Just because it’s on my mind again: my essay on Chris Marker from the Guardian last year.
Viewers emerge from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), a film made almost entirely of still photographs, marked for ever by its imagery yet somehow unsure exactly what they have seen. It is a film that mines deep seams of memory, but whose surface, though hardly forgettable, remains enigmatic in retrospect. After almost half a century, it is still hard to say what Marker achieved in his masterpiece.
On the face of it, the half-hour film ought to be easy to précis, because its futuristic plot is familiar to the point of banality. (In Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s hyperactive “remake” of La Jetée, it’s only the clichés that remain.) In the aftermath of a nuclear war that has destroyed his native Paris, a prisoner is dispatched across time to secure the resources that the present lacks. Chosen for his attachment to a childhood memory – the image of a man shot dead on the observation pier at Orly airport – he spirals inevitably back to that moment, which is revealed as the scene of his own death.
But the recursive narrative of the film is just the pretext for a more involuted essay on time, memory and the lure of images. Marker’s protagonist recalls the shocked face of a woman on the jetty, and as he is thrown back in time he finds her again, becoming (as the film’s calm voiceover informs us) “her ghost”. It’s here, before the prisoner is abruptly recalled to the future, that La Jetée conjures its most haunting images. The man and woman perform a heartbreaking choreography of discovery and loss, becoming sci-fi avatars of the petrified figures on Keats’s “Grecian Urn”. He leans immobile over her face in sunlight, they stroll among static children in the Jardin des Plantes and halt suddenly before the “wall” of their impossible future. In the work’s most extraordinary moment – at screenings, the critic Janet Harbord says in her recent book on the film, there is always “a collective bodily intake of breath” – the sleeping woman opens her eyes and the film moves for the first time, before a sudden jump-cut to the frozen and desolate time to come.
La Jetée, as Harbord notes, is littered with ruins. Paris – and, one presumes, much of the world – has been “blown up”. In a sequence depicting the wake of the third world war, we see a city – or cities, because the photographs clearly derive from the second world war, and might show Dresden or Hiroshima – bombed almost flat, and what appears to be a mock-up of the amputated Arc de Triomphe. In the tunnels to which civilisation has retreated, there are hunks of broken statuary at which the hero stares aghast. In his journey into the past, he catches sight of more statues, headless or defaced; at his last meeting with the woman, they wander among the stuffed relics of a natural history museum, and Marker’s camera frames them as if they were themselves dusty specimens trapped in its vitrines.
La Jetée is a complex and poetic reflection on the destructive and redemptive powers of memory. (Film itself, we might say, is an art of forgetting: how much do you actually recall of your favourite movie?) But none of the above should imply that it’s a work of pure aestheticism or merely psychological insight. Among the merits of Harbord’s concise study is her insistence that La Jetée is a film about the politics of memory, a point confirmed when one considers the films that its director worked on in the preceding decade. There are stray images, easily overlooked in light of the film’s more exquisite moments, that clearly recall certain shots in Alain Resnais’s devastating Holocaust documentary of 1955, Night and Fog, on which Marker was assistant director. (The tunnels rhyme with Resnais’s images of the inmates’ quarters in the death camps; the mysterious German-speaking scientists in La Jetée resemble stills of Nazi doctors.) In 1953, Marker and Resnais made Les Statues meurent aussi, a short film on African sculpture that is also an obvious polemic against colonialism and the museum artefact as effacement of history.
Marker’s films with Resnais go some way towards suggesting the rich personal history and postwar milieu out of which La Jetée emerged. By the early 1960s, Marker – born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, he apparently renamed himself after the Magic Marker – had already established a pattern of production and collaboration that makes him one of the key artistic figures in France of that era. Having fought in the Resistance during the war, he published his only novel, Le Coeur net, in 1949. A prolific film critic (notably for the left-wing Catholic journal Esprit) and a tireless traveller, he edited the innovative guidebook series Petite Planète for Éditions de Seuil, often insinuating his own photographs into the books’ pages. In 1959, he published Coréennes, a photographic study of Korea.
Harbord puts the total number of Marker’s films at no fewer than 78 (presumably counting all the collaborations in addition to the 20 or so “feature films” on which he was sole director). They range from the reasonably well known and well distributed – Sans Soleil, his essay-cum-travelogue of 1982; The Last Bolshevik, his 1993 portrait of the Soviet-era director Alexander Medvedkin – to now obscure collaborations with workers’ collectives in the 1970s and evanescent gallery installations of the 1990s. The earlier films continue to appear on DVD, and no doubt there are scholars who have seen the whole corpus, but in order even to begin to grasp the scope of Marker’s career, it is necessary to turn to Immemory, the labyrinthine and partly autobiographical CD-Rom that he first devised in 1997, and which has recently been released with updated content and format.
Immemory is in many respects as elusive and strange as La Jetée. It, too, is a work both of and about memory: a maze in which the viewer might wander for ever, accruing images that will not fade away and others that vanish before one has really grasped their import. It is in part a very literary work – many of Marker’s previous writings are here, interspersed with a laconic stream of self-portrait – that reminds me of such dispersed autobiographies as Montaigne’s Essays and Roland Barthes’s playfully melancholic Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes. “I claim for the image,” Marker writes, “the humility and the powers of a madeleine.” But the invocation of Proust is partly a ruse – whereas the novelist drew everything into the orbit of his private memory, the effect of Immemory is to suggest that Marker intimately recalls all the major events of the last 50 years, because he was there. Protesting the Vietnam war outside the Pentagon, watching Fidel Castro caress his microphones before a speech, documenting the last days of his friend Andrei Tarkovsky: Marker offers us the political and artistic history of the late 20th century, reconfigured for endless browsing and reflection.
Of course, he no more believes in the encyclopedic ambition of Immemory than he does in time travel. That is to say, he believes in the uses of forgetting as much as the necessity to remember. In its genial, somewhat amateurish way – the user is guided through the landscape of words, photographs and film clips by the cartoon double of Marker’s own beloved cat, Guillaume – the CD-Rom stages the arduous and happenstance unfolding of a life as much as a career. There are glimpses of the young Christian, fashioning his own private cinema out of a toy slide viewer (his childhood cat was his first “star”); of the traveller who might have been happy just photographing pretty girls; of the mature director who is only ever a shadowy, gaunt and balding figure at the edges of his own films. The totality of images and information is overwhelming and at the same time, Marker seems to say, quite inadequate to what he has seen and to the several artists that he has been.
There is a practical reason for that sense of incompleteness: Marker is still working. On the release of the first English-language edition of Immemory in 2002, it seemed like a final and definitive statement, a summa for the digital age of his life and work. But Marker – in common with Resnais and with their Left Bank contemporary, the director Angès Varda – has not faltered in old age. If anything, his productivity has seemed to increase in the last decade. In 2002, he completed Remembrance of Things to Come, a ravishing documentary portrait of the French photographer (and surrealist associate) Denise Bellon. The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004) used the mysterious appearance of a cartoon feline on the walls of Paris to frame his video footage of demonstrations against the National Front. And in 2007 he published Staring Back, a book in which his earlier photographs are intercut with video grabs of a new generation of political protesters, young Parisians whose monochrome faces recall the austere animation of the couple in La Jetée: haunted by the past and facing down the future. Last year, MIT Press reissued the book version of La Jetée, a companion volume to the film, which is a work of art in its own right. Rumours circulate even now of future exhibitions and DVD releases.
At the centre of all this activity is a figure who, over six decades, has maintained an enviable artistic autonomy. Rare reports from his Paris apartment – Marker is notably shy of publicity – suggest a sort of St Jerome in his Study for the era of HD video, YouTube and Photoshop. Requests for interviews are for the most part politely declined. My own efforts to set up a meeting elicited a charming exchange on the subject of his visits to Ireland in the 1960s, but a firm statement that he was simply too busy to talk in person. Instead, friends and acquaintances have been treated to an intermittent outflow, via email, of scurrilous anti-Bush cartoons, offshoots of the definitively unfinished Immemory and footage of the domestic adventures of the cat Guillaume.
At the age of 88, Marker remains an artist for whom the future, though diminishing, is still filled with projects to be finished, invitations to be accepted, newly politicised citizens whose faces must be archived, if only as they pass in the streets about his home. And while La Jetée is no doubt his most lasting legacy – a film that seems to conjure in 29 minutes the whole of a century’s romance with the moving image – he himself has long forgotten the ghost who made that masterpiece. This, perhaps, has been his greatest lesson: how to commune with spectres, and then forget them.