Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

What images return: Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men by Chris Darke


This essay by Chris Darke originally published in French as “Quelles Images Reviennent: Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men” in Chris Marker (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 2018). This is its first publication in English. 

In his 1958 review of Lettre de Sibérie, André Bazin defined the cinematic form of which Marker became the acknowledged master as “an essay documented by film” adding, in an aside that appears casual but is actually definitive, “written by a poet as well.”[1] Sixty years after Bazin's statement and knowing, as we do now, something of the world of Marker's work, it”s worth looking again at that little word: “poet”.

Chris Marker: Owls At Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men by Adrian Martin and Raymond Bellour
Chris Marker: Owls At Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men by Adrian Martin and Raymond Bellour

We know how important poetry was for the young writer who was not yet a filmmaker and who had still not become “Chris Marker”. In 1946, he presented for publication (albeit unsuccessfully) a collection of poetry entitled D’une morte to Editions du Seuil under the name “Chris Mayor”. We know that between 1945 and 1949 he published five poems distinguished by what Roger Tailleur described as their “notably tense and tragic” tone.[2] In his 1963 overview of Marker's early output, Tailleur expanded on Bazin: “Like any poet, Marker sings within a geneological tradition, a family tree”.[3] Let us briefly list some of the poets that people his work.

There is Jean Cocteau, the model of the artist touche à tout. There is Guillaume Apollinaire, whose Le Bestiaire, ou Cortège d’Orphée (1911) is quoted in the title and opening credits of Si j'avais quatre dromadaires (1967). We can cite the influence of Jean Giraudoux in Marker”s post-war cultivation of a register that moved away from the “tense and tragic” towards what Tailleur called a poetry of “light, smiles, sunrise and silence” and, following Raymond Bellour,note the importance of Henri Michaux for the fluid subjectivity of Marker”s modes of address.[4] All these influences are thoroughly subsumed in his work but occasionally a name surfaces to designate an underpinning poetic structure. Take Gérard de Nerval – one of the examples for Marker”s poetics of voyaging, along with Michaux and Valéry Larbaud – whose spirit haunts Sans Soleil (1982). This film, one of whose cardinal points is the Île de France, the setting of Sylvie (1853), is Marker”s most Nervalian in its dream-like journey and, as everybody knows, “one never sees the sun in one”s dreams” (Aurélia, 1855). Marker also invokes another poet in Sans Soleil, choosing lines from T. S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday (1930) as the epigraph for the English-language version, and it is to Eliot that he returned in his 2005 video-installation Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men.

The Hollow Men is unique among Marker's audio-visual works, the only one to be solely concerned with a single literary text. Marker described it as a
“reflection” on Eliot”s “beautiful and desperate” poem of 1925, the background to which was World War One as “the founding moment of the Twentieth Century”. It is also unusual in having been conceived as a “prelude” to Owls at Noon, the project (later aborted) that Marker intended to be nothing less than a “subjective journey through the 20th century,”[5] The Hollow Men is Marker”s reading of Eliot”s poem; a personal interpretation but also a fascinating insight into his conception of what we might call “the poetic image”.

Raymond Bellour identified the formula of Marker”s work as being one of “exchange”, whose elective modes are conversation and correspondence, to which the exchange between word and image can be added as equally fundamental.[6] Nowhere more so than in The Hollow Men, where Marker”s images work in a complex repertoire of illustration, allusion, and substitution with Eliot's words; an exchange magnified in the work's structure of screens – either six or eight aligned horizontally, depending on the format of the installation – where words and images alternate across each pair.

If The Hollow Men is a reading of Eliot's poem, it is also Marker's re-writing of it. The version of the work exhibited since its 2005 premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is, in fact, one of two that Marker delivered to MoMA. The first version presented intractible legal problems relating to copyright issues; Eliot's will stipulated that his poetry could not be used in any dramatic or filmic work. Having previously quoted extensively from The Hollow Men, Marker subsequently wrote a second text in which Eliot's verse was incorporated more sparingly.[7] The significance of this decision is threefold: first, in Marker's choice and selection of key poetic images from Eliot; second, in how Marker's photographic images relate to his fragmentary quotation from the poem; and third, in his formal treatment of these images.

What is a “poetic image”?

Writing about Marker”s films before La Jetée, Tailleur described how a literary image applied to a filmic image produces a “third image” in an effect of “poetic superimposition”.[8] But this only describes one dimension of the “poetic image” in Marker, which became richer as his work developed. In La poétique de l”espace (1958), Gaston Bachelard discussed the effect of “receiving” an image originating in a poem which “reverberates” in the affective realm of “the soul,” where it has a life of its own, and in a memorable phrase described the poetic image as “a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche.”[9] I know of no other formulation that captures so perfectly the substance and impact of the poetic image at the heart of Marker’s cinema: the moment in La Jetée when Hélène Chatelain awakens from the sleep-death of photography in a lifelike instant of filmic movement (“a sudden salience…”) in the mind of her time-traveling lover (“…on the surface of the psyche”).

The Hollow Men is a compendium of La Jetée’s images and moods – the black and white still images; the luminous female faces and scarred ruins of buildings; the rhythmic cross-fades, superimpositions, and fades-to-black; the somber theme of the memory of war musically enhanced by the dissonance of Toru Takemitsu’s Corona.[10] Marker emphasizes the link through his knowing inclusion of the word “ooze” in his text, which, as in La Jetée, lends uncomfortable poetic emphasis to the idea of images as organic secretions, like blood or tears shed through suffering: “Images of trenches oozed/from our childhood.” But The Hollow Men feels different to La Jetée, less accessible and more distant. Perhaps inevitably, given that the earlier film’s time-travel fable is as familiar now as a well-loved childhood story. But it is precisely as a childhood story, or at least as a meditation that departs from infancy, that The Hollow Men carries over some of the force of La Jetée

The Hollow Men is also “the story of a man marked by an
image of childhood.” Or, rather, “marked” by the memory of images from childhood. But these images and memories are not Marker’s but those of his parents’ generation’s experience of World War One. Born in 1921, Marker missed the war: “The ashes of World War I were barely cold and we four-year-old toddlers barely made out a world of strange forms shaped by that war.” The Hollow Men is situated in the memory of an aftermath (of one war) and an interval (before the next), a temporal complex characteristic of Marker, one best summarized by the title of his 2001 film, Souvenir d’un avenir.[11] While covering similar territory to La Jetée and Souvenir d’un avenir, The Hollow Men does so in the format of a multiple-screen video installation and the different modes of poetic inspiration. The images triggered by Eliot’s verses are carriers of two intertwined layers of memory – historical and personal.

Marker follows the poem more or less faithfully and his images set it in the context of World War I, hence the documentary stills of nurses and soldiers, trenches and battlefields, the wounded and dead. Marker interprets some of Eliot’s imagery in terms of the realities of war – “What is “cactus land' if not Barbed wire? / And what would those fading stars be / If not the blazing trails / Of battlestruck airplanes” – and illustrates it accordingly. But what cannot be overstated is the sheer variety of treatments Marker submits his images to. Yes, the subtle reframing lends animation to the still images, but this is mostly a rhythmic effect when compared to the remarkable range of image manipulation on display.

Marker’s longstanding interest in image manipulation goes back to his first installation work Quand le siècle a pris formes(Guerre et Révolution) in 1978, in which he experimented with an early image synthesizer and where images from World War I also featured prominently. A few years later, in Sans Soleil, Marker entered Hayao Yamaneko’s Zone of electronic abstraction where images could be adorned with the “moss of time,” lest they be mistaken for the “the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality.” If these methods worked to manipulate moving images, Marker later developed methods suited to stills, notably in the photographic series Staring Back (1952-2006) and Crush Art (2003-2008), the influence of which can be seen in The Hollow Men, with its range of sometimes violent, sometimes gentle abstractions and disfigurations.

In The Hollow Men, this treatment of images also extends to the text itself, which becomes an image in its own right. Letters, enlarged and abstracted from their constituent words, scroll slowly across the screens, unmoored from the convention of reading left-to-right (an effect emphasized by the absence of a voice-over commentary). There are also instances when Marker’s images directly evoke phrases from Eliot's poem. For instance, the famous line “headpieces filled with straw” finds itself illustrated with an image of an embracing couple made up of filigree threads. And Marker’s images sometimes substitute for Eliot’s, without the corresponding quotation: the image of a woman’s chignon is treated so that it must surely be the “Multifoliate rose” of the poem’s fourth part. But the images that stand out the most are the least manipulated and tend to be female faces. Though many of these go through their own mutations – as though fusing with a wooden or stone surface (“Here the stone images are raised”) – there is one face that dominates. At around six minutes we see a portrait photograph of a woman looking directly at us; the prominence she is accorded and the lack of manipulation the image is subject to make her appear totemic.

Surely this face cannot belong to some postcard picked out randomly at a marché aux puces? There is simply too much personality in it, too strong a suggestion of intimate meaning. For The Hollow Men is one of Marker’s works in which a set of private correspondences is heavily implied.

Eyes, faces, stars … these are the key images in Eliot’s poem, the first two of which are certainly not unknown in Marker’s work. Five years after The Hollow Men, Eliot published “Marina,” one of the Arial Poems, in which the same images recur in his meditation on the scene in Shakespeare’s Pericles (1609) where the Phoenician prince recognizes the face of his long-lost daughter Marina. “What images return / O my daughter,” Pericles proclaims, and Eliot delivers a magical description of the poetic image as appearing from somewhere ‘more distant than stars and nearer than the/eye’.[12] It’s a definition that encapsulates something of the potency that Marker attributed to the images he worked with, whether in photography, film, or digital media – all made by a poet as well.


[1] André Bazin, ‘Bazin on Marker’, Film Comment vol. 39 no. 4, July-August 2003, p. 44. Translated by Dave Kehr. Originally published in France Observateur, 30 October 1958.

[2] ‘Chant de Guerre’, Formes et Couleurs (Lausanne), vol. 7 no.1, January-February 1945, unpaginated (under the pseudonym Marc Dornier). ‘Chant de l’Endormition’, Mercure de France, no. 1007, 1 July 1947, pp. 428-34. ‘Romancero de la montaigne’, Esprit, no. 135, July 1947. ‘La Dame à la licorne’, Mercure de France, no. 1024, December 1948. ‘Les Séparés, Esprit, no. 162, December 1949.

[3] Roger Tailleur, ‘Markeriana: A Scarcely Critical Description of the Work of Chris Marker’, <>. Translated by Adrian Martin and Grant MacDonald. Originally published in Artsept no.1, January-March 1963.

[4] Raymond Bellour, ‘Le Livre, aller, retour’, in Laurent Roth and Raymond Bellour, Qu’est-ce qu’une Madeleine? A Propos du CD-ROM ‘Immemory’ de Chris Marker. Paris: Yves Gevaert Éditeur and Centre Georges Pompidou, 1998, p. 67.

[5] From Marker’s text introducing Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men at MoMA, New York, dated 6 April, 2005. Quoted in Raymond Bellour, ‘Marker’s Gesture’, in Adrian Martin and Raymond Bellour, Chris Marker – Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2005, p. 13.

[6] Bellour, ‘Le Livre, aller, retour’, p. 66.

[7]See Colin MacCabe, ‘Visiting Rue Courat’, in Adam Bartos and Colin MacCabe, Studio: Remembering Chris Marker, New York and London: OR Books, 2017, pp. 9-35. An earlier version of this essay was published as ‘Visites rue Courat’ in Trafic no. 84, Winter 2012, pp. 22-8.
[8] Tailleur, ‘Markeriana: A Scarcely Critical Description of the Work of Chris Marker’.

[9] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston. Mass., 1994, p. xv. Translated by Maria Jolas. First published as La poetique de l’espace, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958.

[10] Takemitsu composed Corona in 1962, the same year Marker made La Jetée.

[11] Made in collaboration with Yannick Bellon and concerning the pioneering inter-war photojournalism of her mother, Denise, Souvenir d’un avenir examines her black and white images of the 1930s as pregnant with the coming conflagration.

 [12] T. S. Eliot, ‘Marina’, in T. S. Eliot Collected Poems 1909-1962, London: Faber, 1963, pp. 115-6.

Special thanks to Chris Darke from Daniel L. Potter

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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