Chris Marker, the enigmatic filmmaker, writer, photographer, multimedia artist and philosopher, died this summer in Paris on his 91st birthday. A member of the French Resistance during World War Two, Marker’s filmmaking career began in the 1950s as part of Paris’s Left Bank Film movement and ended just before his death with strange video experiments on his youTube channel. The six decades in between generated a remarkable body of work that will continue to demand attention far into the future.
Throughout the history of True/False a quotation from Marker has served us as a guidepost: “Rarely has reality needed so much to be imagined”. This wonderfully bewildering sentence invites multiple interpretations and has us still scratching our heads ten years on. But whatever else it may mean, it clearly points towards Marker’s greatest achievement, the discovery of a new type of nonfiction filmmaking. Marker’s films don’t compile facts, they seek out experiential truths, uncovered at the intersection of the world and an individual mind, complete with its passions, its memories and its political commitments. By bringing the essay into the cinema, Chris Marker changed the documentary form fundamentally and permanently.
Immediately following his death, Dennis Lim composed Marker’s obituary for The New York Times. Lim observed, “His sprawling and constantly evolving body of work, which ranged from books to installations to CD-ROMs and included more than 50 films of varying length, was at once fragmentary and cohesive, united by an abiding interest in the nature of time and memory and by a strong physical and intellectual wanderlust.” Ronald Bergan covered his passing in The Guardian, noting, “Marker’s creative use of sound, images and text in his poetic, political and philosophical documentaries made him one of the most inventive of film-makers. They looked forward to what is called ‘the new documentary’, but also looked back to the literary essay in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne.”
Perhaps the best overview of Marker’s filmography is this essay written by Catherine Lupton for The Criterion Collection, in which Lupton argues that “The subjective documentary viewpoint, which Marker did so much to pioneer, is now the norm rather than the outrageous exception”. In addition, the blog chrismarker.org hosts a wealth of writings both about and by Marker. This includes this essay by Marker on the repetition of the words “freedom and power” in his favorite film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It concludes with the characteristic provocation “Obviously, this text is addressed to those who know Vertigo by heart. But do those who don’t deserve anything at all?”
Of the 52 films Marker directed, two have been universally recognized as masterpieces. The first is La Jetée (1962), a 27 minute science fiction film created entirely, with one brief but important exception, out of still black and white photographs. It’s story, perhaps familiar through Terry Gilliam’s 1995 remake 12 Monkeys, is about a post apocalyptic time traveler, drawn into the past by a powerful childhood memory of a woman’s face.
One remarkable thing about the film, given the restrained nature the visuals, is how effectively the story is told through its rich soundtrack. Film critic Michael Koresky examined this soundscape in a video essay for the Criterion Collection titled “Echo Chamber: Listening to La Jetée“.
Marker’s second masterpiece is Sans Soleil (1985). In it a woman reads us the letters of a fictional camera man, clearly representing Marker, who travels the globe in an uninhibited search for “things that quicken the heart”. Perhaps the greatest of all essay films, Sans Soleil ties together musings on video games, shrines to cats, censored pornography, revolutionary politics, Vertigo, stray dogs and countless other things, creating a captivating philosophical reflection on the nature of time and memory.
The Louise Blouin Foundation of London is currently presenting a survey exhibition of Marker’s video and photographic work. The video introduction below displays some of the Marker’s photography of North Korea, and a series juxtaposing images of female passengers on a Paris subway with traditional artistic representations of beauty.
More of Marker’s photography can be explored online at the Peter Blum Gallery.
Finally, in honor of his passing, Criterion is sharing a short film by Marker, created during the filming of the Vertigo segment of Sans Soleil. Junkopia (1981) is a wordless observation of discarded objects, which Marker somehow imbues with a hypnotic power.
Hopefully these resources will encourage you to begin your exploration of Chris Marker’s substantial oeuvre. As his guiding obsession is with time and memory, it seems fitting to revisit his works again and again. They always seem to have new secrets to share with us.