la jetee chris marker

La Jetée

Who is Chris Marker? Better to ask “How many Chris Markers have there been?” Ever since the name Chris.Marker (that dot patiently waiting for its com) first appeared in the late Forties, the man born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve has developed into what Howard Hampton describes in the following pages as “the most unclassifiable of directors.” Moving back and forth between book and film, word and image, past and present, here and there, Marker is an ever-evolving hybrid. That identity-concealing dot was left off some time ago as Marker became cinema’s consummate diversifier: world traveler, film essayist, writer, photographer, politically engaged internationalist.

Why “unclassifiable”? Partly because of the multifaceted (and, it has to be said, mostly visible) nature of the work itself but also because Marker’s achievement has been to make himself pretty much invisible, too. No mean feat, given the cult of personality that still dominates cinema. But it’s been a lifetime’s work, this Cheshire Cat-like vanishing act, this reverse-engineering of an absence. Modesty, or a kind of inverse narcissism? In truth, they matter little, the motives for his self-removal to the status of a recurring footnote, his multiplication of surrogates and heteronyms (Marker, Krasna, Yameneko, etc.). As a tactical ploy in the wider strategy of keeping moving, evolving, and producing, it’s been the work that has mattered most, and his vanishing act has had the beneficial side effect of making the voice, the personality, reside entirely in the work. The Marker non-persona of “The Man Who Was  (and Wasn’t) There,” the Parisian Oz, would have been just a great gag had the films not been quite so unforgettable and behind which, the suspicion grew, there may have been some kind of real wizardry at work.

There have been times when Marker’s renown has been little more than a cinephile’s whisper; a rumored sighting of a faces said to exist in only a couple of photographic images. But steadily, the whispers have grown in volume, and ciné-kids find themselves discoursing enthusiastically with movie elders about that black pearl at the heart of cinema’s crown jewels, La Jetée. Or about the “spirals of time” that have encircled them, one generation after the next, in Sans soleil. It seems to me, and evidently to all the other writers in this two-part dossier, that the whispers have now reached such a pitch that the question “Who is Chris Marker?” may well be worth posing anew.

So, what do we know about Marker? That he was born in Paris—or Ulan Bator—in 1921. That he was a published writer in his mid-twenties, producing a novel, a critical essay on the playwright Jean Giraudoux, and a number of collaborative “montage texts” incorporating words and images, as well as regular contributions to the publications Esprit and Cahiers du cinema. That he was a socially engaged leftist whose travels would take him to China, the ussr, Korea, Cuba, Isreal, Japan, and many points in between. That he was a collaborator with other filmmakers, notably Alain Resnais, before he began making his own films and that, in the 50-plus years since his first feature, Olympia 52 (52), his output has included films of varying lengths for the cinema, documentaries for tv, collective films, written commentaries for other filmmakers, and multimedia and video work.

It’s tempting to reduce the great diversity of Marker’s output to a checklist of flat thematics: time and memory, word and image, struggle and liberty, etc. Better to let this dossier’s contributors guide you through the Marker labyrinth and to proceed b indirection, taking the detours offered through their chosen approaches. In some cases these take the form of explorations of specific films (Le Joli mai; Marker’s most recent work, Remembrance of Things to Come; his films of the late Fifties and early Sixties). Elsewhere the approach is thematic (Howard Hampton’s overview of the Marker “memory zone” and Catherine Lupton on his ever-changing relationship with Japan in Part II).

To paraphrase the man himself commenting on Japan: “If you want to get to know Marker you can as well invent him.”