Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Staring Back

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Last Updated on February 7, 2021 by bricoleur

Staring Back - photographs by Chris Marker
Staring Back by Chris Marker

Wexner on Staring Back

“Staring Back presents 200 black and white photographs from Marker's personal archives, taken from 1952 to 2006. Some of the photographs are related to his classic films (which include Le Jetée, Sans Soleil, ¡Cuba Si!, and The Case of the Grinning Cat), others are portraits of famous faces (Simone Signoret, Akira Kurosawa), but most are pictures of people Marker has encountered as he has traveled the world (an extra who appeared in Kurosawa's Ran, a woman seen on a street in Siberia). The central section of the book contains a series of photographs documenting political protests Marker has witnessed, including the march on the Pentagon in 1967, the events of May 1968 in Paris, and the tumultuous 2006 demonstrations protesting the French government's proposed employment policies.”

Wexner Center, publisher of Staring Back

Phillip Lopate on Staring Back

Because Chris Marker is one of the most important filmmakers in the history of cinema (the central figure and innovator of the essay-film genre), and one of the most elusive (refusing to allow himself to be photographed, suppressing showings of his earlier films, given to cryptic poetic statements), any publication that takes us closer to his mind and soul will be welcomed and cherished. Especially by his fans.

In recent years, the octogenarian Marker has been involved in making museum installations, CD-ROMs, and publications drawn from a lifelong archive of images taken around the world. The book Staring Back began as a museum exhibition for the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. The catalogue for that show, published by the Wexner and distributed by MIT Press, consists of some 200 images and accompanying texts, divided into four sections: 1) shots of left-wing political demonstrations from 1961 to the present, in which the utopian hope of collective action is contrasted with “the everlasting face of solitude” (Marker); 2) portraits, mostly head shots, of people, a few famous, most of them unknown, who stare back at Marker, engage the photographer for a brief moment or two, in dignity (“and me like a fast pickpocket running away with my bounty . . . And now all of ’em are aligned on this wall like they’re waiting for the firing squad or the final Examiner as they will be on Judgment Day . . . ”); 3) fugitive portraits of people whom Marker stared at but who did not make eye contact with him, either because they were rushing past, or their eyes were closed in sleep or death; and 4) portraits of animals, some in the zoo, others running free, who represent for the photographer “the truest of humanity.”

A word of praise for Bill Horrigan, the indefatigable curator who coaxed this cornucopia of images out of Marker, and whose excellent essay tells us as much as we are likely ever to know about the artist’s methods of selection, pairing, and sequencing. He writes: “Punctuating the entirety of Staring Back are images one recalls from Marker’s film, video, and book projects, and from Immemory, here regrouped by their creator for this occasion: an elegant reshuffle of the deck, portraits reclaimed from the printed page, from the trove of moving images, from the ever-morphing digital vault. Staring Back is, at that, an image archipelago, dispersed over continents horizontally and demolishing time vertically . . . ” Horrigan and fellow essayist Molly Nesbit clearly speak Marker’s language.

That can be a problem. With all due reverence, I—to be honest—sometimes wonder whether there is not something coy and self-indulgent in the private mythology Marker has been spinning over the years: his grinning cats, his owls, Guillaume-en-Egypte, his female assistants . . . And the somewhat loose hermetic nature of his pronouncements frustrate the essayist in me, who would prefer that he grapple with what he seems to mean and wrest as much clear understanding as can be had. It strikes me as peculiar that our greatest essay-filmmaker should traffic so willingly in the enigmatic, the borderline-sentimental, and the faux-naïve.

Excerpt from Phillip Lopate, “In Brief: Staring Back,” Film Comment, November-December 2007

I don't necessarily agree with Lopate in his move from explication de texte to critical judgment. Still, I respect his essays on the essay form, as they are essential to understanding the subsequent evolution of the essay film and the essay form. But has he read Adorno? Has he read Bellour? Has he read Beaujour? Has he read Bensmaïa? I doubt it. Thankfully, he has read I-Thou, a mention that sets off a whole chain of thoughts in my mind… The old school of essay form has been scrambled, and that is a good thing IMO. Or rather than scrambled, let us say the deck has been re-shuffled, yet again, and will be again… I should also mention that the above is an excerpt; please read the remainder of the article. Lopate's perceptive eye rightly finds some aesthetic issues in the photographs and a larger issue in the cult of Marker.

References: Réda Bensmaîa, Barthes á l'Essai: Introduction au texte réfléchissant (Tübingen: Günter Narr, 1987) [The Barthes Effect: the Essay as a reflective text, Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987]; T. W. Adorno, "Der Essay als Form," Noten zur Literature I (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1958)" ["The Essay as Form", Notes to Literature, Volume One (NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 1991)]; Michel Beajour, Miroirs d'encre: Rhétorique de l'autoportrait (Seuil, 1980); Raymond Bellour, L'Entre-images (La Différence, 2002).
Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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