Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

From the Tower: Spiral Time, Blanchot, Algeria and Elephants

F

Researching Chris Marker

“It was late in the evening when K. arrived, The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.” – Franz Kafka, The Castle

After Losing Every Battle

As is our want de temps en temps, we dig into the accumulating secondary literature on le plus célèbre des cinéastes inconnus, finding means of better stealth, better tools to get at insightful articles often published in obscure journals. In this case, we have used the bibliographical software Zotero and Taylor & Francis Online, a gateway to peer-reviewed journals and their contents, to build a mini bibliography of articles on Chris Marker that are scattered across the academic landscape. In many cases, the abstracts are given. If not, you get an image of the first part of the article, the first few paragraphs. Abstracts are useful entities. They too can be captured and reprocessed, and they reveal the gist of the investigation or perspective. To go beyond abstracts though is a real (not a blind) librarian’s job, reserved for institutions that are endowed, I would wager. The paywalls are the keys to the Tower referred to in the title. It once was ivory; now it bears the logos of Visa and MasterCard, Discover and American Express, Paypal and Square, the trappings of fintech, online payment, little green SSL locks. In a dual move, the consequences unfurl: 1) to leave many out and unaware of the conversation to begin with; and 2) to ‘modernize’ traditional publishing so that it may somehow continue its hybrid halflife, in print and also in digital formats. Information wanted to be free, but it lost that war soon enough. As Dylan sings in Idiot Wind off Blood on the Tracks: “At the final end you won the war after losing every battle.”

Authors are encouraged to send PDF files of their articles if possible, as Matthew Croomb has done for his remarkable article on La Jetée and the Algerian war; these will then be made available for download.

On another note, please stay tuned for our review, coming soon, of the two excellent Chris Marker books by Vincent Jacques, Chris.Marker.Photographie and Chris Marker, les médias et le XXe siècle: le reverse de l’histoire contemporaine. À bientôt!

Recent Articles on Chris Marker

Alexander, Travis. “A Hint of Industrial Espionage in the Eye: Orientalism, Essayism, and the Politics of Memory in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 36, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 42–61. https://doi.org/10.1080/10509208.2018.1464891.

Midway through Chris Marker’s 1982 film Sans Soleil we are introduced to the “Zone,” a world of computer-processed film images resembling infrared heat maps, with their various topographic levels colored in deeply saturated contrasting shades, as shown in Figure 1. […] Yamaneko’s “machine,” as Krasna calls it, is, in reality, the EMS Spectre Colour Video Synthesizer, developed in 1975. Only 15 of these consoles were produced…

Travis Alexander

Anderson, Laura. “‘Le Concerto Pour Éclair et Nagra’: A Sonic Snapshot of Paris in Le Joli Mai (1963).” French Screen Studies, May 15, 2020, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/26438941.2020.1741301.

Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le Joli mai documents Paris in May 1962 – the first month of peace after the Evian agreements brought a conclusion to the Algerian War. It is a film that is often discussed in relation to its importance as a sociological text and for its artistic value. Yet, its importance as a milestone in the history of French film sound design remains to be explored. This article will consider how emerging technologies shaped the production process of Le Joli mai, where sonic considerations often led decision making about the images in a reversal of the conventional image-sound hierarchy. While the film employs a score by Michel Legrand and the voice of Yves Montand, smooth integration of the soundscape is destabilized due to the desire to capture real-world sounds and atmosphere. The article situates Le Joli mai at the nexus of sonic tradition and innovation, considering the film in relation to documentary sound, song in French cinema and the innovations of contemporary New Wave film. It argues that Le Joli mai presents a model of French film sound design that reflected social disruption sonically and paralleled ongoing polemics of early 1960s France.

Laura Anderson

Cooper, Sarah, “Looking back, looking onwards: selflessness, ethics, and French documentary,” Studies in French Cinema, 10:1, 57-68, DOI: 10.1386/sfc.10.1.57/1

This article considers questions of documentary ethics in relation to the most recent films of Chris Marker, Agnès Varda and Raymond Depardon. I revisit my own arguments in Selfless Cinema? Ethics and French Documentary (Cooper 2006), in order to show how these directors continue to flesh out an approach to alterity that was already discernible in their earlier work, and that is still compatible with Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics, albeit with a slight expansion of focus. In their late work, most notably, Marker’s Chats perchés / The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004), Varda’s Les Plages d’Agnès / The Beaches of Agnès (2008), and Depardon’s Profils paysans / Country Profiles (1998-2008), these film-makers seem concerned ever more poignantly with matters of mortality, their own and that of other people, along with the survival of the planet and its other inhabitants. While their future-directed anxieties connect with memories of the past to suggest that an exploration of time is key to an understanding of their filmic ethics, the most striking facet of these films is to be found in the intimate, spatial geographies that they construct. Crafted essentially on the basis of interaction with or observation of others, as well as the film-makers’ own reflections on matters of life, death, and the future, these films create vivid emotional landscapes of mortality and loss that unite interior and exterior worlds in a deeply subjective and personal vision that is also ethical.

Sarah Cooper

Criddle, Alison. “Narrative Twists: Spiraling Time and Projected Identities in the Hair of Vertigo’s Madeleine.” Fashion Theory 22, no. 6 (November 2, 2018): 677–97. https://doi.org/10.1080/1362704X.2018.1533344.

This article explores the ways in which hair entwines memory, identity and character to establish multiple modes of consuming Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). As the female protagonist of Vertigo, the character of Madeleine Elster, with her recognizable, oft-cited icy white-blonde chignon, is a projected identity staged as fantasy. Threaded across a dizzying narrative, the twisted spiral of hair forms a lens for viewing and reading multiple identities, configurations, actions and endless interpretation. From Hitchcock’s misty, dreamy San Francisco to Vertigo’s origins as a Parisian detective novel, to Marcel Proust’s madeleine cake via the biblical Mary Magdalene by way of Kristevan literary analysis, and Chris Marker’s movie-homage, Madeleine’s hair is both portal and projection through which to fall into a complex sensory encounter that traces the moving image as transposed into written word.

Alison Criddle

Croombs, Matthew. “La jetée in Historical Time: Torture, Visuality, Displacement.” Cinema Journal 56, no. 2 (2017): 25-45. doi:10.1353/cj.2017.0001. [PDF Download]

“For the most crucial fact about pain is its presentness and the most crucial fact about torture is that it is happening.” —Elaine Scarry

Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962) has emerged as one of the foundational texts of postwar European cinema. Yet film studies’ predominantly formal emphasis on Marker’s play with movement, stasis, and temporality has undermined investigations of the film’s political content. Focusing on the film’s central theme of torture, this article shows how the relays between La jetée’s two dominant settings—the concentration camp and a Paris in the not-so-distant past—generate a series of displacements between the colonial and consumer contexts of early 1960s France.

Matthew Croombs

Croombs, Matthew. “Loin Du Vietnam.” Third Text 28, no. 6 (November 2, 2014): 489–505. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2014.970768.

This article examines the coalitional documentary by Jean-Luc Godard and the Left Bank group, Loin du Vietnam, from the perspective of their treatment of Algeria earlier in the 1960s. The author considers how SLON’s first feature marks a departure from modern cinema’s emphasis on colonialism as a source of existential malaise for the alienated bourgeois individual. Loin du Vietnam cultivates a pluralist aesthetic, which aims to make the North Vietnamese struggle directly intelligible within the currents of intellectual and industrial contestation taking place across France. After a close analysis of the film, however, the author also identifies strong points of continuity between the representations of Algeria and Vietnam, illuminating how the history of the former explicitly conditions the political consciousness through which Godard and the Left Bank presented the first war ever broadcast on television. Algeria recurs as a nodal point of memory across militant French cinema’s engagements with the ‘Third World’, and the article concludes by isolating Godard’s work as a chief example.

Matthew Croombs

Fort, Jeff. “Only (a) Memory Can Save Us Now? The Instant of Death in Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Maurice Blanchot’s L’instant de Ma Mort.” Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 14, no. 4 (September 1, 2010): 391–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/17409292.2010.500910.

The twentieth century was the century of catastrophe. This statement is so self-evident that there is little need to give examples, which readily come to mind. But we could also say that, for reasons that are surely closely related, it was the century of memory, a fact that is legible in numerous works of art and thought, including those of some of the century’s most significant figures (Bergson, Proust, Freud, Benjamin, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Roubaud… to mention only a handful). Over the last century, memory has been something of an obsession, and at times it has come to seem, hyperbolically and problematically, like the last great reservoir of hope and (dare I say) salvation, or, at least, to invoke some related terms: of salvage, rescue, recuperation, recovery, restoration, restitution, retrieval … not to mention Heidegger’s strangely hopeful Widerholung (repetition).

Jeff Fort

Lecointe, François. “The Elephants at the End of the World: Chris Marker and Third Cinema.” Third Text 25, no. 1 (January 1, 2011): 93–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2011.545616.

In March 1967 Chris Marker attended a screening of Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam) in support of the long strike at the Rhodiaceta factory that year. From 1967 to 1977 Marker worked with the SLON collective, workers, and other film‐makers both on militant films during the events of May 1968 and, equally importantly, on counter‐information films in solidarity with the struggle of the Third World revolutionary movements. These films, which do not separate political content from aesthetic enquiry, demonstrate Marker’s aesthetic in which editing represents a political stake. By pushing back the limits of the language of film, rejecting a classical aesthetic, and bringing about an encounter between the film‐maker and the filmed through the gaze, Chris Marker makes his work political.

François Lecointe

Marker, Chris, and Lauren Ashby. “The Statues Also Die.” Art in Translation 5, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 429–38. https://doi.org/10.2752/175613113X13784777319807.

As a voiceover for a film commissioned by the journal Présence Africaine in 1950, this text criticizes Western attitudes towards African art and undermines colonialism in general. The piece states that African statues put on display in Western museums lose their symbolic functions and “die.” The Western collector’s taste for African art, combined with the influence of Western techniques and art genres (here, specifically, portraiture), has lead to the production of an impoverished “art of the bazaar” for Western consumption. The commentary further alludes to the popularity of African entertainments in the West, pointing out that applause for sports performances is countered by violence from policemen in protest demonstrations. An attack on colonialism, the text ends by stating that there is no rupture between African and Western civilization.

Lauren Ashby

Montero, David. “Film Also Ages: Time and Images in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.” Studies in French Cinema 6, no. 2 (January 1, 2006): 107–15. https://doi.org/10.1386/sfci.6.2.107/1.

Considered today as a seminal and essential figure for an understanding of the implications of our visual culture, Chris Marker and his films have only recently received widespread critical attention. However; many aspects of his work in non-fiction still remain under-studied, most notably his complex reflections on the temporal nature of cinematic images and their (in)ability to recreate past events, aspects that are essential to Marker’s understanding of cinema. Focusing on what is arguably his most important non-fiction film treating this theme, Sans Soleil / Sunless (1982), and drawing on the work of thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, this article examines the film-maker’s ideas on time and cinematic representation, as well as the strategies used in the film to expose the profound range of philosophical meanings we have attached to film images over the last century. Central to Sans Soleil is the space Marker terms ‘The Zone’, in which are found not only many of his insights into the possibility of using film as a valid document to access a contingent past but also an original cinematic mechanism that attempts to restore to film images their own entity.

David Montero

Starling, Simon. “Five Thousand Years (Some Notes, Some Works).” The Journal of Modern Craft 1, no. 1 (March 1, 2008): 117–31. https://doi.org/10.2752/174967708783389904.

Focusing on a number of key works from the last ten years and with recourse to the work of, among others, George Kubler, Chris Marker and Carlo Mollino, “Five Thousand Years (Some Notes, Some Works)” attempts to establish a predominantly temporal understanding of the artist’s sculptural practice and consequently its particular relationship to craft. Just as in Starling’s practice as a whole, the text orchestrates a playful collision of ideas and phenomena in the folds and wormholes of space-time.

Simon Starling

Stob, Jennifer. “Cut and Spark: Chris Marker, André Bazin and the Metaphors of Horizontal Montage.” Studies in French Cinema 12, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 35–46. https://doi.org/10.1386/sfc.12.1.35_1.

This article traces the positions taken by prominent critic and film theorist André Bazin on the film-making of Chris Marker. In a series of reviews written between 1954 and 1958, Bazin identified a sweeping transformation at work in Marker’s documentaries: film’s paradigmatic transformation from a sovereign visual experience into a medium amongst other mass media, subservient to the strictures of text and cultural context. Over this four-year span, Bazin developed some key rhetorical metaphors in an effort to capture the promise and the menace of Marker’s innovative montage technique. A close examination of the metaphors Bazin used reveals his appreciation of this dialectical process on celluloid, but also his dismay at the diminution of cinema’s imagistic power that he felt such a process necessarily entailed. In alerting his readership to the damages film incurred when its image and its text (on the soundtrack or in subtitles) were set in radical equilibrium, he exposed Marker to a compelling kind of ‘friendly fire’, and exposed the extent of his own engagement with filmic realism at the same time.

Jennifer Stob

Turim, Maureen. “Virtual Discourses of History: Collage, Narrative or Documents in Chris Marker’s Level 5.” Sites: The Journal of Twentieth-Century/Contemporary French Studies Revue d’études Français 4, no. 2 (September 1, 2000): 367–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/10260210008456038.

Level Five interrogates the way we play with history. It suggests a most serious historical subject, the fate of Okinawa in the closing weeks of World War II, as the subject of a hypertextual game. An early title reads: “Object of the Game: Reconstitute the Battle of Okinawa.” This game is presented as unfinished, itself a fragment left incomplete after its collaborating authors parted company.

Maureen Turim

Woods, Evan M. S. “To Touch a Ghost: Derrida’s Work of Mourning and Haptic Visuality in Three Films.” Edited by Lincoln Geraghty. Cogent Arts & Humanities 3, no. 1 (December 31, 2016): 1197871. https://doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2016.1197871.

This article represents an effort to outline the existence of a fundamental and unremarked-upon relationship between Jacques Derrida’s reconfiguration of the Freudian work of mourning and theorizations of haptic visuality. While Derrida is under-represented in film-theoretical discussions generally, and in discussions of haptic visuality specifically, the author argues that the ethical goal of his work aligns with that of the film-makers in question and that it should be of key importance for the discourse. Oliver Stone’s JFK, Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma are examined through these twin prisms in order to illustrate how the engagement with this work of mourning and the employment haptic techniques are used in conjunction in order to hasten a new relationship to alterity.

Evan M. S. Woods

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

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