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Chris Marker Obituary
Anthony Nield , August 1st, 2012 03:54

Anthony Nield pays tribute to the French cinema pioneer Chris Marker, who died on Monday at the age of 91

Earlier this week, on the fifth anniversary of the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, news came through that cinema had lost another of its greats. Chris Marker passed away on July 30, just after his 91st birthday, leaving behind a remarkable body of work. He was a filmmaker, a photographer, a novelist, critic, poet and essayist, a multimedia artist, an inhabitant of online alternate reality Second Life and a cat lover. He would work in whichever medium and to whichever length suited his means: print, celluloid, videotape, even the CD-ROM; pages or paragraphs, hours or minutes.

Fittingly enough, Marker's reputation rests heavily on two works which, at first glance, appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. La Jetée, made in 1962, is a work of science fiction and a mere half-hour in length. Famous, in part, for providing the inspiration behind Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995), it tells its black and white tale almost solely through the use of still images. Conversely, 1983's Sans Soleil (Sunless) is a hive of activity: an intensely personal - though modestly fictionalised - account of a globe-trotting cameraman's journeys through Japan and Guinea-Bissau (as well as Iceland, Paris and San Francisco) told through twin narrators, footage old and new, and video effects. It was, much like La Jetée, quite unlike anything else and yet the pair have much in common. Both are deeply felt meditations on memory, its functions and its failings, and both felt the need to invent their own distinctive brand of cinema in order to do so. The fact that Marker did so twice is a remarkable achievement, and yet these pillars represent just two innovations of the artist.

Marker's first venture behind a camera was captured exactly sixty years ago at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Olympia 52, a feature-length documentary, was a mostly functional affair though it did show flashes of inspiration. The steeplechase, for example, is repositioned as a contest between American and Soviet detectives; they are not racing, but investigating the course and its obstacles. This kind of invention had been commonplace in Marker's writings. He regularly played with the form when filing essays and reports for the literary magazine Esprit during the late '40s. Film criticism would be delivered in the manner of a newsreel or political commentary in the guise of a parable - for Marker it was all of a piece, there to be approached however he say fit. During this period he also completed his first novel, edited anthologies and occasionally contributed to Cahiers du Cinéma.

Parallel to Olympia 52 Marker had also been working on Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) with Alain Resnais. Production had begun in 1950, though completion would be three years away whereupon the French government swiftly banned it. The film's anti-colonial sentiments were to blame and, consequently, it remained unseen in full in the its home country until 1968. However, this was a key work in a number of ways. Marker's invite to Resnais to join the production as editor and co-director speaks a great deal of the warmth and grace he extended to his friends and fellow filmmakers. When Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk made Les Astronautes (1959) in France without a work permit, Marker agreed to a co-editor credit to ensure its completion. Many years later he would regularly send film stock to Patricio Guzmán so that he could continue making his epic trio of documentaries, The Battle Of Chile (1975-79).

The ban on Les Statues meurent aussi, though hardly surprising perhaps given Marker's well-established credentials as a left-wing intellectual, would also prove significant. It triggered a whole series of politically-motivated 'travelogues', some captured on celluloid, others in print, occasionally both. He journeyed to China, Siberia, the US, Israel, Korea and Cuba, establishing his distinctive approach in the process (Letter From Siberia, made in 1958, is the key work in this respect) and, at times, falling foul of censorious governments once again. The anti-American sentiments of ¡Cuba Si! (1961), which contained interviews with Fidel Castro and signed off with the US' unsuccessful invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs, were a particularly strong target. The essay films reached a culmination with Le Joli Mai in 1963, a two-and-a-half-hour documentary that gauged the political issues of the time, particularly the Algerian war of independence, by interviewing everyday folk on the streets of Paris. Remarkably, he was making La Jetée at the exact same time.

Just as these works were raising his profile - Le Joli Mai won a prize at the Venice Film Festival - Marker 'retreated' into a more communal form of filmmaking. He supervised the production of the 1967 anti-war anthology Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam), bringing together the likes of Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens and Agnès Varda. This was followed by the setting up of the collectives SLON and ISKRA, who would produce newsreels on political struggles around the world and encourage workers at home and abroad to create their own campaigns and documents. Films were made in France, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, the US and Czechoslovakia, including The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon (1968), an up-close account of anti-war protests in Washington DC less than a fortnight after the death of Che Guevara. This period in Marker's career concluded with 1977's Le Fond de l'air est rouge (aka A Grin Without A Cat), a massive two-part summation of the New Left's rise and fall over the past decade for which he returned to the solo directorial credit. Indeed, the work was to become personal once more.

During the years with the collectives Marker had also put his efforts into restoring a 1935 Soviet silent by the name of Happiness (Schastye). A deft mix of comedy, political satire and parable, it clearly appealed to his mindset - as did the picture's director, Aleksandr Medvedkin. At the same time Marker made a documentary on the man, 1971's Le Train en marche (The Train Rolls On), and would return to him in 1993 for The Last Bolshevik. These were part of a number of idiosyncratic filmmaker-focused efforts, most notably his behind-the-scenes look at the making of Akira Kurosawa's Ran, simply titled A.K. (1985), the portrait of Andrei Tarkovsky that was One Day In The Life Of Andrei Arsenevich (1999) and, arguably, the Chris Marker self-portrait that is Sans Soleil. None of these were documentaries in the conventional sense but rather, much like the early 'travelogues', deeply personal reactions. Anyone expecting information to be gleaned in the manner we're now used to thanks to too many DVD featurettes will come away sorely disappointed. Those looking for an intimate glimpse of the filmmaker at work are much more likely to find satisfaction.

A.K. was captured with a camcorder, a signal - much like Sans Soleil's video effects - that Marker was getting increasingly engrossed in the possibilities of technology. The VHS informed Le 20 heures dans les camps (aka Prime Time In The Camps), his 1993 documentary on a Bosnian refugee camp and how videotape is used to keep its inhabitants up to date with the news. Meanwhile 1997's Level Five, as its title suggests, felt the influence of videogames. His CD-ROM Immemory, first released in English the following year, went even further and allowed viewers to navigate its contents in a number of ways; there were more than 20 hours of material to absorb. Not content with keeping up with the times, Marker also managed to predict the future: his three-minute short from 1988, Cat Listening To Music, was just that, except it also seems eerily like so many moggy-related YouTube clips of today.

There has always been a feeling that Marker was somehow ageless, such was his ability to stay with and document the times. Famously shy, he rarely granted interviews or allowed photos of himself to circulate - he was represented instead by a drawing of his cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte, whether it be in the virtual world of Second Life or in a documentary by his good friend Agnès Varda. It appeared that the feline had Dorian Gray qualities; we were never able to see the man get old. And so, I suspect, for many Chris Marker will continue to live on through his avatar: the ever-curious cat who provided us all with sixty years of remarkable cinema.