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One Day with Chris Marker, Film Essayist and Influencer

One Day with Chris Marker, Film Essayist and Influencer

One day, sometime deep in the last millennium, I had the good fortune to be on the receiving end of a phone call from the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin telling me not to make any plans for the next day, and if I had plans, to cancel them.  Why, I asked.  Because, he said, we’re going to visit Chris Marker.

That was all he needed to say.  

Chris Marker was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve – perhaps on the outskirts of Paris, perhaps in Ulan Bator.  His nom-de-plume was, or wasn’t, a tribute to the fiber-tipped pen.  He was in the resistance in WWII, fought with the Americans, and then became part of that fine left-bank left-wing intellectual ferment out of which came so many of the books, films, philosophies, wall slogans, and cafés without which our lives would have seemed dull and unbearable. 

He’s perhaps best known for "La Jetée," a film composed not-quite-entirely of black-and-white stills.  (It’s that rare time-travel tale which haunts – because it’s really a love story; because it’s more about the poignance than the hardware; and, finally, because the abyss it opens up is profound and insoluble.)  In popular culture, "La Jetée" is a footnote in film history as the ‘source material’ for Terry Gilliam’s "Twelve Monkeys."  But in the more real if perhaps more clandestine history of the world, "Twelve Monkeys" and "The Terminator" and "Inception" and so much more are footnotes to "La Jetée."

My favorite Marker may be an essay film – a form that Marker did not invent, but most certainly came to own.  It’s called "Sans Soleil," and it’s a meditation on Icelandic volcanoes, Japanese video games, Hitchcock’s "Vertigo," modernity, trains, the Cape Verde islands, the empress Shonagon, the largeness and smallness of the world, and the holiness of certain cats.  You watch it and you are certain that the narration must have been written first, images then gathered to suit.  You watch it again and you are certain it must have been the other way around.  You watch it a third time and it all seems simultaneous.  Then you watch it again, because you are immersed in Marker’s world so thoroughly that one’s own world seems flat, thick, ordinary, and lacking in enchantment.  Then, gradually, Marker’s voice – calm, wise, aphoristic – begins to show you the way home.  (The two have just been released, together, on Blu-ray, via Criterion.  It’s an essential purchase.)

When Gorin and I deplaned in Oakland we were met by the great and good Tom Luddy, who has probably met more world-class filmmakers than anyone, and to better effect.  He scurried us off to a Chinese restaurant in North Beach favored by Zoetropians and there was Marker, an icon of cinema in a khaki jacket.  He was a larger man than I’d imagined, shaven-headed, with a swift, sturdy gait and a ready smile.  He was in San Francisco for a retrospective of his films.  (Marker, famously private, did not want to introduce them, or do a Q&A.  But during the course of the retrospective he became sufficiently pleased with the attendance, and relaxed by the filmgoers’ appreciation, that he allowed it to be spoken that he was among them, somewhere in the audience.)

The day rolled from the restaurant to a long stroll through North Beach to some time spent talking.  (Gorin and Marker were old comrades, and indulged in fabulous catch-up; Luddy was, among his other insufficiently noted achievements, one of Santa’s elves for the San Francisco sections of "Sans Soleil.")  

Eventually it was time for Gorin and me to head back south.  I’ve rarely stepped onto a plane wanting so little to depart.  I felt that if I could have just stayed in the Marker world, not intruding, two or three steps behind, I would have access to all the wisdom I would ever need.  I can’t think of anyone who better embodied Gramsci’s dictum: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

There were always filmmakers whose work one treasured.  But Marker’s older work seemed more central in retrospect, and his newer work more vital.  Whether it was the essay films he continued to make, or the videos, or the museum installations (Bill Horrigan of the Wexner seemed especially adept at bringing forth the best in Marker), or the thoughtful and deeply knowing portraits of fellow filmmakers (Kurosawa; Medvedkin), or the volumes of photographs, or the Guillaume-en-Égypte cartoons (an homage to his beloved cat), Marker never stopped working, never stopped being engaged with the world (and the emerging technologies via which that world might be interrogated, depicted, understood).  He never became cranky, or merely idiosyncratic, or a caricature of himself.  The work demanded his engagement, and he gave it: wryly, generously, with perception and real heart.  No one saw the world like Marker did, or more effectively put a sensibility – over the course of a lifetime – on film.  

His death – on his birthday, at age 91 – leaves a hole in the world.

(with thanks to the extraordinary J.-P. Gorin, for making this and much else possible)


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Lisa Nesselson

"La Jetée" is the magnificent embodiment of what can be achieved with a nimble imagination and some film stock. It is precisely the right length (much as "Un Chien Andalou" is precisely the right length). Chris Marker knew the value of privacy. I suspect that's an equally profound component of his artistic legacy.

Larry Jackson

Howard, this is a beautiful and touching piece. Though I had a close relationship with his producer for many years, I never had the privilege to meet Chris. Some seem surprised when I tell them that SANS SOLEIL is one of my favorite films, but I've stood by that for three decades. Thanks for your recollections.

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