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Day 30/07/2012

Remembering Chris Marker

“That there was a certain relationship between these two films [La Jetée & Sans Soleil] was something I was aware of, but I didn’t think I needed to explain–until I found a small anonymous note published in a program in Tokyo that said, “Soon the voyage will be at an end. It’s only then that we will know if the juxtaposition of images makes any sense. We will understand that we have prayed with film, as one must on a pilgrimage, each time we have been in the presence of death: in the cat cemetery, standing in front of the dead giraffe, with the kamikazes at the moment of takeoff, in front of the guerrillas killed in the war for independence. In La Jetée, the foolhardy experiment to look in the future ends in death. By treating the same subject twenty years later, Marker has overcome death by prayer.” When you read that, written by someone you don’t know, who knows nothing of how the films came to be, you feel a certain emotion. “Something” has happened. Chris Marker March 5, 2003 Interview, first published in Libération.

We were deeply saddened to hear of french filmmaker, Chris Marker’s passing today.

Marker is an exemplary rethinker; a man who sought to break past the confines of linearity and form to rethink not only filmmaking but the storytelling process itself. We are lucky that a small part of his vision and beautiful, unfathomably deep imagination, empathy and understanding of humanity are forever captured in his art. Join us in celebrating his work and life!

View Junktopia ~ 6 minute film by Chris Marker, John Chapman & Frank Simeone (1981)

Enjoy this retrospective image gallery on Criterion


This interview first appeared in the Paris daily Libération, on March 5, 2003, to mark the French DVD release of Sans Soleil and La Jetée. It was translated by Chris Marker for the 2007 Criterion Collection of the La Jetée/ Sans Soleil DVD release. The interview is printed on the booklet that accompanies the La Jetée/ Sans Soleil Criterion Collection DVD and can also be found on Filmlinc.com

Cinema, photo-novels, CD-ROMS, video installations–is there any medium that you haven’t tried? 


Why have you agreed to the release of some of your films on DVD, and how did you make the choice?

Twenty years separate La Jetée [1963] from Sans Soleil [1983]. And another twenty years separate Sans Soleil from the present. If I were to speak in the name of the person who made those movies, that wouldn’t be journalism but rather spiritism. In fact, I don’t think I either chose or accepted: somebody talked about it, and it got done. That there was a certain relationship between these two films was something I was aware of, but I didn’t think I needed to explain–until I found a small anonymous note published in a program in Tokyo that said, “Soon the voyage will be at an end. It’s only then that we will know if the juxtaposition of images makes any sense. We will understand that we have prayed with film, as one must on a pilgrimage, each time we have been in the presence of death: in the cat cemetery, standing in front of the dead giraffe, with the kamikazes at the moment of takeoff, in front of the guerrillas killed in the war for independence. In La Jetée, the foolhardy experiment to look in the future ends in death. By treating the same subject twenty years later, Marker has overcome death by prayer.” When you read that, written by someone you don’t know, who knows nothing of how the films came to be, you feel a certain emotion. “Something” has happened.

When Immemory, your CD-ROM, was released, in 1999, you said that you had found the ideal medium. What do you think of DVD?

With the CD-ROM, it’s not so much the technology that’s important as the architecture, the arborescence, the mood of play. There will continue to be DVD-ROMs. DVD technology is great, but it still isn’t cinema.

Godard nailed it once and for all: at the cinema, you raise your eyes to the screen; in front of the television, you lower them. Then there is the role of the shutter. Out of the two hours you spend in a movie theater, you spend one in the dark. It’s the nocturnal portion that stays with us, that “fixes” our memory of a film (the way you fix color on a canvas) in a different way than the same film seen on television or on a monitor. But having said that, let’s be honest, I’ve just watched the ballet from An American in Paris on the screen of my iBook, and I very nearly rediscovered the exhilaration that we felt in London, in 1952, when I was there with Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet, during the filming of Statues Also Die, when we would start every day by seeing the 10:00 a.m. show of An American in Paris at a theater in Leicester Square. An exhilaration that I feared I had lost forever when watching the film on cassette.

Does the democratization of the means of filmmaking (DV, digital editing, distribution via the Internet) seduce the socially engaged filmmaker that you are?

Here’s a good opportunity to get rid of a label that’s been stuck on me. For many people, “engaged” means “political,” and politics, the art of compromise (which is as it should be–if there is no compromise, there is only brute force, of which we’re seeing an example right now), bores me to death. What fires me is History, and politics interest me only to the extent it represents a slice of History cut in the present. With a recurring curiosity (if I identify with any Kipling character, it’s the Elephant’s Child of Just So Stories, with his “satiable curiosity”), I keep asking myself: how do people manage to live in such a world? Hence my mania to run and see “how things work” here or there…For a long time, those who were the best placed to describe how things work didn’t posses the tools to give shape to their testimonies–and raw testimonies quickly wear out. And now, suddenly, these tools exist. It’s true that for people like me, it’s a closed loop.

A necessary caution: “the democratization of tools” gets rid of many financial and technical constraints but does not save us from the constraints of working. Owning a DV camera does not magically confer talent on someone who doesn’t have any or who is too lazy to even ask himself if he does. You can miniaturize as much as you want, but a film will always require a great, great deal of work–and an incentive. That was the whole story of the Medvedkin groups, those young workers who, in the post-’68 era, tried to make short films about their own lives, and whom we tried to help on the technical level, with the means of the time. Did they moan! “We come back from the grind, and you ask us to work again…” But they stuck with it, and apparently something happened there, too, since thirty years later, we saw them present their films at the Belfort festival in front of an attentive audience. The means of the time was 16mm silent, which meant three-minute camera rolls, a laboratory, an editing table, some way of adding sound–everything that you have now right inside a little case that fits in your hand. A little lesson in modesty for the spoiled children of today, just like the spoiled children of 1970 got their lesson in modesty by putting themselves under the patronage of Alexander Ivanovich Medvedkin and his cine-train. For the benefit of the younger generation, Medvedking was a Russian filmmaker who, in 1936, and with the means that were proper to his time (35mm film, editing table, and film lab installed in the train), essentially invented television: shoot during the day, print and edit at night, show in the next day to the people you filmed (and who often participated in the editing). I think that it’s this fabled and long-forgotten bit of the history (Medvedkin isn’t even mentioned in Georges Sadoul’s book, considered in its day the Soviet cinema bible) that underlies a large part of my work–in the end, perhaps, the only coherent part. To try to give the power of speech to people who don’t have it, and, when it’s possible, to help them find their own means of expression. Such were the workers I filmed in 1967 at Rhodiaceta. Such were the Kosovars I filmed in 2000, who had never been heard on television: everyone was speaking on their behalf, but once you no longer saw them on the road, bloody and sobbing, people lost interest in them. Such were the young aspiring filmmakers in Guinea-Bissau whom I found myself introducing, to my great surprise to the editing of Battleship Potemkin, using an old print on rusty reels, and who have now had their films selected for competitions in Venice (keep an eye out for the next musical by Flora Gomes). I found the Medvedkin syndrome again in a Bosnian refugee camp, in 1993–a bunch of kids who had learned all the tricks of television, with anchorpersons and special effects on the credits, by pirating satellite TV and using equipment supplied by an NGO, but who didn’t ape the dominant idiom: they just used the codes in order to establish credibility, and they fed back the information to other refugees. An exemplary experience. They had the tools, and they had the incentive. Both are indispensable.

Do you prefer television, movies on a big screen, or surfing the Internet?

I have a completely schizophrenic relationship with television. When I assume I’m the only one in world, I adore it, particularly since there’s been cable. It’s curious how cable offers an entire catalog of antidotes to the poisons of standard TV. If one network shows a ridiculous TV movie about Napoléon, you can flip over to the History Channel to hear Henri Guillermin’s brilliantly nasty commentary on him. If a literary program makes us submit to a parade of currently fashionable female monsters, we can change over to Mezzo to contemplate the luminous face of Hélène Grimaud, surrounded by her wolves, and it’s as if the others never existed. Now there are moments when I remember I am not alone in the world, and that’s when I fall apart. The exponential growth of stupidity and vulgarity is something that everyone has noticed, but it’s not just a vague sense of disgust–it’s a concrete, quantifiable fact (you can measure it by the volume of the cheers that greet the talk-show hosts, which have grown by an alarming number of decibels in the last five years) that comes close to a crime against humanity. Not to mention the permanent aggressions on the French language…And since you are exploiting my Russian penchant for confession, I must say the worst: I am allergic to commercials. In the early sixties, that allergy was rather well considered. Today it’s unavowable. I can do nothing about it. This manner of placing the very mechanics of calumny in the service of praise always made me bristle, even if I have to admit that this diabolical patron has occasionally given us some of the most beautiful images you can see on the small screen (have you seen the David Lynch commercial with the blue lips?). A small consolation in the vocabulary: sometimes the cynics spill the beans. Stopping short of calling themselves “creators,” they trade it for “creatives” (in French, créatifs). And there the unconscious functions rather well: imagine what “gladiatives” could be.

And the movies in all this? For the reasons mentioned above, under Jean-Luc’s wing, I’ve said for a long time that films should be seen first in theaters, and that television and video are only there to refresh your memory. Now that I no longer have any time at all to go to the cinema, I’ve started seeing films by lowering my eyes, with an ever increasing sense of sinfulness (this interview is indeed becoming Dostoyevskian). But to tell the truth, I no longer watch many films, only those by friends or curiosities that an American acquaintance tapes for me on TCM. There is too much to see on the news, on the music channels, or on the indispensable Animal Channel. And I feed my hunger for fiction with what is by far the most accomplished source: those terrific American TV series like Deadwood, Firefly, or The WireThere is a knowledge in them, a sense of story and economy, of ellipsis, a science of framing and cutting, a dramaturgy, and an acting style that has no equal anywhere, and certainly not in Hollywood.

La Jetée inspired a video by David Bowie and a film by Terry Gilliam. And there’s also a bar called La Jetée in Japan. How do you feel about this cult? Does Terry Gilliam’s imagination intersect with yours? 

Terry’s imagination is so rich that there’s no need to play with comparisons. Certainly, for me 12 Monkeys [1995] is a magnificent film (there are people who think they are flattering me by saying otherwise, that La Jetée is much better–this world is peculiar…) It’s just one of the happy signs, like Bowie’s video, like the bar in Shinjuku (Hi, Tomoyo! To think that for forty years lots of Japanese have been getting happily plastered every night beneath my images is worth any Academy Award…), that have accompanied the strange destiny of this particular film. Since it was made like a piece of automatic writing, I’d have a hard time taking credit for it. It just happened, that’s all. I was filming Le joli mai, completely immersed in the reality of Paris 1962 and the euphoric discovery of Direct Cinema (you will never make me say “cinema verité”), and on the crew’s day off, I photographed a story I hardly understood. It’s in the cutting room that the pieces of the puzzle came together, and it wasn’t me who designed the puzzle. 

You are a witness of history, are you still interested in world affairs? What makes you jump to your feet, react, shout?

Right now there are some very obvious reasons to jump, and we know them all so well that there’s no need to overreact. What remains are the small personal resentments. I give you two examples. Among our group of friends in the forties, the one we all considered to be a future great writer was François Vernet. He had already published three books, and the fourth was to be a collection of short stories that he had written during the occupation, with a vigor and an insolence that obviously left him little hope with the censors. The book wasn’t published until 1945. Meanwhile, François had died in Dachau. Don’t misread me: I’m not trying to blackmail people in the name of martyrdom. Even if this death puts a kind of symbolic seal on a destiny that was already quite singular, the texts themselves are of such a rare quality that there is no need to seek extraliterary reasons for loving them and introducing them to others. Last year a courageous publisher fell in love with the book and took the risk of reprinting it. I did everything I could to mobilize people I knew, not in order to make it the event of the season but simply to get it talked about. But no, there were already too many books during that season, and there was hardly a word in the press.

Another example: Capriccio Records released a new recording by Viktor Ullman. Under his name alone this time. Previously, he and Gideon Klein had been recorded as “Theresienstadt composers” (for younger readers: Theresienstadt was the model concentration camp designed to be visited by the Red Cross; the Nazis made a film about it called The Führer Gives a City to The Jews). With the best intentions in the world, that name was a way of putting them both back in the camp. If Messiaen had died after he composed the Quartet for the End of Time, would he be the “prison camp composer”?

This record is astounding: it contains lieder based on texts by Hölderlin and Rilke, and one is transfixed by the vertiginous thought that, at that particular time, no one was glorifying the true German culture better than this Jewish musician who was soon to die at Auschwitz. This time, there wasn’t total silence–just a few flattering lines in the arts pages. Wasn’t it worth a bit more? What makes me mad isn’t that what we call “media coverage” is generally reserved for people I personally find rather mediocre–that’s a matter of opinion, and I wish them no ill. It’s that the noise, in the electronic sense, just gest louder and louder and ends up drowning out everything, until it becomes a monopoly just like the way supermarkets force out the corner stores. That the unknown writer and the brilliant musician have the right to the same consideration as the corner storekeeper may be too much to ask.

Have your travels made you suspicious of dogmatism?

I think I was already suspicious when I was born. I must have traveled a lot before then! 


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