Last Updated on June 20, 2020 by bricoleur
A Scarcely Critical Description of the Work of Chris Marker
Roger Tailleur, 1963
It’s simple: Chris Marker is a writer/image-hunter, a contemplative traveller, a world citizen who expresses himself in French, a revolutionary prophet, a dreamer-poet, a serious humourist, a humanist member of the Society for Protection of Animals, a musical documentarian, a dialectical idealist. Alain Resnais was right the day he remarked that cinema, to which Marker eventually devoted himself, had snagged itself a rich acquisition. So many mixed-up tendencies – enough to worry the critic who has the task of encompassing them all.
Chris Marker’s sole pseudonym already suggests what he stands for: the swipe of a claw, swift, pre-emptory; the sly grin that accompanies it; the indelible mark left on the times and those who lived them.
Marker is an honest worker, a master artisan. The tools which he refines from work to work, even if they aren’t always the most expensive in the world, are certainly the most beloved: not the pen and camera as developed by others, but the original formative materials – word and image. Read absolutely any text by Marker: if this passion for words is not evident to you, then you clearly have never been instilled with it. Moreover, if pal Chris gladly takes up his pen (for Resnais, Mario Ruspoli, Paul Paviot), he never presses others into the task of speaking for him. As for his madness for images, it wasn’t necessary to await the publication of his first photographs or the release of his first films to appreciate it: starry eminence at Editions du Seuil, he directed the ‘Petite Planète’ series, and was one of the first authors in the ‘Ecrivains de toujours’ series: two collections which provoked, at the heart of modern publishing, an entire iconographic revolution. These days, it is celluloid which strikes our guy more and more favourably: starting from a ‘grandiose misunderstanding of the laws of photography’ confessed at the moment of tackling Sunday in Peking (1956), he arrives at a serene competence, powerfully capable of launching into more or less gentle improvisations.
For Marker now, it is not a matter of image and image, but rather image, image and image. When applied to a film image, the literary image, figure of an autonomous style, is more than a tricksy mode of description – whereby the former type of image is evoked to verify the well-foundedness of the latter. Rather, a third image is introduced: a sort of poetic superimposition, with which Marker adds to the film captured by his lens the omnipresence of his subjectivity, which he imposes simultaneously. To prove the quality of originality in this three-fold illustration: it’s been said a hundred times (not always kindly, I’m afraid) that a Marker film shorn of its voice-over commentary would lose all eloquence; but these commentary-images, deprived of their visual support, are no less enigmatic. A little game: what, in your opinion, are these cemetery caretakers, ‘as quiet as roast chickens’? This ‘tricycle which resembles a sewing machine’? These men ‘booted like Mikhail Strogoff, going through the motions of shoemakers at the altitude of tightrope walkers’? This ‘Main Street in a Siberian village’? This building ‘poised above its reflection like a space station’? These ‘great Meccano hens’? These ‘whirling dervishes of the spring thaw, and the routed armies of the winter’? These ‘rooks standing on a chessboard after the kings have died’? This ‘black girl studded with imitation jewels’? This ‘fake pearl in the sky’? These ‘rolling stretchers driven by an organ, which a starting pistol releases like bullets’? This ‘ragtime of interruptions, this polka of catastrophes’? These ‘oubliettes of comfort’? This ‘infantile version of lust’? These ‘prayer wheels of fortune’? This ‘variety of khaki measles’? This ‘piece of the Moon embedded in the earth, like a piece of shrapnel’? This ‘great bearded man’ of whom, on New Year’s Day, ‘one can ask anything’? This ‘concentration of America grafted onto the Cuban skin like a vaccine’? These ‘strange winegrowers, tanners of flesh’? Twenty correct answers mean that you plainly have a perfect memory and an excellent knowledge of Marker’s work. Five or six good answers would add up to a honourable average, and would not completely rule out the rigour of a theorem that I tend to hold (argumentation forthcoming) somewhat excessively. But, for everybody, here are the game’s answers: 1. The camels which take you to the Ming tombs; 2. The petticab which, in Peking, replaced the rickshaw; 3. Workers on the Siberian telegraph; 4. The Léna river; 5. The Irkutsk dam; 6. Some cranes; 7. The breaking-up of the ice; 8. The wooden ostrogs (you’re doing well!); 9. The Léna at night; 10. The Sputnik; 11. Hotrods (you follow?); 12. A stock car race; 13. Sewers; 14. An ice-cream; 15. Slot machines; 16. The boy scout side of many a young nation; 17. The Dead Sea; 18. Fidel Castro; 19. Havana; 20. Whalers.
Alongside these proliferating images, I could cite the commentary-images that do not always entertain a figurative relation with the shots they accompany, but which, personifying nature or landscape, give them, purely through this word play, an immediate animal life: ‘In the fog, as if the entire city had just got out of the bath’; ‘This gash in the forest means the city has gone by like a wild animal’; ‘Siberia has turned out to have been a poor man sleeping on a mattress stuffed with gold’; ‘The Léna, the big lazy sister … shepherdess for barges’; ‘Across the fluttering eyelids of windscreen wipers’; ‘The Plain is a tamed desert. It offers its corn the way someone offers a handshake’; ‘The electronic brain we go to consult, like Sibyl’; ‘The august gesture of the Piper-Club’ … But, speaking of animals, here are the ones that turn up, a cargo freshly disembarked from Noah’s Ark. Before the flood, a measure of order (alphabetical, obviously) is imposed: the Noble Animals are requested to sign their names into the Bestiary. And here’s what we get (eschewing any absolute pretension to exhaustiveness): antelope, bear, beaver, buffalo frog, bull, camel, cassowary, cat, chicken, crocodile, deer, dog, duck (in a kolkhoz), eagle, elephant, flamingo, fly, fox, hippopotamus, horse, mammoth, microbe, mule, ostrich, otter, owl, pheasant, pig, sable, serpent, tiger, turtle and wolf. This time, the game consists of picking the favourites; no one, I believe, will hesitate in putting at the top of the list the Israeli cat who understands Hungarian, the American cat trapped behind a window, the cat named G…, the Korean interlocutor, the Resnaisian and Vardesque animal whose name belongs to Gatti in its Italian plural: in short, The Cat, and directly at his side the owl that a pious man will not eat, the owl adored by the Anabasites, the owl as contemplative animal: in short, The Owl, and very close by, the bear (renamed Joris Ivens or Little Ears), the tiger (big cat), the wolf, the dog and the reindeer (in various constellations), the mammoth (who gets, like the previous animal, a couplet). And let’s not forget the horse, always included.
Starring deer or mammoth, the musical number has become, since Letter from Siberia where necessity called the shots (he wanted to make a feature), a constant of the documentaries directed by Chris Marker. In 1949, the author of The Forthright Spirit declared that he loved music above all else. But those statues that also die (Statues meurent aussi, 1952) can’t have been, for a very long time, pretexts for dancing, and the Chinese Sunday could scarcely retain a tiny, obsessive musical phrase, to which children dance around Ivens the bear. Letter from Siberia, thus, develops these timid prolegomena, developments that are, indeed, sometimes a little overextended. The lyrics are from end to end shamanic and Markerian, tribute is paid (in Russian) to Yves Montand, song gives way to poem, poem to legend, legend to moral anecdote, anecdote to theatrical interlude, photo to animation (where Alexandre Arcady runs out of puff chasing Stephen Bosustow). The Siberian verses sing of the Taiga’s fauna, and the Oscar once again goes to the reindeer:
Oh reindeer, sweet and just
Friend of the birds and owls
They nest in your branches
Happy he who has ideas in his head
Happier still, he who has birds
America Dreams also in music: Queno-Jacobian couplets and a patient musicological reconstruction which proves (page 113 of the first volume of his published scripts, the Commentaries) that a Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a lot noisier than a Sunday in Peking. Description of a Struggle (1960), in its way, hands itself over to the farandole. It has dances in the ‘Essentialist dance cellar … with the folkloric dance instructor’, if you please. Quatrains in Hebrew rise up in the middle of exchanges coloured with touristic pilpoul, and from austere discussions in Yiddish at the Kibbutz assemblies. As silent as it may seem, the Korean Women folio is in fact a noisy anthology of tales and legends: there, tigers dance to the sound of drums shaped like hourglasses, and it is enough to turn them upside down in order for accumulated fatigue to instantly transform itself into a desire for life; fishermen’s songs answer blacksmiths’ songs; the clever cat beats the stupid dog; and a heroic pheasant gives its life in order to save that of a woodcutter, his original rescuer. But it is Cuba Si! (1961) which carries this crescendo to its culminating point. As in the preceding films, the local language is spoken, which is the primary type of music – but at greater length, in the form of captured dialogues or various interviews. Admirable little revolutionary couplets are sung, whose didactic persuasion is worthy of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. People file by and greet each other; it’s the ‘Red Square of Broadway’. Above all, people dance. A local uniformed clique, suddenly seized by these rhythms we rightly call Afro-Cuban, interrupts its parade in order to heat up, right in the middle of the street, the most contagious conga bravas. It is Marker who baptizes this admirable sequence that I have found myself incapable of not cheering, where the musicians, director and editor (Eva Zora, a fine vixen even if she doesn’t look like one) fight for first place. More timidly, in an excellent moment of The Glenn Miller Story (1954), the orchestra conductor impregnated his military music with an infectious swing that transformed the one-two of the gathering into a scarcely lawful collective jig. That Cuba Si! is, in any case, a musical is proven by the publication of the text; its author has strewn notes in the form of chapter headings (Adagio Scherzando, Intemezzo … ) which, for once, relate less to Giraudoux than to music.
This melodious aesthetic entails at least two consequences, which may be artificial; and that will be the subject of our game: what are they? OK, assuming that you have already handed your tongue over to the cat, Cat G. of course, let’s say: here’s what they are, an indifference towards France, and a very marked taste for reverie. France is not the country of the musical, and it’s useless to bang on about that. But Marker’s entire œuvre, detached from the voice of the auteur who expresses it, is in a French that is of very high quality, but has nothing Gallic about it. Born in Mongolia, of Russian-American origin, then never ceasing to cover the globe (in publishing, imagination and reality), it is telling the number of nationalities he does not subject to his camera, be they Limousins, Bellacquais or Bellachons. Whilst being situated in (then French) Indochina, The Forthright Spirit is remarkable for its parade of Americans, Dutch, Swiss, Italians, Romanians and British. To adopt the title of a collection by Henri Michaux (from whom the maker of Letter from Siberia has already sampled ‘I write to you from a far-off country … ’), can we hope that Marker will one day embark on a Far-off Interior? This last word retains its double meaning; let’s say, in any case, that the question does not require an immediate answer.
Second consequence: oneirism, in the direct relations it entertains with the musical – as we can detect with the help of Minnelli. Nerval’s statement has often been cited (with strong justification) in regards to Marker: travel is only the verification of dreams. ‘I’ve dreamt of Peking for thirty years, without realising it’ begins the narrator of Sunday; much later, he devotes himself to ‘dreaming the history of this city’, in ‘a fabulous China’, with its ‘Genghis Khan hordes’ … Israel arouses different dreams in him: ‘I’ve often dreamt of this land of Galilee. Dreamt of Messiahs, kings, wonders. Dreamt of this land which would be called Israel … for this land to exist, the dreamer had to awaken after two thousand years of sleep, to find it full of nightmares.’ Another nightmare (this one acclimatised), the one that America Dreams: ‘imaginary film’, ‘film of a dream’, symbolised by Ghost Town, close to Los Angeles, where people ‘dream with the efficiency of true sleepers’. The entire film, moreover, is merely a long, sinuous metaphor, explored to its last drop, taken to its ultimate conclusion, whereupon it returns suddenly and whacks us with the boomerang of reality: ‘This lifestyle which is the most derided in the world, and the most imitated, will perhaps be the lifestyle of all Europe within twenty years. And if America dreams, and if this dream will tomorrow be ours, perhaps we should take the trouble to consider it closely, before we fall asleep.’ A beautiful proposition to put to a viewer on a Saturday night.
There’s no use posing the question game to the reader. It’s enough for us to consider the central interrogative point that Marker’s work unfolds, to underline the words enigma and sign which tumble so often from his mouth, to intercept the fascinated look of the inquisitor, via which he submits the world and Man to his questioning. The eye hears (as somebody said). And what does it hear? The voices of silence (as somebody else said). A silence far heavier and more impenetrable when it belongs (as in Statues Also Die) to the dead: ‘The flames of the conquerors have made the whole of this past an absolute enigma’. More often happily, there are the faces of life which offer us their mystery. ‘It is up to us to understand these sensitive faces, these men, women and children’ (Sunday in Peking). ‘I who take these images, who breathes them, hears them, I only ask myself … ‘ (same film). ‘All around us, the Siberian earth swarms with beckoning signs’ (Letter from Siberia). ‘We began to watch for this face of America’ (America Dreams). But it is Description of a Struggle that constitutes the true song of the sign in Marker, since I count this word fifteen times in the commentary that it both begins and ends. Description of a Struggle is also surely an enterprise of decrypting, just as America Dreams was the radiography of a dream. It is here we find the culmination of ‘that infinite variety of the human face … Faces a tourist may photograph, but never see’, and which reaches the most beautiful shot in Marker’s entire work – most beautiful shots, to be more precise, since I believe there are two or three – shots that contemplate to the point of vertigo, ‘like words endlessly repeated, which one suddenly no longer recognises’, an adolescent girl in the process of painting.
It is such attention that marks all Cassandras, and the Sphinx is also renowned as much for the imperviousness of her gaze as for the justness of her prophecies. Thus Marker plants, within his interrogations, a few affirmations in the future simple tense, offered in the indicative mode. For instance: these Chinese, ‘with whom we will share history like bread’; these men who say (in Russian): ‘Tomorrow, we go to the Moon!’, and indeed go there; this Europe towards which the American Dream advances; these Korean women who know that ‘a moment comes when a man’s life must be paid for with the death of his gods’; these Cubans passing from one world to another world in which money no longer plays the same role, and for whom ‘this passage is irreversible’.
Seven Family Game
Like any poet, Marker sings within a genealogical tradition, a family tree of which I will only expose the main branches. But I render to Jean Cocteau his metaphor and, playing the seven family game, a ‘grand game’, I shall shoot Marker the following cards:
I. Ace Pilot. This is the Malraux-Saint-Exupéry family, to which the author of The Forthright Spirit attaches himself. Moralists of action; I would add to their company T.E. Lawrence, Ernest Psichari, Ernst Junger, Richard Hilary and – what the heck? – Rudyard Kipling. Philosophers of Man (with those capitals mocked by the author of Korean Women), it’s Camus who could come to their rescue. Capitals or not, they are, on this level, the subject of a subsequent section of this essay. What makes me retain them here is less their episodic exoticism (cf. next paragraph) than, in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a certain poetic presence and technological setting; and in André Malraux a cultural complex (in the décor sense) which tends to the cosmic and nourishes a synthetic vision with its knowing formulae. It’s Saint-Exupéry and his Aeropostale that we think of when reading The Forthright Spirit: meteorology, radiogoniometry, accidents, Vaudon Simoun, storm, night flight, the Post, the Darkness, the mail lost in some unknown desert, couriers – these are the noticeable words and themes. From the author of Wind, Sand and Stars (original title Terre des Hommes or Land of Men), too, the mystery and grace of young women, comparable on that level to Giraudoux. In contrast, it is Malraux who is evoked by the grave, rough, sometimes aggressive, metallic and bated commentary of Statues Also Die, which is as far from Giraudoux as possible, just like the telescoping of places, centuries and cultures in the same film and in Korean Women, where the ‘playful, tranquil smile’ of a young Korean woman traces the ‘same curling lips’ of the Korai in the Athens Museum.
II. Globetrotter. A big family. Moreover, we need to cover the entire globe in order to make the associations that I wish to pull together. ‘There are different ways of travelling’, segues the author of this ‘short film’ on glazed paper, ‘the Barnabooth way, the Genghis Khan way, the Plume way’. Valery Larbaud and Michaux are certainly prestigious godfathers, and they were saluted in passing on the Siberian plain. We must add Blaise Cendrars (another user of the Trans-Siberian), the Sino-American-Siberian-Cuban Jules Verne (omnipresent, indefatigable stay-at-home), Cocteau (thrice encountered in America), and some more ghostly others: Paul Morand, Pierre Mac Orlan, Joseph Roth, Joseph Kessel … Instead of Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, or Cocteau, or Morand’s In 80 Francs, Marker substitutes an ‘around the world in 80 revolutions’, and we hope to one day grasp its complete ledger. But, different to all the rest, he hardly ‘travels light’. His eye is alive and pure, but it is far from virgin. Armed with memory, i.e. culture, bracing himself at every step with Nervalian dreams, he uses this memory and culture to illuminate and orient his path. In Peking, thirty years later, he jumps straight into childhood, finding, as he looks down the alley that leads to the Ming tomb, the engraved image from a book of long ago. Later, right in the centre of the city, he expects to ‘see Humphrey Bogart in a white suit leaving an opium den’. Climbing on roofs, it is no longer the China of cinema he discovers, but Marco Polo’s China. And it’s Marco Polo he finds again in Siberia, land of darkness, and also country of childhood. ‘I’m writing you this letter from the land of childhood; between the ages of five and ten this is where we were chased by wolves, blinded by Tartars, and carried away on the Trans-Siberian Express.’ If Mikhail Strogoff rules in Asia, it is the cowboy from ‘the Wild West of our childhood’ who governs the nation on the other side of the Atlantic, while Biblical recollections flood back in Israel. Parallels abound: Siberian gold recalls the streets of the Klondike, Chaplin and Van Heflin; Korea evokes Italy (insidiously) and Mexico (insistently); New York recalls The Mysteries of New York; a fluffy cat recalls Apollinaire; a Korean ideogram recalls Miró; and a kids’ tale recalls Michaux. ‘Rockefeller Center has lost none of its charm, nor Central Park its dazzle’, and ‘in this deserted, freezing cultural park’, Ordjonikidze’s statue gives, on horseback, a ‘Commendatore’s nod’.
Sometimes an undergraduate sense of humour comes out in him, and the dose of culture risks intervening between gaze and world, thus prefabricating vision and fixing emotions (as for the hero of Agnès Varda’s project La Mélangite) – if it were not for the perpetual counterweight of this manic attention to the infinite variety of the human face, this pervasive research into singularity. For instance: ‘There’s a peculiarly Cuban way of whipping up the circulation … of looking without purpose, of being curious, coquettish, patriotic … of handling oranges with a peeler … of drinking fresh water or nationalised Coca-Cola.’
III. Spaceman. This branches off from the preceding family, since its principal representative is, again, Jules Verne. Here is Marker’s taste for anticipation, in novels or comics, to which he is heir. Thus the ubiquity of Martians landing just about everywhere in his work: in the midst of the Dark Continent, where ‘we (Whites) are the Martians in Africa’, as in America, where ‘the excessively vast horizons await something: the Martian landing’. As for Siberia, it is simultaneously a launch pad for the Moon, a space station and a possible image of the arrival point: ‘One of the secrets of its fascination lies in its resemblance to those cold worlds that we will soon be exploring.’
IV. French Writer. This is a quite different family from those already catalogued, but I have been unable to hold back a particular name until now: Jean Giraudoux – a Markerian cream-pie, seeing the author of Sunday in Peking has devoted an essay and an anthology to him. Before this work, Marker’s output was notably tense and tragic. The reading and systematic rereading of Giraudoux in 1952 gave it a new aspect. Giraudoux opposes happiness to tragedy. To lived experience (Marker was a product of the Resistance, the war, the Forthright Spirit), he proposes the antidote of imagination. It is a proposition that Marker will adopt only partly, abandoning (by contrast) semi-fictive constructions for the sake of a more conceptual relation to everything he continues to do and see. But the tone changes completely. From the opening of Sunday in Peking, where Marker seizes the ‘I’ all the more to set it free, familiar humour levels things out, emotion pierces situations, memories buzz, and irony shows its teeth. An enormous spirit of freedom sends out words to play in all corners. Such architectural and verbal virtuosity exists, no doubt, in his first novel: the achronological construction of its first section gives way to masterful heterogeneity in the second, the epistolary fragment leads to an inner monologue, and memory slides into hallucination, while a bravura chapter-fragment, unanimist like (maybe) the ‘Tonight’ sequence of West Side Story, fuses and connects storm and concert, fireworks and special effects, in orgies of images, rattling ellipses and lush superimpositions worthy, at moments, not only of Saint-John Perse but also the best automatic writing. Setting aside the brief episode of a student idyll (which one can describe as Giralducian only in hindsight), the entire novel remains subject to an extreme tension, and to explorations that are sometimes quite confused. But since his Giraudoux book, such confusion in Marker is an effect of art. In his Critical Descriptions, Claude Roy enumerates the resources of Giralducian language: metaphor, parallelism, periodic sentence, paraphrase, prosoposée, hypotypose, allegory, understatement. Marker appreciates these techniques, just as he admires statistics, parabolas, allusions, precisions, prophecies, images and (summing up all the others) enumerations: ‘Giraudoux enumerates often’, he writes, ‘and it always relates to his tenderness towards the world.’
This tenderness is responsible for all those animals we encountered above, all those children, and all those young women whose faces systematically light up Marker’s shorts and features alike. The author knows it; he salutes in passing the writer of Bella before an open-air class in Peking, before a ‘Jewish cat-lover’ in Israel ‘as is said in Judith’, or before this face with intrepid, pure eyes scanning the American horizon. And how to account for these ‘pairs of lovers tenderly devising their five-year plans’? These high school girls ‘comparing the merits of their instructors, from classical dancing to folklore, from ballroom dancing to youthful movements: a pretty birdlike chatter’? This Cuban holiday echoing with girls’ voices amid the wooden staircases and huts on stilts?
Marker, like Giraudoux, is a poet of light, smiles, sunrise and silence. A diaphanous, spidery delicacy, in both artists, is refined in the first light of morning, softened in the gentle rays of the sun, smudged in the serenity of nightfall. It’s Peking emerging slowly from the fog, ‘city at the bottom of the sea’, in a ‘powdery light midway between water and silk’. It’s the day breaking in five places in Israel (in five successive shots), so as to finally discover, on a beach, a group of adolescents who have spent the entire night there. It’s those brothers-in-silence, study and prayer, in the planetarium and the synagogue; it’s also the crushing, sometimes oppressive silence of Saturdays in Israel. It’s the neighbouring lights and ‘fireflies of trucks’ in the dead of night. It is, in Korea, at the edge of lake Samilpo, by still waters, the silence which ‘mounts like a fog’.
This marvelling before the world, which gives a quasi-Franciscan destiny to every living being, every object and every vegetable (‘strawberry sunrise’, ‘onion sunrise’), is not (as we shall see) the kind of benign acceptance that regards the somersaults of history are mere vain adventures. Marker has insisted, as he would, on Giraudoux’s seriousness, on the gravity of his work, the lightness of which is only the outer sign of his respect and politeness, even his engagement. In relation to Marker, there’s no need to dot the i’s here. His latest young girls, with their three separate perfumes, set out for various pastoral countrysides, subject to alphabetisation; and the most recent additions to his bestiary are the crocodiles of the Zapata marshes – peacefully in repose or pretending to be asleep, according to whether they represent the people’s avengers or the April 17 invaders – which the maker of Cuba Si! arranges in a lengthy parade during one of the film’s most beautiful sequences.
V. Circle of Friends. If we speak of a family here, it is less to discover influences than to note affinities, reciprocal homages and complicities. It is useless to say much more; this entire issue [of Artsept] exists for that purpose. It is, without the slightest doubt, further proof of his politeness, but Marker’s œuvre is full of tips of the hat. To Miles Davis, performer of ‘Israel’, and to Bill Klein, photographer. To Alexandre Vierney, Russian poet, and to Agnès Varda, Sinologist who apparently has a boutique in Jerusalem. To Alain Resnais, juvenile delinquent anticipating ‘last year in Havana’, and to Armand Gatti, omnipresent as he sticks to this globetrotter: boarding the Trans-Siberian, going to Cuba where he breeds his buffalo frogs, arriving in Korea in the wings of the Moranbong Mountain theatre. The last three names form with Marker a trio as scrambled in its mathematics as Alexandre Dumas’ famous four-sided triangle; they swap everything, photographs, advice, comics collections, voice-over commentaries, composers, cinematographers, ideas and cats. They are themselves cats, inscribing themselves into the four corners of the globe, Korea or Siberia. They are cats, too, in the sense that a jazzman or beatnik would confer this name upon a superior brotherhood.
VI. A Young Man, Fair and Funny, with Uncertain Denture Work and an Utterly Impervious Mood. His name is Alfred E. Newman, he’s American, and he is (wrongly) labelled mad. He figures intelligently, albeit very briefly, in Letter from Siberia. Page 58 of Commentaries pays him a rather obscure homage, and one is amazed at his absence from the credits of America Dreams, but he’s still working with Marker, in his Assistant capacity, on Description of a Struggle. We must credit to his influence the moments where Marker’s humour changes from pink to grey and moves to black, where his irony bares its teeth – not to smile but to bite. It’s Alfred, presumably, who inspires the jibes that are variously anti-Communist (Chinese Revolution hygiene, the state of Siberian roads), anti-clerical (the Holy Bible compared to St Etienne’s Arms Factory, the favourite treats of the sperm whale are giant squid and missionaries) and, especially, anti-American. It’s Alfred who inspires, too, these giggles which assimilate a mammoth to a piano, a reindeer to a bicycle, and Bernard Buffet to the painter of Altamira; this advertising parody escaped from a Tashlin film; this idea of offering three antagonistic versions of the same banal event; this definition of rodeo, the rule of which is to ‘maintain two contact points that are difficult to hold: man on beast, hat on man’; and this verbal analogy which gives one the chills, this paredón demanded for traitors – ‘not pardon, but the firing squad wall’.
VII. Original Filmmaker. Because if there has to be a seventh family, it should be the one formed by the œuvre that Marker knew how to plant and grow – even in the face of so many real or imaginary godfathers. That he owes much to certain figures – and no doubt others I have been unable to detect – is no more humiliating than it is deniable. Trying to cleanse Giraudoux of the false sin of plagiarism, Claude Roy calls to the bar Louis Aragon (‘I imitate … the pretense of not imitating is pure hypocrisy’) and Malraux (‘A form is always won upon another form, whose trace it seems to carry’). But why seek so far afield when we have at hand … Giraudoux himself? A character in Siegfried puts it well: ‘Plagiarism is at the base of every kind of literature – apart from the first, which moreover is unknown to us’. It’s time to hand back to Cocteau his handy metaphor, to end this game just as it began. Marker’s song rises up even stronger and purer when it draws from its source at the summit of a grand, imposing tree.
The Forthright Spirit has the legitimate pretension of many first novels: it wants to say everything, definitively. The absolute, exigency, the irreparable, intransigence, purity: these are the keywords in this summa of a twenty-eight year-old man. Then come the ‘essays’: such is the way of Giralducian modesty. This very noble novel is the transference of an experience that we feel is authentic, expressed by hyper-intelligent characters under the author’s eye, a demiurge-on-high. Former F.T.P. (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, Resistance army), ex-G.I., he is allowed to write these words in capitals: Action against the Absurd for the sake of Man. There is a nostalgia for war in The Forthright Spirit, and for the danger that purifies a man, enabling him to live at his highest point and heal his agony – a nostalgia, too, for the kind of virile tenderness associated with comrades in battle. Such dangerous action accords rights – firstly, the right to speak. To have a forthright spirit, in popular parlance, is to be able to see a thing immediately, judge it on the spot, take it in hand. ‘If I had a more … agreeable life’, one character reflects, ‘I would perhaps have ended up holding different views, but I probably would have lost the right to hold them’. This action is itself cut free from any motive; its efficacy, whether therapeutic or professional (for the pilot), is secondary: ‘What matters is not the act in itself, but what it expresses about us, what it exalts and liberates’. It’s easy to see the trap in this mystical business – Malraux and Saint-Exupéry recognised it, too: there is a less pleasant side to these ‘archangels’ in The Forthright Spirit, and the ‘chosen race’ they form. But there’s an antidote: ‘I’m sensitive to the exaltation of risk as a devil-may-care attitude, linked to fine physical form. It’s a very strong, very pure alcohol. But one cannot found a notion of man on whiskey … Bravery is not patriotism … When you see what brave men are capable of, you start looking further afield for your brotherhood’ (p. 178 of the French edition, Le Cœur Net).
Action was the only possible response to the absurd; as in Camus, who named his own antidote ‘justice’. It was the logical way to prove his openness to the world and to the Other, to fight the sterilities of infinite narcissism: ‘We must detach ourselves from this consoling, obstinate notion of “going deeper”, of searching for oneself. If you open yourself endlessly, you only reach the point of emptiness.’ This allows us to reach the state of contemplation, which is not opposed to action (as everyone says and believes) but is its fulfilment, its supreme form, which extends action the way a tree extends the root, in order to bear fruit and flowers.
Active then contemplative, this action in The Forthright Spirit is bi-dimensional. This is certainly still far away from the four-dimensional action that Emmanuel Mounier will analyse in Personalism, and which seeks to ‘modify external reality, to form us, to enrich our universe with values and to bring us closer to our fellow men’ (firstly by doing, concrete action upon the world and men, the domain of economics and politics; secondly by acting which, as previously discussed, is the domain of ethics; thirdly in contemplation, also discussed, the domain of the speculative and the prosthetic; and fourthly via the collective, the cementing of brotherhood, the domain of the social). If I favour here the Personalist over the Marxist approach – which has developed points 1 and 4 while Marker began from 2 and 3 – that is because of the Forthright Spirit author’s durable collaboration with Esprit, Mounier’s journal. To the extent that that it is perhaps Marker’s true home, his foster family. It is the tragic optimism of Personalism which permeates Marker’s first novel, and its Christian symbolism fills his vocabulary. Marker has not yet recognised Giraudoux’s harmonious atheism, and the ‘absolute adaptation to the universe in which one lives’. Just like the dialectical continuity which The Forthright Spirit instituted between action and contemplation, Marker will, in his films, move dialectically from a self-satisfied acceptance to a haughty rejection of the world. Absolute adaptation, happiness, is the Negro world before colonisation; and permanent divorce, unhappiness, is America, because ‘the Americans despise the world’ and ‘nature has always been their enemy’. But, on the other hand, at the end of Statues, the author salutes ‘this promise of a man victorious over the world’, and at the end of Letter from Siberia, Man is always there, armed with the renewed promise of his victory: ‘There is only man … and the forces to be conquered’.
Something more about this Spirit. It blows where Marker willeth: to Mea Sharim, orthodox quarter of Jersualem where, in a Nazareth cooperative, people busy themselves to preserve the memory of the Law, or Father Paul Gauthier (the only French character in his work, and thus an exception to the rule) is at the forefront of reconciliation; to Cuba, where another priest defends revolution against the official Church position. But certainly not to those Havana mansions deserted by fallen billionaires – our author is astonished by the idea that they could ever have been Christians. Certainly not to America, where the deep sadness of young hobos reflects God’s silence. This America which, as Letter from Siberia rightly says, was created by the Devil.
The year 1950 made the century pivot on its axis. Consequently brought to people’s attention, a change in perspective announced itself, and became more and more evident. From the high vantage-point of his gun turret, the pilot in The Forthright Spirit reflects: ‘Soon night will entirely cover the majority of men, who seek to be one with the world, leaving the light to those who wish to transform the world’. But now the entire planet has experienced a change of sign, an enormous historic conversion has overturned everything: those that stand are the ones who accept the need for transformation (Asia, Africa), those who do the transforming, and those who at least conserve something worthwhile (the West). A certain dynamism has altered the hemisphere. The world offers earthly remedies, experienced every day, for the European Absurd. Technological progress may have streamlined aviation, but it has not created revolutions. And it has been suggested that, twenty years on, the Cuban Revolution was the Spanish Civil War finally won. Man’s Hope (L’Espoir) rises in Havana. Marker, who wishes to retain his forthright spirit, will see, on the spot, strongly motivated collective actions, and he will learn that participation in revolution can be the shortest path to knowledge. (‘To know’, said Saint-Exupéry, ‘is neither to demonstrate nor explain: it is to reach the point of seeing. But in order to see, one must first participate.’) In his eyes, History, that adorable Clio, sets sail once more. He will follow its Chinese navigation, its Siberian course, its Cuban equipment. A torn Israel stands apart and alone, grappling with contradictory currents – at once the embryo of history and the return of the absurd, threatening to sink.
This traveller with his head full of childhood (his Mikhail Strogoff side) but with one foot firmly in the future (his Martian side) today accords to the present an ever more constant attentiveness. In Peking, irony is still the keynote: showing a book of images to assembled schoolchildren, the author smugly comments: ‘I’m ashamed to admit that, for a moment, I interrupted the march of history’; he is amazed by the hygienic prudishness of this China where one can still find capitalists, but not flies; he is pleased to find, in an untidy quarter, ‘a small oasis of disorganisation’. In Siberia, detachment is ever-present, but frequently sacrificed for the sake of the eccentric and the poetic (and I’m not complaining about that) – history, geography and economy unfussily placed between parentheses. The fastidious parallelism that once opposed past and future, old and new, is swiftly discarded (following the same principle, the comparison of two simple photos illustrates a rapid evolution in Korean Women). But parentheses are not empty, far from it: they contain, for example, talk of the ‘moral values that follow material transformations like canteen women follow armies: curiosity, reflection, openness to the world … and culture.’ And, above all, the author makes three observations that are crucial and, doubtless for him, irreversible: he discovers the limits of three attitudes, which show themselves to be simple defensive mechanisms peculiar to the world he has heretofore lived in. The limit of irony, which sterilises (‘our irony, more naïve than their enthusiasm’). The limit of objectivity, which deforms reality by immobilising it (the episode shown thrice over with different commentaries). The limit of individual freedom, which contributes to its own loss (the implacable analysis of the solitary gold seeker, absurdly searching in the mud).
Description of a Struggle admirably situates Israel at the heart of history, literally quartered by its contradictions. The author movingly pitches his interrogation between the fragility of the country’s destiny and the world’s responsibility. Cuba Si! renews the link with a real revolution, and attempts to capture its rhythm and vibration. It’s a way of saying that after exaltation comes compassion. The author has declared that he wanted to make, with Cuba Si!, his most personal, most subjective film, the least distanced or ambiguous (as his previous movies had been described). Cuba Si! evades nothing: neither history, economy, politics, war nor statistics, causes, consequences; neither sugar cane nor the United States. The ineluctable simplicity of this report mimics – after the virtuosities of his preceding work – the nation’s program of austerity, where vigilance and tranquil strength affirm themselves in an unshakeable feeling of justice finally won. The slogans have the limpidity of fact: revolution makes what is obvious true, culture also belongs to those at the ‘grass roots’ … This tone resembles – in a less ardent, more serene way – that of Statues Also Die: the two films are the head and tail of the same coin, negative and positive of the same photograph, defeat and victory in the same war. That, today, these two works find themselves locked up in the same vault (alongside another black sheep of the family, Jean-Claude Bonnardot & Gatti’s Moranbong, aventure coréenne ) shows well enough how pathetic the public cries heard in France 1962 truly are – whether on behalf of a magnanimous decolonisation, or genuine independence from the United States.
Has Marker’s flirtation with history – timidly undertook in Peking and followed up in the Taiga – ended up, amid the sweetness of the Caribbean climate, in a true marriage? Probably not. It’s not that Marker keeps his distance. He delivers as thoroughly as anybody else could, but he continues to advance on several fronts. The energy that drives him comes from that four-stroke engine whose mechanism I have demonstrated above. Re-read the admirable letter to Cat G. which concludes Korean Woman. I don’t think its author would repudiate it today. The subtle, generous slalom that he traces between the pennants embossed with a capital H (History, Humankind) is, without a doubt, the best possible form of humanism. The slalom is, moreover, an old speciality of this ski champion who knows how to keep his balance. Apart from Man and History, let’s recall some of the alternating gates along his path: word and image, action and contemplation, lightness and seriousness, interrogation and oracle, yesterday and tomorrow.
The other face of Marker’s truth is his art. And perhaps his finest victory is the one he is in the process of winning upon these forms that he has invented and perfected. Now it can be said: André Bazin’s theories of ‘horizontal montage’ owe too much to facility and friendship to be completely convincing. Moreover, Bazin always maintained that there was a certain visual poverty in these films – something the maker of Sunday in Peking would be the last to deny. Brilliant and poetic, fanciful and incisive, Letter from Siberia never entirely dissipates the malaise born of the disparity between the mass of its original material and the lamination of the finished product. Description of a Struggle and Cuba Si! have, on the contrary, the density of flawless works; one supposes that their maker has achieved virtually everything he wanted, how he wanted it. Marker’s evolution has followed the process of an interiorisation that has enriched the image – always the densest core of his work. The banal and the exceptional, the typical and the unusual, the daily and the exemplary – between which, camera in hand, Marker continues his coming-and-going, of which we have seen above the most abstract milestones – these constitute the big-game to be tamed, within an ever more fruitful ‘taking from life’. The trampoline-commentary thus rebounds even stronger and higher for having sprung from a base of sequences, scenes and shots whose intrinsic eloquence is undeniable. Description of a Struggle would not have its insistent force of the world in remorse (but fringed with hope), Cuba Si! its quiet power of the world in hope (but filled with traps), if Marker did not know how, at the outset, to see – and show – what feeds both his anguish and his certainty.
The latest works as fascinating (and fascinated) as the first: from tracking shots as droll as the visit to the crocodiles, to the lyrical ripple of this ‘memory parade’ along Cuban roads, an automobile pilgrimage for a revolution in peril, speckled with sun and shade (a sequence glimpsed at the film’s start and reprised in toto at the end, a brilliant idea) – in fact, all those pleasing or poignant shots that dot his entire work constitute the risky, tense challenges of a great filmmaker. Perhaps, for now, that’s enough to say.
© Estate of Roger Tailleur 1963. Translation © Adrian Martin 2007, assisted by Grant McDonald.