(This text has been translated from the original post on Projection publique by Mary Stephen, who is not only a marvelous film editor but a wonderful support for any valuable attempt to understand the world with the help of good cinema. A ton of gratitude to her. JMF)
He passed away the day of his 91st year, a 29th of July. Up until the last moment, he would be watching over the music of his film « Cat Listening To Music » on YouTube. This is not a trivial detail, this shows the unending curiosity for modern techniques and a love for cats, two of the many facets of the man who chose to call himself, more often than otherwise, Chris Marker.
Marker would have been all his life, a « man of his times ». So in tune with the present that he would have been exploring all its dimensions, its space, its continuity, its ideas and its techniques. Before the others and better than them, he would have understood the dangers of mediatisation and would have chosen not to appear in public. After the death of a particularly beloved cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte (“William-in-Egypt”), he adopted its appearance to make commentaries, apologues, jokes. During the post-21st April 2002 mobilisation reflex which saw crowds marching in the streets when Le Pen got his way into the 2nd round of the Presidential election, he would have taken as a sign of brotherhood in the midst of a crowd of cats, with their masks of cats – those made by painter and street artist Thoma Vuille, echoing the cats on the walls of the city. This was to be his last feature film, « The Case of the Grinning Cat » (2004), on the brink of journalism and cinema, using light video equipment which he adopted all his life in its various mutations.
Chris Marker was a filmmaker, but also … but also a traveller, a do-it-yourselfer of machinery, a searcher in poetry, an insomniac internet surfer, a student in political science, an observer of the workings of other artists, a music lover. Researcher, anthropologist, scholar, pataphysicist. And therefore, writer, publisher, photographer, videomaker. And filmmaker.
Little is known of the childhood of Christian-François Bouche-Villeneuve, born in Neuilly 29th July 1921, only his boyhood friendship with Simone Kaminker, (who was to become Signoret, pupil in a school next to his), he would tell it later in “Memories for Simone” (1986), one of the many films in which, in one way or another, friends – whether really personally acquainted or not, participated in active complicity, becoming part of his work – Nicole Védrès, Stephan Hermlin, Yves Montand, Denise, Loleh et Yannick Bellon, Nagisa Oshima, Costa Gavras, Agnès Varda… The most remarkable of this 360° involvement is without a doubt this piece of exceptional accomplishment called “The Heritage of the Owl” (1989) made for television, 13×26 minutes to understand the modern world from its very roots in Greek thought. Not as a descendant, but as part of a network. A network of thought, of friendship, of preparing a ground for understanding.
The network, the underground … CF Bouche-Villeneuve became Marker doubtless during the Resistance movement, perhaps … there are so many stories, most made up by him – as translator for the American troops. Action, thought, art – then and since then, it was there, at Liberation, in midst of the associations born out of the Resistance Movement also where Communists and Leftist Christians would meet, with names like “People and Culture” and “Work and Culture”, where he met André Bazin and Alain Resnais. He was to publish a great novel that he didn’t like, “The Clear Heart” (1949), for which Jean Cayrol wrote the preface; he was to co-direct the magnificent “Statues Also Die ” with Alain Resnais in which the beauty of the images and the subtlety of the voice-over commentary are sharp weapons against the then still-triumphant French colonialism. Finished in 1952, the film was immediately banned, and for a long time.
Marker wrote (in particular an admirable “Giraudoux by himself” in 1952), Marker filmed, Marker travelled and headed a collection of what would totally turn upside down the very notion of the travel guidebook – The Small Planet (Petite Planète), published by Le Seuil. He took photographs as well, perhaps especially during this period. Filmmaker? Not yet really : he was in the process of inventing something else, which would for a long time be the core of his style. A particular way of his to organise his extraordinary virtuosity in the handling of words and the creation of images. The power of which is demonstrated in one of his earliest films : “Letter from Siberia” (1958) with the scene of “ the cross-eyed Iakoute”, a scene showing 3 different meaning of the same situation according to the commentary, a sequence touted by Bazin at the time as the birth of a genre of which Marker will always remain one of the masters: the “film-essay”.
This particular relationship of words/images, connected to travelling or regarding political commitment, is the essential principal behind his “documentary” work of the early 60s, “Description of a Struggle” (1960, in Israel), “Cuba Si” (1961), “The Koumiko Mystery” (1965, in Japan which became one of his favourite destinations), “If I Had Four Dromedaries” (1966, comprising photos taken throughout the world and a 3-sided dialogue). But the period is also characterised by his most famous film, “La Jetée” (1962), undoubtedly one of the films the most talked about in the history of cinema, an arrangement of still images and words which build together a dizzying loop through time, for that fraction of a second … of a second-time-around, the gaze of a woman crucified by love and death.
Of this instant of motions of the world and feelings of criss-crossing stories, built through words and images, we can see the departure point of a decisive chain of events, in 3 stages: 1) with Pierre Lhomme, great Director of Photography who is a complete co-author here, “Le Joli Mai” is more modest, more attentive to reality, and in more ways than one more clear-sighted, as relevant today as then. That “Pretty May” is the month of May in 1962 when the Algerian War was coming to an end and Paris and France were changing era’s. 2) “Far from Vietnam” (1967), a project started as a collective work which he initiated without directing a segment himself, but conceived the final editing which brought together Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens and Michèle Ray (the segment made by Agnès Varda was not in the final cut, nor was the one by the Brazilian Ruy Guerra). In other ways, an idea of the act of filmmaking which surpasses the mere making of the object-film, to become the understanding of an act. 3) Which resuscitated and helped spread the simultaneous experience of the founding of a cooperative, Slon (which is called now “Iskra” and is still active) and of an initiative: that of supporting a major worker’s strike by filmmaking. The strike was in the Rhodiacéta factory in the city of Besançon, East of France, in March 1967. A film was made out of it, “Be Seeing You”, which triggered a debate with the filmed workers and their families who criticized the film, generating a gesture: putting film material at their disposal so that they can film their own situation with their own point of view. Films were born out of this, and an entity, the Medvedkine Groups, which lasted six years and made possible other hypotheses of filmmaking.
Medvedkine was the great Soviet revolutionary filmmaker, inventor of the film-train which already wanted to give back to those filmed, the power grown out of the images made of them, author of the iconoclastic “Happiness” (1934) which Slon released in cinemas. The Soviet filmmaker went through hope and the betrayal of hope, Marker would later dedicate the lucid and deeply moving “The Last Bolshevik” (1993) to him. But already, before the succession from ciné-tracts (1967-68) to interventionary films like “Someone Is Talking To You…” (from Brazil, Paris, Prague – 1969-1971), in 1967 there was installation of new methods re-inventing collective action inherited from “Work and Culture” and the oh-so-personal gesture of the virtuoso composer of words and images.
First image from « Ciné-tract » (1968)
During the coming decade (1967-1977), Chris Marker nourished thought, vision, sensitivity by such a great quantity of works that can’t begin to be counted; most of the time he doesn’t put his signature to them, collaborating in France and elsewhere in the world – notably in the Portuguese colonies at the time of their liberation struggle – numerous artistic, political and educational projects. In this decade, and in its historical and ideological roots, it is also and above all him who took stock with great clarity of the situation of betrayed hope, in the blood and torture of dictatorships fast heading in the fascist direction, in particular in Latin America, in the bloody betrayals and ridiculous and sinister existence of “socialist” regimes, in the deadend of the hopes for another world which started in the 60s everywhere on the planet: the opposite of the cynicism and abdication of the “ French New Philosophers”, “A Grin Without a Cat”, aka “ Le Fonds de l’Air est rouge” (1977) remains the great political work of the changes at this time.
Publishing the text of the film (just as he published his previous film texts under the title of “Commentaries”), Marker wrote, “I tried for once (having committed abuse of power during my time by the ‘directing-commentary’) to restore the spectator’s power back to him, by giving him “his” commentary back by the tool of editing.” An incredible bringing-together of the historical challenge (the end of “great stories” announcing the coming of bright tomorrow’s) and the cinematographic form (relationship text-image).
The logical next step, logical artistically and politically, would be the reconstruction of ways of representation and storytelling, in and out of the filmic mode, with a sharp awareness of human and poetic effects of new technologies. It was to be the imaginary connection of “Sunless” (“Sans soleil”) which, in 1982, saw coming an overturning of the image at a time when no one was yet talking about digital technology, and translated it into the incantatory journey using Dame Sei Shonagon’s lists of “things which make the heart beat faster” as a password among thousands and thousands of friends in the whole world. It was to be the first art installations, collectively entitled “Zapping Zones”, which took multiple and temporary forms all through 1981 to 1993. It was to be the film “Level 5” (1996) which would continue to dismantle cinematographic formal designs, approaching video games at a level which the latter didn’t reach yet, and even more to internet which didn’t yet exist.
Then there was to be the CD-Rom “Immemory” (1998), a spiritual journey anticipating cyber resources to travel among film history, the author’s personal memory and great political challenges of his time. Master film editor capable of organising multiple journeys (never gratuitous and always under control) within a linear storyline of the film, of which “La Jetée” remains the model, then with the opening of arborences in “Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge”, Marker enters fully into the powerful world of multi-media.
By different routes, and in particular by way of different techniques which are not comparable, Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard were to be in synch as two great workers in thought and/to action, on the power and weakness of cinema in interaction with the course of modern history. This has been true since the long-distance dialogue between “Le Joli Mai” and “2 or 3 Things I Know of Her” until this day, including each one’s inventions related to the potential of travelling between zones which are habitually separate, as ably demonstrated in Godard’s “Histoire(s) du Cinéma”.
Passionately interested in techniques, political stakes and the aesthetics of machinery, Chris Marker lived from the 90s not only amidst the piles of films and documents which composed already his natural habitat, but in a real Ali Baba’s cavern with wonders and technological thingamajig’s. For him who was always thinking in terms of connectability, the arrival of internet opened up limitless possibilities to other connections, other networks, playful as the political-ironical column of Guillaume-en-Egypte on the Poptronics website of the Bazooka pop designers group, but also open for numerous explorations.
It would be, notably, the creation of “L’Ouvroir” on Second life, a cyber exhibition space where his feline alter-ego would guide the visitor from photo exhibitions to meetings to questions. It can still be seen on the website Gorgomancy which has quite a few of the recent Marker creations, as well as his last short-film, “Leila Attacks”, but one can no longer travel in it interactively like in the cyber-universe as created with a Zurich museum, where there was a particularly wonderful collection of photos entitled “Staring Back”.
The digital world was not for him another space, even less an escape from the real world, his immediate and total commitment against Serbian aggression into Bosnia, which he expressed in two films, “20 Hours In The Camps” (1993) and “Blue Helmet” (1995) are among the obvious testimony (completed by “A Mayor in Kosovo” in 2000 with François Crémieux). On the contrary, he was among the first to understand how the cyberspace is part of the real world, and how much it is important to realise this and to act on it. Including using the classical tool of editing, as when he questioned Adolf Eichman’s look filmed by Leo Hurwitz as he watched “Night and Fog” (in which Marker was an important contributor), in “The Look of the Torturer” (2008).
This modern gesture echoes, at the same time of his long-term work, his most recent artworks, the new collection of photographs (“The Passengers” 2011), drawings and montages sent to friends on the internet, little postings on YouTube, and most of all the wonderful video installation “The Hollow Men” which was shown in many great museums in the world. But not at the Pompidou Center in Paris, which closed its door to Marker, to his great sadness and no-less-great anger. It was in Geneva, entitled “Spirales, Fragments of a Collective Memory: Around Chris Marker” organised in 2011, for his 90th birthday, the most complete retrospective of one of the inventors who had most influenced artists and intellectuals of the century.
Every new year, Marker would send to his friends a greeting card. This one will be the last. Or maybe not.
P.S. When she learned of his death, his friend Agnès Varda sent this little message:
We will miss Chris Marker. He started to exist for me in 1954, by his voice. He called Resnais who was editing my first film. His intelligence, his roughness, his tendernesss, were one of my joys all through our friendship. All his friends had access to a part of him. He sent drawings, collages. He himself undoubtedly replaced the pieces in his self-puzzle. He has gone, knowing that he was admired and very much loved. I would meet him with pleasure, but when I filmed in his studio, his cavern of creation, we can hear him but we can’t see him. He had chosen since a long time ago to be known only through his work and not by his face nor by his personal life. He chose the drawing he made of his cat William-in-Egypt to represent him. He also chose – at least for a certain period – to appear in “Second Life” in the form of a tall blond guy, an avatar who moved around on a desert island talking to an owl.
There he is in his 3rd life. Long life over there !
Agnès Varda July 30th 2012