Category Archives: Essay Form

Robert Kramer, Point de départ / Starting Place

Robert Kramer tribute to Chris Marker - citation - memory

Take a look at the Marker-inspired Robert Kramer film, Point de départ, from 1993.

“One day or other all these films that I’m making will make up a single long film, a story that is always developing.”
Robert Kramer

The Man with the Movie Camera

Starting Place | Point de Départ
Directed by Robert Kramer
France 1993, 35mm, color, 83 min.
English, French, and Vietnamese with English subtitles

In this film from late in his career, Kramer returns to Hanoi after nearly 25 years to re-envision the city’s struggle through an uncertain and daunting past, present, and future. The Vietnamese characters in the film are diverse: Kramer’s former guide from an earlier visit in 1969; a tight-rope walker in the national circus; a man who took photos of B-52s and another who lost his fingers shooting them down.

[…]

Robert Kramer—who, according to Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “seems incapable of shooting a scene, framing a shot or catching a line of dialogue that isn’t loaded with levels of information one usually finds only in the best, most spare poetry”—died unexpectedly in France this past November at the age of sixty.

He left a singular body of work—as far from Hollywood as it was from underground or experimental films—that eventually, he felt, would “make up one long film . . . one ‘story’ in a continual process of becoming.” A committed leftist who emerged radicalized from his studies in philosophy and Western European history at Swarthmore and Stanford, he worked as a reporter in Latin America and organized a community project in a black neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, before founding the Newsreel movement, an underground media collective which made some sixty documentaries and short films about radical political subjects and the antiwar movement between 1967 and 1971. Kramer made his mark in the 1960s as the great filmmaker of the American radical left with films like The Edge and Ice.

Embraced by the European intelligentsia, he eventually moved to Paris in the early 1980s, where he continued to produce fictionalized and documentary films on a range of subjects from Portugal’s April Revolution and post-independence Angola to the Tour de France—all the while maintaining his “uninterrupted dialogue with America.” Our series offers the opportunity to sample a range of Kramer’s rarely screened work and to pay tribute to this unique cinematic personality.
Harvard Film Archive

Although Mr. Kramer was best known in the United States for his radical early movies, notably The Edge, Ice and Milestones, he remained a prolific filmmaker after he moved to Paris in 1980. Doc’s Kingdom and Route 1/U.S.A. were among his later films that were also released in the United States. At the time of his death, he had just completed a new movie, Cities of the Plains.
New York Times, “Robert Kramer, 60, a Director Of Films With a Political Edge

One of the most insightful essays on Point de départ that I’ve encountered is by Adrian Martin in Rouge, where he discusses orientation and disorientation as a challenge to the spectator. As Adorno reminds us in The Essay as Form, essays start in media res. “It starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about; it says what occurs to it in that context and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say.” In Montaigne, there is rarely any beginning, middle and end; the form is more spiral. The point of departure is the crux – it can be anywhere (and any-when), and serves as an initial break from the blank canvas, parchment or page. Its asymmetry and a-systematicity are its strengths, its tactical counter moves to monolithic works of art or philosophy that are enveloped in the mist of completeness, the encyclopedia, the Enlightenment dream. It is, or can be, molecular rather than molar, and to boot in both spatial and temporal dimensions. That may be why space and time often become its internal obsessions, the medium mixing with the message.

From: Adrian Martin, “Robert Kramer Films the Event”, Rouge

We are on the continent of Robert Kramer’s essay-films. What country is this, what year, what time? There are no establishing shots, no introductions to ease us in. Everything is in medias res. Kramer never gives us a superimposed title telling us we are watching ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Paris’ or ‘USA’; he never includes the identifying names of people, typewritten on screen, the first time we see them (and indeed, if we ever do learn this, it is often indirectly, by accident); he rarely introduces a radically different piece of footage into the montage with a reassuring title saying ‘ten years ago’, or a voice-off saying ‘I remember …’.

The challenge thrown out to the spectator is: orient yourself. Just in the same way that Kramer, the man with the movie camera, is forced to orient himself: he looks around, gets his bearings, follows something interesting down the street (a face, a bicycle, a line of tombstones in the cemetery) …

‘Whenever I start something, I always feel like I’m at a point of departure.’ But Kramer is always starting his essay-films, over and over, re-starting them at every new scene, each new plateau, so there is no single starting place (his English title for Point de départ, 1994). When it comes to the ‘problem’ or topic addressed by each Kramer film, there are a hundred places or points to start from; but there is no single origin to that problem. It is like what Barthes wrote: it is a question of ‘pursuing’ the problem, chasing it in flight, and thus ‘”uncoating” it of the finality in which it locks up its point of departure.’

And, just as there is no single origin, there is no single destination, either: Kramer’s essay-films map, all at once, a hundred directions, thoughts and associations that cluster around a central idea. But is there one, central idea – and can we tell what it is? It is impossible, for example, to cleanly segment the montage of his essay-films in the way that one can slice up the scenes of a conventional, narrative film. Where does one path start, and where does it end?
Adrian Martin, “Robert Kramer Films the Event”, Rouge

Chris Marker, Never Explain, Never Complain @ DOXA

There is a new film out entitled Chris Marker, Never Explain, Never Complain, by Jean-Marie Barbe & Arnaud Lambert. The film is to be shown as part of the 2017 DOXA Festival called “French, French” taking place 4-14 Mai 2017 at the Cinémathèque in Vancouver, BC, and will move to theh Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley after that (not sure of dates yet). For the news and the PDF of the DOXA press booklet I am grateful to Christine van Assche.

The festival will show recent French documentary films alongside a selection of Marker’s work, including Une Journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch, Le Souvenir d’un avenir, Chats perchés, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre, Le Fond de l’air est rouge, and L’Héritage de la chouette.

The program is curated by Thierry Garrel. If you dig a bit, you can find a Marker-related essay by Garrel on the DOXA site called “Two Cats, An Owl and a Lot of Nice Human Beings.” Garell writes:

As an opening to this retrospective, Chris Marker, Never Explain, Never Complain (2016), by Jean-Marie Barbe and Arnaud Lambert, portrays the cinéaste and his works through the testimonies of seven people who knew him and worked with him – including Wim Wenders, Patricio Guzman, and … yours truly, as I had the privilege to collaborate on the production side while working for French Television at INA, La Sept and ARTE, with all the films presented!

Here’s the text from the program on the new bio-essay-doc:

Chris Marker, Never Explain, Never Complain

Jean-Marie Barbe & Arnaud Lambert, France, 2016, 144mn

La vie et l’oeuvre de Chris Marker pourraient remplir plusieurs volumes — même un train de marchandises ! — mais Jean-Marie Barbe et Arnaud Lambert les brossent allègrement en tout juste 144 minutes. En répondant à la question : “Qui est Chris Marker ?”, chacun de leurs interlocuteurs convoquent à chaque fois un univers et des réalités différentes. Comme Wim Wenders, qui s’est saoulé à mort avec Marker dans un bar de Tokyo : “Cette nuit à La Jetée, nous avons parlé, parlé, mais nous avons bu tant de sake et de vodka… que j’ai presque tout oublié”. Ou André S. Labarthe, qui résume : “c’était un esprit libre.” Ce qui est sûr, c’est que tout au long de sa carrière, Marker ne s’est jamais satisfait de n’être qu’un ni de ne faire qu’une seule chose. Écrivain, cinéaste, photographe, érudit, dessinateur, amoureux des chats – on ne saurait le qualifier en un mot. Sinon peut-être : génie.

The life and work of Chris Marker could easily fill several documentary portraits, maybe even several freight trains, but directors Jean-Marie Barbe and Arnaud Lambert have kept it to a brisk 144 minutes. “Who is Chris Marker?” — is the question posed by the directors/interlocutors, and every answer reveals a different reality. Some of the recollections are funny and bittersweet, such as Wim Wenders getting blind drunk with Marker at a bar in Tokyo. “That night at La Jetée is the time when we talked most, but we drank so much sake and vodka that we forgot most of it,” says Wenders. As André S. Labarthe states simply: “He was a free spirit.” One thing is clear, over the length of his career, Marker was never content to do or be only one thing. Writer, filmmaker, photographer, polymath, cartoonist, cat lover — there is no single term that quite suffices. Except, perhaps, genius. -DW

Download Program (PDF)

Check out the DOXA site for more information.

Here’s the page for the Chris Marker retrospective.

According to the DOXA site, “Jean-Marie Barbe is the president of Tënk, the first online platform dedicated solely to auteur documentary. The goal is to provide access to the very best in nonfiction cinema to the widest possible audience. Tënk’s curatorial team of discerning documentary professionals selects films, drawn from festivals, and organizes them thematically.” [source]

Arnaud Lambert is no newcomer to Chris Marker investigations. He is the author of the brilliant, comprehensive volume – in French despite its English title – Also Known as Chris Marker, published in 2013 by LePointduJour.

L’essai : vues d’Allemagne, la fabrique documentaire

L'essai : vues d'Allemagne from la fabrique documentaire on Vimeo.

This essay film on ‘views’ of the essay film in Germany begins with the unmistakable, raspy and wise voice of Gilles Deleuze, and quickly launches into a rapid montage of moments of meta, showing and letting the showing speak, while adding voices but not an authorial voice per se, rather quoted voices – just as cinematic citation pulls clips out of context so does the audio editing. But everything was de-contextualized already, and perhaps it is not a loss of context we see in the meta-cinema movement, but a constant churning of recontextualization, never complete but less prone to the voice of the deus ex machina. The auteur recedes like the tide, and the collective works like ants or bees, collectively of course, behind the scenes. How refreshing not to have a central figure to lionize or demonize, to put on a pedestal. And yet, there is nostalgia for the total statement, the touch of genius, the auteur herself nonetheless. An ambivalence creeps in to the plethora of video essays we have been witness to of late, emerging like California wildfires as cinema wraps around itself and the pedagogic impulse, from professorial to journalistic, learns the tools of montage. The caméra-stylo triumphant, but awash too in a potential sea of banality. Who will emerge as the master of this new wave of essay film/video, if anyone? Do we need heros anymore? Do we need genius? Perhaps these questions are beside the point, and the real thesis is that now we can treat the film as text, something that Bellour always argued against. Not in a book, but in another film can this stratagem succeed, perhaps. Gutenberg slumbers on… The thesis can be lost as the particulars, the instances of speech and moving image as signs accumulate. Have we fallen out of the temptation of the essay to have a thesis at all, as taught relentlessly to students globally, or are we merely acceding to the impulses of the essai sauvage – the wild essay form, beginning in media res and spiraling around its ultimate thematic monads, unrushed, expansive – as born in the tower of Montaigne?

Chateau de Montaigne

La fabrique documentiare

Depuis 2005, la fabrique documentaire* produit, réalise, programme et diffuse des œuvres documentaires (audio, vidéo, livre, web, exposition…), en explorant de nouvelles façons d’écrire et de partager.

Nos productions, initiatives personnelles ou travaux de commande, engagent des points de vue d’auteurs. La fabrique documentaire privilégie les projets qui lui semblent de nature à nourrir la pensée, voire à infléchir le réel.

* En 2015, Radiofonies Europe devient la fabrique documentaire.
la fabrique documentaire

You Only Live Twice Set at La Jetée’s Orly Airport

You Only Live Twice: Sex, Death and Transition

By Chase Joynt and Mike Hoolboom

Coach House, 152 pages, $14.95

On the day of French director Chris Marker’s death, two movie artists meet at the Orly Airport. It’s a place of professional interest, since Marker, a favourite New Wave cineaste, set a pivotal scene in his 1962 film, La Jetée, here. The film involves time travel such that in this particular scene the protagonist witnesses his own death, and so for trans writer and media artist Chase Joynt and HIV-positive movie artist Mike Hoolboom, this location is also a place of personal resonance: Both men share a sense of having lived twice. In the series of vignettes that follow, Joynt and Hoolboom enter into a free-flowing correspondence on multifarious topics – love, sex, art, death, the public and the private – that brings to mind Maggie Nelson’s work of autotheory from last year. The reflexive format allows for what John Berger would call a “real likeness”: a portrait from both sides of the camera. An intellectually expansive, emotional gut-punch of a memoir.TheGlobeandMail.com

André Bazin on Chris Marker (1958)

lettre-de-siberie-bazin

Trans. Dave Kehr, © Cahiers du Cinéma, published in Film Comment, 2003.

Chris Marker, as you may remember, wrote the narration for Bibliothèque Nationale (Toute la mémoire du monde) and Statues Also Die (which the public still has only been able to see in a version cut to half its length by the censorship board). These incisive, powerful texts, in which cutting irony plays hide and seek with poetry, would be enough to secure their author a privileged place in the field of short filmmaking, currently the liveliest fringe of the French cinema. As the writer of the narrations for these films by his friend Resnais, with whom he shares a marvelous understanding, Chris Marker has already profoundly altered the visual relationship between text and image. But his ambition was obviously even more radical, and it became necessary for him to make his own films.

First there was Sunday in Peking, which justly won a prize at the 1956 Festival of Tours, and now, at last, there is the extraordinary Letter from Siberia. Admirable as Sunday in Peking was, it was also slightly disappointing, in that the restrictions of the short format seemed inadequate for such a big subject. And it also has to be said that the images, while often very beautiful, did not supply sufficient documentary material in the end. It left us wanting more. But the seed of the dialectic between word and image that Marker would go on to sow in Letter from Siberia was already there. In the new film, it grows to the dimensions appropriate to a feature film, and takes the weight.

“A Documentary Point of View”

How to describe Letter from Siberia? Negatively, at first, in pointing out that it resembles absolutely nothing that we have ever seen before in films with a documentary basis – films with “a subject.” But then it becomes necessary to say what it is. Flatly and objectively, it is a film report from a Frenchman given the rare privilege of traveling freely in Siberia, covering several thousand kilometers. Although in the last three years we have seen several film reports from French travelers in Russia. Letter from Siberia resembles none of them. So. We must take a closer look. I would propose the following approximate description: Letter from Siberia is an essay on the reality of Siberia past and present in the form of a filmed report. Or. perhaps, to borrow Jean Vigo’s formulation of À propos de Nice (“a documentary point of view”), I would say, an essay documented by film. The important word is “essay,” understood in the same sense that it has in literature — an essay at once historical and political, written by a poet as well.

Generally, even in politically engaged documentaries or those with a specific point to make, the image (which is to say, the uniquely cinematic element) effectively constitutes the primary material of the film. The orientation of the work is expressed through the choices made by the filmmaker in the montage, with the commentary completing the organization of the sense thus conferred on the document. With Marker it works quite differently. I would say that the primary material is intelligence, that its immediate means of expression is language, and that the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence. The usual process is reversed. I will risk another metaphor: Chris Marker brings to his films an absolutely new notion of montage that I wall call “horizontal,” as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot. Here, a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.

From the Ear to the Eye

Better, it might be said that the basic element is the beauty of what is said and heard, that intelligence flows from the audio element to the visual. The montage has been forged from ear to eye. Because of space limitations, I will describe only a single example, which is also the film’s most successful moment. Marker presents us with a documentary image that is at once full of significance and completely neutral: a street in Irkutsk. We see a bus going by and workers repairing the roadway, and then at the end of the shot a fellow with a somewhat strange face (or at least, little blessed by nature) who happens to pass in front of the camera. Marker then comments on these rather banal images from two opposed points of view: first, that of the Communist party line, in the light of which the unknown pedestrian becomes “‘a picturesque representative of the north country,” and then in that of the reactionary perspective, in which he becomes “a troubling Asiatic.”

This single, thought-provoking antithesis is a brilliant stroke of inspiration in itself, but its wit remains rather facile. Its then that the author offers a third commentary, impartial and minutely detailed, that objectively describes the unhappy Mongol as ‘”a cross-eyed Yakout.” And this time we are way beyond cleverness and irony, because what Marker has just demonstrated is that objectivity is even more false than the two opposed partisan points of view: that, at least in relation to certain realities, impartiality is an illusion. The operation we have observed is thus precisely dialectic, consisting of placing the same image in three different intellectual contexts and following the results.

Intelligence and Talent

In order to give the reader a complete sense of this unprecedented enterprise, it remains for me to point out that Chris Marker does not restrict himself to using documentary images filmed on the spot, but uses any and all filmic material that might help his case—including still images (engravings and photos), of course, but also animated cartoons. Like McLaren, he does not hesitate to say the most serious things in the most comic way (as in the sequence with the mammoths). There is only one common denominator in this firework display of technique: intelligence. Intelligence and talent. It is only just to also point out that the photography is by Sacha Viemy. the music the work of Pierre Barbaud. and that the narration is excellently read by Georges Rouquier.

Andre Bazin, 1958

Further Reading:  Chris Darke, “Chris Marker Eyesight,” Film Comment, 2003.