For Guillaume-en-Egypte, Polly and Chris
This is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at a symposium devoted to Chris Marker in the late 1990s. Each of the speakers was asked to identify and talk about a particular “Marker moment” in an experimental, expository fashion.
“A cat is never on the side of power.”
– From the voiceover of A Grin without a Cat
Many people’s memories of and reveries about Chris Marker start (and some end) with La jetée (1963). These memories are often fixated by a moment of movement within what is often problematically described as a stilled film, or a film composed of stills (though I’ve always preferred the stillness of the film to its wonderful but perhaps too “pregnant” moving moment). My own first Marker epiphany was actually watching the filmmaker’s great 1982 essay film, Sans soleil (Sunless, 1982), as a first-year undergraduate. Transfixed as I was, I didn’t really understand it; though I knew immediately that I needed to go back, recount, remember, both in relation to the film and more deeply within myself. It was only later, and with time, that I realised this lack of understanding, or more correctly, of graspability, was neither a fault in myself nor with the film. Like any good essay film, and all the great works of Marker, it tests you, dances around in relation to the knowledge and fascinations you bring to it.
If I had to choose one moment from Sunless it would be a fragment, a kitsch image glimpsed and only really readable when one stills or slows the film down. (An action that is both against the spirit of the film and an inevitable consequence of being fixated by it.) It is in fact a brief moment that few viewers remember even from multiple viewings; an emblem of the film’s wonderful elusiveness. This momentary image of two fluffy white cats with red hats, included within a montage of images and sounds from Japanese TV, is the one I would like to nominate. I do not really want to justify this choice other than to suggest it always surprises me, that I like cats, that it connects to so many other moments in Marker’s work, and that it helps me to anchor this flighty film. In general, the image of the cat in Marker’s work (as an object of fascination, as readable or unreadable) is something that I think is worth exploring. The image of the cat has been generally overlooked in most accounts of Marker’s work (though it is an area that is ripe for analysis, perhaps, in a world of ubiquitous YouTube cat videos). A notable exception is the opening pages of Nora M. Atler’s exemplary 2006 monograph on Marker (1). Each of her chapters is named for a talismanic Marker animal – the cat, the elephant, the wolf, the owl – and she proceeds from a perspective that starts to probe the relationship between popularly accepted feline attributes and aspects of Marker’s own, somewhat cloaked identity. My analysis builds on some of Atler’s brief observations and originally preceded the publication of her book. The cats (incorporating sounds, synthesised images, abstract cat-like shapes, and the places Marker might inventively find the word – for example, on a crane in Berlin 1990) connect to the broader field of animals (I wont speak here of the owls, dogs, monkeys, camels, cartoon mammoths, or mechanised parrots named Coco Loco), images of death, volcanos and islands, and so many others in Marker’s work.
But what are these cats doing here? What can one say about them? How do they relate to the broader field of animal representation? How do they connect to other approaches one might take to Marker’s work? If any one object or image recurs, or is found space for in Marker’s cinema then it is that of the cat; they are privileged figures within a generally incorporative domain. Thus, in relation to a film like Sunless one might ask which obsession came first: the cats that are often found in Japan or a Japan that just happens to be infested with cats. These sorts of questions – of what comes first, of where to start – are central to our encounter with Marker’s work.
Why am I fascinated by the presence (and absence) of cats in Marker’s cinema? other than to suggest they are a recurring motif in his work, a tangled organising thread, and that the work encourages such odd angular approaches Why do I wish to grasp onto the often-brief moments where these animals, or the image of these animals, find their way into his work? What do I see in this less than consistent pattern or network that stretches across Marker’s career, and which helps me notice correspondences of sympathy, affection and even practice between the filmmaker and myself? Marker’s work represents a problem for some who are suspicious of or unable to incorporate such fascinations (though such acts of incorporation are seldom inappropriate when thinking about his work). But, for me, to look at and think about the cats and how they appear is illustrative of what is great about Marker. Anyway, can one like Marker’s cinema, or deeply care for it, if one does not like cats?
It is important to recognise that this attraction to cats and other animals is not the sign of an antipathy towards humanity (by myself or Marker). Marker’s work illuminates a deep sympathy towards humans (particularly the human face) but not at the expense of other possibilities and fascinations. His is a political, open and quite explicitly “even” cinema; a cinema in which almost anything, through a variety of different, often associative means and approaches, can work itself in. This project of working in, of finding a space for an image, a word, an idea, an emotion, a sound, a favourite cat, is a significant aspect of Marker’s work. Marker’s more expansive, globetrotting and “finished” works (which may seem more finished because they mirror familiar forms like the travelogue, speculative science fiction, the essay film, rather than something like the sketchiness of home video) project an extraordinary expansiveness – a lack of borders, frontiers, exclusivity – while also essaying projects, points, meanings, qualities and moments that are difficult to grasp onto and identify. Take, for example, the intangibility of the project of seeing “happiness” in the image of the children at the beginning of Sunless, the possibility of presenting the history of the Left, post-1968, in Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977; unsurprisingly retitled The Grin without a Cat when updated and re-edited in 1993), or the reason why those darn cats keep turning up.
But do these works go out of their way to show us cats? In general, an over-determined structure or self-conscious striving is not in the nature of Marker’s practice (in his work all images are “equal”, but some images, particularly if they are of cats or other favoured animals, are more equal than others). For example, it is often very difficult to predict, even after repeated viewings, when the image of a cat, or a reference on the soundtrack to a cat, is going to enter a film. There is an openness, a kaleidoscopic quality that makes the inclusion of these cats “inevitable”, “feasible”, but not predictable; though the range and regularity of their appearance speaks of obsession. Marker’s peculiar attraction to cats is not something I can second guess or fully account for but perhaps it lies in the animal’s powers of observation (alertness), their idiosyncrasy, variation and appropriateness for portraiture, their unreadable intelligence, their ability to gaze back or to offer a gaze that is not regulated by our own, and their dual status as both animals that we train and which train us (and perhaps train us to gaze upon them, film them, and graft them into our films). No other filmmaker is as openly obsessed with cats as Marker. But cats are also a preoccupation – or shared, elective affinity – of other directors identified with the Parisian Left Bank such as Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Alain Resnais. It is also an affinity or emblem shared with less bonded filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Rouben Mamoulian – Melville’s own cats feature in 1970’s Le cercle rouge, for instance. But no other filmmaker has offered the space, time, place or formal means to allow these cats to enter. Thus cats appear due to the manner of Marker’s cinema without needing to be the subject of the work itself. It is only in Chats perches (The Case of the Grinning Cat, 2004) and some of the short video work, such as 2007’s Leila Attacks, that the cat (or its image) takes centre stage.
On another level, the eternal return of cats in Marker’s work might speak of little else than a deep sympathy towards these animals, and, I assume, an attraction to their individuality, their multiple personalities, the impossibility of collapsing them into our (or his) way of looking. When the cats in the red hats look back what do they really look at? What do they see? Of course, these are unanswerable questions, unknowable spaces and inaccessible subjectivities that Marker’s films explicitly celebrate. Also, the omnipresence of cats as statues, paintings, cartoons, synthesised images, etc. across Marker’s work might entice us to grasp at a different set of connections, ways of understanding, while at the same time recognising that this openness, perhaps to all things, is indeed a true openness, and cannot be closed off. Ultimately, what the cats mean, what they are doing here, are not questions I can or even wish to answer. Yet, the variety and idiosyncrasy of the ways these cats appear, wandering past the camera, gazing over a roof, in a red hat, the subject of reverie, prayed to by a Japanese couple, a gift sent by another filmmaker, a name shouted three times, the ostensible subject of a film, is, if anything is, a kind of emblem of the Marker “universe”. In general, the Marker cat never simply stands in for the larger term or grouping “CAT”. Each instance or appearance is specific, works its way in in different ways, and illustrates an ever-expanding realm of what we might call catdom (and sits as one cat-egory beside others). This creates a contrast between how we might want to incorporate the cat as an emblem of human activity, agency and understanding – where the cat in Chat écoutant la musique (Cat Listening to Music, 1990) seems to be listening to the music, at times playing along, in control of the console – and how the cat exists outside of any such system.
We wait, for these cats – some of us at least – like we might wait for the appearance of Hitchcock in one of his films. But we are unsure of what form they will take; how they will be associated with other things; whether they will appear; whether they will reappear. The inconsistency, variety and intangibility, but underlying continuity of this signature mirrors a more general circulation of Marker’s image and legend. In certain contexts this signature (as cat) becomes a little more literal. For example, Marker often sent an image of a cat when asked for a portrait of himself; he apparently appears behind the cut-out of a cartoon cat in Agnès Varda’s Les plages d’Agnès (2008); while on the credits of Dimanche à Pekin (Sunday in Peking, 1956), Marker’s name appears next to the image of a cat. The Marker cat is ubiquitous and becomes a key guide in much of the later work through the figure of Guillaume-en-Egypte, a cartoon version of the director’s own beloved cat who acts as an escort through Immemory (1998). Marker is a figure who continually shifted and masked his identity (using various pseudonyms), moving across forms and modes of address including film, photography, video, CD-ROM, hypertext, installation work, travel writing, literature, Second Life, and various forms of documentary, and who never identified himself with any one period (and the modes of practice and media that might be indicative of it).
This fascination with cats, and the knowledge of it that travels with Marker, marks Marker, and even seems to infect the filmmakers that Marker has collaborated with – we return to a cat tied to a Gypsy caravan in Paul Paviot’s Django Reinhardt (1957), glimpse cats on the streets in Joris Ivens’ … à Valparaíso (1963), see a cat with white socks gingerly walking across ash in footage sent by vulcanologist Haroun Tazieff to Marker that he eventually uses in Sunless – tells us much about his work and sensibility. In this regard, the cat also becomes a symbol of the profound process of collaboration that defines and guides our understanding of Marker’s work.
Marker’s “cinema” is an explicitly intertextual realm. The floating images of cats from film to film, creating new contexts and networks, is indicative or illustrative of broader patterns of intertextuality that are at play in his work. Sunless incorporates, amongst many other things, references to and rereadings of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), La jetée and Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979); The Grin without a Cat is largely made from the off-cuts and censored parts of the films of others; An Owl is an Owl is an Owl (1990) resurrects a juxtaposition of owl image and synthesised sound first seen in Description d’un combat (Description of a Struggle) in 1961. Marker’s various accounts of admired directors and performers – such as A. K. (1985), Le tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik, 1993), and One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999) – resonate closely with the preoccupations of his other films. For example, in A. K. Kurosawa’s obsession with horses, or is it Kurosawa’s perceived obsession with horses filtered through the animal obsession of Marker, establishes interesting relations with and connections to the plethora of animals, and the legends of animals, that stretch across Marker’s other work. One can even imagine that much of Marker’s fascination with the artist Matta in the 1985 video of the same name is his charmingly surreal stories of catfish and horses. Thus, this trajectory through the spectre of cats in Marker’s cinema (in all their variety and endless subgroupings) might help us to navigate the bracingly mercurial and database nature of his work more generally.
All of this is connected to an oblique statement about the memory of a city called Paris made by the narrator towards the beginning of 1963’s Le joli mai (co-directed by Pierre Lhomme), where she ponders “whether there is still a cat that lives on an island” (a quote I only re-encountered after starting work on this essay). Shots of cats, even clusters of them, sit within Marker’s films like islands, floating separate but in concert with other images and sounds. Islands, not surprisingly, are another Marker obsession. Marker’s fascination with islands enriches the visual and associational texture of a film like Sunless and creates a context within which to read certain phenomena in the film. In the process, the edges between islands – and images – are distorted, making complex their potentially self-contained homogeneity. Thus shots of cats, in Sunless, are connected to images of Japan (a natural archipelago of islands), an aircraft carrier (an artificial floating island), or the image of a flightless Australian bird on the Île de France (a representative object from one island placed on another island). This is but a brief list of the numerous islands referenced in the film. This fascination links places that, in other ways, are geographically disparate, by their shared presence in the paradigm of islands. In Marker’s work the conceptualisation of the individual or the objective as an island, a rigidly defined subject, is also broken down. This is achieved on the level of voiceover, image (which moves freely from individual point-of-view to detached vantage points), and through the lack of continuity of time/space perception confronting the spectator. Cats, as islands in themselves, offer almost limitless variations but also create a kind of archipelago of meaning and structure across Marker’s work nonetheless. These islands are varied and mutable, static and moving, discrete and somewhat less than distinct. Marker’s work, these broad categories we call films, videos, installations, CD-ROMs, diary entries, can itself also be looked on as a collection of islands; some clustered close together; some resembling each other; some only sharing odd, disparate elements; some mirrored or found within other islands; some disguised as things other than islands; some which don’t identify themselves as islands. In Marker’s universe, though I’m not sure about Paris, there is still a cat that lives on an island. The ways of getting there are virtually endless.
What finally emerges in Marker’s quite disparate work is a welcoming sense of paradox, a feeling that radical incoherence somehow has an inner lining of coherence. Thus, the unconventional combination of phenomena in a film like Sunless is still a combination; a combination that is structured around the conventions of various kinds of documentary, voiceover, a familiar correspondence of letters and a recognisable image repertoire (which is perhaps where the cats come in). This is even true within the more radical terrain of the deterritorialised, deconstructed and distorted synthetic images of Sunless’ the Zone. Coming to the end of this fragmentary essay, I feel that, like Sunless’ narrator, I may have achieved no more, though no less, than “a piece of chalk to follow the contours of what is not. Or is no longer. Or is not yet.” In the end, these few lines may best articulate, though never sum up or stand in for, the complex play of space, place, memory and temporality to be found in Marker’s work (and which the images of cats are situated within). I started with the idea of tracing the image of the cat across some of Marker’s work and had little idea of where it would lead me – or whether it would lead anywhere in particular. I return, again, to the images of various cats across Marker’s work. I can’t see “happiness” in the pictures, but at least I can see the cats.