A list of the best films you'll never see, L through Z
Marker Direct: an interview with Chris Marker
A rare interview with one of cinema's most secretive filmmakers by Samuel Douhaire and Annick Rivoire
Originally published in Libération, March 5, 2003. With thanks to Antoine de Baecque.
"What interests me is history, and politics only interests me to the degree that it is the mark history makes on the present." The French release of Sans soleil and La Jetée on DVD is an event, as is every furtive apparition in the news by Chris Marker, one of the great cineastes of our time as well as one of the most private.
Marker, 81, has always preferred to allow his filmed images, rather than his image as a filmmaker, to speak for him. Less than a dozen photographs of Marker exist, and his interviews are even more rare. The director agreed to an interview with Libération via an email do-it-yourself kit: four topics, with ten questions each. He did not respond to every question, but these 12 pages, at times "frankly Dostoevskian," more than satisfied us.
Cinema, photo-novels, CD-roms, video installations—is there any medium you haven't tried?
Why have you agreed to the release of some of your films on DVD, and how did you make the choice?
Twenty years separate La Jetée from Sans soleil. And another 20 years separate Sans soleil from the present. Under the circumstances, if I were to speak in the name of the person who made these movies it would no longer be an interview but a séance. In fact, I don't think I either chose or accepted: somebody talked about it, and it got done. That there was a certain relationship between these two films was something I was aware of but didn't think I needed to explain—until I found a small anonymous note published in a program in Tokyo that said, "Soon the voyage will be at an end. It's only then that we will know if the juxtaposition of images makes any sense. We will understand that we have prayed with film, as one must on a pilgrimage, each time we have been in the presence of death: in the cat cemetery, standing in front of the dead giraffe, with the kamikazes at the moment of take-off, in front of the guerillas killed in the war for independence. In La Jetée, the foolhardy experiment to look into the future ends in death. By treating the same subject 20 years later, Marker has overcome death by prayer." When you read that, written by someone you don't know, who knows nothing of how the films came to be, you feel a certain emotion. "Something" has happened.
When Immemory, your CD-rom, was released in 1999, you said that you had found the ideal medium. What do you think of DVD?
With the CD-rom, it's not so much the technology that's important as the architecture, the tree-like branching, the play. We'll make DVD-roms. The DVD technology is obviously superb, but it isn't always cinema. Godard nailed it once and for all: at the cinema, you raise your eyes to the screen; in front of the television, you lower them. Then there is the role of the shutter. Out of the two hours you spend in a movie theater, you spend one of them in the dark. It's this nocturnal portion that stays with us, that fixes our memory of a film in a different way than the same film seen on television or on a monitor. But having said that, let's be honest. I've just watched the ballet from An American in Paris on the screen of my iBook, and I very nearly rediscovered the lightness that we felt in London in 1952, when I was there with [Alain] Resnais and [Ghislain] Cloquet during the filming of Statues Also Die, when we started every day by seeing the 10 a.m. show of An American in Paris at a theater in Leicester Square. I thought I'd lost that lightness forever when I saw it on cassette.
Does the democratization of the means of filmmaking (DV, digital editing, distribution via the Internet) seduce the socially engaged filmmaker that you are?
Here's a good opportunity to get rid of a label that's been stuck on me. For many people, "engaged" means "political," and politics, the art of compromise (which is as it should be—if there is no compromise there is only brute force, of which we're seeing an example right now) bores me deeply. What interests me is history, and politics interests me only to the degree that it represents the mark history makes on the present. With an obsessive curiosity (if I identify with any of Kipling's characters, it's the Elephant Boy of the Just-So Stories, because of his "insatiable curiosity") I keep asking: How do people manage to live in such a world? And that's where my mania comes from, to see "how things are going" in this place or that. For a long time, those who were best placed to see "how it's going" didn't have access to the tools to give form to their perceptions—and perception without form is tiring. And now, suddenly, these tools exist. It's true that for people like me it's a dream come true. I wrote about it, in a small text in the booklet of the DVD.
A necessary caution: the "democratization of tools" entails many financial and technical constraints, and does not save us from the necessity of work. Owning a DV camera does not magically confer talent on someone who doesn't have any or who is too lazy to ask himself if he has any. You can miniaturize as much as you want, but a film will always require a great deal of work—and a reason to do it. That was the whole story of the Medvedkin groups, the young workers who, in the post-'68 era, tried to make short films about their own lives, and whom we tried to help on the technical level, with the means of the time. How they complained! "We come home from work and you ask us to work some more. . . ." But they stuck with it, and you have to believe that something happened there, because 30 years later we saw them present their films at the Belfort festival, in front of an attentive audience. The means of the time was 16mm silent, which meant three-minute camera rolls, a laboratory, an editing table, some way of adding sound—everything that you have now right inside a little case that fits in your hand. A little lesson in modesty for the spoiled children of today, just like the spoiled children of 1970 got their lesson in modesty by putting themselves under the patronage of Alexander Ivanovitch Medvedkin and his ciné-train. For the benefit of the younger generation, Medvedkin was a Russian filmmaker who, in 1936 and with the means that were proper to his time (35mm film, editing table, and film lab installed in the train), essentially invented television: shoot during the day, print and edit at night, show it the next day to the people you filmed (and who often participated in the editing). I think that it's this fabled and long forgotten bit of history (Medvedkin isn't even mentioned in Georges Sadoul's book, considered in its day the Soviet Cinema bible) that underlies a large part of my work—in the end, perhaps, the only coherent part. To try to give the power of speech to people who don't have it, and, when it's possible, to help them find their own means of expression. The workers I filmed in 1967 in Rhodesia, just like the Kosovars I filmed in 2000, had never been heard on television: everyone was speaking on their behalf, but once you no longer saw them on the road, bloody and sobbing, people lost interest in them. To my great surprise, I once found myself explaining the editing of Battleship Potemkin to a group of aspiring filmmakers in Guinea-Bissau, using an old print on rusty reels; now those filmmakers are having their films selected for competition in Venice (keep an eye out for the next musical by Flora Gomes). I found the Medvedkin syndrome again in a Bosnian refugee camp in 1993—a bunch of kids who had learned all the techniques of television, with newsreaders and captions, by pirating satellite TV and using equipment supplied by an NGO (nongovernmental organization). But they didn't copy the dominant language—they just used the codes in order to establish credibility and reclaim the news for other refugees. An exemplary experience. They had the tools and they had the necessity. Both are indispensable.
Do you prefer television, movies on a big screen, or surfing the Internet?
I have a completely schizophrenic relationship with television. When I'm feeling lonely, I adore it, particularly since there's been cable. It's curious how cable offers an entire catalog of antidotes to the poisons of standard TV. If one network shows a ridiculous TV movie about Napoleon, you can flip over to the History Channel to hear Henri Guillermin's brilliantly mean commentary on it. If a literary program makes us submit to a parade of currently fashionable female monsters, we can change over to Mezzo to contemplate the luminous face of Hélène Grimaud surrounded by her wolves, and it's as if the others never existed. Now there are moments when I remember I am not alone, and that's when I fall apart. The exponential growth of stupidity and vulgarity is something that everyone has noticed, but it's not just a vague sense of disgust—it's a concrete quantifiable fact (you can measure it by the volume of the cheers that greet the talk-show hosts, which have grown by an alarming number of decibels in the last five years) and a crime against humanity. Not to mention the permanent aggressions against the French language...And since you are exploiting my Russian penchant for confession, I must say the worst: I am allergic to commercials. In the early Sixties, making commercials was perfectly acceptable; now, it's something that no one will own up to. I can do nothing about it. This manner of placing the mechanism of the lie in the service of praise has always irritated me, even if I have to admit that this diabolical patron has occasionally given us some of the most beautiful images you can see on the small screen (have you seen the David Lynch commercial with the blue lips?). But cynics always betray themselves, and there is a small consolation in the industry's own terminology: they stop short of calling themselves "creators," so they call themselves "creatives."
And the movies in all this? For the reasons mentioned above, and under the orders of Jean-Luc, I've said for a long time that films should be seen first in theaters, and that television and video are only there to refresh your memory. Now that I no longer have any time at all to go to the cinema, I've started seeing films by lowering my eyes, with an ever increasing sense of sinfulness (this interview is indeed becoming Dostoevskian). But to tell the truth I no longer watch many films, only those by friends, or curiosities that an American acquaintance tapes for me on TCM. There is too much to see on the news, on the music channels or on the indispensable Animal Channel. And I feed my hunger for fiction with what is by far the most accomplished source: those great American TV series, like The Practice. There is a knowledge in them, a sense of story and economy, of ellipsis, a science of framing and of cutting, a dramaturgy and an acting style that has no equal anywhere, and certainly not in Hollywood.
La Jetée inspired a video by David Bowie and a film by Terry Gilliam. And there's also a bar called "La Jetée," in Japan. How do you feel about this cult? Does Terry Gilliam's imagination intersect with yours?
Terry's imagination is rich enough that there's no need to play with comparisons. Certainly, for me 12 Monkeys is a magnificent film (there are people who think they are flattering me by saying otherwise, that La Jetée is much better—the world is a strange place). It's just one of the happy signs, like Bowie's video, like the bar in Shinjuku (Hello, Tomoyo! To know that for almost 40 years, a group of Japanese are getting slightly drunk beneath my images every night—that's worth more to me than any number of Oscars!), that have accompanied the strange destiny of this particular film. It was made like a piece of automatic writing. I was filming Le Joli mai, completely immersed in the reality of Paris 1962, and the euphoric discovery of "direct cinema" (you will never make me say "cinema verité") and on the crew's day off, I photographed a story I didn't completely understand. It was in the editing that the pieces of the puzzle came together, and it wasn't me who designed the puzzle. I'd have a hard time taking credit for it. It just happened, that's all.
You are a witness of history. Are you still interested in world affairs? What makes you jump to your feet, react, shout?
Right now there are some very obvious reasons to jump, and we know them all so well that I have very little desire to talk more about them. What remains are the small, personal resentments. For me, 2002 will be the year of a failure that will never pass. It begins with a flashback, as in The Barefoot Contessa. Among our circle in the Forties, the one we all considered to be a future great writer was François Vernet. He had already published three books, and the fourth was to be a collection of short stories that he had written during the Occupation, with a vigor and an insolence that obviously left him little hope with the censors. The book wasn't published until 1945. Meanwhile, François had died in Dachau. I don't mean to label him as a martyr—that's not my style. Even if this death puts a kind of symbolic seal on a destiny that was already quite singular, the texts themselves are of such a rare quality that there is no need for reasons other than literary in order to love them and introduce them to others. François Maspero wasn't wrong when he said in an article that they "transverse time with only an extreme lightness of being as ballast." Because last year a courageous publisher, Michel Reynaud (Tirésias), fell in love with the book and took the risk of reprinting it. I did everything I could to mobilize people I knew, not in order to make it the event of the season but simply to get it talked about. But no, there were too many books during that season. Except for Maspero, there wasn't a word in the press. And so—failure.
Was that reaction too personal? By chance, it was paired with a similar event, to which no line of friendship attached me. The same year, Capriccio Records released a new recording by Viktor Ullman. Under his name alone, this time. Previously, he and Gideon Klein had been recorded as "Theresienstadt composers" (for younger readers: Theresienstadt was the model concentration camp designed to be visited by the Red Cross; the Nazis made a film about it called The Führer Gives a City to the Jews.) With the best intentions in the world, [calling them] that was a way of putting them both back in the camp. If Messiaen had died after he composed the "Quartet for the End of Time," would he be the "prison camp composer"?
This record is astounding: it contains lieder based on texts by Holerlin and Rilke, and one is struck by the vertiginous thought that, at that particular time, no one was glorifying the true German culture more than this Jewish musician who was soon to die at Auschwitz. This time, there wasn't total silence—just a few flattering lines on the arts pages. Wasn't it worth a bit more? What makes me mad isn't that what we call "media coverage" is generally reserved for people I personally find rather mediocre—that's a matter of opinion and I wish them no ill. It's that the noise, in the electronic sense, just gets louder and louder and ends up drowning out everything, until it becomes a monopoly just like the way supermarkets force out the corner stores. That the unknown writer and the brilliant musician have the right to the same consideration as the corner store keeper may be too much to ask. And as long as you've handed me the microphone, I would add one more name to my list of the little injustices of the year: no one has said enough of the most beautiful book I have read for a long time, short stories again—La Fiancée d'Odessa, by [filmmaker] Edgardo Cozarinsky.
Have your travels made you suspicious of dogmatism?
I think I was already suspicious when I was born. I must have traveled a lot before then!
Originally published in Libération, March 5, 2003. With thanks to Antoine de Baecque.