As a complement to our exhibition of Chris Marker's photographs as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, we proudly present this mini-retrospective of some of the most famous and influential works by the legendary French filmmaker.
"Chris Marker is one of the great poets of the twentieth century."—Michel Boujut
"The most poetic and original of documentarists."—Derek Malcolm
One of the first series ever presented by TIFF Cinematheque, more than two decades ago, was a retrospective dedicated to Chris Marker, and we have since presented two other retrospectives plus several premieres of his new works. Following Marker's death last July in Paris, a series of new restorations has been undertaken which will guarantee future presentations here of Marker's poetic films (the wry ruminations of an extraterrestrial, as Alain Resnais once called them); in the meantime, this selection of films and videos, occasioned by the exhibition of Marker's photographs in our CIBC Canadian Film Gallery (part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival), pays tribute to the artist widely considered cinema's greatest essayist — or an emissary into Time, as Marker himself has it in La Jetée.
"For two centuries now," Chris Marker avers in his 1962 cine-essay Le Joli Mai, "happiness has been a new idea in Europe, and people are still getting used to it." While Marker lived to witness a new discontent surge through the continent, recorded in his last major film, The Case of the Grinning Cat, his own happiness (to invoke the name of one of his favourite films, by Soviet master Alexander Medvedkin) never seemed in doubt. Marker died last summer as two of his long-held obsessions, the Olympic Games and Hitchcock's Vertigo, once again commanded the news; that he expired ninety-one years to the day that he was born — perhaps in Ulan Bator, Mongolia (as he often claimed), perhaps not — only added to the appropriately Markeresque sense of irony that attended his end.
Marker's Proust-invoking pronouncement, "I claim, for the image, the humility and the powers of a madeleine," suggests the primacy of time and remembrance for the director of Sans Soleil, who discerned in the whorl of Kim Novak's blonde chignon in Vertigo (Marker's film fétiche) a figuration of time's helix (Madeleine and madeleine).There, the past imposes (and few filmmakers knew or cared as much about history as Marker) while never relinquishing its dominion over the future: avenir forever becoming souvenir, as the French title of his late film Remembrance of Things to Come suggests. In the catacombs of Paris and the deserted pier at Orly in La Jetée, Marker located a futuristic landscape in which temporality literally becomes torture.
Pluck any aperçu from Marker's Montaigne-like musings and its epigram soon effloresces into manifold meaning. "A hiker walking in a straight line is always sure to get lost in the forest," the narrator intones in Letter from Siberia, a warning perhaps to the unwary who traverse Marker's labyrinths of spiralling time and unreliable memory. "I write to you from a far off country," that film's opening line, establishes the epistolary, globe-hopping mode of his cinema, though every distant land represented in his films — Iceland, Cuba, China, Guinea-Bissau, and (most often) Japan — inevitably comes to reside on the same metaphoric continent, the far-flung made adjacent by the artist's memory.
A master of montage, like the Soviet filmmakers he greatly admired, Marker forged a new kind of cinematic form which, in its idiosyncrasy and complexity, rebuffs any attempt to classify it in terms of genre: "philosophical report," "essay film," "cultural documentary" and "deconstructed travelogue" are among the inadequate phrases devised to describe his approach. Having first worked as a journalist and editor, Marker was as concerned with the word as the image, and his films, though supremely visual, are famous for their literary elegance, their witty, aphoristic turns of phrase. (His text for Joris Ivens' ...A Valparaiso reminds one of Elizabeth Bishop's poems about Brazil.) Both calligraphic and encyclopaedic, his aesthetic strategy was also rife with seeming contradictions — between, for instance, Marker's love of new, time-skewing technologies (his apartment became a veritable museum of the obsolete) and his obsession with memory, personal, cultural, and political. (He called one of his CD-ROM projects Immemory.) Marker's sense of dialectics thrived on paradox, his work given more to poetry than polemics; critics often marvel at "Marker's swift shuttle of images and thoughts" (Raymond Durgnat), at the density and velocity of his pensées. And indeed, getting "lost in the forest" of Marker's ideas is one of cinema's more exhilarating experiences.
No director, except perhaps Godard, was such a reliable index of French intellectual and political developments. Indeed, the course of Marker's career paralleled the vicissitudes of his country's gauchistes since the fifties. After what he calls "a bit of university, a bit of war, a bit of piano-playing in bars," Marker entered the film world by collaborating with Alain Resnais; the latter fondly dubbed his colleague "Chris (the Magic) Marker." Along with such fellow filmmakers as Agnès Varda, William Klein, and Georges Franju, Resnais and Marker formed part of the Left Bank Group, whose "socialism, humanism, high culture and poetic formalism" (Durgnat) made them a kind of inverted mirror image of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd on the other side of the Seine. Preferring anonymity-his oft-cited and rather overstated reclusiveness ran to refusing interviews or having his photograph taken-Marker became increasingly committed to collective filmmaking, and in 1966 established SLON, the Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles (Association for Launching New Works), into which he immersed himself, especially after the events of May 1968. (Though some have called this Marker's "invisible period," the works he produced for SLON are markedly his in tone, form, and insight.)
Emerging from the collectivism of SLON in the mid-seventies with a concert film starring his friend and fellow leftist Yves Montand, Marker soon after produced one of his most ambitious works, the magisterial and pivotal A Grin Without a Cat, in which he acknowledged the dissolution of old ideologies, the failure of the international left, and the displacement of idealism by cynicism. His subsequent work proved to be more inward, skeptical, abstruse, the musing voice of the individual poet reasserting itself, as Marker returned to the themes he shared with Resnais: the subjective nature of time, the search for happiness in a collapsing world, the difficulty and unreliability of memory, cinema as both analogue and abjuration of death. Resnais once called Marker "the prototype of the 21st century man"; the poetry Marker has left behind alleviates the grim prospects of living through that era.
Portions of this essay originally appeared in Artforum International.