Thursday, 1 December 2016

Time Goes All Ways: The Chris Marker Collection

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2014)

‘Prepare for a journey of (re-)discovery’ says Chris Darke in the booklet accompanying Soda Pictures’ Chris Marker set (2014), which seems sound advice as – a good sign for the inquisitive traveller I hope – I really don’t know what to expect from these ten films, all new to me, my knowledge of Marker half-formed at best, comprising a medley of partially remembered moments from his films – some recently viewed, some not seen for a decade or more – that may no longer bear much relation to the moments in the films themselves. So, as preparation, herewith my postage stamp, or perhaps postcard’s worth of virtual meetings with Marker.

First, of course, that moment of obliterating loveliness at the heart of the ciné-roman of his La Jetée when … but no, it can’t be said; even though everyone knows about it and everyone expects it, it remains a shared secret, a surprise with every fresh viewing. It’s enough that I know of no purer few seconds of film, with overwhelming desire crumbling into utter loss, all that is left upon waking the insistent thump of the heart, trying to break its cage. What else from La Jetée? The grabbing of a few moments of impossible happiness along the way as the film remorselessly heads towards its predestined ending; the brutal delicacy of the man’s out-flung arm at Orly.

Sans Soleil? Blonde children in sunlight. More recently, during a viewing of Marker’s 1966 film-essay, If I Had Four Camels, being awed by the train of innumerable visual correspondences and also slightly overwhelmed by the insistent intelligence of the narration which gave me no place to rest or relax. This feeling of missing so many of the subtleties in word and image also reminded me – possibly not inappropriately given Marker’s immersion in early computer technology – of being truly rubbish at early computer games such as Space Invaders; there, always another alien out to shoot you no matter how many you had already zapped; here, always another aphorism coming down the line – fail to grab it and process it immediately and you miss the next, and before long you are floundering, blasted by words ungrasped.

What else? A fascination with Hitchcock’s Vertigo; pseudonyms – Marker, Sandor Krasna; Marker himself peeping out from behind a piece of paper while sitting in a bar named in his honour in Tokyo in Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga, and lastly the soundtrack to Alexander Medvedkine’s 1934 silent film, Happiness, which Marker re-edited in – I think – the 1960s, notably the moment of pure slapstick when, after clonking himself on the forehead with his crucifix to the ding of a bell, a priest dies like a frantic fly.

And that really is about the extent of my travels thus far on my Marker passport. I do have a couple of visas that may come in handy though. I know that dreams are integral to memory, and that memories can be indistinguishable from dreams. Didn’t Marker talk of Sans Soleil as a meditation on the dreams of the human race? I know that images from whatever source, whether witnessed in actuality or seen on screen, can mutate in the memory to correspond to the mind’s predilections, and that these images too can create what we might think of as false memories. However, these ‘false memories’, in their cohesive power, can fix and form our thoughts with emotional truth. I know too that borders between animate and inanimate are more permeable than is commonly imagined. Film and photographs can memorialise the actions and gestures of those who no longer walk among us, and the gestures of those preserved on film can transmute to those who see them who continue their life. In such manner gestures can cross continents and travel through decades, outliving the people who once carried them for a while.

And so, what do I find on planet Marker, as revealed by this ten film collection? Well, wise owls and grinning cats, playfulness, demonstrations, blood and batons, helmets worn to protect, identify and intimidate, words of witness, poetry, the Georgian painter Pirosmani as an avatar for Noah and a cat as the figurehead for his ark (or perhaps even the ark itself), Peter, Paul and Mary, Alfred E. Neuman of Mad magazine, the link between the biblical flood and the birth of mathematics, cowboys and Indians (but not the ones you might expect), Yves Montand, a bear on a leash, the collective wonder of an eclipse which, with faintly sinister echoes of La Jetée or John Wyndham’s The Triffids, turns the inhabitants of Paris into extras for an as yet unrealised science fiction, Snoopy, Chagall, an umbrella-wielding flashmob, pretty girls’ faces and a smile floating over a city. And much more. And if all of that sounds like an anarchic and uncontrollable menagerie, you can be assured that all make their appearances as part of wholly committed engagements with the subject at hand. Sometimes, filming action is direct and literally involved, as with the on-the-spot reportage, close enough to film the twitching of a military policeman’s finger in the demonstrations against the Vietnam war in 1968, while at other times the ongoing conflicts of the times are approached obliquely, as in his 1973 film, The Embassy. It’s perhaps best seen on the last film in the collection though, The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004), a wry commentary on realpolitik and the state of post 9/11 France given form and direction through an ongoing concern for a graffitied cat’s grin. It’s a trademark Marker tone that can only be made convincing through a combination of penetrating curiosity, active involvement and lightly-held wisdom. Briefly, seriousness of intent need not mean the ousting of whimsicality.

Which brings me to Letter from Siberia. So much of Marker’s output is about correspondence, in all its meanings, and this particular letter, joining those from China, Japan, Israel, Cape Verde and many other destinations throughout his work (of which the physical ones are but the most obviously situated), is a key early work. As a statement of intent, three decades before Jean-Luc Godard rat-a-tat-tatted his way through Histoire(s) du cinéma, it begins with a typewriter tapping out the credits as they appear. It tells us: words are as important as image here. Listen well.

And sure enough, we soon find ourselves liberatingly unmoored from a conventional appreciation of place. It might share the saturated palette of a 1950s National Geographic photo-essay but that really is as far as such a comparison goes, that magazine’s tone of one-world folksiness rejected in favour of a commentary that is more personal, partial, poetic, wry, tricksier and open-ended. And one that knows full well that descriptions distort so approaches the subject from unexpected directions – including animated inserts on such subjects as the history of the discoveries of mammoths – to get to the heart of things.

We are shown a land pitched between shamanism and the economic planning office, between the age of the mammoth and the age of the scientist, a place where a hobbled black horse can disappear into the forest and reappear ‘instantly in a Yakutsk legend a thousand years earlier.’ Time goes all ways here, as it should.

There’s childlike excitement: ‘I’m writing you this letter from the land of childhood; between the ages of five and ten this is where we were chased by wolves, blinded by Tartars, and carried away on the Trans-Siberian Express with our pistols and our jewellery,’ and there is poetry, both visual and descriptive. Take the shot of silver birches seen from the sky, filmed for an imaginary newsreel, ‘like owls’ tracks in the snow’, or the description of life and death, ‘separated by nothing more substantial than a breath of air’, accompanied on screen by the faintest wisps of cloud shading the land as they pass across a settlement. Then there are the the flowers preserved underground by scientists in discs of clear ice through a long and colourless winter - pink chrysanthemums invested with as much magic as the ribbons and ex-votos we later see festooning a magic larch tree. There’s wry humour too: ‘culture is what’s left behind when everyone’s gone home’ says the narrator to accompany shots of an empty Soviet culture park.

After a description of reindeer as ‘wheat, flax, rowboat, Christmas tree, medicine chest, and sacristan, all rolled into one,’ Marker takes his appreciation even further with an animated infomercial, delivered by an owl - the highest of praise in Marker’s world - on the various uses of a reindeer, ended with a piece of random signage in Italian asking people not to take their bicycles into church. And yet, as I’ve mentioned, whimsical invention dances with seriousness. There follows an experiment in the spirit of Kuleshov, in which a short clip of daily life and construction in Yakutsk is given three different voiceovers – one enthusiastic, one damning (as the times demanded) – and one more or less objective, which Marker admits fails to adequately capture the spirit of the place. Hence his multi-faceted approach.

There is also a sequence on gold panners, whose description requires reading in full. ‘But the lone prospectors have never gotten over the fever. And perhaps they never will. Tolerated at times, outlawed at others, they live in the wake of the dredges like gleaners on the heels of harvesters. Sometimes they’re drafted for menial work, but most often they’re left to their own devices. They may well be the only Soviet citizens not to benefit from social security, pensions, and free medical care. There is no earthly reason for them to go on. Do they have some higher motivation? I’m not so sure. There is scarcely more freedom in their individualism than there is gold in the mud they sift. However they’ve been handling them both for so long now that at times they forget which one they’re looking for. And perhaps in the last analysis they’re not prospecting for gold at all, but for mud.’ Change the accent to Bavarian inflected English and you have a character and narration that are pure Werner Herzog.

All of which goes to say: there’s a lot here.

Taking any overarching lessons from Marker is against the spirit of his enterprise, and a different selection of films would occasion differing thoughts, but one lesson seems to hold good. His films encourage us to look, and look again – and then connect, as he still does. Borders are permeable, and time goes all ways.

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