Saturday, June 30, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Chris Marker

This is the fifth in my 2018 series Audient Auteurs, in which I'm considering two films per month by acclaimed directors -- or "auteurs" -- whose movies I have never seen before.

It's a busy June in Audient Auteurs, as I am both correcting something I tried to do in February and cheating at the same time.

In February I placed a library reservation for a single DVD that would net me both of my monthly viewings, as you can get Chris Marker's feature length Sans Soleil and his short film La Jetee on the same single disc. It seemed a good pairing for the shortest month on the calendar. But the library told me they couldn't find the movie despite it being listed as in stock at one particular location, and ultimately I had to cancel my reservation to remove the distracting apology in red typeface from my account.

Then, on a random trip to a different branch of the library last week, before I had started watching either of the movies for the auteur I'd initially selected for June (the patiently waiting Agnes Varda), I found the disc in question. Or possibly another version of it. It's hard to say. So Agnes will get bumped to July.

The reason it's a bit of a cheat, though, is that La Jetee is not a feature film. In fact, I have not even entered it into any of my film lists, since I use those lists for only features (and a few shorts that were grandfathered in before I made that rule, like Un Chien Andalou). But the movie is such an important text among cinephiles, especially those who cherish Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (which is a feature- length reimagining of La Jetee), that I made the exception. It's a film I'd been meaning to see probably since 12 Monkeys came out, which was 23 years ago now, and I wouldn't even know who Marker was or consider him a candidate for this series without it.

And his candidacy is certainly supported by the other ways he conforms to our idea of what an auteur is. As the two films I watched are not alike each other stylistically, I have a hard time saying if his auteurism is borne out through his style. But they share a distinct mentality that seems to permeate his work, if I'm understanding him correctly. Marker's films consider the past with a skeptical eye, a sense of fatalism and a preference for montage. They take the literal truth, tease it and prod it and produce a metaphorical truth, as demonstrated in one of his famous quotations: "Rarely has reality needed so much to be imagined."

Chris Marker is not his real name, which explains to me my long-time confusion over the fact that his name does not sound French. He was born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, and I can certainly understand why that name called out for a pseudonym. He claims to have chosen this specific pseudonym because it would be pronounceable in most languages and he wanted to travel the world. Which he did.

Marker is also classified as a writer, photographer and multimedia artist, and his films, even when they are documentaries, are thought of as essays more than anything else. He's associated with the Left Bank Cinema movement of the late 1950s, and it's easy to see how his films are in conversation with others from that movement, particularly Alain Resnais. (Varda is also considered part of that movement, so I guess we'll be continuing in this vein in July.)

As might be consistent with what we know about him already, Marker was very secretive about his past, refusing to confirm his place of birth despite a number of far-flung rumors supported by some facts, and even his date of birth was not known with certainty (though he appears to have confirmed it as July 22nd, which was also the date in 2012 when he died). He served in the resistance in German-occupied France in World War II, and became a paratrooper in the U.S. Air Force during the war as well, for reasons he probably would also not divulge if he were alive and you asked him. His extensive travels after the war as a journalist and photographer certainly give us context for the second film I'm going to discuss.

La Jetee (1962)

What you probably know is that La Jetee is a 26-minute short film that provided the inspiration, and more or less the narrative structure, for 12 Monkeys. What you might not know, although you probably do, is that it's composed entirely of still photographs. (Well, not entirely -- there's one single insert of a woman blinking her eyes somewhere around the middle.)

The fascination over this stylistic approach should have led me to La Jetee years ago, even if my love for 12 Monkeys didn't. Maybe I just never knew where to get it. The library the other day is the first time I recall being face to face with a physical copy of the movie, and though I could probably find it on the internet, I was never specifically compelled to, since the time of its greatest and most urgent novelty to me was before the internet existed.

I figured I'd be taken with the approach, but only when I started watching did I realize why, or the other movie it reminded me of. As part of my silent movie monthly series two years ago, No Audio Audient, I watched Erich von Stroheim's Greed. Some of the footage of Greed has been lost over the years, but the version I watched, which absolutely blew me away, supplemented the lost footage with still photographs of it that had survived. I don't know why, but the use of still photography felt more profound to me than the moving image might have been, almost like it was an intentional artistic choice. The fact that the camera would pan across the still photo, allowing us to take in parts of the scene individually, gave me a sense of being ensconced in the scene, and also kind of "eavesdropping on history."

I was immediately greeted with that same sensation watching La Jetee, especially in its opening five minutes, which set the scene at the airport -- the same location that bookends the action in 12 Monkeys. Where I was not quite as satisfied as I hoped to be with La Jetee was the part between the book ends. I'm not sure if it was false expectations of what that content would be based on 12 Monkeys, or just a failure to become fully invested on their own terms, but the biometric experiments that cause the narrator to time travel to spend time with a woman he didn't know, in happier times, felt like they could have been more, I don't know, sci fi? We're talking a difference of 33 years between La Jetee and 12 Monkeys, and a very different sensibility between him and Terry Gilliam, but I couldn't help wishing Marker had included some more Gilliamesque elements in these scenes, which are mostly straightforward pictures of a man and woman walking in parks and viewing animals in a museum. Which is patently ridiculous, as Marker is the creator of the content and Gilliam just the interpreter. I guess it goes back to my theory that you often like the first version of a song you hear the best, whether it's the original, the cover, or the dance remix.

I do imagine it was quite profound seeing this movie at the time, as even without any Gilliamesque elements it's pretty mind-blowing in terms of the post-apocalyptic world it presents, and the time travel conundrums that are featured within that world. So I think it's a stunning achievement, but I'll never be able to consider it or watch it outside the context of 12 Monkeys.

Sans Soleil (1983)

We jump forward two decades for Marker's next film, which is equally oblique in its style but in entirely different ways. Movement is key in this film, but narrative is not. In fact, for most of the time I was watching Sans Soleil I could not make heads nor tails of it. Ultimately, I realized that was the point.

It's clear Sans Soleil is an essay in the truest sense of that word, and right out of the gate it reminded me of something like Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, which was actually released only a year before. But I guess I still expected the essay to have more of a narrative backbone than this does. The purported backbone, if Marker were being held down by a studio asking him to justify the budget for his film, would be a study of the culture of Japan and an attempt to view it through a lens of the country's history, pre- and post-atomic era. But it's really hard to get anything quite that concrete from the film. From the almost constant flow of mostly obscure narration, which are fictional letters written from the fictional cinematographer who was supposed to be shooting the movie in question, it's clear that Marker is trying to tease out and toy with ideas of our perception of time, truth and history. Which allows him to do pretty much anything he wants.

And so the film also contains interludes set in Cape Verde, Paris, Iceland and San Francisco, the latter almost entirely in service to a five-minute tangent on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. There is also, quite disturbingly and quite famously (it appears on one of the posters for this movie I did not choose), a scene of a giraffe being shot by hunters. You see it take on the first few bullets and start staggering around, and then when it is finally grounded but not yet dead, you see a hunter shoot it in the head at point blank range. Yep, that's what this movie is about.

There are also some other fascinating bits that play like montages out of horror movies, such as the image above of the close-up of an eye (I mentioned Un Chien Andalou earlier in this piece, didn't I?) and these terrifying images of Japanese people involved in what looks like acts of voyeurism, one after another until the effect becomes almost unbearable. However, many sections of the film almost feel mundane, showing Japanese women walking the streets of Tokyo in kimonos.

As I said, I didn't know what to make of this, and for a while I was turned off by it. Gradually, I got in step with it and decided that instead of being self-indulgent and disdainful of cinematic conventions, it was profound and immediate. I don't think it's a movie I'm going to come back to regularly, or possibly even at all, but like the films of countryman and compatriot Resnais, it produces a sensation in the viewer that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Just because we can't understand why Marker chose to film what he chose, why he constructed it in the sequence he constructed it, or what most of it means, it does not mean it doesn't have a disquieting and discomfiting effect on the viewer that defies description. The "ecstatic truth" that Werner Herzog seeks in his projects is something that comes through in spades in Sans Soleil.

Okay! Agnes Varda finally gets her turn in July, and pretty soon, as my iTunes rental of Faces Places (which is the second movie I will watch) expires in about 15 days. We'll see if I get some of that Marker sensibility in Varda's work.

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