Staring at Chris Marker


Chris Marker, La Jetée, 1963


If I ever had a passion in the field of politics, it’s a passion for understanding. Understanding how people manage to live on a planet like ours. Understanding how they seek, how they try, how they make mistakes, how they get over them, how they learn, how they lose their way.  That immediately put me on the side of the people who seek to make mistakes, as opposed to those who seek nothing, except to conserve, defend them selves, and deny all the rest.  Chris Marker

Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on they do claim remembrance when they show their scars.   Chris Marker in La Jetée

‘This is a story of a man marked by an image from his childhood’, so begins Chris Marker’s 1963 film La Jetée.  These words are uttered by an unseen narrator who tells us the story of survivor of World War III inhabiting rat-infested tunnels beneath a ruined and irradiated Paris.  This post apocalyptic underworld is ruled by a cabal of ‘Directors’, experimenting with time traveling by seizing upon survivors’ memories that might act as lifeboats to the past or the future.  The protagonist retains a particularly vivid image from his past and he is sent in search of it. He becomes an un-moored somnambulist, stumbling through episodic encounters with random details of the pre-apocalyptic world until he finds the woman he thinks he remembers from that moment in his childhood.  He befriends her, ‘She calls him her ghost’.



Chris Marker, La Jetée, 1963


The 27-minute black and white film is made up almost entirely of still imagery shot with a Pentax 35mm camera.  Despite or actually because of its technical limitations, La Jetée is unique in the history of cinema.  It has inspired artists, writers and filmmakers, although few have dared to copy it.  Like the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, La Jetée has garnered an aura of unapproachability. It is a sacred text for acolytes (like myself) to watch over and over, as if making pilgrimage.

There is a moment about 19 minutes into the film when it briefly but significantly shifts from still to moving imagery.  It happens when the narrator’s voice is silenced and a swelling chorus of chirping birds replaces the thump of an insistent heartbeat on the soundtrack.  A quickly dissolving sequence of a sleeping woman’s face resolves into five seconds of moving imagery. She opens her eyes, she gazes directly into the camera; her eyes flutter softly, once, twice, three times.  It is the moment of redemption for our time traveling protagonist.  She sees him, accepts him.



Chris Marker, La Jetée, 1963


What is uncanny is that although we understand she is looking at the time-traveller, she appears to be looking directly at the viewer, as if she sees us, sitting there in the darkened rooms of the future, under the flickering light of analog projectors or the cold unwavering beam of a digital signal. She becomes our ghost from the past visiting the future that we live in.  La Jetée proves cinema’s remarkable power to stir deep and often unconscious needs in the souls of future viewers through the apparatus of cameras, film and projection.

While watching La Jetée, it is as if we are the time travelers seeking the desired face, and once we see her, we long for her, are lonely and unanchored without her.  When she opens her eyes and gazes upon us benevolently, it is as if the burden of cruel destiny has been lifted and we are redeemed. Marker wants us to hold on to that image of fluttering delicate eyelashes as if our lives depended on it because the next arrives so abruptly as to disabuse us of our reverie. Tugged back from an idealized past to the ruined present, the subtly animated face of the beloved is replaced by the still image of the camp director, his merciless expression hovering over us like a cruel moon.  In this sense the camp director is brother to the film director, he is authoritarian over time and place, even our dreams and fantasies are at the mercy of the man who controls the images.



Chris Marker, La Jetée, 1963


La Jetée is many things, a meditation on time, memory, history and how images work on us personally and collectively.  Although photography and film share fundamental properties (cinema is essentially a series of still images), how we experience each medium is profoundly different. In film the image is relentlessly replaced by the next, through montage we are moved through time and space effortlessly, but we can never remain, can never inhabit the image for long.  A photograph invites meditation, we can move around its world at our leisure, revisit whenever we like.  La Jetée creates an experience between film and photography; it juggles dueling ontologies, allowing meditation while alternately asserting film’s power of displacement.

Not only is La Jetée unique in the history of cinema, it is also singular in Marker’s long and prolific career as writer, filmmaker and photographer. He began as a journalist in the immediate post-war years, becoming interested in film after meeting theorist Andre Bazin, and writing for his film journal Cahiers du Cinema.  In 1953 he collaborated with Alain Resnais on the anti-colonial film Statues Also Die. With intimations of the detached and weary tone that famously narrates La Jetée, the narrator of Statues Also Die questions and denounces colonial relationships with such sweeping statements as “When men die they enter into history, when statues die they enter into art. This botany of death is what we call culture.”  Nestled between images of Europeans negotiating with African tribesmen are dramatically lit close-ups of African sculptures and masks.  “We are the Martians of Africa, we disembark from our planet with our white magic”.



Alan Resnai, Night and Fog, 1955


Two years later Marker assisted Resnais in the rigorously grim Holocaust documentary Night and Fog.  Although only 30 minutes long, Night and Fog remains one of the most affecting indictments of the unspeakable horrors of Nazism.  The film shuttles back and forth between black and white archival footage of the round up of Jews and the inexorable drive toward annihilation and contemporary color footage scanning the empty concentration camps as if looking for ghosts. Night and Fog interrogates the limits of representation through its montage of historical and contemporary imagery coupled with an unflinching narration that implicates humanity’s culpability.  Towards the end of the film these words: “With our sincere gaze we survey these ruins, as if the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the rubble.  We pretend to take up hope again as the image recedes into the past…”

By the late 1950’s a pattern emerges in Marker’s approach; he films and narrates, pictures and questions, the work reveals itself in the play between word and image, creating a dialectic of representation.  Like many European artists and writers of his generation, from Graham Greene to Robert Frank, he becomes an unanchored observer, a free agent traveling to obscure parts of the world to witness major and minor events, employing the tools and techniques of documentarians in service of a subjective reality.   As someone with leftist sympathies, he goes to Cuba, Siberia, China, and North Korea to see if there is hope for socialist models. Sometimes his political skepticism remains intact at while at others he is swept up by a romantic wistfulness, as was the case in North Korea.



Chris Marker, Coréenes, originally published in 1962


It is no exaggeration to state that between 1950 and 1953, during the ‘Korean Conflict’ as it was euphemistically known, Korea was bombed beyond recognition, every major structure was destroyed and at least one million Koreans were killed.  Visiting shortly after the cessation of hostilities that divided the country into North and South, Marker traveled mainly in the communist North.  The resulting book of images and texts, Coréennes is unusual in many respects.  Although a correspondence of photographs and texts, Marker understood his book to be a ‘film in another form’.  Its episodic structure and use of sequential imagery at key emotional points, anticipates the strategies he would soon employ in La Jetée. He deliberately avoids the ruins of war and instead trains his camera on cultural gestures and evocative landscapes.  Images of delicate young women in both traditional and modern dress are the primary focus of his attention. This is not to suggest prurience but to point to Marker’s braiding of politics with an idealized desire.  He parallels the search for utopia with that of a woman he is always looking for, as if an answer might be found in her enigmatic beauty. This particularly French tendency runs throughout his work from this point onward.



Chris Marker, Coréenes, 1962


Although La Jetée brought Marker international acclaim, unlike other French directors of his generation, such as Resnais, Agnes Varda or Jean Luc Godard, he had no ambition for an auteur’s career.   Instead he worked with unions and activist groups to develop media skills and pursued the ‘film essay’, a genre that is almost exclusively identified with Marker. Over the ensuing four decades he made well over 60 films and videos exploring politics, popular culture, and the life and work of other artists.  The form and structure was never formulaic but it almost always involved Marker as grand inquisitor of the meaning of images. He considered himself a cobbler of free ranging montages that examined documents, photographs, newsreels, utterances and gestures.  Marker was a tinkerer in the archive but however playful, he took images seriously, understanding them to be the currency of our time.  He seems to suggest that images are necessary because we cannot escape history or conversely that we cannot escape history because there are images.

After La Jetée, Sans Soleil (Sunless) is Marker’s most well known film.  In it he invents the character Sandor Kalman, who travels the world sending film footage and letters to the woman narrating the film.  It too begins with an unforgettable image. A starkly beautiful shot of children walking down the road in Iceland flashes up momentarily before being swallowed up by a black screen.  While we sit in the dark, the narrator speaks, “He said for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images but it never worked.”  Sans Soleil begins with a dilemma that refutes the purpose of cinema – a singular image of ordinary beauty that does not connect to the rest of life.  He travels to Japan, Guinea Bissau, and San Francisco, trying to make sense of a lifetime of witnessing.  He observes small things, makes visual lists, faces in crowds, hands holding on in subway cars, soldiers cleaning their weapons, hundreds of cat statues at a Shinto shrine.  His missives are fragmentary and aphoristic “After circling the globe only banality interests me” and “We do not remember, we rewrite memory as much as history is rewritten” and “I remember the images, they have substituted themselves for my memory.  They are my memory.  I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape.  How has mankind managed to remember?”



Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1983


Our interior life is scripted by the cumulative whispers of ancient intimacies, the ache of old wounds, incessant judgments, unexpected emotional shifts, and a primal need for acknowledgement.  Although unseen by others, this script provides the subtitles for our negotiation with the world around us. This lively and often contradictory interiority not only makes us occasionally inscrutable to others but also makes us strangers to ourselves.  Marker creates films with this paradox in mind. He uses the dialog between documentary footage and human voice not only to describe things in our shared visual world, but more urgently, to chart the ever-shifting modes of subjectivity, its prejudices, epiphanies, obsessions and limitations.



Chris Marker, San Soleil, 1983


In the last years of his life, Marker increasingly turned his attention to photography, photographic books and installations.  In 2006 he mined his own archive of film stills and photographs to organize the book and exhibition Staring Back to produce what curator Bill Horrigan called an ‘elegant reshuffling of the deck’. Marker is a ruthless observer even of his own process, decrying “the megalomaniac melancholy in the browsing of past images.”   As is suggested by the title, the subjects of many of the images stare back at Marker.  Aware of the predatory nature of photography he questions the asymmetry of this photographic act. “We exchanged looks, as one says, but what did they get in exchange?  Me like a fast pickpocket running away with my bounty…”



Chris Marker, Staring Back, published in 2007


The history of photography is full of confrontations between subject and viewer.  Sometimes this is a formalized arrangement as in portraiture, at other times it is sudden and unpredictable. In 2011, a year before he died, Marker exhibited and published Passengers, a series of low-resolution images he took of riders on the Paris Metro, the majority of them women.  After a lifetime of prodigious image making and commentary, Marker is back underground with rudimentary equipment, silently and furtively observing, trying to capture the promise of the other, trying to find an image of a woman.  The photographs are direct but not transparent, in their low resolution we understand the mechanism of representation, that they are not objective documents but translations, with all the implied subjectivity.  Marker’s goal is not a perfectly composed surreptitious image, but instead it was to capture what he called “the everlasting face of solitude”.  Unlike Sontag or Barthes, he does not correlate the photographic act with death or violence, but with loneliness.  For Marker the photograph is both a declaration of, and a defense against, solitude.



Chris Marker, Passengers, published in 2011


This essay originally appeared in Dear Dave, #17, Summer 2014. Again, many thanks to Stephen Frailey.