From Cockburn to Vidal, some great thinkers and men have moved on over the past few weeks. Among those ranks is the French documentarian—nay, cine-essayist is more near correct—Chris Marker, whose “brilliance as a thinker and filmmaker has,” in the words of film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “largely (and unfairly) eclipsed by Godard’s.”
Both men, Godard and Marker, are responsible for more than a few films of almost upsetting beauty. Both men also contributed greatly to the withering art of film criticism, their best moments as critics achieved through the camera rather than the typewriter. It is true that Godard has made films one could safely call revolutionary (despite the spirited abuse the Situationists leveled at him), just as it is true that Godard possesses a painter’s eye and the deepest of possible understandings of the text and the image, but Marker’s intensity as a narrator and dedication as a wonderer and intelligence as a traveler have not been matched by Godard or anybody else. It is time this artist of the highest caliber, for whose talents 91 years could never suffice, received his due.
On my backpack—the one perpetually hanging from my body—is a rusting button with the image of the Cheshire Cat, its sprawling grin teasing and frightening. The button has been there for years, and will remain there for many years more, because to be put in mind of Marker’s films is to be put in mind of so many other wonderful things. The image is from Marker’s The Case of the Grinning Cat, in which the image of the Cheshire Cat, found as graffiti on walls and in metros throughout Paris, serves as Marker’s springboard for ruminations on nearly everything. As it should be. What better to capture Marker’s syndicalist-ish spirit and sensibility than street art, anonymously created, continually evolving, and publically consumed?
Marker films help me more than most in understanding the clutter and serenity, the noise and peacefulness of the world we inhabit. He was expert at finding “moments.” Sans soleil, labeled by many as his masterpiece, is full of borderline violent transitions between the “exceptional” and the “mundane,” so much so that the two end up eventually blurred together, indistinguishable. We are privy to the latest Tokyo video game technology one moment, people sleeping on a train the next. One line in particular at the opening of the film makes for an invaluable tip to travelers contemplating inspiration: “’I’ve been around the world several times,’ he said, ‘and now only banality still interests me.’”
Film critic Jaime Christley has written that the experience of sitting through Marker’s discursive brand of cinema is like “being electrocuted.” This is quite right; Marker’s spoken sentences and their attendant thoughts trail and tail and reveal themselves in an almost Proustian manner. Sans soleil excitingly moves between subjects while frequently returning to core images, none more prevalent than that of the cat. This is cinema for the most rabid ailurophiles. The cats in each of Marker’s films seem to communicate with the camera. Sans soleil, with all of its preoccupations with futurism and memory, is no less of a sci-fi film than Marker’s better known La jetee, and the cats that appear in it, whether made of plaster or flesh, effectively play the role of space aliens.
Marker, who like Pynchon kept his image out of circulation and kept his distance from the press, did offer some hints about his past, including the fact that his life had been altered at a young age by events political. One can gather from his films that he was talking about the dream of socialism. His largest work on his political commitments was A Grin Without a Cat, a monument of documentary footage that showcases his remarkable intuition with images: the film is an epic visual orchestra, set to its own rhythms and inclusive of small rhymes, its method transcending traditional ideas of montage. The result is a film that is constructed and nestled in what Henri Langlois called the “universal subconscious” in a manner appropriate to Marker’s concerns with the tricks and limitations of memory. As a write this, I remember only the moments, particularly the quirks of Fidel Castro’s relationship with his microphones (watch and you’ll see).
The greatest of Marker’s films is actually a video titled The Last Bolshevik, which has been neglected for far too long. The film is “about” Marker’s friend, the great Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin, but it is very much about the deep anguish of Marker’s disillusionment with the Soviet Union. Much of the film is warm and sweet; some of it quite tragic; but the final moments (the final words), which I won’t reveal here, strike the hardest and cut the deepest. Like Godard, Marker’s contribution as a participant of the left is matched his cleverness as a critic of it.
It is not at all irrational to worry when a writer capable of sentences of weight passes on, given the bankruptcy of the language in the U.S.’s major newspapers.
Marker’s role carried an extra task. Cinema croaked a while ago depending on who you ask; video was always interesting, but never sufficiently utilized; YouTube now rules the day. The point is, we’ve long lived in a world inundated with images, albeit images of varying clearness and scope and intention, and we are all tasked with navigating them, with connecting them to, and placing them within, political phenomena.
Marker, again like Godard, understood that Hollywood mise-en-scene is a perfectly reasonable place to start when analyzing these images, much the way an essayist dissecting issues of empire and war might begin with a quote from Tolstoy. Marker was rare in that he contributed weighty sentences along with images both created and found, and he connected as well as severed the two, contributing to methods and dialectics useful for distinguishing art from propaganda, if such a distinction is to exist. This is significant stuff. The world will be, for me, be just a little more difficult to comprehend without his help.
None of this represents even the beginning of the sum of this first-rate career. Watch the above mentioned, and all films, by Marker. His work on other filmmakers—not only about Medvedkin, but about, say, Tarkovsky in One Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevich—is better than most, if not all, you are bound to read about them.
And watch his films to learn how to travel. To learn how to find the poetic in all that is banal.
Patrick Higgins is a writer and activist. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.