Category Archives: Theoretical

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

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André Bazin on Chris Marker (1958)


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.

The Panoptic Exodus

“He always said that even the best actor knows that the camera is pointed at him, and that the spontaneity, the innocence, the beauty of expression on a face cannot be truly captured except when the person is not conscious of being photographed.”
Peter Blum on Chris Marker

PanopticonFirst off, there’s the lingering taste of an assumption that borders on what once was called by the dialecticians of enlightenment the ‘jargon of authenticity.’ The mind drifts around the thought eddy that the human photographic subject as actor, by the mere conscious knowledge of being filmed or photographed, loses something ineffable, some bit of truth in self-presentation to the world. Clandestine documentary, on the other hand, offers heroically to capture this lost parcel of authenticity (the long lost Benjaminian aura?), the subject unaware of the means of reproduction that causes, if even minimally, a change in visual self-presentation.

One could surmise that, following Foucault’s ‘panoptism’, the world of the photographic unconscious—that is, the pristine subject—may actually have to a large degree disappeared; there is now, especially in urban zones, always the presumption of the camera—not the camera of the clandestine artist, but the surveillance apparatus: ubiquitous, proliferating, causing adjustments of behavior by its very presence, as did the central tower of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, whether occupied by an agent of surveillance or unoccupied and merely virtually present as visual threat, implied in the very design that strips one of privacy. The Eye of Mordor, always searching for the Ring, and its bearer.

One might go further and think that the very proliferation of cameras in public spaces gives rise to a kind of disinterest or banality of the quotidian, such that the modification of one’s own comportment in public space undergoes a subtle reversal. The subject, in this scenario, grows so accustomed to the idea of being captured (literally and figuratively), inscribed into the machinic memory system, that it is no longer necessary to internalize the surveillance apparatus, no longer necessary to adjust one’s behavior always already towards auto-surveillance and self-policing.

One can see this small thought of liberation from panoptism play out in the occupy movements, as they escalate a reclaiming of public space to promote a disregard for the old kafka-type spys and the Panopticon in favor of a new modality. This new modality takes the means of reproduction available on cell phones, plugged as they are into the social media machine, and turns it against power, forcing the police into their own situation of panoptism, of the eternal possibility of being recorded, posted to a viral social media machine that propagates a kind of anti-panoptism, without central tower, without Castle, without Eye.

However, with these thoughts we are still in the mode of duality, of power and resistance—but the moment for this paradigm, long pronounced dead, to truly disappear may not yet have come, simply because the still somehow Empowered, fully equipped with their police forces, armies and crumbling economies, while certainly on their way out, have maddeningly not quite gone away. The King may be dethroned but then one has to deal with the military, as in Egypt.

Nonetheless, the Kafka informants, perhaps epitomized best in the DDR Stazi (that is, Stalinist) system of syping and informing on your neighbor, may have jumped ship and come to work for another, masterless enterprise that itself is less capable of or interested in hierarchical control due to its rhizomatic and viral nature—and for those very reasons baffling to the older machines of technology (panoptism) and social paranoia (informants).

For documentary theory, the real has long been suspect and documentarists, including Heisenberg and ‘reverse ethnographers’ (like the unsurpassed Jean Rouch), have long known that the camera trained on a subject changes the subject. Marker himself shows back in Lettre de Sibérie how montage of documentary footage combined with commentary can present a potentially endless series of possible realities, each virtually co-existing, products of choices of mise-en-scène, montage and the vital, flexible relations of voice/text and image. The old Kuleshov effect fed into a fractal generator…

Our thoughts here, laid out in some haste and worthy someday of greater elaboration, are triggered by this video (below) and in particular the quote (above) in which Peter Blum speaks of Marker’s photographs on the occasion of the recent exhibition at Arles. Revisiting Marker’s old metaphor of photography as a hunt: “La photo, c’est la chasse, c’est l’instinct de chasse sans l’envie de tuer. C’est la chasse des anges… On traque, on vise, on tire et — clac! au lieu d’un mort, on fait un éternel.” There is as much a recognition of the primordial violence of photographic inscription here as there is the dream of its transformation into an art of peace.

Video Source: Arles : les portraits numériques de Chris Marker

The Crisis of Cognition by Rainer J. Hanshe

We have just re-published Rainer J. Hanshe’s article, “The Crisis of Cognition: On Memory & Perception in Chris Marker’s The Hollow Men.” It is available here (as a page rather than a post). We would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Hanshe. The essay truly provides a wealth of inspired reflections, and it is an honor to be able to present this in-depth treatment of a more or less unknown and very recent work of Chris Marker’s. The article was originally published in the online journal Hyperion, Volume IV, issue 1, April 2009. Please refer to that publication for the definitive version, which contains the meticulously selected images that accompany the text.


Note: A link from this post to Hyperion’s online article has been removed, as it is currently broken. Please supply the updated link in the comments if you can.

Yale Art Gallery Announces “Screencasts” Series

Staring Back HackWe received this note from Bryne Rasmussen:

I am very excited about this upcoming series, Screencasts, here at YUAG this fall. I thought fellow readers of your blog might like to know too.

“The Face is A Politics: On Chris Marker’s ‘Staring Back'”

Part of “Screencasts: Cinema as Medium in Contemporary Art”
Thu Oct 30 2008 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel St. at York Street
Vered Maimon, Northeastern Univ.
General Public / Free

“Selected Films by Chris Marker”

Part of “Screencasts: Cinema as Medium in Contemporary Art”
Fri Oct 31 2008 6:30 PM – 9:30 PM
212 York Street, Room 108
General Public / Free
(203) 432-0600

Bryne Rasmussen

The selection of films has not been announced yet, but we will keep you informed as we know more.

Image courtesy of japanese forms (cropped and tweeked). Thank you!

Einmal ist keinmal

La Jétee : Zweimal

Walter Benjamin said that. Literally: one time is no times. Looser: once is not enough. Let the subliminal rise to the surface of consciousness by grazing again through the text, the stream, the grain, and then again against the grain to feel the furrows of the patterns not picked up the first time. Viewing a film we start with the zero view. The second view is the first, and we move on from there, not always forward. For the Kabbalists, opening the Book a second time one will find the language has changed, mutated, grown in the meantime. Just as for them the written word was still alive, a type of living, breathing and regenerating organism, certain films change in their dormancy. PKD ExegesisAs we visit them again, they reveal different facets, catch the light at a changed hour – at the cusp of a new constellation. Philip K. Dick spent the last years of his life trying to decipher this and related mysteries. Chris Marker seems to have had from early on a caméra-stylo that writes such a living language, not to manuscript or movable type but to celluloid. As screenings of his celluloids have been rare, the “einmal” of viewing one of his films tended to produce a strange kind of hunger, an otaku hunger. That hunger – in some cases decades in duration – is beginning to be appeased…

You may have already concluded that DVD is a perfect medium for Chris Marker, since his cunning, calculated work requires and repays multiple viewings…. Marker’s great talent as a filmmaker is giving us the impression that any digression is welcome, any accident is providence and anything can happen, even as he is firmly in control. We don’t feel steered or manipulated, nor adrift and meandering. A philosopher of passionate ideals, Marker makes films that are, at their essence, generous invitations to join him in an inquiry into the mysteries of human society.

Michael Fox, “Chris Marker Comes Home at Last”,

Next: palinode and prolepsis. Reading backwards and forwards. Anticipation. Retrospection. Circularity. The notion of an “edition” applied to Marker’s films.