Last Updated on October 19, 2020 by bricoleur
David Thomson, author of the classic A Biographical Dictionary of Film as well as books on Hitchcock, Welles, and Brando, recently published a thoughtful reflection on Chris Marker’s photograph series taken in the Paris metro. The piece is called “Chris Marker’s Underground” and is can be viewed at The New Republic’s “Slideshow” blog.
Marker’s territory for chasing images may have changed in the 21st century as his global explorations became less frequent, but his backyard as found in his viewfinder remains a world unto itself, as this series of photos (7 are reproduced with his permission in Thomson’s article) and of course the movie Chats perchés [The Case of the Grinning Cat] reveal.
In contemplating the nomad who does not travel outside the city, I’m reminded of a passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus:
There are not only strange voyages in the city but voyages in place: we are not thinking of drug users, whose experience is too ambiguous, but of true nomads. We can say of the nomads, following Toynbee’s suggestion: they do not move. They are nomads by dint of not moving, not migrating, of holding a smooth space that they refuse to leave, that they leave only in order to conquer and die. Voyage in place: that is the name of all intensities, even if they also develop in extension. To think is to voyage… 
Or, as the master of ambient Pete Namlook puts it more succinctly, “traveling without moving.” [Air II CD].
In narrowing the circle of travel in earthspace, Marker has only become more of a nomad. The truncation of the world to one’s own city finds its looking glass counter-world not only in the underground and the elegant graffiti mysteries of M. Chat, but also and no less profoundly in Marker’s migration to Second Life, a world without end, a fractal archipelago that allows the voyager-in-place to meet others without moving, to pass through without moving, to visit spaces by jumping coordinates, to remain a fixed point in an expanding universe of travel and aleatory encounter.
The metro also takes us back to the hypnotic dream sequences of Sans Soleil in the Japanese commuter trains. It is here that we may have first slipped into the Zone, where Marker filmed the drifted-off bodies being taken, consciousness slipping into unconsciousness, from point of departure to point of arrival. The interim is filled with imagination, projected images from Japanese television of their potential dreams. Why the Zone? Because the Zone is the machine of derealization, the slippage mechanism that takes one imperceptibly from document to dream, and serves in a manner so subtle to be subliminal to silently replace the limited audio-visual faculties of film with an unbounded imagination.
The Zone makes of the tourist a nomad memory device, but all the memories flip immediately into machine memory, and from there into phantasm. These phantasm-traces form the fundamental building blocks of a kind of network, a relay system of the imagination that stiches the borders of documentary and fiction and then removes the stitches. It is a mobile architecture of memory, a digital descendant of the ancient art of memory evoked by Marker in Immemory, but no longer glued to the commonplaces of the rhetorical tradition.
Montaigne writes of friendship: “En l’amitié de quoi je parle, elles nos âmes se mêlent et confondent l’une en l’autre, d’un mélange si universel qu’elles effacent et ne retrouvent plus la couture qui les a jointes.” We live today in this space of erased stitching that is that of friendship, the still life as nomad, and the Zone.
Thomson’s speculations on place and name, his wry Markerian references such as Ulan Bator (a place-name that has messed with film biographers such as himself), and his own dreamlike projection-reflections carry on the work of the imagination that surfaces in the dream commuters of Marker’s foray into the Zone. But it must be said as well that the photographs he displays and discusses are also and primarily just what they are, without addition: light and camera in-between action, and always the implied presence of the photographer, himself unphotographed.
Portraits that are always also self-portraits with the stitches removed. People lifted out of the flow of the quotidian into the lens. Everlasting beings caught in the moment, nameless but respected. As Marker long ago wrote: On traque, on vise, on tire et — clac! au lieu d’un mort, on fait un éternel. He may be saying, all these years later, that instead of war one makes a friend.