Above, Level Five, Marker’s meditation on computer life
Chris Marker, who just died at 91 in Paris, played with reality in his documentaries, but he could not be accused of fabulism or plagiarism. He didn’t pretend to be accurate or fair. Even his name was fake — Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve changed his name in the ’60s, inspired by, he said, Magic Markers (his name is pronounced accordingly like the English marker.)
His famous La jetée, or The Jetty, a 1962 psychic thriller about time travel made up mainly of black-and-white photographs, inspired 12 Monkeys, but it wasn’t typical science-fiction. It was, in its innovative form, about the other kind of time travel, the kind we do in our heads, and about the media we use to build and jog those memories (watch the movie below). For Marker, this kind of time travelling was also a doomed, melancholic enterprise, and a beautiful one. In the future, according to La Jetee, our cities would look like Dresden or Hiroshima.
For the epigraph to the English version of “Sans Soleil,” a freeform travelogue from Africa to Japan, Marker used this quote by T. S. Eliot, from Ash Wednesday (1930):
“Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place”.
Marker was inspired by the literary essays of de Montaigne, but also by the surrealism of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. He made the essay film a thing, a form somewhere between documentary and personal reflection, that has since been picked up by people like Jean-Marie Straub, Jean-Luc Godard, Errol Morris and Michael Moore.
Sans Soleil, 1983
AK, 1985, about the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa on the set of Ran.
“X-Plugs”, a series of computer generated art, from Immemory, 1998.
But Marker didn’t rest on his laurels, or stop innovating. He rarely gave interviews, but agreed to what became his last, in 2008, provided it happened on Second Life. He went by the name Sergei Murasaki, and said things like, “The difficulty of these times is that before bringing in new ideas, we’d have to destroy all the simulacra that the century and its favorite instrument, television, have generated to replace everything that has disappeared. This is why I’m passionate about the new information grid, the Internet, blogs, etc. Inevitably, there’s some slag, but a new culture will be born of it.”
Indeed, his most futuristic work wasn’t made for the theater but for Mac OS. Amidst his oeuvre of 70+ films, there’s a late ‘90s CD-ROM called ’’Immemory.’’ Made up of stills, film clips, music, text and fragments of sound, and divided into zones — Poetry, Cinema, Photography, Travel – “Immemory” is kind of like a trip through his own memory and a meditation on how we all remember. For the liner notes, he wrote an introduction, some of which is translated below, courtesy of ChrisMarker.org:
In our moments of megalomaniacal daydreaming, we tend to view our memory as a kind of History Book: we have won and lost battles, found and lost whole empires. At the very least we are characters from a classic novel (‘My life is such a novel!’). A more modest and perhaps more fruitful approach would be to consider the fragments of memory in terms of geography. In every life, we would find continents, islands, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae. From this memory we can draw the map, extract images with more ease (and truth) than do stories and legends. That the subject of this memory is found to be a photographer or a filmmaker does not imply that his memory is more interesting than that of any passing gentleman (or moreover, than that of the lady), but simply that he has left traces with which one can work, and contours to help draw up the map.
My working thesis was that every somewhat extensive memory is more structured than it seems — that photos taken apparently at random, postcards chosen following momentary whims, begin given a certain accumulation to sketch an itinerary, to map the imaginary land that stretches out inside of us.
‘The art of memory’ is a very ancient discipline, fallen (that takes the cake!) into oblivion as the divorce between physiology and psychology came to pass. Certain antique authors had a more functional vision of the twists and turns of the mind, and it is Filippo Gesualdo, in his Plutosofia (1592) who proposes an image of memory in terms of ‘branching’ that is perfectly “softwary”, [softwarian?] if I dare use this adjective.
You can still get the CD-ROM on Amazon, but you may need a real time machine to play it: it only works on Macintosh computers with operating systems 7.5 through 9. The director would have liked that.
La jetée, 1962