Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

L’Héritage de la chouette: Dialogues choisies Published

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chris marker heritage de la chouette: dialogues choisis — book cover
Chris Marker, L’Héritage de la chouette: Dialogues choisis

Tout a commencé le 25 juin 1987. Le projet d’un programme de télévision dédié à la culture grecque venait à peine de cristalliser, nous avions devant nous le spectre qui hante les continents du documentaire culturel, et que Tchekhov a formulé pour l’éternité : dire des choses que les gens intelligents savent déjà, et que les imbéciles ne sauront jamais… C’est Jean-Pierre Vernant qui a eu l’idée du banquet, et de cette conversation sans frontière. Le grand amphithéâtre de l’École des beaux-arts à Paris s’y prêtait d’autant mieux qu’il surplombe les caves où sous formes de copies en plâtre, toute l’antiquité s’entasse en attendant que sonne la fin de l’alerte.

Chris Marker, L’Héritage de la Chouette, ouverture du premier épisode, « Symposium ou Les idées reçues »
English translation

It all started on June 25, 1987. The project of a television program dedicated to Greek culture had just crystallized. We had before us the specter which haunts the continents of cultural documentaries, and which Chekhov has formulated for eternity: say things that intelligent people already know and that imbeciles will never know… It was Jean-Pierre Vernant who had the idea of ​​the banquet, and of this conversation without borders. The large amphitheater of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris lent itself to this all the better, as it overlooks the cellars where, in the form of plaster copies, all antiquity is piled up waiting for the sound of the end of the alert.

Chris Marker — The Owl’s Legacy, opening of first episode “Symposium — or Accepted Ideas”

This publication is not the newest news, but it should be noted, indeed celebrated, nonetheless. While other essential Marker books have become incorporated into Blu-ray DVDs (La Jetée: ciné-roman on the new Potemkine edition, and Le Dépays on the new Sans Soleil edition, also by Potemkine Films), there are others which remain out of print, such as Commentaires 1, Commentaires 2, Le fond de l’air est rouge, Le Coeur net (Marker’s early novel), his book Giraudoux par lui-même, and so on. Le Fond de l’air est rouge is actually available on Kindle for a reasonable price, but the collector’s item paperback sells for hundreds of dollars used. Supply and demand are not exactly at parity here.

The dialogs take us into the TV series’ ideas and perspectives, but at the pace of our choosing—always the advantage of books (though some video technologies now allow viewing at 1/2 speed and other increments). What a thrill to see the initials CM for the director’s questions and comments in the text! Here, Chris Marker is less hidden than usual, more prominent as an independent personage stripped of aliases even than in Le Joli mai; his voix off becomes in the book a central component of the dialogic flow of ideas that propels The Owl’s Legacy.

The publication date is 2018; the book presents us with an exciting and exquisitely designed 21st-century book, not a reprint. So it is truly hats off to the dedication of the editors at Éditions de l’oeil, including Gael Teicher, Freddy Dennaës, and Vassia Chavoroche (as noted discreetly only on the back page), to have gathered and edited in written form selected dialogs from Marker’s 13-part television series on Greece. It is also a celebration of the individuals who Marker gathered for his banquet: Giula Sissa, Angélique Ionatos, Michel Serres, Ira-Argenta Feloukatzi, Michel Jobert, Dimitri Delis, Patrick Deschamps, Iannis Xenakis, Renate Schleisser, Cornelius Castoriadis (both Marker and Foucault’s teacher), and George Steiner, the great polymath literary theorist. Steiner, like Hans Blumenberg, needed no notes to lecture in deep erudition mode. Like Auerbach writing Mimesis in Istanbul without his library, he knew all the texts and all the languages by heart.

The book is a beauty, its graphical conception by Sophie Doléans showing Athena’s owl coin (oddly, an image published here a long time ago) in the center, with the interlocutors’ names placed at odd angles on the periphery. It’s a nice formal translation of the many voices that make for the film’s brilliant dialogic quality (in Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s sense). 1 Les Éditions de l’oeil is located in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, and their website is www.editionsdeloeil.com. The printing was done at PBtisk in the Czech Republic (Příbram, just south of Prague).


With Xenakis, we have a Greek-French composer, music theorist, architect, performance director, and engineer who pioneered the use of mathematical models in music. He merged music and architecture in ingenious ways, and thereby wove a new fabric of space and time.

Serres needs no introduction; he is the angel who wrote about angels, and a true multi-disciplinarian, writing his thesis on Leibniz and mathematical models. He was as much a man of the sea as Odysseus. His prose is so spellbinding it is considered untranslatable, though attempts have been made, one being Angels: A Modern Myth. He taught later in life at Stanford University. Serres’ death was recent, in June 2019, at the age of 89. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht called him “Der letzte Geistes-Gigant” (the last giant of the spirit/mind). Ah, that old problem of the translation of Geist! Please don’t make us go back to Hegel, s’il vous plaît.

michel serres the angel for angels
Michel Serres

Castoriadis is also Greek-French: a philosopher, social critic, economist, psychoanalyst: author of The Imaginary Institution of Society. A keyword for Castoriadis is ‘autonomy,’ what Steel Pulse calls True Democracy, and he finds its origins in Ancient Greece, in a very particular, rather unexpected way. Marker’s atelier bookshelves were, from photographic evidence, filled with books by Castoriadis.

Angélique Ionatos is a Greek singer, guitarist, and composer, born in Athens and residing in France. Ira Feloukatzi was born on the island of Samos, coming to Paris in 1966, one year before the year Marker considers more important than 1968. She is a journalist and French television commentator, a hyper-informed voice on contemporary French society, art, culture, and politics.

Michel Joubert is a professor of sociology at the University of Paris 8, a researcher at CNRS, and a public consultant on mental illness, addiction, and preventative medicine. He is an expert on vulnerability.

Giulia Sissa is an Italian classical scholar and historian of philosophy. Like Jean-Pierre Gorin, she teaches in the UC system in California (she at UCLA, Gorin at San Diego). She worked previously as the department chair in Classics at Johns Hopkins. She also taught at the College de France and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Among her many books are L’Âme est un corps de femme, Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World, and The Daily Life of the Greek Gods.


Les Éditions de l’oeil have also published some other important books on cinema: the Écrits complets of Jean Epstein among them (a multi-volume project taken up later by les presses du réel), and an interesting series called “Livres-dvd cinéma.” They also focus on individual auteurs, with an emphasis on Asian makers: Ding Shiwei, Kadiatou Konaté, Moustapha Alassane, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Cilia Sawadogo, Idrissa Quedrago, Chen Shaoxiong, Du Zhen-Jun, Geng Xue, Hayang Wang, Lei Lei & Thomas Sauvin, Miao Xiaochun, Sun Xun, Wu Chad & Xia Weilun, Yang Yonglang, and Ye Linghan. Another publication is a massive anthology called Chine art en mouvement, a collection of 11 booklets gathered into a box set, with texts by Anet ter Horst, Maurice Corbet, Lucie Cabanes, Pierre Hébert, Xavier Kawa-Topor, and Brune Alcaraz.

In going on this tangent, I feel we are on Markerian ground, as he often pointed to others’ works instead of insisting that attention falls on his own; this practice is nowhere more apparent than in the selection and presentation of films that accompany Un Jour dans la vie d’Andrai Arsenevich, where he focuses on other under-recognized Russian documentarists under the rubric “Three Songs About the Motherland,” placing his own film merely alongside the others, without hierarchy. Marker truly went out of his way not to become a vedette… How rare to find the ego so firmly in check, especially when coupled with such an intense work ethic.

coin reverse
Coin for Chris Marker — © drytoasts.wordpress.com

Footnotes

  1. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Ed. Michael Holquist, Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin, Univ. of Texas Press, 1981.

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

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