an owl is an owl and a grin without a cat

Chris Marker passed away sometime before the outbreak of World War III on his 91st birthday yesterday in Paris. He was a poet and a cat. Or a French filmmaker, traveller, ethnographer, multimedia artist and photographer. I’m not sure if it makes justice to call him a French anything, as his works defied the boundaries of French cinema and he identified with the interests of more than one nation. He gave up his given name and surname Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve for Chris Marker, after the Magic Marker pen. Marker might have been born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia or in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Île-de-France. He travelled as a journalist and photographer, and worked at Éditions du Seuil as the editor of the series Petite Planète in the 50s before starting his film career. Chris Marker might have faked his own decease and travelled back to the future.

the Magic Marker pens

His short essay La Jetée (1962) is set in an apocalyptic post-WWIII future. The photo roman has a single sequence Marker shot with a movie camera he borrowed one afternoon. It’s hard to stop thinking about the crux of the plot and how it might have occurred to him: in the beginning and the closing are images of a child, a man running to a woman on the jetty at Orly Airport, his falling to the ground, an older man with a gun who looks out of place and out of time. Then there are the unforgettable images of the woman, the light falling on her face in diverse places, in the bedroom sequence, in the Jardin des plantes, at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, at the jetty. It is painful to watch the experiment. Dark and beautiful. We are always told we are going to die from early on, but the child witnessing his own death before his time is ingenious.

La Jetée

Always standing on the left-bank, Chris Marker explored memory, time, space, and ‘life in the process of becoming history.’ Despite having seen it countless times, it is not possible to do justice to his masterpiece Sans Soleil (1983) here and now. Marker’s curiosity was only tempered by personal whim. In Sans Soleil, he explored various ways of human existence, loneliness, concurrent cultural alienation and fascination, his favourite themes of time, space, memory. Then there were his favourite creatures, the cat and the owl. His vision was the embodiment of humanism in the twenty-first century: equally curious about three children on a road in Iceland, the noro who entered into a dialogue with the gods, and the Japanese engineer who committed suicide when he could no longer bear to hear the word ‘spring’. His curiosity lacked post-modernism, cultural relativism and permissiveness, for he did not shy away from expressing judgments. If he made documentaries, he was not a Frenchman with a camera recording the impoverished peoples or the injustices of the world. He was not much interested in Western Civilization or the World According to Western Civilization. He was not guilty on the counts of romanticism and naiveté.

From Sans Soleil

Sans Soleil is all about well-kept secrets: ‘the Japanese secret—what Lévi-Strauss had called the poignancy of things—implied the faculty of communion with things, of entering into them, of being them for a moment. It was normal that in their turn they should be like us: perishable and immortal.’ Of men and women: ‘All women have a built-in grain of indestructibility. And men’s task has always been to make them realize it as late as possible. African men are just as good at this task as others. But after a close look at African women I wouldn’t necessarily bet on the men.’ Of love: ‘If to love without illusions is still to love, I can say that I loved it.’ Of Pac-Man and power: ‘Perhaps because he is the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate. He puts into true perspective the balance of power between the individual and the environment. And he tells us soberly that though there may be honor in carrying out the greatest number of victorious attacks, it always comes a cropper.’ Of youth and the sixties generation: ‘It was a generation that often exasperated me, for I didn’t share its utopia of uniting in a common struggle those who revolt against poverty and those who revolt against wealth. But it screamed out that gut reaction that better adjusted voices no longer knew how, or no longer dared to utter… But it carried with it all those who said, like Ché Guevara, that they “trembled with indignation every time an injustice is committed in the world.” They wanted to give a political meaning to their generosity, and their generosity has outlasted their politics. That’s why I will never allow it to be said that youth is wasted on the young. The youth who get together every weekend at Shinjuku obviously know that they are not on a launching pad toward real life; but they are life, to be eaten on the spot like fresh doughnuts. It’s a very simple secret. The old try to hide it, and not all the young know it.’ Of revolution and independence: ‘Rumor has it that every third world leader coined the same phrase the morning after independence: “Now the real problems start.” Cabral never got a chance to say it: he was assassinated first. But the problems started, and went on, and are still going on. Rather unexciting problems for revolutionary romanticism: to work, to produce, to distribute, to overcome postwar exhaustion, temptations of power and privilege.’ Of wounds: ‘…copying a few lines from Samura Koichi: “Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound… disembodied.”’

From Chats Perchés

Chats Perchés (2004) is about the street art M. Chat in the streets of Paris, the protests against the invasion of Iraq, and the presidential elections in 2002. In Chats Perchés, Marker expressed hope that maybe the generation x was not so apolitical after all. Like many social, political hopes he entertained, an illusion. He loved hopes even when the illusions wore out.

Chris Marker was among the early visionaries of the digital age, in 1996 he released Immemory, a twenty-something-hour-long CD-ROM of stills, film clips, music, text and fragments of sound. Immemory could be viewed in different ways by different viewers on Apple operating systems 7.5 through 9. It had the following zones: Poetry, Cinema, Photography, Travel.

M. Chat

I can quote here David Thomson: ‘He wrote a novel; he was involved in the French Resistance; in the late 1950’s and early 60’s he made very personal documentaries about Siberia (”Letter From Siberia”), Israel (”Description of a Struggle”), China (”Sunday in Peking”) and Cuba (”Cuba Si”). He was a friend to the filmmakers of the French New Wave, but not quite a part of their group — he was older, more solitary and in pursuit of the ”essay” film. Susan Sontag has called him an exponent of ”reflective or non-narrative film.” Yet none of those descriptions quite suffices.’

Chris Marker came from the future. His origin in the times to come naturally drew him to explore the past, memory, and history. His non-celebratory approach to French quotidian life and himself made Marker a refreshing model for peers, friends and viewers of his films. On the petite planète, he is survived by his cat, Guillaume-En-Egypte. That is, unless the enigmatic director preferred to be with his cat for eternity, in age-old Egyptian style.

Chris Marker commissioned Guillaume-En-Egypte avatar in 2009

“Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you.”