It was a strange thing. A small box of metal with irregularly rounded corners, with a rectangular opening in the middle and in front of it a tiny lens, the size of a euro. We had to slip a piece of film – real film, with perforations – that was pressed by a rubber wheel, and by turning a button connected to the roulette, the film was unrolled one by one. Actually, each image represented a different scene, so that it seemed more like a slideshow than home theater, but these scenes were beautifully reproduced shots of famous films, Chaplin, Ben Hur, The Napoleon of Abel Gance … If you were rich you could put the little box into a kind of magic lantern and project onto the wall (or onto a screen, if you were very rich). I had to be satisfied with the minimal version: press the eye against the lens, and look. This now-forgotten gizmo was called a Pathéorama. It could be read in gold letters on a black background with the legendary rooster Pathé singing before a rising sun.
The egotistic joy of being able to look at images that belonged to the inaccessible realm of cinema just for myself quickly produced a dialectical by-product. While I could not even imagine having anything in common with the art of filming (whose basic principles were naturally far beyond my comprehension), I grasped something of the film itself, a piece of celluloid not so different from the negatives that came back from the lab. Something I could feel and touch, something of the real world. And why then, (dialectically insinuated my own Jiminy Cricket), could I in turn do something similar? It was enough to have translucent material and the right dimensions. (The perforation was there to be pretty, the roulette ignored it). So, with scissors, glue and crystal paper, I made a faithful copy of the actual Pathéorama reel. After that, frame by frame, I began to draw a series of poses of my cat (who else?), inserting a few comment boxes. In one fell swoop, the cat began to belong to the same universe as the characters of Ben Hur or Napoleon. I was on the other side of the mirror.
Out of my schoolmates, Jonathan was the most prestigious. He had the gift of mechanics and inventiveness, he made models of theaters with moving curtains, flashing lights, and a miniature orchestra that emerged from a pit while a wind-up Gramophone played a triumphant march. It was therefore natural that he should be the first to see my masterpiece. I was quite proud of the result, and by unwinding the adventures of the cat Riri I announced “my movie” (my Movie). Jonathan quickly brought me back to sobriety. “But, silly, movies are moving images,” he said. “You can’t make a movie with still pictures.”
L’essai proposé ici se prend au jeu de la compagnie des images. Il propose l’invention d’un aller-retour sur Chris Marker. Nous sommes à bord d’un train : les images défilent au rythme de la machine ; elles évoquent d’autres images, des pensées et des souvenirs. Disons, par utopisme, que l’on dispose à volonté de toutes les images de Marker et de leurs commentaires – chose apparemment utopique tant le cinéaste lui-même a contribué à la difficulté de les rassembler. Le compartiment est une salle de projection, là où le défilement du paysage croise une œuvre aussi singulière que nécessaire. Le trajet se découpe en deux temps. Le voyage est éternel.
The essay proposed here takes on the game of the enterprise [company, club, society] of images. It proposes the invention of a round trip through (the landscape of) Chris Marker. We are on board a train: the images stretch out to the rhythm of the machine; they evoque other images, thoughts and memories. Let us say, as utopianists, that we are in possession at will of all the images of Marker and of their commentaries – a thing apparently utopian not least as the filmmaker himself contributed to the difficulty of assembling them. The compartment is a film theatre, there where the stretch of the landscape crosses a body of work as singular as necessary. The trajectory divides itself into two times. The trip is everlasting.
There is a new film out entitled Chris Marker, Never Explain, Never Complain, by Jean-Marie Barbe & Arnaud Lambert. The film is to be shown as part of the 2017 DOXA Festival called “French, French” taking place 4-14 Mai 2017 at the Cinémathèque in Vancouver, BC, and will move to theh Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley after that (not sure of dates yet). For the news and the PDF of the DOXA press booklet I am grateful to Christine van Assche.
The festival will show recent French documentary films alongside a selection of Marker’s work, including Une Journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch, Le Souvenir d’un avenir, Chats perchés, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre, Le Fond de l’air est rouge, and L’Héritage de la chouette.
As an opening to this retrospective, Chris Marker, Never Explain, Never Complain (2016), by Jean-Marie Barbe and Arnaud Lambert, portrays the cinéaste and his works through the testimonies of seven people who knew him and worked with him – including Wim Wenders, Patricio Guzman, and … yours truly, as I had the privilege to collaborate on the production side while working for French Television at INA, La Sept and ARTE, with all the films presented!
Here’s the text from the program on the new bio-essay-doc:
Chris Marker, Never Explain, Never Complain
Jean-Marie Barbe & Arnaud Lambert, France, 2016, 144mn
La vie et l’oeuvre de Chris Marker pourraient remplir plusieurs volumes — même un train de marchandises ! — mais Jean-Marie Barbe et Arnaud Lambert les brossent allègrement en tout juste 144 minutes. En répondant à la question : “Qui est Chris Marker ?”, chacun de leurs interlocuteurs convoquent à chaque fois un univers et des réalités différentes. Comme Wim Wenders, qui s’est saoulé à mort avec Marker dans un bar de Tokyo : “Cette nuit à La Jetée, nous avons parlé, parlé, mais nous avons bu tant de sake et de vodka… que j’ai presque tout oublié”. Ou André S. Labarthe, qui résume : “c’était un esprit libre.” Ce qui est sûr, c’est que tout au long de sa carrière, Marker ne s’est jamais satisfait de n’être qu’un ni de ne faire qu’une seule chose. Écrivain, cinéaste, photographe, érudit, dessinateur, amoureux des chats – on ne saurait le qualifier en un mot. Sinon peut-être : génie.
The life and work of Chris Marker could easily fill several documentary portraits, maybe even several freight trains, but directors Jean-Marie Barbe and Arnaud Lambert have kept it to a brisk 144 minutes. “Who is Chris Marker?” — is the question posed by the directors/interlocutors, and every answer reveals a different reality. Some of the recollections are funny and bittersweet, such as Wim Wenders getting blind drunk with Marker at a bar in Tokyo. “That night at La Jetée is the time when we talked most, but we drank so much sake and vodka that we forgot most of it,” says Wenders. As André S. Labarthe states simply: “He was a free spirit.” One thing is clear, over the length of his career, Marker was never content to do or be only one thing. Writer, filmmaker, photographer, polymath, cartoonist, cat lover — there is no single term that quite suffices. Except, perhaps, genius. -DW
According to the DOXA site, “Jean-Marie Barbe is the president of Tënk, the first online platform dedicated solely to auteur documentary. The goal is to provide access to the very best in nonfiction cinema to the widest possible audience. Tënk’s curatorial team of discerning documentary professionals selects films, drawn from festivals, and organizes them thematically.” [source]
Arnaud Lambert is no newcomer to Chris Marker investigations. He is the author of the brilliant, comprehensive volume – in French despite its English title – Also Known as Chris Marker, published in 2013 by LePointduJour.
In October of 2010, I emailed Chris to ask him if he was interested in taking part in a special issue of eflux journal that the art critic Sven Lütticken and I were editing. The issue focused on whether contemporary art had or had not addressed the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, the US and elsewhere, and how these largely nationalistic, homophobic and xenophobic movements impacted culture and arts. With the ascendency of the Tea Party, Sven and I wondered whether it was possible to chart a genealogy of right-wing groups on both sides of the Atlantic, and to illuminate their familial relations. Anything would do I wrote, I asked Chris – a text, an image, even an animated gif. … Two months later, he replied.
Sorry for the delay, I couldn’t have met the deadline anyway. At an age when people care for their eternal salvation or go fishing – which is not incompatible – I have managed to put on my shoulders more daily work than I ever have in my life. But I gave a lot of thought to your proposal, and sadly I must say that it doesn’t make any real sense. For yes, the Tea Party is an isolated event. There’s a mixture of bigotry, estrangement and crass ignorance that is unique in the world, and that is as idiosyncratically American as country music or Kentucky Fried Chicken.
True, there are in Europe movements that are nationalistic, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., and we’re watching their rise with concern. None of them fits the ideological vacuum of the Tea Partiers, characters like Sarah Palin or Glen Beck, who are just as unimaginable in Europe’s politics. In France, the most dangerous leader of the extreme right, Le Pen, a cultured man who can debate geo-political issues on the same level as his opponents. The shroud of religiosity that wraps the whole TP movement, and US politics at large, is something unknown here, where the separation of church and state is the cornerstone of the Republic. Unthinkable to hear a public personality pronounce “So help me God”. Even racism has different roots. It relates here to the colonial empire and the Algerian war, not slavery and Jim Crow, and its expressions are strongly controlled.
I saw plates and badges depicting Obama as a monkey with a banana. Anyone here who would dare use such imagery would be severely punished by law. As if for the main topic of the TPs, the traditional American defiance against central government, it’s in complete contradiction to what the European extreme rightest movements, who without exception are in favor of a stronger state.
I can go on and on like this on practically every characteristic, so the only possible comparison would be at the lowest levels: all are evil, and all include an impressive number of morons. Not much for food, methinks. Sorry for this long explanation of my own inability to participate — all that representing only my private views of course – and no intent on discouraging anyone to push the comparisons deeper and surely better. But well… all I could do was a frank response. Best wishes on the coming year – the Year of the Cat.
Chris Marker, letter to Paul Chan
“Sharp and generous, even when all he’s saying is ‘No.'” – Paul Chan
“What I liked about it was that someone had taken the time to paint and make owl heads on the cats.”
The image below from Marker’s Staring Back photo collection book was posted to the Chris Marker Facebook page today by Ben McGill. Marker getting the not welcome please cease and desist moves by the US military police… Neither the image nor the film have lost their significance, to say the least, as the resistance to power renews itself after a short nap of reason (that of course produced monsters). As Ben aptly notes, “Perhaps the best place to hide is in your own book.”
Chris Marker, Staring Back, p 10
Note: I have found the page in Chris Marker Staring Back and scanned the image. Not edited at all, so it is still quite blurry, but you can click on it for a larger version. For Ben’s version, see Chris Marker Facebook Group.
On October 21, 1967, over 100,000 protestors gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. It was the largest protest gathering yet, and it brought together a wide cross-section of liberals, radicals, hippies, and Yippies. Che Guevara had been killed in Bolivia only two weeks previously, and, for many, it was the transition from simply marching against the war, to taking direct action to try to stop the ‘American war machine.’ Norman Mailer wrote about the events in Armies of the Night. French filmmaker Chris Marker, leading a team of filmmakers, was also there, and made THE SIXTH SIDE OF THE PENTAGON. IMDB
For more information, see Icarus Films video page. They offer the DVD of The Sixth Side of the Pentagon bundled with Marker’s short fiction film 1973 The Embassy.
The original title of the film is La sixième face du pentagone, filmed in 1967 and finished in 1968. It is a collaboration between Marker and François Reichenbach. For a deeper look at Reichenbach and his career, take a look at the article “Francois Reichenbach Dies at 71; Directed Range of Documentaries” in The New York Times, dated 2/3/1993. Among his books is Le monde a encore un visage, a statement certainly given ample life in both Reichenbach’s and Marker’s films and photography.
Robert Goff has written one of the most comprehensive reviews of the film. Here’s an excerpt:
The films of Chris Marker continue to remind us how the history of the twentieth century haunts the present. Few directors alive today have filmed in so many countries, witnessing and commenting on the events of the second half of the century. This prolific French filmmaker has brought a left-wing political vision and a reflective sensibility to the creation of a remarkable body of work. With so few films from his vast archive available in the United States, one is grateful for the release of any of his works, however minor. The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (1967) and The Embassy (1973) are two short films made during the time of the production company, SLON (Société Pour le Lancement d’Oevres Nouvelles [Company for the Launching of New Work]) that Marker founded in 1967 and that lasted until 1977. The Sixth Side of the Pentagon is a documentary on, arguably, the most important anti-Vietnam war demonstration of the 1960s, the march to the Pentagon in 1967, later immortalized in Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Armies of the Night. The Embassy, shot in Super 8, imitates the form of a documentary but it actually is a fictional work that references the overthrow of President Allende in Chile the same year the film was made.
If the coup in Chile in 1973 influenced the making of The Embassy, the film is also a commentary on French society. Marker’s voice-over suggests that the director is filming left-wing intellectuals taking refuge in the embassy from an unnamed military regime. The voice expresses left-wing ideas about repressive regimes and class struggle but what the viewer seems to be watching is a silent home movie of a wealthy family and their guests. Marker, the viewer realizes, is filming actors and what we see and hear alludes to the privileged but often impotent position of intellectuals in society. One surmises that in 1973 the filmmaker was probably coming to terms with his own feelings about what had just happened in Chile.
The Sixth Side of the Pentagon is the slightly longer and more conventional of the two films. Mostly shot in color, it captures the dramatic events in Washington during October 1967. Marker and his co-director, Francoise Reichenbach (the film is a typical example of the collaborative SLON) share a gift for capturing bizarre confrontations: American Nazis distribute flyers on “gassing the Viet Cong” and try to shout down draft resistors outside the Department of Justice; sinister U.S. military personnel look down from the top of the Lincoln Memorial while below hordes of protestors, many wearing clothing and carrying banners bearing the image of Che Guevara, can be seen thronging the steps and lining the distant reflecting pool; a minister sermonizes against communism from atop a cherry picker while hippies chant pagan incantations below, led by Ed Sanders of the Fugs; middle-aged U.S. Marshals emerge from the Pentagon wearing steel helmets, lashing out with clubs and bloodying very young demonstrators. The film, however, is not just an observational documentary as Marker’s commentary is unequivocally on the side of the protestors in this huge demonstration against the military might of the Pentagon, which in 1967 symbolized the war in Vietnam.
After watching these films, the viewer is advised to see Marker’s A Grin without a Cat (also available from Icarus Films). This compilation film is one of Marker’s more important feature-length films but it can also be viewed as a very long DVD commentary on these two short films. Released in 1977 and revised further in 1993, A Grin without a Cat is a meditation on the history of the struggles of the left, particularly over Vietnam, in the 1960s and 1970s, and concludes with a long commentary on the demise of the Allende government. Marker laments he did not notice the rise of the right in his narration of A Grin without a Cat, which incorporates considerable amounts of footage…
Robert Goff, “The Sixth Side of the Pentagon and The Embassy”, Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 39.1 (Spring 2009) pp. 75-76 – as presented on http://muse.jhu.edu/article/375875
Fandor also has the film available online, though only the trailer in front of the paywall: www.fandor.com, in a very clean video with good resolution. This is the English dubbed version. On the Pentagon: “It is a place with the greatest concentration of military men per square mile, cemeteries excepted.”
It was early 2002 and people still used answering machines rather than mobile phones. The recording clicked in and an extraordinary voice that sounded as if it had been mechanically produced asked the caller to leave a message “if you have something interesting or amusing to say”. I was already nervous that I was cold calling Chris Marker, legendary recluse and indeed general artistic legend. My anxiety intensified and I started to stutter out my message. “I am in Paris and I have a VHS copy of a film called The Magic Face and…” The receiver was picked up (I learned later that Chris screened all his calls) and a very human voice said, “You are the Messiah”. I have never been more startled by any single sentence addressed to me.
If I was the Messiah then John the Baptist was Tom Luddy. It was a few days earlier that I had seen Tom in Berkeley and asked him if he could get me an introduction to Marker. “I have the perfect calling card”, he said. “Chris has been looking for a copy of a film called The Magic Face for 50 years and I have just found a poor VHS copy. Here – deliver it.” And deliver it I now did. Marker said that he would be in the Latin Quarter, where I was living, the next Tuesday but his enthusiasm for the film was so overpowering that I insisted that I would bring it immediately to him. His instructions were both precise and disorienting. I had to go to a Metro station I had never heard of, cross under a disused railway I had never seen, walk down a narrow street, the rue Courat, find a huge house with an array of bells and names. Then I was to choose the bell without any name and ring three times.
The Metro was Maraichers and over the next decade I was to come to know it and that part of the 20th arrondissement well. No tourist has ever set foot there and it corresponds to none of the conventional pictures of Paris but with its completely mixed and relatively poor population it is as good an image of contemporary France profonde as you can find. But that first day it was terra incognita. As I stood at the door of the house I wondered if I had wandered into a parallel universe.
Of course I had and in time I would feel at home there. But, for now, I felt extremely uncomfortable and slightly terrified as I waited for the door to open. Everybody knew Marker’s name (although Marker wasn’t his real name) but unlike almost any other twentieth century name there was no accompanying image. I had no idea what to expect. Suddenly, bounding down the steps came what at very first impression was a huge and agile monkey. Indeed I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been a long and bushy tail to go with the completely bald head. Certainly he bounded back up the stairs with long agile leaps leaving me, thirty years his junior, toiling in his wake.
Colin MacCabe is a British academic, writer and film producer. He has published books on a variety of subjects, including Jean Luc Godard, James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, and has produced many films, among them Young Soul Rebels, Seasons in Quincy, and Caravaggio. He is currently distinguished professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh.
FYI, Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, which I had the pleasure of reading this year, is a fantastic novel. Lerner contributes the Introduction to Studio. Some things are definitely worth waiting for, down to the minute. It strikes me now that 10:04 reversed is 4001, the year of perfect memory in Sans Soleil:
He hasn’t come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who—through some peculiarity of his nature—instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet’s past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.
As we await the year four thousand and one and its total recall, that’s what the oracles we take out of their long hexagonal boxes at new year may offer us: a little more power over that memory that runs from camp to camp—like Joan of Arc. That a short wave announcement from Hong Kong radio picked up on a Cape Verde island projects to Tokyo, and that the memory of a precise color in the street bounces back on another country, another distance, another music, endlessly.