“Like the white swan’s eye to bear the director’s desire…”
– Anonymous (1)
I. La jetée and L’année dernière à Marienbad…
“Death, where is your victory?”
– I Corinthians (2)
The coincidence of La jetée (1963) and L’année dernière à Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) is no coincidence. Both films are magical-realist films – and if one were to marshal the statements of Alain Robbe-Grillet regarding Marienbad, (3) one would also be very close to the immemorial secrets of La jetée (creeping, as it were, toward the “exit” in both, on cat’s paws, nonetheless stunned).
Both films are a fusion of word and image, with the former influencing and conditioning the latter, while the latter acts as the “Real” of the “Ideal”. As “realist” works of art, they are also utterly and literally “Borgesian”, and the sense remains with both, that, as love stories, they tell a primordial tale – a tale that also invokes the intractable present-ness of all images, past and futural – as the statue in Marienbad (based on a painting by Poussin) is the origin and end of that story, and as in La jetée the repressions of the carnage of WWIII, as Réda Bensmaïa points out, (4) are played out through the dissolves and montages, the elisions, ellipses, distortions, and ambiguities of the mise en scène. The long lineage of the statue coming to life (or life returning to a statuesque state), from Nezval to Tarkovsky, as metonym for the fixity of images and signal gesture of the deathliness of the frozen subject as object, is – as with Marienbad – an evocation of the complexities of a slightly sinister, animate universe that underwrites all singularities and the reversibility of that vision; this chiasmus always able to be turned toward formalism or away, depending on the agenda of the formalist operation, the dissolve, the montage, the literary allusiveness, and such, the means to no particular end.
Chris Marker’s apprenticeship with Alain Resnais runs up through La jetée, and both exit this mnemonic world of the art film for other projects in the early 1960s. If Guernica (Alain Resnais, 1950) is in La jetée, the precise coordinates for both films, as for their author’s other 1950s films, are to be found – as echo – in the formal experiments Robbe-Grillet’s novels compress into new literary form – experiments arguably derived from Franz Kafka’s novels, and arguably a “Gnostic” worldview, with novelistic and cinematic form taking the place of the demiurge. Revelation and self-revelation is and remains the key.
Though these two films seem to converge formally, they also clearly diverge conceptually. Marienbad ends where it begins, in a claustrophobic, demonic universe of detached signifying agency, perhaps a model of an economy of images – mental and otherwise (yet of “eye and ear”) … La jetée begins and returns to an image that may or may not be based on a photo of Robert Capa’s from the Spanish Civil War – the specularity of both films similar, the outcome quite different. This last coincidence, also repressed, suggests that the economy of images in Resnais’ Guernica is, indeed, at play in La jetée, a film that came as surplus about at the same time as Le joli mai (Marker and Pierre Lhomme, 1963; a not-so-subtle film with massive ethical and moral imperatives). Marker’s worldview, then, is not so much “Gnostic” as “Christic”. The interior landscapes of these two films are meditations on the spectral civil war between conscious and unconscious impulses (personal and impersonal forces) – the word and image standing in for each condition, and each “measure” switching places repeatedly within each film. Word becomes image (image-word), and image becomes word (word-image), whereas – as love stories – the denouement (resolution) is left in an indeterminate state, with self-revelation returned to the viewer, the true subject of the two films as films.
II. Photographies de “C.M.”: Word-Images
Resnais and Chris Marker appear to me to use montage in not only a brilliant but also a subtly new way – poetic and intellectual at the same time, playing simultaneously on the shock of the images’ beauty and the conflagration of their meaning, the text intervening all the while like the hand which strikes pieces of flint against each other.
– André Bazin (5)
Marker has exhibited his photography in various forms since the 1950s, with the first efforts taking place in book form. If his films are often, expressly, efforts at investigating the subjective-objective agency of the photographic image, the exhibitions that he returned to in the late 2000s are telltale “exits” from film proper and intimately related to his multimedia work beginning with “Zapping Zone” and coming to momentary fruition, if not stasis, with “Immemory One”. (6) The critical period seems to be, however, 2007-2008 and “Staring Back”. The somewhat disturbing distortion in the images in “Staring Back” in many ways are the remnant in the photographs of cinema, many ostensibly taken from his films, as stills, but begging the question, “What are these stills stills of, if many were at first stills anyway?” Additionally, if both “Zapping Zone” and “Immemory One” (and “Ouvroir”) became repositories for many of these photographs, and his frequent publication of the commentaries were photo-essays (ciné-essays), is the role of the narrative inescapable? It would seem so, though when the photographs are installed in galleries proper (versus as installations or new media events) that narrative apparatus mostly vanishes, with Marker having very little to say beyond minimal introductory texts in support of the entire presentation, or brief comments, en passant, in concert with the images (as intertext/intertitles). (7)
It all portends, then, and in many ways, that day (now come) when Marker will not be able to say anything else for or against these images, and they finally “fall” into that archive (art-historical and otherwise) that always awaits the work of art. Yet what escapes all archives (and what Jacques Derrida endlessly troubled) is the transcendental signifying agency of the event of art – which ultimately ends up “speaking for itself”, regardless. This is what was always at stake in Marker’s photography and film, and this is what will remain after the dust settles, in the archive and in the crypt (the art-historical tomb his work will come to reside in, and the museums and libraries he always half mocked anyway). These images/motes, as “grains of sand”, reflect whole worlds, and the conceptual force-field of their collective agency is, after all, conceptual thought in/for itself (Hegelian, Augustinian, Aristotelian, or what have you), plus all that such entails when heedlessly metaphysical and moral, at once.
As “conceptualist”, then, or as conceptual-visual artist par excellence, Marker’s primary effects/affects are his words (his word-images), foremost those words that incessantly reach back toward the genesis of his project, the Esprit years (and beyond, into the reverse blue yonder), and what he has most emphatically repressed and/or suppressed – that is to say, the origins of those words. (8)
It is reported somewhere, that Resnais, Jean Cayrol, and Marker considered at one point making a movie of the life of Christ. (9) No doubt Marker would have contributed the magical-realist montage for the project, the excoriating synthesis of word and image. Would they have – collectively – made Christ into a “filmmaker”, that is, Christ as “cinematographer” of the Immemorial, mediating two worlds?
This essay is extracted from Dossier Chris Marker: The Suffering Image, to be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in late 2012. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.
- Anonymous communication, 7 August 2012.
- I Corinthians, 15:55.
- See Roy Armes, “In the Labyrinth: L’Année Dernière à Marienbad”, The Cinema of Alain Resnais, Tantivy Press/A. Zwemmer, Cranbury, New Jersey: A. S. Barnes & Co, London, 1968, pp. 88-114; and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pour un nouveau roman, Collection “Idées”, Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1963.
- See Réda Bensmaïa, “From the Photogram to the Pictogram: On Chris Marker’s La jetée”, trans. Alison Rowe, with Elisabeth Lyon, Camera Obscura no. 24, September 1990, pp. 139-61, a masterful critique of the dissolves to black in La jetée and their relationship to the “pre-I” state of consciousness, arguably pre-consciousness itself and the limit embedded in all representational systems. The recourse to black is interpreted against a reading of Roger Odin’s “Le film de fiction menacé par la photographie et sauvé par la bande-son (à propos de La jetée de Chris Marker)”, Cinémas de la modernité: Films, théories, ed. Dominique Chateau, André Gardies and François Jost, Éditions Klincksieck, Paris, 1981, pp. 147-71, and with the aid of the psychoanalytical theories of pre-subjective states in Piera Aulagnier’s Un interprète en quête de sens, Collection “Psychanalyse”, Éditions Ramsay, Paris, 1986.
- André Bazin, “Les films meurent aussi: Encore la censure”, France-Observateur 17 January 1957, p. 19; cited in Jennifer Stob, “Cut and Spark: Chris Marker, André Bazin and the Metaphors of Horizontal Montage”, Studies in French Cinema vol. 12, no. 1, 2012, p. 39.
- See Marker’s sentiments/comments regarding cinema in Chris Marker: A Farewell to Movies (Abschied vom Kino), ed. Andres Janser, Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich, 2008.
- For the former, see the publication Chris Marker: Passengers, ed. David Blum, Peter Blum Edition, New York, 2011; for the latter, see Chris Marker: Staring Back, ed. Ann Bremner, Wexner Center for the Arts/Ohio State University, Columbus, 2007.
- The origin of the English version of the CD-ROM Immemory was, curiously, a request from the editors of Exact Change to re-publish his early writings in English. Marker declined the offer and offered, instead, the English version of the CD-ROM, first published, in French, by the Centre Pompidou. Whether these two editions of the CD-ROM are identical has never been, thus far, examined.
- James Monaco attributes this statement to Roy Armes. See Monaco, Alain Resnais, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979), p. 75.