The great French director Chris Marker passed away on his 91st birthday last Sunday. I was saddened to learn this news upon returning to Chicago from a weekend vacation I had taken to Springfield, Illinois (a Marker-esque voyage in time of my own). Coincidentally, I had been thinking a lot about Marker as of late because I had recently bought and eagerly consumed the contents of what will surely go down as one of the most substantial home video releases of the year, the Criterion Collection’s magnificent La Jetee / Sans Soleil blu-ray package.
I thought about how the first Marker film I ever saw, way back in the 1990s, had been 1963’s Le Joli Mai on a dubiously legal, poor quality VHS tape featuring notoriously difficult-to-read “white on white” subtitles. (Boy, the things a cinephile had to put up with in those days!) As budding young movie freaks and aspiring filmmakers, my best friend Rollo and I were interested in tracking down films by all of the directors associated with the French New Wave. In spite of the substandard image and sound quality of this particular tape, Rollo and I were mesmerized by the movie contained therein; Chris Marker, as an off-screen presence (he was notoriously camera shy), had spent the Spring of 1962 interviewing a diverse cross-section of the French public about the concept of “happiness.” (Incredibly, it was the first Spring of peace in France since 1939.) The resulting film’s epic running time – two hours and 45 minutes – allowed the director to deeply penetrate the hopes and fears of an entire society. I had never seen anything like it. Here was an amazing documentary that was alternately playful, mysterious and probing, a movie as humane as it was intellectually rigorous. From that point on, I made sure to track down as many Marker films as I could. This included not only his celebrated masterpieces like La Jetee and Sans Soleil but brilliant lesser known essay films like The Last Bolshevik (a tribute to the Russian director Alexander Medvedkin), One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsinovich (ditto for Andrei Tarkovsky) and even digital shorts like Pictures at an Exhibition (a movie so obscure that it’s not even listed on the Internet Movie Database).
I thought about a conversation I once had with Chicago’s terrific film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky back when he was working at Bucktown’s Odd Obsession video store. Somehow, Ignatiy and I got onto the subject of favorite filmmakers and he told me that he considered Marker one of the five greatest of all time. I absolutely balked at this assertion, honing in on Marker as the obvious weak link in Ignatiy’s personal top five, especially since there were no American directors among the other four. (I remember thinking at the time, “One day this kid will learn . . .”) But after watching La Jetee and Sans Soleil again on blu-ray, I think that, even if I still don’t agree with Ignatiy (and who knows, he may have changed his own mind since then), I no longer think that’s a controversial opinion. La Jetee is, after all, arguably the greatest science-fiction movie ever made, a “photo roman” in which form (a short film consisting entirely of a series of still images – with one crucial exception) is perfectly married to content (a time travel story that serves as a philosophical inquiry into the themes of time and memory). While watching Sans Soleil again, I had to admit that it too might well be the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen: a brilliant travelogue of Marker’s journeys to various countries around the world over a span of many years, poetically held together by the voice-over narration of an Englishwoman describing how the images constitute a diary made by her friend, a fictional filmmaker named “Sandor Krasna.” Among the astonishing sights and sounds: an African street parade featuring elaborate animal costumes, visits to a Japanese cat shrine and “monkey porn” museum (yes, you read that right), the electronic sounds of video games as a hypnotic, non-diegetic score, a witty side-trip to the San Francisco locations of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and many amazingly beautiful documentary images that have been treated with a video synthesizer and that give an idea of what might have happened had Tarkovsky taken up animation. Why not include Marker in one’s top five?
Other interesting facts about Marker:
– He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve and took “Marker” as his pseudonym after the Magic Marker pen.
– He was a member of the underground resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of France.
– He studied philosophy under Jean-Paul Sartre.
– He sent his own personal documentary footage of Chile to director Patricio Guzman so that the latter could finish his landmark The Battle of Chile.
– He was an enthusiastic “inhabitant” of the virtual reality game Second Life, and granted one of his very few known interviews in 2008 under the condition that the interview occur on Second Life, complete with pseudonyms and avatars.
– He was a devoted cat lover (like all sensible people!) who responded to requests for photographs by sending pictures of his cat Guillaume-en-Egypt instead. In Agnes Varda’s film The Beaches of Agnes, Marker appears as an animated orange cat.
Chris Marker was one of the most important directors of the movement known as the French New Wave, which is one of the most important of all historical film movements. Now would be an appropriate time to visit or revisit the singular genius of his work. The cinema won’t see his like again.
Me looking through a fake camera at the real home of Abraham Lincoln on the day Chris Marker died. I feel Marker would have approved of this image.
Chris Marker’s death also marks the first time a director on my list of the “fifty best living film directors” has passed away. Rather than keep the list frozen in time the way it first appeared on February 21, 2011, I’ve decided to continually update it so that deceased filmmakers will be removed and replaced by other formidable living directors. (Abel Ferrara has now taken Marker’s place on the list.) Those who were once on the list but have since passed away will be moved to a special section at the bottom of the list. You can see the newly updated list here: