly ever photographed and was known for showing up at his film screenings unannounced and unrecognizable, a pre-Banksy, if you will. While he is remembered as being a recluse of sorts, Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his Criterion Collection essay “Personal Effects, The Guarded of Intimacy of Sans Soleil“, recalls Thomas Pynchon’s sentiments: “My belief is that recluse is a code word generated by journalists… meaning doesn’t like to talk to reporters.”

Rosenbaum questions why Marker chooses to create a separate character, a cameraman, to tell the story in Sans Soleil and his conclusions rely on how individual audience members react to the film. Rosenbaum writes:

The implication is always that it’s the sincerity and lucidity of thoughts and feelings rather
than the individual ego behind them that counts. This has direct consequences
in the various ways we attend to and respond to Sans Soleil; the personal address,
even if it’s detached from the actual person, can’t help but elicit a personal response from us.

While audience members and Rosenbaum ponder these questions, the 1983 New York Times review of Sans Soleil reads, “While Mr. Marker pretends to be examining the quality of contemporary life, though what he actually is doing is examining his own” brings up the age old question, can we really ever separate the artists themselves from the art? (The Times has a point, though, as the San Francisco scenes in the film do not only reference Vertigo but Marker’s own La Jetee.)

I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?While artist versus art questions are constant, and usually interesting fodder, that is not the question audiences should be asking while watching Sans Soleil, or leaving the theatre when the film is over. It is not about the narration, or the speaker. It’s about time and memory. In the film, the narrator says:

It is by this, Marker asks his own questions in his film: what narration and images make up memory? How does time effect it? How do we choose what we remember or does what we remember become what happened? And if that is true, how does that effect the history of the world?

And the net Marker casts in Sans Soleil – from Alaska to Japan to the theatre where you’re sitting – taking it all in, is wide enough to catch everyone’s ego, not just the director’s.

by Jennifer Leah Peck

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