Back on the big screen as part of BAM Rose Cinema’s retrospective of his work, Chris Marker’s 1996 documentary “Level Five” is a staunch reminder of the singular cinematic oeuvre left behind by the filmmaker. The French visual essayist (“documentary” may be an insufficient descriptor for any of his films) grew up alongside exponents of the French New Wave, but was set apart by his unique approach to cinema and storytelling. Most renowned for the 1962 short masterpiece “La Jetée” (one of the most effective time travel movies ever made), and 1983’s documentary “Sans Soleil,” third in Sight And Sound’s all-time list of documentaries, Marker was fascinated with a number of anthropological themes. His work often resulted in visual collages touching upon history, war, collective memory, and modern technology. Any readers unfamiliar with Marker’s work shouldn’t necessarily start with “Level Five,” but Marker admirers will find much to savor from this intellectual and unclassifiable voyage through history and technology.
Like most of Marker’s films, plot is intangible in “Level Five.” A number of narrative threads interweave into each other, and the easiest one to access revolves around Laura (Catherine Belkhodja,) a computer programmer who is working on building a video game based on the Second World War, particularly the Pacific War and the Battle of Okinawa. This pivotal front saw Americans fighting the Japanese for over 80 days, practically sealing Japan’s fate in the war and opening the doors for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Laura’s game experiments with the idea of altering some of the events, or “changing malignant fate,” as she puts it. However, her research brings her deeper into the atrocities of Okinawa —how its people were sacrificed by their own country, mass suicides spurred on by a fanatical Imperialist army— and she seeks Marker’s help, as she starts to question her own life and her own memories.
When Marker’s own baritone narration enters the picture, the engine of “Level Five” switches on like a hotwired car. He talks about visiting Japan and how he shares in their “collective amnesia” after the war, and introduces us to the O.W.L. (Optional World Link) network, which Laura uses to connect with various people in cyberspace through a “Pick Your Mask” feature allowing her to hide her face behind a variety of masks. We hear accounts from Japanese witnesses (among them celebrated filmmaker Nagisa Ôshima, who condemns all Japanese war films because of their bias) and how the relationship between computers and human thought process becomes all the more intermingled. Laura’s personality starts to take shape as well, and we learn that she started being called Laura after Otto Preminger’s 1944 film of the same name.
Laura talks to the camera, but who is she addressing exactly? It can’t be Marker, since she refers to how she needs his help with the game. It’s as close to a plot hole as “Level Five” will get, which is functions as an admission that these kinds of films are immune to plot holes or disconnected narrative threads. Once we start getting first-hand accounts from people like Kenji, who was a boy during the Okinawa atrocities, and absorb debate on whether past errors should be repented or remain as constant reminders, any quibbles concerning plot and narrative dissipate. Meanwhile, viewers who favor aesthetics over plot will most likely be disappointed with “Level Five.” The scenes with Belkhodja in her office, which looks more like a closet than a room, have the production values of a home-video and are made all the more claustrophobic by the 4:3 aspect ratio. As with other Marker films, especially “Sans Soleil,” a distant grandparent to “Level Five,” any visual dexterity comes from the archival footage. Examples include a Japanese woman turning around to look directly at the camera before she jumps off the cliff, or a montage of the soldier asked to reenact the infamous “Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima” photograph.
At the ripe age of 75, Marker continued to create fascinating content based around the nature of memories and how they shape identity, both personal and national. The theories in “Level Five” simultaneously thrive in realms of computer science, ethnography, and cognitive psychology, while the picture remains cloaked by the emotional weight of a historical tragedy that marked an entire nation. For those among you who like their mental challenges and want to see a mastermind theorist at work, “Level Five” comes highly recommended. [B+]
For more on the Chris Marker retrospective at BAM Rose Cinemas, click here.