Dedicated to Travel
Imagine being world famous and revered for a body of work yet passing away with fans knowing absolutely nothing about you, let alone your name. Such is the case of pioneer filmmaker, Chris Marker, whose life of sublime travel and profound documentary filmmaking ended this July at the age of 91.
Born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, the artist otherwise known as Chris Marker was said to have changed his name not to create some artistic mask, but because it was simply more pronounceable in most languages. That’s how dedicated he was to travel.
Marker was both anonymous and playfully evasive, and at least as cryptic as any of the mysteries enshrined in his great films.
Banned for Ten Years
Born in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia, or depending on whom you believe, the Parisian suburb Neully-sur-Seine, Marker was a devout cultural expeditionary whose strong physical and intellectual wanderlust led him to make films in every hot-spot of the mid and late 20th century, including the Soviet Union, China, the newly formed Israel, and Cuba after the revolution. His films exposed worlds that most people could only read about, and in a most intensely personal fashion.
His first, “Olympia 52”, documented the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, and from there here went on to create more provocative works, including “Statues Also Die”, which was supposedly about African art but was really a sly critique of French colonialism and thus banned by French censors for more than 10 years.
Time is Always Time
Using his curious, intimate voiceover narration, Marker had little interest in the facile pretty pictures or romantic landscapes that dominate travel documentaries even to this day. He was interested in something far more opaque and harder to pin down: ethnology, and the effects that fragmented human memory has on politics and history.
What he understood, and grafted into all his mesmerizing films, is that one’s experience – particularly abroad – is governed not by any absolutes but rather by the vagaries of time and the unique stamp of place.
“Time is always time … and place is always and only place” is how Marker would preface perhaps his greatest work, “Sans Soleil” (Sunless), a documentary drawing unlikely parallels between Japan, Guinea Bissau and San Francisco. Hypnotic, playful and meditative, this alternately cheeky and profound essay-film takes the form of a travelogue written by a fictitious cameraman, Sandor Krasna, read aloud by an unnamed female narrator. The net effect is mesmerizing.
In one striking sequence, contrasting African time to European time to Asian time, Marker tells of a suburban Tokyo temple consecrated to cats. Here, in Asia, they pray for a lost household cat so that on the day her life ends, sometime in the future, Death can call her by her right name. That’s as forward looking as one could get. In Africa, on Fogo in the Cape Verde Islands, he shows people waiting forever for a ferry to arrive, “patiently as pebbles” yet ready to jump at moment’s notice. That’s living in nothing but the moment.
In another sequence, utilizing his bracing, free-associative style, Marker explores the ephemeral nature of “history” – bound by people’s ever-fragmented perceptions of time and place. The “narrator” (again, the fictitious Sandor Krasna) describes how photographs of his dogs substitute for the memory of his dogs, and wonders how people who do not photograph can remember anything.
He tells of Sei Shonogan, lady in waiting to Princess Sadako of the 11th century, whose need to remember gave her a passion for lists: lists of elegant things. Lists of distressing things. And most poignantly, lists of things that quicken the heart. Not a bad criterion when it comes to picking destinations.
Leaving No Footprints
A perennial globe-trotter, and never one to give interviews, Marker pioneered the cinema verite (“true cinema”) essay film. Humble to the end, he called his work merely a cinema of his truth, yet when you see them, a sense of the universal is inescapable. It is hard to imagine the ethnographic triumphs of films like “Baraka” or the just-released “Samsara” without Marker’s towering authoritative influence.
Unlike the distant, impersonal and “omniscient” travel documentaries in vogue during his career, Marker refused to dispense “fact” about the exotic, far off places he traveled to in his films. Rather, he would run quirky, exotic footage, and allow his narration to range far and wide, trying to create a mood and an impression – equivalent to the joy of discovering a new place, or after a long journey, returning to a familiar country, house, or home.
Aside from his vast body of work, for a man as well traveled as he, Marker left no heirs and barely any footprints.
“I write to you from a far-off country,” he would often begin with a foreign correspondent’s drive, and the strangeness of science fiction. In fact, Marker is most famous for his one piece of science fiction, “La Jetée,” a short film comprised almost entirely of black and white stills, which went on to inspire the Brad Pitt/Bruce Willis starrer, “12 Monkeys”, by famed director Terry Gilliam.
Focused on travel like all his other work, this seminal short would explore time travel, and not surprisingly told the story of a protagonist who had a strong visual imagination, and a good memory, yet tragically, was unable to escape time.
Like us all, and now, like Marker.
In his passing, Marker can be said to be taking the ultimate journey from which no traveler returns, and of which documentaries cannot be filmed. No need. What he leaves for us to devour is a feast of destination … and rumination.
Bon voyage, Chris.