Chris Marker: Remembrance of Revolutions Past
By Howard Hampton
Chris Marker’s anatomies of melancholy
Defining qualities of the peripheral visionary: obliquity, modesty, thoughtfulness, humor, critical engagement, a retrospective appreciation of experience. His peripatetic, zigzag mind travels on (what else?) cat feet, sidling through crowds of refugee-like images. Melting-plot specters come from everywhere—Moscow, Tokyo, Paris, Havana, Okinawa, Cape Verde, Vertigo’s San Francisco, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, cyberspace, Ouija boards. (I keep forgetting: Is La Jetée the archaic prequel to 12 Monkeys or the science-fiction sequel to Laura?) These shadow couriers carry nomadic geographies with them, imprinted like tattoos: “the map becomes the territory,” inscribing the precise latitudes and longitudes of unspoken lives, hidden contradictions, telltale traces. A calm, measured voice makes itself heard above the white noise of wars, political savagery, imploded revolutions. It draws us in with the confidential clandestine tone of a tiny ad slipped into the Pravda personals: lucid alertness seeks like-minded companionship, with eye toward escaping global nightmare of kamikaze ideologies, doa utopias, domination by consumption.
Throughout a serpentine journey into—and out of—the past, Chris Marker has been the most unclassifiable of directors: a whimsical-mystical-dialectical link between Zen and Marx? A Zone poet stalking the inner life of history? Nature documentarian tracking that most elusive of endangered species—subjectivity? Is Marker the late, semi-lamented 20th century’s most pitiless coroner, or its last partisan? His body of work meets us on its own heretical terms, less a series of discrete motion pictures that so many passionately sketched-out chapters. Call each a “Convolute,” using Walter Benjamin’s nomenclature and the oed’s definition: “Rolled longitudinally upon itself, as a leaf in the bud.” One by one, piece by piece, adding up to a single, lifelong quest memorializing the dreamlife of an epoch that vanished before his eyes. Marker’s conversational, ever-evolving cinematic hybrids (newsreel/fiction, La Jetée’s stills-on-film, the gradual embrace of video’s casual plasticity) always seem to be moving in several directions at once, full-circling back to the same eternal preoccupation—our times as they, and we, have seemingly passed into the dustbin of history.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (00), his tender, elemental panegyric to Tarkovsky, supplies a thumbnail sketch of Marker’s own aesthetic: “…Andrei was raising an imaginary house, a unique house where all the rooms open onto one another, and all lead to the same corridor.…” His work could be considered the cinematic equivalent of Benjamin’s sprawling, saturnine notebooks for his unfinished, literally interminable Arcades Project—but transposed to a world where the video arcade and Internet has replaced the 19th century’s cathedral-like proto-shopping-malls and flaneur-haunts. Thus the peculiar feeling of stately yet frazzled simultaneity in La Jetée (62), Sans soleil (82), and Level Five (97), that dual forward/backward-looking quality, the anticipatory and the retrospective scrambled together in an overlapping, boundary-blurring way that feels so like what reality has become. As much painstaking editor as auteur (as if the world were a library of outtakes and lost negatives waiting to be found and restored to life), he has narrators deliver these digressive, intuitive-leaping collages of quotations and ruminations as if they were letters read aloud to absent or deceased friends (Tarkovsky, Alexander Medvedkin, you or me). Missives composed of so many types of footage that they are then sent gently pinballing back into the world, in a language that’s as public as a political demonstration, reclusive as a secret life, and intimate as a love song.
For instance, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”—except that Marker substitutes History as the source of all doomed ardor. It’s the sultry air-raid siren seducing and abandoning generations of the unwary and unrequited: as Lenin might have said, you can’t make a revolution without breaking a few hearts, not to mention wills. (Stalin expedited the process: a bullet through the head was a quicker way of telegraphing the message.) A Grin Without a Cat (77) may be Marker’s most thorough, systematic exploration of “the tricks that history plays” on us, but The Last Bolshevik (93) traverses a landscape of ashes from a steeper, more closely observed angle. Instead of the downward Sixties arc of intoxicated idealism and clenched-fist solidarity-in-upheaval, it follows the crushed aspirations of a generation of Soviet dreamers, bridegrooms left waiting at the revolution’s alter, or casually sacrificed upon it. Where Le Jetée covers “the vertigo of time,” it also evokes the physical space of history—its gaps and apertures—as well as an entity you can touch, taste, pursue, desire. Yet where there’s desire, loss is sure to follow: the memory of impending death already present within the moment of deepest bliss.
In the case of A Grin Without a Cat and its companions, it isn’t the death of the corporeal body Marker is so much concerned with (though he makes beautiful funeral music for Medvedkin, Tarkovsky, Ché Guevara, and others), but the dead of hope—that chimera of a better, more just, Cheshire-smile of a world in the offering that was to be strangled by bureaucrats, zealots, cultural conformists, media overload, spiritual exhaustion, insensate venality, apathy. His ceaseless recontextualizing and repositioning of images is a way of reading—and writing—between their lines: reediting a clip from Trakovsky’s 1956 student film adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers, Marker turns its pair of overcoated baby-faced assassins into stand-ins for all the secret policemen who would serve as the century’s exterminators. Cut to Andrei Arsenevich himself, making a portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man walk-on in the black-and-white production. He has an incongruously jaunty tune on his lips, which Marker’s narrator identifies, with graveyard irony that transcends itself, as “Lullaby of Birdland”—the kind of freeze-framing moment that occurs so often in Marker, where a perfectly mundane fact/observation/punchline becomes supercharged with crosscurrents of “melancholy and dazzlement,” a droll little aside impregnated with tragic awareness. Here is the unmistakable euphoric-forlorn tinge of Marker’s sensibility, those plucky, tactile Django-Vertov chords of thought, “things that quicken the heart” as well as rend it.
Other notes struck on the same fretboard: “It was a time of bitterness and madness from which some people would never emerge.” “The battle was lost in advance.…The purpose was to fix the aftermath.” “They opened the door and he vanished.” “Capsizing in a world of signs.” “Voyeurizing the voyeurs.” “The Marienbad game.” “Pick your mask.”
Parallels may be drawn with an indelible Marker to Godard’s archly aphoristic Histoire lessons, as well as philosopher-cum-antifilmmaker Guy Debord’s cinematic negations: lines of influence, overlap, coincidental-or-not similarities. But what The Last Bolshevik demonstrates through its poignant saber-wit is what is missing from Godard and Debord—the tricky integration of the aesthetic, the historic, and the personal. Godard knee-jerks the aesthetic above other considerations, while Debord sought to dissolve cinema like clearing away so much rubbishy smoke-and-mirrors (even as he bathed his own legend in a romantic-nihilistic Harry Lime light). Marker’s self-effacement contrasts with the former’s cosmic self-regard (the singular devotion to propagating his aura of significance—“Isn’t that so, Mr. Godard?”) and the latter’s imperious misanthropy (the would-be revolutionary with an Abel Gance-size Napoleonic complex, whose Situationist movement boasted more excommunicated members than ones in good standing). The Last Bolshevik is committed to both allusive density and plain speaking, to the multi-layered, many-faceted, and polyphonic, the superimposed frame within the frame and the abstract picture-in-picture, giving history’s witness enough breathing space to have their say. Marker believes in listening, in looking closely (at faces, montages, concepts), in linking generalizations to the paradoxes of the particular, and in questioning the virginal certainty behind so many assumptions of innocence. (Time and again, he shows the most effective obstacles against last century’s struggles for liberation coming from within, in those authoritarian-totalitarian impulses that hitched their hunger for power to utopian visions). Debord and Godard present unified narcissistic fronts, a more didactic mode of address: the solemn voice of artistic or theoretical authority tossing its elegant pearls before swine.
Marker will end The Last Bolshevik with a mournful, knock-knock non sequitur of a joke: “I know what you would call these men,” it says of the final remnants of Soviet cinema’s long departed heroic era—“Dinosaurs.” A get-out-your-handkerchiefs pause. “But you know what happened to dinosaurs”—only instead of tar pits we get a shot of a smiling little girl cradling an inflatable Godzilla in her arms—“Kids love ‘em.” The absurd, footloose-in-quicksand spirit of Medvedkin’s Happiness returns here, as a strange buoyancy amid the Soviet Union’s collapse: the end of the line for a long-abandoned train, the tricks history plays coming home to roost. There’s no either/or in Marker, no split-level sacred/profane segregation: even in the agonized ecstasies of Tarkovsky, he uncovers a latent amusement, the existential ironies perched above the deader-than-deadpan zone between holiness and nothingness.
Animals have a special, folk-allegoric place in his heart: the real and pantomime horses out of Medvedkin, the lone wolves being hunted by helicopter in the last frames of A Grin Without a Cat. And naturally, those cryptic cats themselves, a favorite Marker motif: the cat temple in Sans soleil, the eerily dignified parade footage of medieval-costumed, papier-mâché-masked cat-people that turns up in Grin (“The cat is never on the side of power”). Emblems of watchfulness, patience, self-possession, they are Marker’s good-luck charms, warding off the herd instincts nurtured by mushrooming cults of personality, rent-a-martyrs, information officers, televised unreality, Internet gamesmanship, and all the other pressing distractions that loom in our waking and dreaming minds like the kitschy, mocking Japanese blowup doll of Much’s The Scream that flashes before us in Level Five.
Of course, I have one sitting in the corner of my living room, too—a Scream someone gave me as a fond token of a shared history, though the Red Army cap she got from a souvenir stand in Tiananmen Square keeps falling off the poor thing’s head. It, too, is a dinosaur of sorts, and, à la the one Marker’s girl grasps like a teddy bear, if you look at it from a certain perspective, you can just about see “the black hole” of history condensed in its silent banshee mouth. (That “O” is also the spyglass-telescope shape he loves to insert in the frame: zeroing in, as it were.) “So this is the summing up,” a Marker narrator would say: a cheap novelty item to show how much meaning can be emptied out of the world in a wave of indifferent mass production. Yet the same inanimate thing may also be filled with personalized meanings, made a beacon for the future, a repository of memory, or a piñata whose illusions are ripe for the bursting. Consciousness is not a theme or a trope in this work—it’s the un-rarefied air his films breathe, even if they sometimes must don gas masks to wade through the stench of decomposing lies.
With Marker, the same motion that weaves layers of evocation also peels them back; homing in on the beauty of images, he also interrogates them endlessly. Add one other ineffable quality to this metaphysical-materialist penumbra: the fact that his films are so little circulated, so hard to track down, always something of a chance encounter. Is Marker then the greatest living film director (even though he doesn’t make “films” exactly, or quite “direct” them in the conventional sense of the term)? I would answer that his work, though uneven by its very exploratory, feeling-its-way-under-the-skin nature, equals the objects of his ardor: Vertigo, Medvedkin’s Happiness, Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. Only not in turn, but all at once, and more as well. There’s a headstrong overabundance of tangents, impressions, sensations, and ideas here that goes around any smooth grain of shrink-wrapped, boxed-in, edifying perfection. This is the signature of cinema’s last dissident, like a rugged Malevich cross found in an ancient Rublev painting, the future already present in the past and vice versa, the bittersweet lullaby of “negative signs of life.”
In other words, the Marker touch.
Howard Hampton resides in that suburb of the Zone known as the Mojave Desert.