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Tag Archives: Sans Soleil

Chris Marker R.I.P. (1921 – 2012)

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:

50 Best Living Directors

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Top 25 Films of the 1980s

25. The Cyclist (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1987)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s incredible film centers on Nasim, an Afghan immigrant living in Tehran who is virtually forced to perform a circus sideshow-like endurance test in order to pay for his wife’s medical bills: he agrees to the scheme of a shady promoter to attempt to ride a bicycle continuously for a week. As Nasim rides in circles in the same town square night and day, a crowd of spectators mounts (including politicians, gamblers and the media), all of whom attempt to manipulate the poor man’s plight for their own benefit. This powerful allegory is not unlike Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar in that a holy fool character serves as a blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted.

24. The Shining (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1980)

23. Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? (Bae, S. Korea, 1989)

22. The Asthenic Syndrome (Muratova, Russia, 1989)

asthenic

21. The Green Ray (Rohmer, France, 1986)

20. Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1988)

19. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, UK, 1988)

18. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)

17. The Road Warrior (Miller, Austraila, 1981)

George Miller’s 1981 action-movie masterpiece is the best and most influential of the post-apocalyptic Eighties trend. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it all on a relatively meager budget of $2,000,000 — with old-fashioned (i.e., “real”) stunts and exceedingly clever production design in which an assortment of 20th century detritus is reconfigured in surprising ways (e.g., punk rock fashions and S&M gear happily co-exist with pieces of athletic uniforms). The film is set in the future, when gasoline is an even more precious resource than it is today, and concerns a former cop (Mel Gibson, reprising his role from the non-post-apocalyptic Mad Max) helping a gasoline-rich colony fend off attacks by a gang of marauding bandits. The climactic action set-piece, a long chase involving many different types of vehicles barreling through the barren Australian outback, takes up most of the second-half and ranks as one of the most exhilarating such scenes ever captured on celluloid.

16. Blue Velvet (Lynch, USA, 1986)

15. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, USA, 1984)

14. Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982)

13. Hail Mary (Godard, France, 1985)

hail

12. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)

11. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)

10. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)

9. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)

8. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)

7. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)

Perhaps my favorite African movie ever is Yeelen, a hypnotic, deliberately paced art film that has all of the deceptive simplicity, power and beauty of a primeval myth. Niankoro is a boy living in rural West Africa who must undergo various rites of passage in order to become a man, which culminates in challenging his evil sorcerer father in a duel to the death. Western critics are fond of invoking Oedipus Rex when reviewing writer/director Souleymane Cissé’s masterpiece but all of this film’s potent and elaborate symbolism is apparently based on local folklore and not influenced by outside sources.

6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980)

5. Come and See (Klimov, Russia, 1985)

4. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)

3. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)

2. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)

My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.

1. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)

Robert Bresson’s swan song, as tight and compressed as a Ramones song, is a masterful update of Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note. Bresson’s ingenious narrative follows a counterfeit bill, initially passed off in a shop as a schoolboy prank, which sets off a chain of events (an “avalanche of evil” in the director’s own indelible words) that ends with a young man murdering an entire family with an axe. This vital, rigorous movie, made when the director was 82 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the destructive power of money.


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