There are few enough artists or critics who have, by sheer force of imagination, been able to transform the way thousands understand and appreciate an artistic medium. For many, Susan Sontag revolutionised how they saw photography; for others, John Berger transformed all the visual arts. Among filmmakers, Chris Marker is one of the few who has filled a similar role. Image as exposition has never had a more subtle or adept practitioner. And for me, the most revelatory aspect of Marker’s filmmaking was his use of the medium as a instrument of political understanding.
Partly because he participated in the events of May 1968 in Paris (and his Cinétracts project with Godard and others at the time will forever be the great visual document of those climactic days), no other filmmaker could have produced the extraordinary synthesis of ideas which is Le fond de l’air est rouge (A Grin Without a Cat, 1977). Less than ten years after the barricades came down, Marker’s achievement in communicating the geopolitical changes of that decade was almost superhuman, and the film is the benchmark for anyone who seeks to represent the forces of historical change with both profound insight and searing honesty.
But it’s one of Marker’s perfectly formed short films which seems to me to exemplify what his narration refers to as “the will to transform society” in film; his La sixième face du pentagone (The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, 1968). This record of the then biggest mass protest against the Vietnam War in 1967 was the cinematic counterpart to Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, but comparing the two demonstrates the relative economy and power of cinema in the hands of a master.
A perfect showcase of Marker’s seamless integration of still images, live footage and intense declamation, in this film the viewer is in the midst of the demonstration as effectively as can be imagined, yet the experience is mediated with a wry and reflective commentary which leads a viewer to penetrate the true meaning of the events. Just as the title indicates that the film is intended to reveal that which is concealed, the narrator leads us into an almost complicit realisation of the power of government and police in a sequence which remains startling in its exposure of the manipulations of authority, even to jaded 21st century eyes. Marker knows exactly when to narrate and when to let the images speak for themselves. His camera lingers on the soldiers’ dead eyes and their hands gripping the batons as, for the last ten minutes of the film, the narrator epigrammatically hints at the real nature of the events as they unfold. Both chilling and salutary, his ultimate faith in the demonstration’s capacity to shift “political gesture to political action” was to unravel over the following decade as Marker’s quest to understand political power grew more sophisticated, but The Sixth Side of the Pentagon is a fundamental step in his use of cinema to facilitate that understanding.
This is perhaps Marker’s greatest legacy, among many – he showed us how film could expose the true nature of power in political life, and for that we all owe him an immense debt of gratitude. The following note to Le fond de l’air est rouge should allay any doubts as to the incomparable clarity with which Marker understood the powers at play in geopolitics (remember that this was written in 1977): “[It’s a] weird game. Its rules change as the match evolves. To start with, the superpowers’ rivalry transforms itself not only into a Holy Alliance of the Rich against the Poor, but also into a selective co-elimination of Revolutionary Vanguards, wherever bombs would endanger sources of raw materials. As well as into the manipulation of these vanguards to pursue goals that are not their own.”