Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Signal in the Noise


We keep one cheshire eye open on the blogosphere and notice lots of people in the first flush of their discovery of the New World of Chris Marker. Usually they are trying to get across some very impressed first impression of either La Jetée or Sans Soleil. There are so many blogs, so many opportunities to self-publish, and so much in Marker that appeals to the current Zeitgeist too that he truly has become “le plus célèbre des cinéastes inconnus.”

cheshire cat floating world
“Cheshire Cat,” Sergey Tyukanov

While there are gems to be found in the wild, there is also much unedited thought thrown out willy-nilly on the web. We’re reminded of Marker’s warning, in his Libération interview from 2003, about noise becoming a monopoly. In this as in much else, Marker was prophetic; the noise monopoly has spread, replicated, mutated. At times, it is as if some mesmeric force had stopped people from thinking for themselves but at the same time glued their hands to the keyboard. Marker’s concern at the time was both a cultural landscape over-supplied with mediocrity and the concomitant overlooking of the gems—the diamonds in the rough—by a media sphere on auto-pilot.

A necessary caution: the “democratization of tools” entails many financial and technical constraints, and does not save us from the necessity of work. Owning a DV camera does not magically confer talent on someone who doesn’t have any or who is too lazy to ask himself if he has any. You can miniaturize as much as you want, but a film will always require a great deal of work – and a reason to do it.

It’s that the noise, in the electronic sense, just gets louder and louder and ends up drowning out everything, until it becomes a monopoly just like the way supermarkets force out the corner stores.Chris Marker

It is interesting how much noise comes from both the traditional media and the new media. They form the two Janus heads of the monopoly of noise. The means of reproduction sold en masse as product to the jumpstart artist (or given away with advertising space attached); the public sphere with the volume of the Babel channel of social media maxed; the traditional media, print and television, screaming for attention, in the death throes of empire and ‘repositioning’; the absorption of brick and mortar into the digital; the schizophrenic consumer caught in the spider’s web at the crossroads of the monopoly of noise. This is, roughly, our enigmatic cultural scene today.

Given the era of the monopoly of electronic noise, it’s nice (inevitable, really, given some patience) to come across a well-rounded, useful piece of writing on a subject of interest. That is the case with the article on “The Voice Imitator” blog reviewing Catherine Lupton’s book on Marker, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future. You can read the piece at The author, Brian Rajski, gives quite a useful summary of Lupton’s book and in doing so one of the better short introductions to Marker, one that certainly goes beyond the usual repetition of repetitions we have become so used to seeing.

He quotes Lupton extensively, but also summarizes well, and manages to cover the arc of Marker’s career without too much effort and with no pretense.

One thing that was illuminating for me in reading this book review was the reminder of Lupton’s insight into how Le joli mai and La Jetée were made in the same year and about the same city—that they are connected in a subterranean way, two inspections of Paris 1962, one in the mode of “ciné / ma vérité”, the other the scifi “unconscious” of the documentary film, exploding Paris through WWIII and into an experiment of memory, time travel and the fragile extraction of happiness. It is interesting how the two vectors of these films—Le Joli mai being in some ways the most non-fictional film Marker ever made and La Jetée the most fictional—create in a sense two poles between which the essay film can find its path of synthesis and signature. In fact, the essay film is in full flower already in Les Statues meurent aussi: this is the 1953 river that divides in 1962 to test the extremes of the mode, before flowing back together, renewed. Coincidentally, the genesis of La Jetée is also revealed in the Libération interview:

It was made like a piece of automatic writing. I was filming Le Joli mai, completely immersed in the reality of Paris 1962, and the euphoric discovery of “direct cinema” (you will never make me say “cinéma vérité”) and on the crew’s day off, I photographed a story I didn’t completely understand. It was in the editing that the pieces of the puzzle came together, and it wasn’t me who designed the puzzle.

I was also reminded how Marker’s early film criticism and work on the Petite Planète book series serve as inaugural forays into the essay mode that would become over time a whole new genre of filmmaking, ever more influential on those expressing thought through visual means (Marker would no doubt defer the origins to Vertov, Eisenstein and Medvedkin). Lupton is quoted:

‘This developed sense of the physical world in film as the bearer of an inner imaginative reality sheds light on the way that Marker’s own films have used documentary footage of the actual world to map a subjective consciousness, via incisive dialogues between the spoken commentary and the assembled images. Even Marker’s engagements with political and historical subject matter would uphold this principle of revelation, by scrutinizing archival images for evidence of hidden historical realities.’

Andre Bazin
André Bazin

The review also reminds us of three components of Marker’s work as brilliantly laid out by André Bazin: (1) intelligence as the primary matter; (2) the personal essay as the operative mode; and (3) the multiplication & diversity of media: typewriter, Rolleiflex, 16mm film camera, Sony Handycam, Apple Mac. When Marker in recent years cuts to the chase and just says he’s a bricoleur (Lupton says ‘image-scavenger’), he is perhaps just crystallizing Bazin’s original insights, that have held true to this day.*

From this combination, we see how Marker involves himself all the more fully in his work as he sets up mediating personas and distancing effects. He does not speak in the I, but in transposed voices, the voice of the object, the empathic voice, the alias of the cameraman, the cat or the owl. The personas become as multiplied in the essay film as the media types listed above. Just as Marker was more than ready to give up Gutenberg for McLuhan, he is also seemingly always willing to say farewell to a medium, an apparatus if another suits his current purpose. And these farewells are always provisional, for writing returns in film, photography in the CD-ROM, film in the installation.

* Incidentally, there is a fascinating article on the relation of Marker and Bazin written by Sarah Cooper, entitled “Montage, Militancy, Metaphysics: Chris Marker and André Bazin.” It is published in the second issue of Image [&] Narrative dedicated to Marker (vol. 11 no.1, 2010). A pdf of the issue can be found here. Bazin describes the montage of Les Statues meurent aussi as: “tout à la fois poétique et intellectuelle, jouant simultanémenet du choc de la beauté des images, et de la conflagration de leur sens, cependant que le texte intervient comme la main qui entrechoque les silex.” For Bazin, Marker’s voice, his dialogic commentary, proves to be an avenue from the materialism of montage to the spiritualism of a new form of poetic image. He calls another of Marker’s films a “perfectly cut diamond.”

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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