Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

The Owl’s Legacy: Filmnotes @ PFA

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The Owl’s Legacy Chris Marker (France, 1989) Parts 1, 2 and 3 (L’héritage de la chouette).

Athenian Owl
Athena’s Owl

“He must have been a royal pain in the ass. It’s just unbearable to have a man like that in a city.” This is how George Steiner describes Socrates in one of the many provocative moments in Chris Marker (Sans Soleil)’s latest “cultural documentary,” a television series based on Greek culture and its rich, often troublesome heritage. Topics include the unique nature of Athenian democracy, the grammar of myths, sexuality and pleasure, the invention of the self, music, Pythagoras, and the ever-dominant importance of language. Marker’s ability to document the relatively abstract and often specialized nature of such subjects covered during scores of interviews with scholars, philosophers, artists, scientists, politicians in Athens, Berkeley, Paris, Tbilisi, and sustain it without ever being dull or repetitive is truly remarkable. And alternating with the answers to Marker’s persistant questions are literally hundreds of inserts: montage sequences of statues, film excerpts, computer graphics and landscapes, all illustrating or contextualizing the replies. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect illustration of one of Castoriadis’ final remarks about what he considers one of Greek philosophy’s major contributions: “What should I think?” In its very structure, and the dialectics woven across many thinkers, it is also “a critique of the representation of the tribe,” in this instance, the legacy of Greek culture to the world.–Bertrand Augst

Written by Marker. Photographed by Emiko Omori, Peter Chapell, et al. Edited by Khadicha Bariha, Nedjma Scialom. With Iannis Xenakis, George Steiner, Elia Kazan, Theo Angelopoulos, Cornelius Castoriadis. (In English, and French, Georgian, Greek with English subtitles, Color, 3/4″ Video, projected, Cassettes courtesy Chris Marker with permission of Film International Television Production and La Sept) (Total running time, parts 1, 2, 3: 75 mins)

The Owl's Legacy DVD cover

16 comments

  • In the late 1980s the newly formed cultural television channel La Sept (forerunner of the Franco-German Arte), with the support of the Onassis Foundation, commissioned Marker to make a television series on the legacy of ancient Greek civilization in the modern world. Composed of thirteen 26-minute episodes, The Owl’s Legacy is among Marker’s most ambitious projects, but because it has not had the wide exposure of a commercial cinema release, the series has garnered little critical attention. The Owl’s Legacy stages an extended encounter between Marker’s commitment to interviews and the oblique yet unmistakable intervention of his own private sensibility and preoccupations. The notion of the ‘owl’s legacy’ primarily represents the stated quest after the contemporary heritage of ancient Greece (the owl being associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom), but Marker himself can be discerned in the guise of his favourite bird, as the different episodes of the series set out and expound, via a range of opinions and perspectives, the abiding concerns and reference points of his own work.

    Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, London: Reaktion Books, 2005, 170.

  • The Owl’s Heritage: Sequence

    1. Symposium, or Accepted Ideas
    2. Olympics, or Imaginary Greece
    3. Democracy, or the City of Dreams
    4. Nostalgia, or the Impossible Return
    5. Amnesia, or History on the March
    6. Mathematics, or the Empire Counts Back
    7. Logomachy, or the Dialect of the Tribe
    8. Music, or Inner Space
    9. Cosmogony, or the Ways of the World
    10. Mytholody, or Lies like Truth
    11. Mysogyny, or the Snares of Desire
    12. Tragedy, or the Illusion of Death
    13. Philosophy, or the Triumph of the Owl
  • I have seen a few episodes, and I can’t bloody believe this series is IMPOSSIBLE to buy, to get, or see anywhere except in “Select” institutions accross France – while sitting in front of a terminal. Heck, I want my friends to watch it with me!!

    If anyone knows where this brilliant series so I can buy a DVD, let me know.

    THANKS

  • please, if anyone knows a way to find a copy of this masterpiece do post it here.. i cannot believe there are such few mentions of it all over the internet. i’ve watched the whole thing in a filmhouse in amsterdam several years ago and it deeply affected me, i dare say it changed my worldview. this is the kind of stuff that should be online for all people to watch and be educated – not a rarity so impossible to find! if anyone can do something about that, it would be just wonderful. and it’s about time.

  • Is there any way of seeing or purchasing this series?
    I would be hugely grateful to whomever has any information

  • It seems it is impossible to purchase The Owl’s Legacy on DVD but if you are in London in the next few months, it is being shown as part of one of the finalist’s exhibits in the Turner Prize in the Tate Britain. The Otolith Group – artists Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar – in their thirteen screen installation are showing a different episode of the The Owl’s Legacy on each screen. This may be the best opportunity to see it although it is not the ideal place. Bring your fold-up chair!

  • if you are both going there anyways (i’d go too if i could, but i am currently on the other side of europe..), why not approach the artists and ask them how they got access to the video and if it is possible for others to do so as well? maybe even if there is someone to contact that could be made aware of the fact that there are people out there who think “the owl’s legacy” should c1rculate more broadly — what i’m saying is maybe some small-scale lobbying from the audience wouldn’t hurt. if you get some kind of contact info, do post it here so that all that are interested could send an e-mail or sth..

  • I’ve just been to the Tate today; returned home in excitment having been introduced to this amazing video by the incredible Otolith Group on, maybe YouTube, or perhaps after some burrowing somewhere more obscure: but nowhere! Why isn’t it a classic! SO ANNOYED! I might have to go back and sit in the the Tate for three hours. Amazing.

  • I agree that this video work would be fantastic to be able to see at home with ones friens. So much interesting information by so many interesting scholars built up like a platonic symposium, discussing one matter at the time, totally thirteen, would be just fantastic to get on a DVD. I spent five hours at Tate but realized too late the value of all these videos so I did not have time to see them all. For that you need almost six hours!!
    And now I am far away and not sure that I will be able to come back and see the rest, as long as they are shown on Tate, lika the ones on Olympics, History, Mathematics and some more.

  • I asked the Otolith Group about these videos and they said they were under strict instructions from Chris Marker not to lend them to anyone. So, I visited the Turner prize exhibition for the third time yesterday and watched all 13 episodes. I arrived before 11am and was there until the gallery closed and it was fantastic. Highlights for me were the music and tragedy episodes, but it’s all wonderful stuff. If only we could see this kind of thing on TV today.

Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

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