Remembering the Genius of Chris Marker

Steven J. Chandler


Marcel Proust stated the evocative powers of the madeleine like no other writer or pâtissier before him. In his novel In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s protagonist bites into a madeleine dipped in tea and is transported to an experience of his childhood.  The sensation of that taste was a coordinate in the geography of his memory. Mapped out, these coordinates throughout the span of a lifetime reveal a distinct memory-scape. Decades later, Alfred Hitchcock too had his madeleine. Played by Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Madeleine Elster was the living memory through which the protagonist of the film, Scottie, delved into his spiraling past.


Referencing Proust’s seminal work and Hitchcock’s heroine, Chris Marker wrote in the introduction to his 1997 multimedia CD-Rom Immemory, “I claim for the image the humility and powers of a madeleine.” In that CD-Rom and in many of his other creative endeavors, Marker continued the process of memory’s cartography. He embraced a multitude of genres as mapmaking tools, the span of his work communicating the dependence of the image to its memory. He cobbled together the realities of disparate cultures, mending the breaches in time through preservation of minutia and banality. In his 1983 work Sans Soleil (sunless), the narrator states, “He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories.”


Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, he assumed the moniker Chris Marker, a name he chose because it would be easier to pronounce for those he would encounter in his travels. He has been described as filmmaker, essayist, writer, poet, photographer, multimedia artist and a lover of cats. It’s important to note the latter. Regardless of medium, Marker approached his work with a feline curiosity and playfulness. When asked for press photographs, he often responded by offering images of his cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte. It was an example of his mischievous side. But it also pointed to his desire for anonymity.



This inclination was further evidenced in his 2011 photographic exhibition Passengers, displayed at the Peter Blum gallery in Manhattan. Many of the images are of women whom Marker secretly photographed while riding the Paris Metro. He juxtaposed their digital images with their counterparts in classical art. For example, one of the more striking photographs depicts an African woman in the depths of a commuter’s slumber, her pose and fragility measured against that of the Mona Lisa superimposed next to her. Marker writes in the volume of photographs from the exhibition, “My aim is exactly…the opposite of tabloids. I try to give them their best moment, often imperceptible in the stream of time, sometimes 1/50 of a second that makes them truer to their inner selves." He approached his subjects with the furtiveness of the voyeur, his camera disappearing into the sightline and rescuing from collective amnesia those moments in time that, if not recorded, are simply forgotten.


An integral figure in the French New Wave movement—which included directors such as Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais—Marker diverged from the purely fictional (save for his story of post-apocalyptic Paris made almost completely of still photographs, La Jetée) to develop and embrace a distinct documentary style. In reviewing Marker’s 1958 nonfiction film Letter from Siberia, critic Andre Bazin termed his work an “essay documented by film.” Of all his tools, the cinematic essay was his compass, a guiding force for Marker’s most decisive works.


Marker’s Sans Soleil was the paradigm of the cinematic essay. The force behind the camera in the film is hidden, a lens disembodied who we learn in the closing credits is named Sandor Krasna, another Marker pseudonym. What we see is his stream-of-vision, a collage of images from Japan, the former Portuguese West Africa, Iceland, Ile-de-France and San Francisco. Throughout the film, an unnamed female narrator reads letters which Krasna has sent to her.


Marker’s images endure not because they are timeless, but rather they are imbued with time, teeming with both past and present history. He catches a woman from the Cape Verde Islands staring directly into the camera, her smile singularly her own, but her facial features and place in this world shaped by centuries of colonialism. We don’t hear her speak, but her momentary gaze into the camera obliges dialectics nonetheless. She is neither an argument for or against colonialism, but simply its product. Referencing the importance of this moment, the narrator states, ”Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?” Sans Soleil does not seek out the critical issues of civilization to further an argument. We see instead the camera serving as an extension of Marker’s memory. We are asked to interpret these images not for their political or social poignancy, but for their capacity to forge memory. If they touch upon the political state of a place or time, they do so because the image cannot escape their political context.


Time stretches the limits of experience. When stretched too far the experience crosses into the realm of memory. Marker continually traverses these sectors of memory and experience throughout Sans Soleil. The narrator states, “I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.” The film begins with three blonde children on a road in the small town of Heimaey in Iceland in 1965. At the end of the film, that same town is shown five years later following an eruption of the island’s volcano. Only the rooftops are seen under the sea of ashes. And those children? We almost forget that this dark, sunless place was where those three children held hands and stared at the camera in wonderment. The eruption of that volcano was an act of forgetting, as though “the entire year ’65 had just been covered in ashes.” What is left of those children? A memory.


The narrator states, “Memory is not the opposite of forgetting, but its lining.” The path then to memory is ahead of us. Marker suggests that our experience reveals only the substance of things. The essence, like the image of those three Icelandic children, is found only in the absence of the image. In nature, this is the obliteration of time. For humans, it’s the act of forgetting.


Author Bio:
Steven J. Chandler is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Gary Ing, Festival de Cine Africano Cordoba (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Garry Ing, Flickr (Creative Commons)
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