Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Chris Marker: In Memory of New Technology by Catherine Lupton


Last Updated on May 12, 2021 by blindlibrarian

1. An Awkward Memory

level five booklet en cover
Level Five

I remember discussing Chris Marker’s most recent feature film, Level Five (1996), with a friend of mine when it first came out. She was generally impressed with the film, but irritated by what she described as “an old man’s view of the Internet”. Although I did not share her annoyance, I could see what she meant. Even at the moment of its release, before the turnover of accelerated obsolescence, the computer hardware and the digital hypermedia effects that both appeared in Level Five (as characters), and had been used to generate it, looked distinctly quaint, old-fashioned and clumsy. Watching for the first time, I had noticed the yellowing plastic casing of the Apple II GS, the low resolution of its blinking screen. Admiring the O.W.L. Gallery of Masks sequence for its lateral evocation of ‘Laura’ (Catherine Belkhodja) as a mise-en-abyme of receding and ambiguous projections, and for Marker’s evident relish in amusing himself with the Hyperstudio software, I had nonetheless winced inwardly at the awkwardness and tackiness of the effects, their uncomfortable evocation of a late ’70s pop video heralded by a brashly pounding soundtrack.

Despite being accustomed to Chris Marker’s effortless dialectics, his ingrained habit of proceeding elegantly by contraries, this quality of awkward archaism radically disrupted my received sense of his current incarnation as a new media pioneer. Over the last two decades, Marker has diversified from making more-or-less unconventional documentary essay-films, to produce (among other works) two major multimedia installations: Zapping Zone (1990) and Silent Movie (1995), innovative excursions into television such as The Owl’s Legacy (1989) and The Last Bolshevik (1993); and, most recently, the CD-ROM Immemory (1997). More generally, at a point in history when the medium of film is frequently perceived to be threatened with extinction by the advent of digital technologies, Marker as filmmaker has signally failed to join in with the chorus of doom and has instead become an enthusiastic advocate of the new media revolution, abandoning the small-gauge film camera in favour of the Sony Handycam, effortlessly disappearing into his Apple Mac and famously going so far as to communicate only by email.

the last bolshevik
From Chris Marker, The Last Bolshevik

Upon closer, renewed or recollected acquaintance with many of Marker’s more recent works, I encountered further provocative tensions between the cutting-edge profile and the shock of the old. Zapping Zone invites random sampling and multilateral exploration of a series of different, discontinuous video and digital hypermedia clips; yet physically it first strikes the gallerygoer’s eye as a ramshackle, junkyard assemblage of elderly televisions and computer monitors. The user instructions to Immemory anticipate and counteract the temptation of high-speed image processing by firmly pronouncing “Don’t zap; take your time.” The fluid passage of cinematic fragments in Silent Movie, controlled by a digital interface which randomly determines the order in which film sequences and intertitles appear on five vertically-stacked television monitors, pulls against both the nostalgic lure of the old movie clips that have been sampled and re-enacted, and the solid weight of the steel tower designed to hold the monitors, which Marker describes as his homage to Russian Constructivism.

Broadly inspired by Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ and his ‘Arcades Project’, and by Roland Barthes’ essay ‘Myth Today’; I regard Marker’s dialectical casting of new media in an archaic twilight as a critical gesture against a pervasive ideological myth: the discursive ‘freezing’ of new media into a homogenous future-oriented present, whose history has been either evacuated or selectively manufactured. There seem to me to be two distinct (if inevitably intertwined) ways in which, with characteristic elusive reserve, Marker’s new media projects challenge and undermine this myth. The first is their abiding preoccupation with memory, and especially with the embodiment of memory in technology. The second is their frequent juxtaposition of past, present and future as distinct viewpoints in a manner which supports a historical, as opposed to a mythical, perspective upon the present, and which offers new technology itself as a historical object of recollection.

2. The Technology of Memory

The following passage from the commentary of Sans Soleil (1982) is frequently quoted to sum up Chris Marker’s recognition that memory cannot exist outside of representation, but is always embodied within it:

I remember that month of January in Tokyo – or rather I remember the images I filmed in that month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory – 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 – the Bible. The new bible will be the eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to re-read itself constantly just to know it existed.

These lines express poetically a familiar founding principle of academic work on memory: that memory is always a retrospective representation of past events, never the direct manifestation of the past in the present. Memory selectively reshapes the past, and is dependent for its existence upon the particular medium in which memories are articulated. In Sans Soleil we see memories manifested as film images, with the distinction between subjective memory and visible image erased. Similarly, the soundtrack of the film consists in part of spoken recollections, but the fact that these reach us by at least two removes – they are attributed to a fictional cameraman named Sandor Krasna, and they are presented in the form of letters read and commented upon by an unseen female narrator – alerts us to the fact that even the most apparently spontaneous verbal expressions of personal memory are no less representational and conventional than filmed images.

Sans Soleil also moves beyond film to suggest convergences between newer media technologies and the operation of human memory, thereby heralding a principal preoccupation of Marker’s later multimedia, film and video projects. It celebrates the exaggerated visual mutations wrought upon mimetic film images by the digital image synthesizer called the Zone, precisely because they give concrete and graceful visual form to the distorting, transforming operations of recollection. The Zone blocks the illusion that mimetic images of the past give us, which is that we have immediate access to that past. Its synthetic image manipulations function both materially and metaphorically to underline the irretrievability of the past, the nature of memory as selective, transformative, and indeed aesthetic representation, and the fact (by virtue of the novel technology adopted) that memories are always formed in and for the present.

Primed by such insights, Level Five engages cyberspace as the medium for a more concerted historical investigation. It enfolds a documentary account of the forgotten Battle of Okinawa (the last conventional battle of World War 2, and one of the most savage) within a fictional armature that re-imagines the Battle as an unfinished computer game whose creator has died, leaving his lover, a woman known as Laura, with the task of completing it. Laura’s historical research into the Battle is entirely reliant on the infinite resources of Optional World Link (O.W.L.), an alter-ego of the World Wide Web which has the additional capacity of being able to source information from every existing and possible database on the planet: past, present and future. Rather than any direct human agency, it is the programme of the game itself which prevents Laura from playing the Angel of History, and forces her to confront wrenching testimonies that recount the full horror of the Battle and its deadly aftermath.

Marker’s insistent adoption of newer media technologies as conduits of human memory and historical representation, offers a significant challenge to the notion that newer media are in some sense inimical to the processes of both private and collective remembrance. One of the clearest statements of this argument can be found in Andreas Huyssen’s 1995 book Twilight Memories: Marking Time in A Culture of Amnesia. In attempting to account for our contemporary obsession with memory, and with the recent explosion in memorial activities of many kinds, Huyssen suggests that our concern with memory is functioning as what he calls a “reaction formation”, against a crisis of temporality caused by the ever-accelerating pace of technological change, and by what he argues is the insidious tendency of the new media to make all the information that they process functionally equivalent. Memory for Huyssen

…represents the attempt to slow down information processing, to resist the dissolution of time in the synchronicity of the archive, to recover a mode of contemplation outside the universe of simulation and fast-speed information cable networks, to claim some anchoring space in a world of puzzling and often threatening heterogeneity, non-synchronicity, and information overload.1

It is notable that Huyssen’s book resolutely confines the privileged sites of memory to more traditional cultural spaces like the museum, and practices like painting, sculpture, literature and to some extent film. In respect of the latter, it is not without irony that the perceived cultural obsolescence of film should coincide with its elevation as a memorial medium and artifact (most obviously in Jean-Luc Godard’s monumental 1998 video series Histoire(s) du Cinéma); its novel designation as a complete archaeological record of the previous century awaiting exhaustive excavation. New technologies, however, are ruled out of the memorial court: Huyssen refuses to countenance the possibility that a virtual museum or a CD-ROM might be equally appropriate, responsible and effective as memorial sites.

Marker’s multimedia projects confound this line of thinking, eschewing the willfully amnesiac present and future of Huyssen’s new mediascape, in favour of an archaic orientation of new technologies towards the past. Marker refuses to draw an arbitrary line between older media which serve memory, and new media which undermine memory, silently invoking Benjamin’s noted observation in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, that different technologies have no inherent moral qualities, only the positive or negative uses to which they are put by human beings. Furthermore, Marker proposes that the most recent technological innovations permit, in certain significant respects, much closer and truer approximations of memory than do older media. Stating the case with the Zone in Sans Soleil, Marker makes a memorial virtue out of the fact that digital image manipulation distorts the representational and indexical qualities of filmed and photographed images from the past. Level Five develops and intensifies these insights, by insistently feeding archive footage through the medium of the computer network and a multitude of complex graphic manipulations. In the introductory text to Immemory, Marker contends that the virtual architectures of cyberspace, which permit non-linear, multi-directional navigation at the user’s own chosen speed, are far closer to the aleatory, non-linear drift of actual human memory than the capabilities of older media. The CD-ROM format has allowed Marker to realize a mapping of the geography of his own memory more effectively than a film like Sans Soleil, which can be seen as a prototype of this long-cherished project, but one that remained limited by the linearity and fixed temporal rate of film.

3. The Memory of Technology

Marker’s works are concerned with the kind of materialist history envisioned by Walter Benjamin in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: an accounting of the past that acknowledges the ‘barbarism’ of violent ruptures, selective recollection, and the willful obliteration of those aspects of history which do not conform to the viewpoint of the victors who write it. ‘Official’ history, as the commentary of Sans Soleil reminds us, throws its empty bottles out of the window, and advances by blocking its memory as you might block your ears.

A key dimension of mythical discourses about new technology is that they are insistently oriented towards the future. This is most apparent in the ever-accelerating utopian drive of progress towards greater improvement and faster upgrading, but is equally a characteristic element of dystopian anxieties about new technology that constantly project recent or potential developments into a ‘nth’ degree future where they have been completely realized. Popular discussions of innovations like virtual reality (VR) immediately invite us to project X years into the future and imagine a world where, for example, everybody has cyber-sex and nobody has physical intercourse any more. The utopian line may regard this state of affairs as a dream and the dystopian one as a nightmare; but they fundamentally mirror each other in their absolute bracketing and ‘othering’ of the historical present from which they presume to divine this future, and which is nothing less than a means of preserving the frozen and unchanging character of the mythical present. Such popular projections rarely confront the prospect that, in the future, the present will be obsolete, and with it perhaps the implied moral frame of reference that can adjudicate on whether cyber-sex is regarded as heavenly or hellish.

In his essay ‘Archaeologies of electronic vision and the gendered spectator’2, William Boddy usefully unpacks some of these mythical dimensions and problems in the development of popular discourses about VR. He quotes Tom Gunning’s observation that “technology can reveal the dream world of society as much as its pragmatic realization” – reminding us that actual technological developments are never simply neutral, progressive and practical, but are actively shaped – not only by economic, social, political and cultural forces and assumptions – but by unconscious facets of desire and wish-fulfilment as much as consciously-formulated instrumental needs. Boddy then moves on to develop and refine Gunning’s point to incorporate the realm of discourses about technology as much as the matter of technology itself. He emphasizes the point I raised earlier: that we are inclined or invited to live so much in the fantasy world of what we think technology can, should or might be; that we elide the gap between fantasy potential and pragmatic realization. Or, put another way, we often don’t acknowledge that the technology we actually have, doesn’t yet match up to our mythical projection of its capabilities. In analyzing a range of popular discourses about the advent of VR, Boddy draws out the contrast between the blithe, affirmative claims made on behalf of VR – that it will allow users to overcome the socio-physical limitations of their corporeal bodies – with the cautionary voices of analysis which have to work to remind us that the physical body cannot be absolutely transcended by VR, only temporarily repressed or forgotten.

The other significant dimension of Boddy’s analysis is his introduction of a historical perspective upon virtual reality discourses, a move which undercuts their mythologizing tendency to project a frozen, dehistoricized present. He conducts a parallel analysis of contemporary popular discourses about VR and new media, and of the discourses which attended the development of radio in the United States in the early 1920s. Boddy finds that a historical opposition between celebration of the creative pioneers of radio-use – the active hobbyist holed up in his bedroom constructing his own crystal set from scratch – and denigration of the passive domestic listener in her living room; is mirrored in the polarization apparent in new media discourses between the active, creative and socially-critical computer user – still holed up in his bedroom – and the passive television consumer – still in her living room – who is castigated as a hapless cultural dupe. The use of gender-specific pronouns here is of course the crux of Boddy’s argument: his contention that, instead of offering something radically new, discourses about new media are instead peddling more of the same recurring division of social activities along gendered lines, and the same perpetual denigration of that half of the binary which is associated with women and femininity.

If Boddy’s scholarly analysis seems to demonstrate that those who forget the past are indeed condemned to repeat it, Marker’s works invoke the memory of the future in order to establish a historical perspective upon the present. The time-travel narrative of La Jetée (1962), suggests itself as the most obvious example of this, but it is also perhaps the most complex. The past of the film corresponds to the present in which it was made; its fictional present is both the future, an evocation of past memories of World War 2, and a metaphorical displacement of tabooed aspects of the present (the extensive use of torture by the French authorities during the Algerian War), while its future is a science-fictional projection of perfected human capability, which is significantly offered to the hero of the film, but rejected by him in favour of annihilation in the past. 2084, a short film made in 1984 to celebrate the centenary of the French trade union movement, sees Marker approaching one 100 year span of history from a viewpoint another 100 years into the future. Sans Soleil describes a film which Sandor Krasna never made, but which he decided to call Sans Soleil, and which would have been about a time traveler from 4001 – an era in which human memory has been perfected and nothing is forgotten – who returns to the past of his planet, lured by a fragmented memory of a Mussorgsky song cycle (which at least gave Krasna his title), to be drawn into compassionate fascination with the ‘third-worlders of time’, who are doomed to the suffering of forgetting, but who are capable of feelings that are no longer experienced in his own epoch of total recall. Level Five projects its vision of the capacities of the internet into the science fictional future imagined by the cyberpunk writer William Gibson (in his novel Neuromancer users ‘jack in’: connecting their central nervous systems directly into the computer network); a device that destabilizes the manifest ‘present’ which the film otherwise appears to share with the contemporary viewer. Laura at one point muses how she would explain to a future ethnographer the bizarre ritual behaviour of the late 20th century, involving these curious votive objects called computers, which the people believed were the guardians of all their memories.

These science-fictional conceits are playful, and some may seem rather obvious in their neat reversal of expectation. Yet they do constantly offer a critical reminder of the historical nature of the present, by invoking a perspective from which our present has itself become history: iconically frozen into manufactured nostalgia, or simply cast into oblivion – another empty bottle tossed out of the window. In borrowing the habit of science fiction, Marker’s projected futures may also be read as engaged in their own fashion with Boddy’s understanding that even our most pragmatic everyday discussions of technological and scientific development are infused with a good measure of desire and fantasy projection.

4. Affective History

Returning to my starting point, watching Level Five, I am aware of the fact that I respond affectively to its old-fashioned technology and effects, with a blend of shock, furtive nostalgia and acute embarrassment, and that this response is very different from my intellectual understanding of how a materialist history operates. I can ‘know’ how both Benjamin and Marker are interested in the forgotten pre-history of the present, and in the process of incorporating fragments of that past into present constellations to create dialectical images. But I also believe that the actual experience of the dialectical image, as I think Benjamin and Marker understand it, must involve this affective response which locates the viewing subject within a materialist history. I am only embarrassed and made nostalgic because I am being confronted with the moment when the quaint looking graphics were new and exciting; forced to recall a historical moment I lived through, but whose memory I have rewritten, forgotten or repressed in order to subscribe to the present. I am only shocked, because Marker’s Apple Mac (manifesting itself as the fossil form of the present) belongs to that historical Limbo of technology that is old enough to be obsolete, but not old enough to have been recycled as nostalgia. When I see it I think: nothing looks quite so old-fashioned as what’s only just gone out of fashion. In the process of analyzing and trying to understand these responses, I am tentatively able to understand myself as a cultural participant in the processes by which a mythologized present is constructed, but also to grasp an alternative perspective on history which has some potential to disrupt that mythological impulse.

Dr. Catherine Lupton
Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies
Roehampton University of Surrey
C.Lupton [at]

1. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 7.
2. William Boddy, ‘Archaeologies of electronic vision and the gendered spectator’, Screen 35:2, Summer 1994, pp. 105-122.

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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