On Chris Marker, Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men
Published in Adrian Martin and Raymond Bellour. Chris Marker: Owls at Noon. Prelude: The Hollow Men. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art, 2008, 13-19.
Translated by Adrian Martin
How to — over 40 years after La Jetée (1962), almost as long after If I Had Four Camels (1966) — once again work with still images, and put them into paradoxical movement? And not, as in the CD-ROM Immemory (1997), via a more a more-or-less interactive flip-animation, but as an actual projection, within the singular form of an installation?
Owls at noon, night birds in the day, things, objects, images that don’t belong, and yet are there. Leaflets, postcards, stamps, graffiti, forgotten photographs, frames stolen from the continuous and senseless flow of TV stuff (what I’d call the Duchamp syndrome: once I’ve spotted 1150th of a second that escaped everybody, including its author, this 1150th of a second is mine). Bringing into the light events and people who normally never access it. it’s from that raw material, the petty cash of history, that I try to extract a subjective journey through the 20th century.
Everybody agrees that the founding moment of that era, its mint, was the First World War, and that it was also the background on which T. S. Eliot wrote his beautiful and desperate poem The Hollow Men. So the Prelude to the journey will be a reflection upon that poem, mixed with some images gathered from the limbos of my memory.Chris Marker
These lines, dated 6 April 2005, appeared (in English) at the entry of the dark room where Chris Marker’s Owls At Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men was presented, on the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s reopening in New York. They indicate the scope of the project. After La Jetée and its fiction of the third world war in the future-past; after the exacerbated quest for World War II in the intimacy of Japan, from Sunless (1983) to Level Five (1997); after lmmemory‘s passage from the memory of the First World War to the reality of the Second (‘What a strange childhood, wedged between two wars like a book fixed between two bronze elephants’) and its setting of images from so many other conflicts into its ‘War’ zone (one of the CD-ROM’s six parts), it is clear that World War I returns like a founding moment of the 20th Century, and thus of a memory that wishes, one more time, to try to reconstitute itself by new means.
The impression that strikes one at the outset, and sticks, is of an impossible remembering born of a prima! impossibility inherent in perception itself. The set-up of the installation is prescriptive: in deep darkness (slightly illuminated by the entries and exits of visitors parting a curtain), in front of a bank that fixes the distance allowing one to take in the whole, eight monitors form a line, on which images and words (accompanied only by music) continually pass. Those who have seen Marker’s previous installations will recall, in Zapping Zone (1991), a memory that was fragmented in relation to the multiplicity of sources, monitors and computers — but in which each element was easily viewable in itself; or, in Silent Movie (1995), a memory that was ‘spaced out’, in the sense that one attempted to grasp as a whole the five screens stacked vertically, concentrating now on one screen and then another, their relation creating a new form of internal montage built from contrast and heterogeneity. The reader of lmmemory recognises that the very idea of an immemory is, from the outset, imbricated with the infinite circulation between the ‘zones’ on offer; but this reader is reassured, little by little, by an ongoing form of memory generated by each gesture, each bodily action (however minimal) that accompanies one’s personal selection at the computer keyboard. Now, standing before The Hollow Men, the visitor is instantly turned into a spectator, submitted to an apparatus in which the difficulty of making out what there is to see is directly proportional to the effect of haunting induced by the century’s history and the event that founds it — an event the work seeks to lament.
Everything depends on the programming of the eight screens: on the images and words that fill them, the movements that animate them. The elements appear discontinuously, based on an alternation that (in general) opposes two groups, already provoking, in itself, a scrambling of our gaze: let us call them group A, screens 1, 3, 5 and 7; and group B, screens 2, 4, 6 and 8. Once this principle has been established, variations become possible: for instance, a particular series of images may appear in only one group, interpenetrated by immense blocks of blackness on the other four screens left momentarily empty. It also happens – rarely – that all eight screens display, fleetingly, the same text or image.
The effect of paradoxicaL movement comes from its being produced on the basis of completely static images which (most often) travel slowly in backwards, forwards, or lateral trajectories, in four possible directions. Then there are the numerous fades — mostly superimpositions, but also fades-to-black — which combine (or not) with the above trajectories, reinforcing the impression of movement. The violence and strangeness of this impression derive from the clash of principles that provokes all the movement produced in an image (and thus in an image-series or group) against the edge of the screen holding an image from the second series — thus creating a quadruple determination. A multiple movement — precisely determined, but with a chaotic effect – is induced by the reflex jump that occurs between one screen and another, whether by the broken continuation of the same movement, or by the clash between opposing movements, touching the images as they face one another, as well as in their opposed materials of images and words. For example, at one point, the close-up of a woman, eyes fixed in the distance, is affected in one group by a very slow backward-tracking movement; while the other group displays this same face, toneless, whited-out, as if seen through a smokescreen, and animated by an equally slow top-to-bottom movement, which ends by cutting the eyes from the frame at the very moment when, in the corresponding image, they are centered for us in a haptic movement. Or again, a little later, two women’s faces in extreme close-up — completely filling the frame from eyes to mouth — are arranged in relation, as if they could be regarding each other across the series, a gaze multiplied four times over, reinforced by a very slow movement both in and out; or again, the same image, showing a confused crowd of soldiers, is animated by a left-to-right movement, but at two different speeds in each group – creating an instant perceptual insecurity. Or the huge letters, which, rising up from a group of smaller letters, seem to enter into a monstrous body, a body sculpted from fibres, almost like a war icon implanted in living flesh.
For this Prelude is among the extreme examples of the discontinuous dialogue — not to mention intimate interpenetration — of words and images, alongside Jean-Luc Godard’s video-essays and Gary Hill’s visual poems. The text is, in itself, already multiple. For starters, it comprises a commentary written by Marker, very closely inspired by the T.S. Eliot poem that it quotes, incorporates, and comments upon. lt also carries the primary association of the implicit crucible of autobiographical reference (in 1925, when the poem appeared, Marker was four years old, and it is indeed 80 years later that he returns to it); plus a fond cultural allusion (the memory of the blind in Giraudoux’s Siegfried).1 This commentary, for the first time in his work, is not spoken but written in the image, occurring in blocks, in capital letters, which seem like engraved stele; it sometimes undergoes the general effect of forward-sliding motion, as well as the sort of shocks already described. But above all, the text (especially Eliot’s) is often found reprised in the massive form of full-screen letters, words or rather fractions of formed words appearing like sculptural fragments whose meaning, shattered in a kind of intense mutism, no longer comes across as only an echo of words already read — words on which the fragmentation confers a menacing dimension and an almost autonomous life. These apparitions give lie to the fundamental law of modern linguistics, which Thierry Kuntzel enjoyed turning into a paradox by engraving it on a sleek block of marble for his video installation Ferdinand de Saussure’s Tomb (1974): ‘Whether I write the letters in black or white, carved in a hollow or placed in relief, with a pen or scissors, it makes no difference to their meaning.’ 2 Moreover, these word-fragments in Marker, filling the screen from edge to edge, are animated by a movement that is more or less rapid, and more or less incessant; it travels both ways, but most often from right to left, thus reversing not only the usual order of reading but also the movement of most of the trajectories, which tend to go from left to right.
So we have a film with four-by-two entry-points arranged in sequence, and exclusively composed of fixed images that appear animated by incessant movement. Moreover, it is a very surreal kind of movement, on which vision can scarcely get a hold, as it undergoes conflicting variations that make it seemingly burst, slip away, lose from moment to moment an illusory fixity which is won only with great difficulty. We know at what point pure movement in cinema, developed to an extreme on and through static images, can become disconcerting and inventive – as Alain Resnais’ Van Gogh (1948) had already discovered long ago. Or how new kinds of movement (‘treatments’ of the image according to various differential modes) reveal a type of strangeness, as in certain of Kuntzel’s installations: the morphing movement in Tu (1994), invented on the basis of eight still photos; or the movement at once lateral and ellipsoidal, giving the impression of a confined look, beginning from the fiction of a constrained body, in Winter (The Death Of Robert Walser) (1990). But here, the strangeness arises from simpler means. lt comes from the contrary antagonistic directions laid down for perception, as opposed to what the body, the body-mind, experiences on finding itself continually carried away from itself, faced with what it sees. This principle of contrariness is all the more vivid because it strikes at the heart of the very nature of the images — images that, in the first place, are mostly mournfully enigmatic. Moreover, the commentary on screen does not really clarify them — as is the case in so many Marker films — by various modes and possible counterpoints, according to that oft-repeated notion of a ‘horizontal montage’ between words and image which Andre Bazin instantly discerned.3 Here, Marker’s text clarifies, in a sense, the abstract, savagely incarnated prescience of Eliot’s poem. But the text goes deeper into its own obscurity — creating, through its arrangement of screens, enigmas of visibility that seem analogous to those which the images themselves so cruelly bear. Worked over on computer — doubtless with the basic means that Marker loves — these images often exhibit unlikely textures. We recall Goya’s etchings and Jacques Callot’s stamps, Alfred Kubin’s drawings and Henri Michaux’s trembling creatures. We might frequently imagine they are made of radioactive material (close to the opening shots of Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959, or the images of the atomic bomb ‘s impact inserted by lmamura into Black Rain, 1989), equally disintegrated in their texture: graffiti from beyond the grave; limbo images, from the Great Beyond. If, in order to see better, the temptation to forgo the whole and get closer to the bank of screens arises in the spectator, s/he will very quickly realise that there is nothing to be discovered but fused indistinct materials.
The beautiful reframed shots of women’s faces – women who meet our look, like those in the Bissau and Cape Verde marketplaces of Sunless (‘the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame’)4 — such shots, static from the outset, fill The Hollow Men. But only in order to immediately be confronted with their double, the ruined image decaying into sheer whiteness. lt is as if these shots have been expelled from the obscure disaster that created them, and of which they capture a split second. Fleeting recollections — this neck, this head fully turned — evoking the first shot of One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), Marker’s homage to Tarkovsky, which itself recalled an image from La Jettée.
Thus we enter the Zone, the ‘radioactive zone’ that Marker evoked so powerfully in his 1950 piece on Cocteau’s Orpheus. 5 This word and idea have not ceased appearing in his work since that time, from La Jetée to Sunless, from Zapping Zone to lmmemory. lt refers to the war State, the concentration-camp State, as well as the multiplying states of image-transformation, from analogue photo to digital mutations. lt is the image of the look itself which is arrived at in the Zone, and by various means in The Hollow Men, in (for example) the streaming of some lines from Eliot’s poem, which one has perhaps seen pass by without being able to recognise them; certain enormous letters, clear or blurred, but always so brutally enigmatic in sliding across and colliding with those images that they further make unreal:
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.
If this remembering of World War I resonates so justly with the action of the beginning of the third world war, that is because immemory devotes itself to the task via a reinvigorated haunting of memory on two parallel levels: the memory of History’s inevitable spectator, and the memory of an innervated film/installation spectator. In La Jetée, such work took place as much through the supposed subjective experience of a production of mental images reconquered by the hero in his own memory, as through the circular development of a narrative that held together the fundamental tension between the stillness of the photos and the motion given to them by their linkage, by the music and the voice-over commentary. In The Hollow Men, other means induce this same tension, regenerated on the basis of a new distance, the difficulty in perception adding to the programmed forgetting of images and to the unhappy consciousness that the words themselves, words-made-images, keep enlarging — resonating, however, with the contained violence, constantly dissonant, of ‘Corona’, Toru Takemitsu’s admirable piano composition, performed by Roger Woodward. In terms of a memory experience internalised/projected by a spectator, The Hollow Men is without doubt the most advanced work Marker has conceived since La Jetée.
Marker has accomplished a unique kind of gesture here. He gets hold of static images, plus a text at once spatial and linear (the admirable poem he transforms), and submits them to the perpetual movement of time. Let’s listen, once more, to the two perhaps essential propositions from La Jetée regarding the destination of images, which the Prelude of Owls At Noon seems, in a completely different way, to fulfil anew:
He met a reasonable man who explained calmly that the human race was doomed. Space was off-limits. The only hope for survival lay in Time. He understood there way no way to escape Time, and that this moment he had been granted to watch as a child, which had never ceased to obsess him, was the moment of his own death.
A lively paradox is embedded in this work, especially in the context of contemporaneous installation pieces by Jonas Mekas (Fragments Of Paradise 2005) and Rinko Kawauchi (Cui Cui 2005). The cinematic apparatus, once (and for so long) intangible, has since experienced virtually the absolute reverse situation, because of VHS and especially DVD: now it offers an experience of time that is practically reversible. But in The Hollow Men, it seems that only this space is really possible. Marker here re-finds (all things considered) the purity of experience of La Jetée projected as a film, before undergoing — via the ambiguous grace of DVD, combined with so many dubious notions — the kinds of defigurations currently fatal to too many exhibitions. For The Hollow Men seems hardly reducible to the DVD format: the eight screens that compose it would end up too tiny to be really perceptible. The installation thus assumes only one possible gaze, one that becomes analogous with that of cinema past. Of course, there has to be, compared with the blocked vision of the cinema spectator, with the ritual of theatre and screening session it presupposes, a museum or gallery visitor willing to accept this somewhat fictive position. But the time of this fiction is indeed the pure experience of time offered by a multiplication of spaces, as the immemorisable memory of an excess of movement drawn out of fixedness. Such would be the requisite conditions for a memory of the 20th Century.
This is a translation of a section of Bellour’s text “Three Gestures (Jonas Mekas, Rinko Kawauchi, Chris Marker)’, a commentary on three recent film-related installation works (Trafic 60 Winter 2006).
- Marker has devoted a book to this author: Giraudoux Par Lui-Même Seuil, Paris, 1952.
- Thierry Kunztel, a distinguished film analyst and video artist about whom Bellour wrote on many occasions, passed away in April 2006.
- André Bazin ‘Chris Marker’s Letter From Siberia’ Film Comment July-August 2003, 43-44.
- This is from the soundtrack of the English-language version as supervised by Marker. Intriguingly, the French version refers to a twenty-fifth of a second, i.e. a video image.
- Marker ‘Orfee’ Esprit November 1950, 694.