Chris Marker is one of those artists who resist categorisation; who resist definition. He is an enigmatic presence, threading his way through more than six decades of 20th-century (and now 21st-century) culture, arts, and politics, but always managing to stay obscured by the shadows. He is the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain, working his magic out of the public eye.
Despite his invisibility, his dislike of interviews and his aversion to being photographed, Marker is more a filmmaker of the world than most. He is a wanderer – physically and psychically – and his films have covered Finland, China, Cuba, Africa, the USSR, Japan, Chile, Israel, Vietnam, the US, Brazil, his native France and more.
He is also a wanderer among the arts. He has published poetry, film criticism, a novel, and a critical study of playwright Jean Giraudoux; he is an accomplished still photographer; he has produced several installation works and a CD-ROM; he has been an early proponent of computer and digital technologies and released his most recent short videos via YouTube. How does one reconcile someone whose artistic career spans editing a series of innovative travel books in the 1950s to participating in the online virtual world Second Life in 2009?
Marker’s accomplishments and curiosity are clearly obvious. But the usual appellation of “Renaissance Man” for someone with his range of interests does not feel right – the connotation of dilettantism is at odds with what seems wholly organic with Marker. Renaissance Man also implies a rather scattershot approach to one’s pursuits: while varied, Marker’s interests are always circumscribed by broad and consistent thematic concerns. And no matter what he lays his hand to, it is never an end in itself: he is interested in information – both acquisition and dissemination. This last part is key. Marker functions as a conduit: images and events and data go in; they are processed, focused, interpreted, categorised; and then are given back to the world.
In his essay for Staring Back (2007), Marker’s recent book of photographs, curator Bill Horrigan refers at several points to Marker’s images (filmic and photographic) as an archive. He writes:
As many have pointed out, Marker’s passionate engagement with the biases and byways of memory has a physical correlative in the existence of the archive – whether a literal one or in such domesticated forms as the family or vacation photo album or in advanced forms of digital storage and delivery systems. (p. 140)
Horrigan sees Marker as an archive holder or archivist, working with his own materials and those of others. Marker refers to his method of selecting still images from his film and video footage, what he calls a Superliminal system, as a “refined way of sorting.” (p. 140) Horrigan applies this phrase to Marker’s “sorting” of photographer Denise Bellon’s images for the video Le Souvenir de l’avenir (Remembrance of Things to Come, 2001). Elsewhere, he writes of the still-based film Si j’avais quatre dromedaires (If I Had Four Camels, 1966) and the Photo Browse section of Marker’s installation Zapping Zone (1990) as “essentially ordered ransackings of his own photo archives” (p. 143). Ultimately, Marker’s “entire confrontation with the archive finds its most unfettered rendition in the CD-ROM Immemory ” (p. 143).
Expanding from this, “Chris Marker” himself can be thought of as an archive, not just possessing one. He is a repository of 60 years of historical, social, and cultural thought and he uses any means at his disposal to make this wealth of material available to the world. Of course he does not do so dispassionately; he enriches whatever he comes in contact with. This is Marker the artist at play. He is both the archive and the researcher mining it (himself), unearthing memories and images to shape and share.
Perhaps ascribing an “institutional” identity to a person is stretching a point – some kind of reverse-anthropomorphising – but Marker seems uniquely suited. One is hard-pressed to come up with other candidates. The scope of Marker’s work is rather unprecedented – it spans the globe; addresses past, present, and future; and explores a wide range of media. Pushing the point a bit further, “Chris Marker” is already a construct: his name is a nom de plume and he consistently plays with his own identity. His early years remain shrouded in mystery (much of this his own making) and he frequently uses stand-ins for himself in his films, both real (his friends Yves Montand and Simone Signoret as narrators) and fictional (the unseen filmmaker “Sandor Krasna” and video synthesiser “Hayao Yamaneko” in Sans Soleil [Sunless, 1982]). He is a rare “public” figure whose identity is defined almost exclusively by his works, rather than through biography, personality, or celebrity. The irony is that for someone who as an individual is as anonymous as a publishing house, his artistic output is as intensely personal as we have.
This archival impulse is manifested in many differing ways in Marker’s work: the “serialisation” of the Petite Planète travel guides of the 1950s and ’60s, the collective film series On vous parle and Ciné-Tracts of the 1960s and ’70s, and the 13-part television documentary L’Héritage de la chouette (The Owl’s Legacy) from 1989; his documentation of significant cultural figures of the 20th century: Alexander Medvedkin, Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand; his impulse to record and preserve the world around him via film, video, and photography; producing “open” associative works which require viewers to make connections and discern meaning: Le Fond de l’air est rouge (A Grin Without a Cat, 1977), Sans Soleil, the various installation works; and publishing “archival” signposts and roadmaps to his own cultural legacy: his photography books and collected film scripts, his CD-ROM Immemory.
Two recent books continue this trend: the republication of the ciné-roman of Marker’s film La Jetée (1992/2008) and the photography exhibition catalogue Staring Back. A third new book, Sarah Cooper’s Chris Marker (2008), is both a welcome introductory look at Marker’s films and a fascinating, but limited, exploration of stillness in his work.
La Jetée was first published in 1992 and is now back in print. It is, of course, based on Marker’s classic 1962 science-fiction film. It is simple in design – no introduction, no essays, just images from the film (can one call them stills when nearly the entire film is made up of still photographs? A still of a still?) and the text of the narration. The book is not merely an “illustrated record” of the film; rather, it functions as a separate, corollary artistic work.
The effect of reading/looking at the book is surprisingly different from watching the film. In the film, the voice-over narration dominates, leading the viewer along the path of the story of a man from the future and a woman of the present. Despite its unconventional construction from still images and Marker’s deeper concerns with time and memory than is usual for the genre, the film is unavoidably defined by science fiction, mystery, and time-travel. The desire we have for narrative is difficult to call into check.
This desire is freed up in reading the book, however. All of those elements are still there, but they don’t dictate our experience in the same way. The over-arching narrative is de-emphasised, with the text placed at the bottom of the pages in small type. A reader can even choose to ignore it, which can’t be done in the film. Instead, priority is given to the images. Certainly, the image track of the film is important and central. It is unconventional, as mentioned above, and carefully structured. At the same time, the images flow past, tantalising and somehow unknowable. Their stillness gives them a sense of impermanence (fittingly so, given the subject and themes of the film) and tentativeness. Our eyes are trained for movement in film; La Jetée requires a different, less accustomed, active viewing from the audience. It can take several screenings to really “see” the film.
The book encourages a lingering not possible in the film. What one is first struck by are the compositions of the stills Marker photographed for the film. Are we seeing deliberate hints at Sergei Eisenstein? Fritz Lang? The graphic quality of the framings is striking; the lighting is seen to be more carefully considered than one might gather from the film; shadows focus attention and create mood – it’s Metropolis (Lang, 1927) meets film noir – in disarmingly simple and effective ways. It’s easy to overlook this in the film.
The revelation of the book is the power of the representations of the characters. With the narrative reduced almost to footnote, the images allow for a foregrounding of the Man, the Woman, and the Lead Experimenter. The stills in the book (the same ones as in the film) are “edited” through the use of different sized images, varying placement on the page, and surprisingly effective juxtapositions – on facing pages, on opposite pages, separated by solid black pages. La Jetée the book becomes a work about paired relationships: the Man and the Woman; the Man and the Experimenter.
They take on an almost iconic resonance, separated from the fiction. This is given weight early on. As the time-travel experiments begin to yield results, the Man sees flashes of the past: a pasture, a young child, a bedroom, a flock of birds. At one point, he sees a series of ancient statuary, the last of which is a full-page “close-up” of a male head with little definition. The eyes lack pupils, though the figure seems to be staring vacantly ahead. We turn the page (a cut) and see a page of blackness, nothingness. The facing page is a close-up of the Man, blindfolded for the experiment, framed in same position as the stone sculpture.
Other graphic matches occur, tying the Man to the Woman, to the Experimenter, to his captors, to the people from the future. We also find additional film editing techniques at play: an eye-line match between the Woman (on the left) and the Man (on the right) across facing pages, for example. A two-page image of the Man and the Woman, facing away from the camera, foreshadows the end of the film by separating them – one on each page, even though in the still they are standing together. The layout of the book allows for a telling graphic moment that is not in the film.
In the end, La Jetée the book feels like an archeological reconstruction of a lost work, or a variant telling of a popular fairy tale, with the original film serving as archival source material. It’s the same story told in a new way, allowing for unexpected discoveries and a deeper emotional insight.
Where the images in the published version of La Jetée are partially divorced from the story, the photographs in Staring Back are the story. This collection of images – still photographs and still images from films and videos spanning 1952-2006 – tell a story of Marker’s life and career during those years. He is reflected in what he sees.
Produced as the exhibition catalogue for the first large-scale show of Marker’s photographic work – at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, in 2007 – Staring Back is both more wide-ranging and more personal than Marker’s earlier photo books (Coréennes  is on Korea and Les Dépays  is on Japan and both combine photos and text, as does Staring Back). Marker has been an active photographer all his life and his eye for detail (readily apparent in his films) and for composition (as seen in the La Jetée book) mark him as a talent in this field as well. This despite his claim, as quoted by Sherri Geldin in her introduction to Staring Back, that he chose cinema because he “would never be, say Robert Frank” (p. 136). Geldin rightly points out the affinity Marker’s work has with Frank’s – obvious when you compare this book to Frank’s The Americans (1958) (1).
Bill Horrigan, the exhibition’s curator (working closely with Marker), has provided a valuable essay for the publication. In it, he charts the origins of the show (a rarity – Marker generally does not exhibit his photography) and draws connections and points out intersections between the images and Marker’s other works. Horrigan has developed a close relationship with Marker over many years (the Wexner commissioned the Silent Movie installation in 1995) and clearly he has had a deep engagement with Marker’s work as well. It shows. Horrigan writes with a keen sensitivity to Marker’s varied artistic output. (One wishes for a book-length treatment on Marker from him.)
The title of the exhibition and catalogue, Staring Back, is telling. It suggests the artist taking a retrospective look at more than 50 years of his own image-making. There is an autobiographical implication here, particularly for someone whose work defines his identity as much as Marker’s does. He is the archivist selecting from himself what he chooses to reveal. Marker’s text makes this shading of the title explicit: he contextualises the images within a life’s framework and offers commentary drawn from his life’s experience. With this title, Marker is also positioning himself centrally as observer, though still an invisible one, as he is the one who is being stared back at. Just as the transfixing stares and gazes of people in Sans Soleil fix the unseen “Sandor Krasna” as the centre pole around which everything circles, here, too, Marker’s presence is defined by his absence.
The first section of the book (“I Stare 1”) features an array of demonstration photos (Algerian War, March on the Pentagon, May 1968, various 21st-century protests). They are moments frozen in time (and across time), but there is also a tension here; the images feel spring-wound, threatening to uncoil in an uncontrolled burst of energy. Stasis and potential action inhabiting the same frame. But action does not always lead to change. The righteousness, indignation, and certitude seen in the faces of the 1960s and ’70s protestors is lessened and forgotten over time. Marker quotes Abbie Hoffman – “We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers ten thousand miles away to fight a war that people do not support”, referencing Vietnam – then asks “How could he figure that one day those very people could support, at least for a while, the wrong war?” – this time, Iraq (p. 12).
As the images move from mid-20th century to early 21st, Marker finds both a renewed “jubilant mood” in the demonstrations against a right-wing presidential candidate (a smiling young woman is seemingly haloed by streaks of light) and, unexpectedly, “the everlasting face of solitude” as the protests turn towards economic issues (p. 27).
Section two (“They Stare”) is a portrait gallery, with subjects from across the globe – all gazing at the camera (with two exceptions). What is remarkable is the engagement they exhibit with their image-taker (Marker refers to himself as a “fast pickpocket running away with my bounty” [p. 52]). These are not people caught unawares. Unlike the solitude (perhaps the result of uncertainty) Marker sees in his recent demonstration images in the first section, here the feeling is primarily one of assuredness – the looks are strong, proud, amused, defiant. Even a Thai boxer knocked down in the ring challenges the camera with his direct stare.
The third section (“I Stare 2”) is again portraiture, but this time with no one looking at the camera (or Marker). The images play against a wider emotional register than in “They Stare” – providing a global index of the vicissitudes of human life. Looks of resignation, doubt, forlornness, and concern mingle with those of expectancy, devotion, conviction, and ecstasy. Amidst it all is a haunting visage of director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose profile seems to be slowly dissolving into a mist. The impermanence of Marker’s great themes of time, history, and memory find powerful and poetic resonance in this single image.
The final section (“Beast of…”) is the animal menagerie we’ve come to expect of Marker (usually his totemic cats and owls – here we do get cats but, strangely, no owls). Marker quotes from his CD-ROM Immemory:
And always the animals
from each trip
you bring back
to the truest of humanity
of humanity itself (p. 126)
Indeed, in the final photo, an orangutan stares with the same knowing fixity as film editor Christine Aya does in “They Stare” (the latter image privileged as the book’s cover photo, as well).
In her new book, simply titled Chris Marker, Sarah Cooper provides a welcome, if brief, exploration of Marker’s film and video work through his last long video – 2004’s Chats perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat). (Marker has since “released” several short videos via YouTube.)
While it seems increasingly problematic (particularly over the last ten years) to write about Marker’s film and video work without giving considered attention to his artistic output in other media (Cooper does reference all this work in passing), Chris Marker does offer a solid critical analysis of the filmmaker’s cinema. Cooper gives extensive descriptions of the works (valuable particularly for those that are difficult or impossible to see) and discusses the thematic concerns within each work and across the various works. At times, this analysis seems too abbreviated (2), most notably when a particular work does not readily fit her central interest, addressed below. Even with that caveat, however, this is a fine introduction to Marker.
The frustration is that there are nuggets scattered throughout what could have been a much more fascinating book. Cooper seems to be attempting to fit in a more nuanced and specific look at Marker’s treatment of stillness, death, and the centrality of the photographic image than the prescribed format allows for. A shame, because it is here that Cooper is striking new territory.
Many people have written on Marker’s interest in time and Cooper identifies this as the “particular focal point from which this study approaches his films” (p. 4). She then narrows her scope to Marker’s “fascination with stillness” and the manifestation of this “principally through the existence of photographs” (p. 4). This is a rich topic that easily extends beyond Marker’s filmic work to his photo books, installations, and CD-ROM (all mentioned above). An extended analysis covering Marker’s many uses of still and stilled images across differing media is the tantalising study we don’t get.
Cooper frames her limited exploration of stillness and the photographic image between the opposing poles of two giants of cultural thinking in France – film critic and theorist André Bazin and semiotician Roland Barthes. For Bazin, the photograph preserves someone in time, providing a symbolic life beyond their death; for Barthes, according to Cooper, the photograph “captures a past moment, which has foreknowledge of the future, both of which signify death” (p. 7). Cooper places Marker at a mid-point – his films and videos share points of commonality with both theories – where a third position is to be found: “his films do gesture towards an afterlife through their images, but this refers to the life of others who will live on after the death of the imaged subject(s)” (p. 8). Where this area of study is most suited, with La Jetée for example, Cooper gives her most compelling readings of Marker’s films. With other films less open to her thematic focus, the analysis is sometimes sketchy or forced. One hopes that Cooper has an opportunity to revisit Marker to approach him from a more narrowly cast perspective.
Cooper’s interest in the photographic and the stillness found in Marker’s work circles us back to the archive. We see that Marker activates his images, bringing life to them out of their inert status as objects. Archives, and Marker as archive, are repositories of things, but it requires an artist’s eye or an historian’s interpretation to shade these objects with meaning and resonance. Marker moves beyond an image’s relationship with death by breathing so much of his own life into it. And it is because of the complexity and richness of that life – that vision – that his work will continue to have a presence, no matter from how far in the future we are staring back at it.
La Jetée: ciné-roman, by Chris Marker, Zone Books edition (first published 1992), The MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2008.
Staring Back, by Chris Marker, edited by Bill Horrigan, The MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2007.
Chris Marker, by Sarah Cooper, French Film Directors series, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2008.
- The Americans , photographs by Robert Frank, introduction by Jack Kerouac, Steidl edition, Steidl, Göttingen / National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008.
- Apparently partially due to space considerations, none of the titles in this French Film Directors series from Manchester University Press is more than 272 pages – and that one is on Godard (Jean-Luc Godard, by Douglas Morrey, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2005).