Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Phenomenon (n.) by Chris Marker


Last Updated on January 4, 2021 by bricoleur

Translated from the French by Dorna Khazeni

“His definition of the short story is quite simple: it is the recounting of an event that is unusual”
(Isaac Babel quoting Goethe during a discussion at the USSR Writers Union.)

Most likely, countless observers must have remarked the same thing at the same moment in a variety of conditions, or in the same conditions at various moments, yet in only two or three days the totality of the phenomenon was to become a subject of astonishment, alarm, then pure terror. As far as Loewen was concerned, the first sign of the phenomenon manifested itself to him as he sat calmly watching the France-Hungary soccer final on his television. The stakes were high : which country would represent Europe in the all new Intercontinental Soccer Cup. With the score tied at zero, there were now a series of penalty kicks. Hardly a cheerleader himself, but ever interested by talent in all its forms, Loewen had noticed that in the last few years this once exceptional postlude was finally becoming the rule, and the moment of truth in a game where it seemed there were no longer any teams capable of establishing their superiority during regulation time. The federations had even managed to agree on a limited number of these kicks : a total of twelve, six chances given to each team, and up to now this had sufficed to break the deadlock at one or other moment, allowing that subtle cocktail of chance, tension, angst and will to produce an exhilarating goal and with it, victory.

But on this particular night, the time limit was drawing to a close. Ten kicks, ten goals. The impenetrability of the goalkeepers was only matched by the ferocity of the kickers. It was Primerose’s turn to shoot and the Hungarian goalie was winding himself up like a frog about to leap. This was par for the course. It was often, during this final exchange, that all of the game’s energy would become focused on two men, then inevitably one of the two would crack up. As soon as the Guadeloupean kicker’s foot had touched the ball which had crossed over to him, the Hungarian read his maneuver in the bat of an eye,threw himself to the right and blocked the kick against his chest in a protective gesture. The Hungarian galleys howled with enthusiasm. The match was as good as won. The last player was Szabo who had never in his life missed a penalty kick : letting him get close to the goal line during the course of game was in and of itself considered to be a fatal error.

He took his time and fiddled with the ball’s exact position just to provoke the French goalie. Fair enough. He seemed to look up at the sky (would it start to rain between his kick and the parry ?), he looked around at the stadium (where exactly were his fans and were they putting enough juice into it ?) and then abruptly he kicked the ball, implementing his legendary one-two which made the ball travel the opposite diagonal to the one expected by his adversary and so fast that in a split second its path was rewritten and while Barthez in his anticipation had plunged to the right corner of the box, at that very same instant the ball sped like a missile into the left corner. The counter was clear and unstoppable. At which point both the flabbergasted public, and Loewen on his television, watched as the French goalie pulled off a sort of pirouette in the void, a wrap motion which defied all the laws of physics and of gravity and which brought him back to the left corner just in time to catch the projectile, centimeters before it crossed the goal line.

Strangely the public did not greet this with the clamor of joy with which it had greeted the Magyar’s performance. Their stupefaction outweighed the triumph and what echoed on the stands resembled a giant hiccup. At the same time the referees, both teams’ captains and both teams’ trainers, gathered together midfield, with anxious gazes and contrite expressions. The rules, which up till then had never had to be applied, stated that in a case this extreme, the outcome would have to be determined by a coin toss. They could foresee the public’s hostility. There are those moments in a game which are always to be greeted by jeering, whistles, and boos from the crowd : like when a fullback passes the ball to his own goalie, or at bullfights when the picadors enter. It would be a lot worse when the fans realized that their team’s fate was to be decided by the toss of a coin. And in fact, as the stadium, row by row, deciphered the scene that was being played out, the din of whistles and boos rose wave after sonorous wave like the prelude to the Rhinegold. Might as well get it over with as quickly as possible, and with that, the referee tossed the coin. Which, did not drop.

It took the public a minute to realize that yet another bizarre event had just been added to the afternoon’s other peculiarities and the silence which interrupted the Wagnerian symphony of wolf whistles and howls was in itself incongruous. The officials were in a tight spot. It was clear to them how ridiculous they must look in close-up on the many screens as captured by the unrelenting television cameras. Should they start to crawl around on all fours in the grass looking for the coin, when they knew full well that it was not there ? Should they start over at the risk of seeing the same oddity recurring? An emissary of the Federation ran up, breathless, whispered something to them and immediately the loudspeakers, taking advantage of the silence, brayed out the official statement that had just been hurriedly developed: the match had been declared null and void. Entirely so. It would therefore by replayed and (in a stroke of genius by one of the organizers) the tickets of all those present would be good for the rematch. This was so effective that the stadium was vacated without any of the tumult that may have been fearfully anticipated. There were a few exchanges of catcalls between the fans of opposing camps, but nothing very serious, and Loewen, who had watched all of this owing to the slow motion replays on his television, returned to his desk of professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Humanities in a state of great perplexity.

Later, when he turned the television on again to see how the commentators were going to sum up the strange events in their sports summary, he realized that regular programming had been suspended. Instead of the news, they were still showing the live broadcast of the Global Village tennis match where the young Ukrainian Tchernenko was playing against the veteran, Silicombe. Unlike soccer, this competition did not limit the number of tie-breaks and the players were tied at fifty : each, when his turn came, inexorably won his serve. The game was to be interrupted as night fell to be taken up the next day. “This day has certainly been one for the ages”, Loewen thought to himself. He was about to turn off the television and join his colleagues in the study when it occurred to him that Beta Sport, a channel which did not broadcast live would therefore perhaps be carrying out the exegesis of the football game he had expected (and perhaps also the tennis).

What he saw turned his amused curiosity into that slightly blurry state of mind one experiences towards the end of a hangover, where, while perceptions of the real world begin to be sharper, one feels appallingly incapable of actually facing it. Although you are uncertain where the unreality resides, the certainty is that someone, be it the world or you, is out of place. It was through this sort of displaced haze that Loewen was hearing the journalists patter their commentary over an image that was incessantly repeated from every conceivable angle and at every possible cadence of slow motion : the image of the finish of a 100 meter sprint at the Barcelona University Games. This moving image now was supplanted by a single picture. All Loewen could think of was the expression which had become hip amongst young people. It served to underline the differences between two people or two situations. “No photo finish !” they would say. And here was the ultimate photo finish. A knit fluid of limbs, an eight-headed monster, a flower whose petals all arms and legs looked like superimpositions of Etienne-Jules Marey’s photos from the last century taken to study human motion in detail. This was the official photo indisputably destined to forever tower over the imperfections of the human eye. At the center of the medusa, a minuscule opaque black dot represented the only space common to the many limbs in motion. The hard nucleus wherein they were all united was exactly at the vertical plane formed by the finish line: all eight runners had reached it at the same time, in the same fraction of a second.

The assiduous reading of Plato had embedded deep within Loewen somewhere, a notion which had been contradicted by the entire rest of his education : the idea that there is a zone of the spirit where we know everything, where everything is decoded and where everything is foreseen. As he descended the dark wooden staircase, nothing indicated that the din emanating from the study area where his colleagues had assembled, a din whose volume was increasing in the same exponential way as the whistling in the football stadium at the moment of the coin toss, was in any way related to the extravagances which seemed to be affecting the world of sports within the last few hours. And yet someone inside of him already knew that it was the phenomenon, the famous phenomenon, which was about to appear to him under a new guise. The point of the meeting was, as it was each year, to learn the results of the examinations, compare students’ grades and prepare for the ceremony wherein these results would be declared. All the divisions of the college had consulted their electronic oracles and consequently the results appeared on long ribbons of paper which had rolled out of printers like papyrus. They were now spread all over the table and had seemingly been pored over incredulously one after the other by the chorus of honest professors. He realized he experienced no sense of surprise when reading before each and every name, at the intersection of every discipline, the same exact grade : twelve and a half out of twenty. Twelve and a half. Twelve and a half. Twelve and a half. A school’s entire population was standing shoulder to shoulder, uniformly at just a little above average, just like so many soccer players, tennis players or runners, incapable of setting themselves apart from one another.

For some time now, the scholastic ratings of institutions of higher learning no longer reflected the subjectivity of an all powerful professor whose inclination would be to see in a text the projection of his own feelings towards its author, be they sympathy or irritation. While unable to eliminate entirely the human fingerprints, the new system remedied them substantially in its recourse to a series of pluses and minuses placed by an instructor throughout a text. The computer would take note of these and digest them, but withheld its synthesis which would remain within its entrails until the final communication of grades, in order precisely to avoid subjective last minute interventions. Now seeking to resuscitate his manner of proceeding the previous week, Loewen analyzed his own actions. Once again, he could see how he had noticed one or other brilliant student’s tendency to smugness, overly pleased at his own brilliance, as manifested by a complacency in the development of an idea or a risky comparison which clearly showed the authors saying “whatever! I’m going to show them”, and quickly two minuses followed in a snap, just like the two quick strokes of the whip that Kipling’s fond, loving professors had proceeded with, you’ll be a Man my son ! On the other hand a visibly less than gifted straggler, he discerned, had attempted clarification in an area where he had at first floundered, palpable proof that here or there he had buckled down and made a real effort to document and substantiate his arguments. Two pluses followed. Were he able to project his mind into the computer’s synthesis, it would only have confirmed that nothing had changed : the brilliant student remained brilliant and the other, dull. The cockiness of the former was taken down a notch and the humility of the second highlighted somewhat, that’s all. And in fact, it seemed as if these very scruples of his, laid end to end, after a transformative gestation period inside the computer, had spawned this delirious leveling.

As for the group of professors who remained agitated in the face of their discovery of the phenomenon, apparently for them it all boiled down to yet another outlandish result of the use of computers. It was a sign of the times, there had been the infamous year 2000 bug and periodically certain anecdotes, embellished to a greater or lesser degree, made the rounds. In these human intelligence exacted revenge on the intelligent machines and bestowed on them the power to wipe out bank accounts or issue death certificates to the living. It was just another cyberhoax, that’s all. The intervention of experts would put things back in order soon enough and it would make for a good story to tell over cocktails sometime. Hearing these comments, Loewen was forced to conclude that his colleagues had not had time to glean, as he had, the information which gave this egalitarian outcome a whole other sense. And yet the television was on, mute and glinting, next to the bar, in the smokers’ corner of the large room. But it was clear that no one was really watching it any longer, any sense its images had once had, had long been lost much like the symbolism of the flames in the fireplace. It was there, that’s all, and were it to beam a live broadcast of the end of the world, it would barely be graced by more than a glance (just another Japanese sci-fi show, they’d say) all the while noticing that the ceiling rattled strangely overhead. Willy nilly, it was one of the innocent colleagues (the director of the department of English literature) who furnished Loewen with new food for thought when he exclaimed with a great burst of laughter, “It’s like in Alice isn’t it? Everybody has won and all must have prizes!”

“Everybody has won and all must have prizes !” the Dodo had declared in chapter III. Loewen was not the first to have entertained the notion of an Alice with a subtext. What less could you expect from Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the man capable of memorizing pi to its sixty first decimal ? Not in a pedantic or systematic way, like the frightening bores who claim to decipher the meaning of the Bible with numerology. Instead lightly, playfully, because he couldn’t do otherwise, because the evocation of a “golden afternoon” and of the “dear girl” had unfolded like an improvised melody above the figured bass of his incessant mathematical ruminations. Exegetes had long been stumped by the seeming contradiction between the unbridled fantasy that was the tale itself, and the mathematics which was supposed to be massively logical, opaque, smooth and secret in its assertions. The discoveries of the second half of the 20th century had once and for all settled these family quarrels. To say that from here on out mathematics welcomed fluidity would be an understatement : it cherished the blur, the uncontrolled, the disorderly and so the caucus race (“they began running when they liked and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over”) could very well be interpreted as a good representation of chaos theory. And now, this. The words of the Dodo were to be the secret essence of new thought thus formulating, tongue-in-cheek, a fundamental equation, the e=mc2 of the end of history, one which noone had ever seriously conceived of, but which was about to undermine all the notions of competition and of excellence on which human progress had been constructed. Once, it seemed there had been, an obscure prophet in Judea who had said something of the sort : “the last shall be first ” -but that part of his teaching had long since been lost in the sand.

“If it’s hangover time,might as well get the best part of it !” thought Loewen who resolutely made his way to the bar. He poured himself a large glass of Cutty Sark, threw in a few pieces of ice shaped like female torsos (this was a long-standing provocation originally targeting the Dean who had never noticed the ice) and swallowed energetically like Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, (“to clear understanding!”). It was actually more of a ritual gesture, in fact he had never found alcohol to contain any particularly elucidating properties, it merely provided a little interior warmth which kept the monsters of reality at bay, and the time was nigh for that. Let’s recapitulate. Is what I’ve been observing the beginning of a tidal wave which will engulf civilization, or are these just signs intended for a privileged observer -myself- who’s been chosen by an unknown programmer to disseminate his message ? At what point does the recurrence of these insane events endow them with a statistical validity ? Now where should one look for other immediately discernible manifestations of the phenomenon? The answer was within his field of vision : on the TV set at the corner of the bar. In it he could see the reflection of the table and around it the professors who in a state of agitation were busily shuffling and unshuffling the piles of paper as though their scrutiny would somehow yield the exception to the results, the one exception that would in and of itself suffice to demolish the system (had not Popper declared that the only certainties were negative ones ?). Yet over the distorted image of this little fragment of the real world, the television proceeded with its autonomous life, and it was time for “game shows”.

If there were a place in the world where the notion of competition coincided with its own pure essence, rid of all alibis and of all ornaments, then surely this was it. Loewen, who, while waiting for a news bulletin, had chanced upon a few rounds of these games, succumbed to their draw. Greece had invented the Olympic Games, Rome, the gladiatorial combats, the Middle Ages, tournaments and courtly love, the Buryats and the Samoyeds defied one another by jousting poetically as did Villon and Marot when they took part in the contest in Blois, the bowmen of Senlis held their own against those of Loisy, the Scots hurl tree trunks into the distance as if they were darts, the little horses of Sienna were blessed before going out to run the Palio, the Marquis of Queensberry had laid down the laws of the noble art of boxing, Japanese children flew their elaborate kites with shining wings, and to conclude, the funnel that was the twentieth century had reduced this ancient instinct for combat to its minimal equation, namely a hideous space where some idiots attempted to answer inept questions put to them by a moron. For the phenomenon to shine in its full glory there was no better setting. Before plunging into the risk inherent in this moment of truth, Loewen poured himself another glass of Cutty Sark -this time emulating Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar (“Where’s the boss?”). The warmth he felt inside increased by a few degrees, and the closing walls of the enemy line retreated a few feet. It was from this safe distance that, remote control in hand, he began his inspection of channel after channel. At this time of day almost all stations were broadcasting game shows and he did not even have to add sound to understand that there was consternation everywhere. Their usual gesticulation which at every stage of competition marked the winners-joyous leaps and hugs- and the losers-clasped hands and grimaces-looked to be utterly jumbled. The two factions manifested their pleasure respectively playing to separate cameras, as the emcees looked beseechingly towards the director’s booth. The spinning wheel which was meant to stop on a number and result in a win or loss, sped on around like a runaway horse. The flashing panels which announced right or wrong answers blinked furiously, all the letters of the alphabet paraded by in disarray, a message for the birds transcribed by a mad typist. One by one each contaminated channel interrupted its programming calling on unprepared haggard newscasters who under a layer of hurriedly applied makeup were sure to be declaring that we were experiencing some small technical difficulty (had there ever occurred a great technical difficulty on television, the viewer wondered) and, cut to commercials!

There was no longer any doubt . The phenomenon was spreading like a forest fire carried by a good wind. It would pervade all variety of competitive events, and Loewen experienced a certain torpor which was not merely due to the whisky. He wasn’t even thinking of turning to his colleagues to warn them that their students’ identical grades were in fact not a whim of the computers. Rather he wished to find a comfortable sentry post from whence to observe the unfolding of the rest of the events with the detachment of a cat. The idea of a programmer, which had grazed his thoughts was now evolving in him as he took stock of the bizarre events relative to the only human scale available to him : his own, as he had corrected his exams. What invisible hands were they that had scattered the trail of pluses and minuses along all human activities so as to balance all the forces in frozen equilibrium ? Was it perhaps precisely this insult to human intelligence, the television game show, which had somehow traveled through the celestial spheres and reached an indifferent deity shaking him out of his inertia ? Could it be that this incandescence of stupidity had finally revived that vague principle, embedded at the dawn of all time as the notion of justice, which the accumulated crimes of history had only coated so far with a layer of indifference? He remembered that once in a while, in spite of his detachment, he had felt something moving feebly in the depths of his being in reaction to the century’s brutality : “come on, that’s too much to take!”. Had there in fact been millions who together had sighed thus, even if only once, and with this feeble sigh had awakened the guardian who slept at their bedside?

He pushed open the casement window and stepped out on to the balcony, like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (“not this city!”). The city was beautiful, calm. Certainly each home was taking stock of the phenomenon’s impact relative to the scale of its particular universe, like the professors in the room behind him with their exam results. He was not seeking to find other images, they were already within him and projected themselves independently of him. Handicappers at the races stood flummoxed before horses that had arrived in a straight line at the finish, speculators at the stock market before columns of zeros, gradually the news would spread, there would be inferences and the panic would spread. As for him, he felt himself grow apart from these wonders and was admiring humanity’s powers of adaptation. An hour earlier the irregularities of a penalty kick were able to tear him out of his armchair, now, with an amused sense of interest, he was contemplating the beginning of a metamorphosis, the birth of a world devoid of any bearings. It would be very curious to see how people would behave in this world, how they would survive and how they would be governed. He leaned over the balcony and he smiled amiably when he saw groups of workmen cross the street and begin mounting the billboards for the upcoming general election.

Special thanks to Tom Luddy
Originally published in French in the magazine TRAFIC (Paris, Summer 1999).
French and English versions subsequently published on “Silverthreaded presents Chris Marker”, then (English translation) in the
Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 April 2001)

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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