Time and Memory
This is a very cursory, introductory paper on Chris Marker’s La Jetee and Sans Soleil. It is something I hope I will be working on for a long time to come. In it, I detail things I do not understand completely. Each year, I find new paths into Marker’s movies. This year, from my philosophy class, it has been Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s ideas on the mirror stage and the gaze recurring motifs in both La Jetee and Sans Soleil. I will write a later post relating my attempts at studying Lacan and Marker side by side.
Chris Marker: An introduction
Nora Alter’s book on Chris Marker begins with a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Cat Who Walks by Himself”: “But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him” (Alter 1). This well-chosen quote very aptly and accurately describes the independent filmmaker known as Chris Marker. At once a part and separate from the hugely influential nouvelle vague or French New Wave of the late 50s and early 60s, Marker distinguished himself in the field of the filmed essay. While most New Wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais and Claude Chabrol went to enjoy fame and success at home in France and abroad, Marker never really strayed into the spotlight. Just like the cat among the wild animals, he walked by himself, mostly in shadow, rarely giving interviews and almost never making public appearances. While directors like Godard and Truffaut embraced the spotlight, Marker chose to remain hidden. When asked for a photograph by journalists, he usually sent a picture of a cat. Marker himself used the moniker ‘The Cat Who Walks by Himself’ as email subject header for a time (Alter 3).
Chris Marker was born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921 somewhere in a suburb of Paris (Alter 3). There is little information as to what he did before and during the Second World War; rumours abound with some claiming he was a paratrooper while others claim he was a translator for the Allied forces. No one knows where he picked up the name Marker either, internet rumours claim he chose it off of the Magic Marker during the Second World War while more scholarly rumours claim it has to do with his wanting to leave a ‘mark’ on the world (Alter 3).
Marker started out with film commentary, journalism and radio, eventually moving on to film. From 1950 onwards, Marker became more and more obsessed with film (Alter 11), collaborating with Alain Resnais on a few short films. His first feature-length film was the controversial Olympia 52 about 1952’s Olympic Games. The film was censored for a few years following due to its depiction of Olympic athletes who gradually fade into obscurity and poverty after the Games and when they can’t perform anymore. Marker worked closely with Resnais on several shorts and collaborated on Resnais’ famed Night and Fog. But Marker’s first critical success came with Letter from Siberia (1958), a documentary about Siberia. The critic Andre Bazin called it “an essay documented by film” (Alter 17) and with it was born Marker’s most prolific genre of film: the filmed essay.
Hans Richter, the German avant-garde director, first came up with the idea of a film essay in 1940. He distinguished the documentary from the essay in that a documentary presents facts and figures while the essay presents complex thoughts that didn’t necessarily have to be grounded in reality (Richter, quoted in Alter 17). While the documentary was an objective narration in an omniscient voice-of-god, the essay is “haunted and constrained by the presence of the individual objectivity of the ‘essayist’” (Alter 18). Marker’s work in this genre has given him a mastery that eventually culminated in Sunless, for many the ultimate essay film, which I will discuss at length later on.
Marker’s work has never been constrained by one specific genre though. Despite his specialization in the essay, Marker often moves away from it, choosing to make documentaries, photo-romans like La Jetee, and even books and pictorials. He has constantly experimented and embraced new technology, from the 35mm film to the CD-ROM. His films often deal with the advent of new technology and the impact they have on culture. Despite the vast array of output, there is almost always a common thread: Jean Paul Sartre’s pronouncement that man is ultimately responsible not just for himself but for all other men (Alter 4). Marker’s films, books, essays and photographs always yearn for a deeper understanding of the human existence, a quest for something akin to a global alliance. Hence, it is no surprise that he chose the name Marker, a nondenominational surname that doesn’t give away his nationality. Marker is a citizen of the world, his films encompass regions such as Siberia, Guinea-Bissau, Japan, Antarctica, France and Cuba to name just a few. The issues that his films deal with are universal ones, more than an authoritative discourse, his is a tentative exploration, of teasing out the truth from wherever it may lie.
 Throughout the paper, I use French New Wave and nouvelle vague interchangeably.
Marker and the Movement
When Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959) first burst onto the screen in 1959, it opened the floodgates to a tsunami of fresh new directors. Arguably hailed as the first New Wave film, The 400 Blows established a new direction in filmmaking. Followed closely by Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A bout de soufflé, 1960), the French film industry went through an intense phase of revitalisation. Led primarily by critics-turned-filmmakers Truffaut, Godard and Claude Chabrol, the French New Wave in the early and mid 1960s saw a wave of new features from first time directors. Bolstered by the critical and box office success of The 400 Blows and Breathless, producers became more likely to invest in first time directors. Although it is difficult to say just how many directors can be considered part of the New Wave, the film journal Cahiers du cinema declared 162 directors to be part of the New Wave in their 1962 special issue (Neupert xix).
Richard Neupert in A History of the French New Wave Cinema criticises Cahiers du cinema for its listing of 162 directors but focusing mainly on the work of three: Chabrol, Godard and Truffaut (all of whom had been previously affiliated with the journal). His criticism is based on the fact that the journal presented the New Wave as a collection of people rather than a chronology of the cinema itself (Neupert xix). To fully understand the New Wave and why it is considered to be as influential, we must consider the state of French cinema in the mid 1950s.
After the World War, French cinema began to stagnate. The French film industry was losing its direction, “bogged down as it was in generic historical reconstructions and uninspired literary adaptations” (Neupert xvii). Influential directors like Jean Vigo, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson and Jean Rouch were getting harder and harder to find. A rising number of cinephiles and critics started to bemoan the lack of direction, experimentation and excitement in films. Critics like Truffaut, Chabrol and director Louis Malle decided to take things into their own hands, finding novel new ways to fund their own projects. They used their own money or found independent producers outside of the major studios. Their shot about what they knew best: “contemporary France of contemporary middle-class youths.” Influenced by the Italian neo-realists, these directors used first-time or little-known actors, shot fast and inexpensively on location and did most of the direction, writing and editing themselves, calling for a smaller production crew. They used cheap portable cameras, “sacrificing the control and glamour of mainstream productions for a lively, modern look and sound that owed more to documentary and television shooting methods than to mainstream, commercial cinema” (Neupert xvii).
The French New Wave wasn’t merely an innovation in shooting practices and the rise of independent cinema but also, a more mature direction in thematic content and shooting styles. Due to the various social, cultural and economic changes that were taking place in the 50s in France, the arts were most affected. The rise of structural anthropology with Claude Levi-Strauss and mainly cultural critic Roland Barthes changed the way people looked at art (Neupert 22). Even theatre saw a new direction, with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and The Theatre of the Absurd (Neupert 24). Out of such advancements in the arts and literature came the French New Wave.
Chris Marker’s association with the New Wave is a strange one. Although he has frequently collaborated with some of the leading directors of the New Wave, his work has rarely gone through the precise scrutiny that other directors have received. This could be in part due to his elusive nature and the subjects and form of his work. While most New Wave directors chose to tell fictional tales, Marker has almost always dealt with nonfiction, excluding his one most famous foray into science-fiction La Jetee. Along with his most frequent collaborators Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, he has been categorically placed in the Left Bank, rather than the New Wave.
In Sarah Cooper’s book on Chris Marker, she credits Richard Roud with placing Marker in the ‘Left Bank’ a group distinct from the Cahiers du cinema group (Cooper 4). Called the Left Bank for their location of the left side of the Seine as opposed to the right side populated by the nouvelle vague, these directors mostly worked with nonfiction, documentaries, essays and short films. Resnais, although initially placed in the nouvelle vague, migrated towards the Left Bank. Resnais influence is apparent in Marker’s work while Varda and Marker have worked together constantly over time.
Marker’s work shares much with the New Wave, with its shunning of the lavish and pompous sets and costumes of the early 50s and 60s. He also shares the idealism that drove the New Wave, the belief that the personal vision of the director would always transcend the odious commercialism that so permeated the work of mainstream directors. But Marker also diverges from the New Wave in other ways. While most New Wave filmmakers chose to make highly personal and individualistic films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Godard’s Breathless and My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie, 1962), Marker, and to some extent Resnais, chose to make films more concerned with global and social issues that impacted the collective. Marker’s early films like Cuba, Si! (1961) and The Merry Month of May (Le Joli Mai, 1962) emphasize collectivism. He also rejected the director-as-genius auteur theory that Francois Truffaut so promoted. Although his films do carry a certain signature, he in no way promotes them as such. This attitude is also reflected in his reclusiveness, his refusal to grant interviews and how he sends pictures of cats and owls if asked for a self-portrait. Even in Sunless, although he wrote, directed, edited, and did sound for the entire feature, he only credits himself with concept and editing. Marker’s concept of the film seems to be that it needs to stand alone, apart from the filmmaker, and what is seen and read depends solely on the viewer.
La Jetee (1962)
The only fictional work in Marker’s oeuvre so far, La Jetee¸ is a complex exploration of human memory and its links to our conception of time through the vehicle of time travel. Marker utilises a documentary-style even in this fictional tale of the relationship between time and memory.
La Jetee, Marker’s most famous work, is composed almost entirely of still images edited on 35mm film. A monotone narration drives the film forward, describing each scene as it is presented. This short is a tale of one young boy who witnesses a strange event on the platform (jetee) at Orly airport. He sees the face of a woman, reacting to an incident which he doesn’t quite comprehend yet. Later, he discovers that what he saw a man die. Shortly after, World War III begins and Paris is devastated by nuclear war. The survivors hole up below the streets of Paris where the strange experiments begin to be conducted by the victors of the war. The world lies devastated and their “only hope for survival lay in Time.” The man whose story is being told, the protagonist, is chosen to be sent back in time, chosen for the strong mental image he holds in mind: that of the woman’s face. He is sent back and he meets his woman, even cultivates a relationship with her. And afterwards, he is sent to the future, where he obtains a means of survival for the present. His future saviours though, offer him a place among themselves, but our protagonist refuses, instead asking to be sent back in time, to his unforgettable woman. He appears at the airport in Orly again, sees her and begins running. Only then does he see the experimenter who has been shadowing him through time, and only then, does he realise that the death he saw, years earlier as a child, was his own.
The kind of discussions that Le Jetee provokes are always varied: from Marker’s use of 35mm still photographs and the one moving image amid the sea of stills, to analyses of what it means to hold on to an image for so long and how that image can become memory itself. “Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on do they claim remembrance when they show their scars,” says the narrator. The one image that sticks in the protagonist’s mind is like a scar, a wound that constantly resurfaces to haunt him. The psychological trauma of that moment is not apparent to the protagonist until the very end, when he realises he has witnessed his own death. This invisible scar is what drives the narrative, and the protagonist, forward. It is what enables him to transcend time without going insane and ultimately, it is also his undoing.
The film also constructs a parallel between the act of filming/photography and memory (Alter 94). Memories are stored like images. The camera becomes the mind for the cameraman where the images stored become his/her memory. This is an idea Marker returns to explore in greater detail 20 years later in Sans Soleil but here, he lays the groundwork for the investigation of that parallel.
As the protagonist is experimented on, he starts to recall certain images as they “begin to ooze, like confessions”: “A peacetime morning. A peacetime bedroom, a real bedroom. Real children. Real birds. Real cats. Real graves.” It is important for the narrator to stress that they are all ‘real’ as opposed to what might seem ‘unreal’ because they are images and memories. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida describes the nature of images: “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see” (Barthes 6). In Marker’s presentation of the images of a bedroom, children, birds, cats and graves, he is recalling their referents, but inevitably he is pointing out what they are not. The image is always and only an image, as Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte cleverly illustrates in his paintings, most famously one of a pipe with the caption: Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe.) Barthes and Magritte both seem to be pointing towards the image’s limitation, that the most it can do is represent, but never recreate. In La Jetee, the time shift changes the images from mere representation to actual objects, hence, the narrator’s stress on ‘real.’
Memory and images function in much the same way. They are both representations of actual events and actual things. Images turn into memory and vice versa. And there is one space that they both occupy where they are equally represented: the human mind. “Other images appear, merge, in that museum, which is perhaps that of his memory” says the narrator. The memory as a museum is an idea that Marker delves into in great detail in his interactive CD-ROM Immemory (Alter 95), the seeds for which are sown here. The protagonist’s mind is his museum and it is his fascination with one image in his memory, like a certain exhibit that you admire, that leads him to the past. Just like a museum preserves objects from the past, the memory preserves images from the past. The museum and the memory, much like the image, is a revivifying of the past, as Barthes puts it wonderfully: “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead” (Barthes 9). Museums and memory do not allow the past to die, but keep it mummified, preserved forever. Whether this preservation is real or not, is debatable, but La Jetee’s images seem to be striving to recreate that very past, the very memory of one man. It is of no consequence that that one image in his memory is impossible memory.
This impossible memory is the basis for Marker’s ongoing dialogue with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which Marker, in Sunless, claims is the only film “capable of portraying impossible memory—insane memory.” The woman in La Jetee wears her hair in the same spiral bun that Kim Novak’s character, Madeline, in Vertigo does. In a replica of a scene from Vertigo, the protagonist and the woman are shown observing a redwood tree carved with historical dates. In response to an unanswered question, he points to a space outside of the redwood trunk and says: “This is where I come from…” The spiral of the redwood tree once again recalls the spiral of Vertigo. The spiral evokes infinity itself, an endless whorl of time and space. Madeline’s impossible memory is that of a past life, as someone else, and Marker argues that Hitchcock perfectly captures the essence of a memory that is impossible, much like that in La Jetee. Marker explores this subject in greater detail in Sans Soleil.
Yet, amid the still photographs hides something wondrous: a single moving image. The woman lies sleeping as birds chirp in the background. The images dissolve into one another, faster and faster as the chirping rises in volume towards a crescendo. And at the peak, we see it, for a brief hallucinatory moment: the blink of her eyes and in this perfect magical moment, we are reminded of the stillness of everything else, the stasis of all the images we have seen so far. Marker juxtaposes the entire film against that one brief scene, lasting only a few seconds. Sarah Cooper quotes Daniel Framptom who puts it: “thoughtfully, finally, opens (our) eyes to what we forget we can experience everyday: movement” (Cooper 49).
This juxtaposition is not just limited to moving and still images. The voiceover informs us that “to wake up in another age meant to be born again as an adult.” This rebirth is posited alongside death, the very image that drives that him to the past and his own eventual death. The image of his own death haunts the life of the child, even into adulthood and this maddening circle of death once again calls to mind the spirals of vertigo. The very film itself challenges the concept of death, even if preserved in images and memory, can something really die? Is life breath or is it a mark, a memory that lingers long after one’s breath is gone? There is also the constant questioning of reality. The protagonist himself wonders if the image that he holds so dear is real or not: “Had he really seen it? Or had he invented that tender moment to prop up the madness to come?” The woman herself and their meeting he questions “whether he has made it up, or whether he is only dreaming.” This positioning of dreams against reality is brought out further by our contemplation of photographs as nonreality that represents reality. Also, Sarah Cooper draws attention to the fact that the tunnels in which the survivors hide were the same ones used by members of the French resistance during World War II, drawing another opposition between occupation and resistance (Cooper 50).
Marker’s nod to French resistance is not the only history that grounds La Jetee as a product of its time. Despite the many philosophical questions it poses, there are definite clues that point to its production during a significant part of history. The Second World War figures prominently in the images of the post-apocalyptic Paris we see. The shots of destroyed Paris are the shots of various cities demolished as a result of severe civilian bombing during the World War. The shadow cast by Nazism is also apparent in the German whisperings of the experimenters. The influence of the World War is undeniable but also quite important is the fear of impending annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis was ongoing and there was still uncertainty over whether a immediacy of a nuclear holocaust. Marker translated this fear into the post-holocaust world that we see.
La Jetee blends elements of documentary, film essay, science fiction and romance, but to analyse it as purely one of these, especially science fiction, would be pure fallacy. The trope of time travel that Marker embraces is quite superficial. Science-fiction requires that some form of ‘science’ be present and that time travel be explained in some way or the other, Marker attempts neither. We are shows that it is injections that are causing our protagonist to time travel but we don’t know what’s in those syringes and how it affects time. Marker is not concerned with such details, instead he seems to be proposing a more primitive form of time travel: one that lies in the mind. The mind as the ultimate time travel device is an idea that Marker subtly threads throughout the cine-roman. It is the protagonists’ memory that draws him to the past, more than anything else. Time travel seems to be just a tool that Marker uses to further his exploration of time and memory.
La Jetee inspired filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe and Brad Pitt. Similarities with La Jetee include the protagonists’ obsession with an image from the past and the witnessing of their own deaths. Gilliam also evokes themes of memory and reality, playing with false memory and divergent memory. Like La Jetee, 12 Monkeys too pays homage to Hitchcock, with two characters who watch Vertigo in a 24-hour theatre.
To date, La Jetee is Chris Marker’s most famous work, perhaps bolstered by 12 Monkeys. It is also Marker’s first of three films to consist entirely of images and to contemplate the nature of photographs and images, the other two being If I Had Four Camels (Si j’avais quatre dromadaires, 1966) and Remembrance of Things to Come (Le souvenir d’un avenir, 2001). La Jetee is only the first phase of his obsessive exploration and Marker continually cites 1962 as his ‘Year Zero.’ A quote from If I Had Four Camels sticks in the mind concerning the legacy of La Jetee and the photograph: “The photograph , it is the hunt, it is the instinct to hunt without the desire to kill. It is the hunt of angels…One tracks, one aims, one pulls the trigger and clack! Though, instead of killing, one makes something eternal” (quoted in Alter 97).
Sunless (Sans Soleil) (1982)
In terms to critical analysis and attention, Sunless stands second only to La Jetee. In many ways, Sunless builds upon solid groundwork laid in La Jetee. At its most basic, and its most complex, Sunless, the name taken from a cycle of Mussorgsky songs, is a film about memory, imagery and the crucial link between the two. Structured as a series of letters written by fictional filmmaker Sandor Krasna to an unnamed female narrator, we are treated to a stream-of-consciousness style unfolding of Krasna’s fieldwork: an extensive collection of images and footage from all over the world, mainly Japan and Guinea-Bissau but also from the Ile de France, Bijagos Islands and the Cape Verde Islands. Krasna, a transparent stand-in for Marker, shot most of the video but also intercuts footage from other filmmakers and from television into the film.
This smattering of images feels random at first but gradually threads of narrative linking the images together appear. From the idealistic revolution led by Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau to different concepts of time in different cultures, the film presents diverse ideas, linked together by history and memory. Marker explores how history, both personal and global, is often moulded by the uncertain and changing nature of human memory. But he cautions us that his “constant comings and goings are not a search for contrasts.” Marker, the roving Marxist, is in no way implying any sort of hierarchy between the images presented. They are merely “two extreme poles of survival.”
At one point in the film, the narrator reads from a letter from Krasna that describes a project similar to Sans Soleil and then dismisses it by saying “Of course I’ll never make that film. Nonetheless I’m collecting the sets, inventing the twists, putting in my favorite creatures. I’ve even given it a title, indeed the title of those Mussorgsky songs: Sunless.” In positing the idea of the film we are seeing as an idea within the film itself, Marker is challenging our very conception of reality. This device makes us self-aware, by pointing out that we are indeed watching a film, which is merely a depiction of reality and not reality itself. In contrast to the modernist era where art and literature sought to present reality itself, postmodernism tries to make us question and understand our reality by positioning other realms alongside it or like Marker, using narrative and structural techniques that point to the inherent imitation of the medium, that what we are seeing is not reality, just like Rene Magritte does with his paintings, as I have discussed above. Sunless, like postmodernism, does not provide the audience with any of the answers but instead encourages an ontological survey of our reality, our time and our existence.
This deviance in narrative structure is also present in the disconnect between narration and imagery in the film. Often times, the two don’t match and we forced to choose one or the other, and depending on which, we pick up a different narrative thread. Throughout the film, we strive to retain different narratives as they intersect with each other and constantly subvert and mesh into each other. The audience thus become more involved in the viewing process, instead of just sitting back and watching the film, we are required to actively concentrate, and make sense of what is being presented. Each viewing is different, as each person picks up a different thread. This style brings to mind avant-garde composer John Cage’s experimental composition 4`33“ written for an instrument (or any number of instruments) but requires that nothing be played. Therefore, the audience is treated to four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. However, the music comes from the audience, each sound that is heard during those four minutes and thirty three seconds is part of the piece. It is Cage’s contention that every sound can be music. So every time the piece is performed, it is a different piece, each reaction is a part of the ‘music.’ Sunless can also be seen as something similar as each viewing is different, depending on what narrative you pick up, what images you remember and how you relate the images to the narration.
Sunless employs many of the techniques developed and perfected by the nouvelle vague. The alienation effect, or verfremdungseffekt, first perfected by Bertolt Brecht is evident in the double distancing of the audience from the content. Jean-Luc Godard uses similar techniques in My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie, 1962) mainly through jump cuts and the addition of chapter titles between scenes that explain what will happen. Similarly, Alain Resnais uses flashbacks and a montage similar to that in Sunless at the beginning of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) to convey the same effects. The letters that Krasna writes are sent to the narrator already distancing us, but further, they are read aloud to us, paraphrased even by the narrator. Krasna’s original thought has been twice removed from the audience, preventing personal attachment to the film and inducing us to look critically at what is being presented. The very personal nature of the film is thus contrasted directly with the alienation one feels while watching the film.
In playing with the convention of the film and its chronology, Marker is portraying a concept similar to that of La Jetee, that of impossible memory, and also that of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which once again plays a major role in Marker’s ruminations. This time, footage from the film is intercut with his own footage, creating a disjoint in the narrative while at the same time linking the two films together. For him Vertigo is not just “a question of trailing, of enigma, of murder, but in truth it’s a question of power and freedom, of melancholy and dazzlement, so carefully coded within the spiral that you could miss it, and not discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.” Just like the spaces that Krasna moves through, from Japan to Africa, and he is not in fact moving through space but through time, travelling from one cultural time to another. It is his belief that differences in cultures are actually differences in time. He writes to the narrator that “in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time.” Immediately after, we are presented with images from different place, or rather different times, from emus in the Ile de France to women in Bijagos islands to a suburban temple in Tokyo dedicated to cats.
Almost similar to the concepts of spacetime and relativity as posited by Albert Einstein, Marker too seems to believe that time is not something static and constant. It changes through spaces. Time is an inherent part of space, and each affects the other. Marker’s understanding of general relativity is not so much scientific as it is cultural. For Marker, different concepts of time exist in different cultures. The quote at the beginning of the film, from TS Eliot’s Ash Wednesday clearly illustrates this idea: “Because I know that time is always time / And place is always and only place.” But Marker leaves out the most illustrative portion of the quote: “And what is actual is actual only for one time / And only for one place.”
In this dedication to Vertigo also lies Marker’s nod to La Jetee: “He remembered another film in which this passage was quoted. The sequoia was the one in the Jardin des plantes in Paris, and the hand pointed to a place outside the tree, outside of time.” Marker also introduces a time traveller who could just as easily be from La Jetee’s future, one unable to forget as opposed to being unable to remember, much like the protagonist from La Jetee. But earlier Marker cautioned us that he has spent his life “trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.” Forgetting surrounds remembering like a spiral, enveloping it. It is movement, from one sphere to another, from remembering to forgetting. It harkens back to a quote Sarah Cooper uses from Marker’s book The Forthright Spirit: “Death is no more than the antonym of birth. The antonym of living remains to be discovered” (Marker, quoted in Cooper 1). La Jetee may have been a film about the juxtaposition of opposites but Sunless is more about the relationship of things that seem to be opposites but aren’t. Sunless itself seems to be a quest for this antonym of living, a desire to be remembered and a desire to leave a mark.
In the future, Marker posits that we shall never forget, only remember, without effort, without images, without cues. And history shall be history since it will not be rewritten like it is now. Our memory now is fallible, it betrays us and constantly rewrites itself: “We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” Our memory is not sun-less, like everything under the sun, it reacts, changes and transforms.
Sunless, primarily set in Japan, evokes another kind of sunless-ness. Just like La Jetee, Sunless too reels from the impact of the Second World War. Sunless recalls the mushroom cloud of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Alter ). But this also addresses one of the most fundamental questions brought up by the film: how can one ‘remember’ something without actually having experienced it? The film appears to answer its own question: through the images and memories of others. Sunless is exactly that, a collection of images from another but it speaks to our own personal memories, it evokes thoughts and feelings that are only ours.
Just like the subjective nature of memories, the footage in the film is also very subjective and personal. It is all part of Marker’s own exploration of the link between memory and image, how we as humans construct memory and the different methods with which we prop it up. He sees the film and the camera as just one of these tools, an idea present in La Jetee. The narrator reads: “I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember?” Sunless seems to be Sandor Krasna’s exercise in being remembered. Through his films and his photographs, he is going to be remembered by the narrator and the people who watch the film.
The film opens with a shot of three children in Iceland. Of this the narrator says: “The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” Immediately after, we cut to a shot of a jet fighter plane but it lasts a single frame and disappears, as if it were part of his attempt at linkage. And then, we have the black leader.
Threaded through the film is the subjectivity of images, how they shape what we remember. The shot of the children is an image of happiness for him and might not be for us. In the exploration of Amilcar Cabral and the Guinea-Bissau revolution, we see shades of what links the film together: the nature of memories and their inextricable link to the shaping of history. Krasna questions:
Why should so small a country—and one so poor—interest the world? They did what they could, they freed themselves, they chased out the Portuguese. They traumatized the Portuguese army to such an extent that it gave rise to a movement that overthrew the dictatorship, and led one for a moment to believe in a new revolution in Europe. Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window.
In trying to document and explore this revolution that the world seems to have forgotten, Marker is pointing out the inadequacy of history. Everyone remember Hiroshima, even though one wasn’t there, then why doesn’t anyone remember Amilcar Cabral? Marker’s presentation of the revolution functions as a substitute (or maybe a supplement to) for history. We are being encouraged to change our memory by changing our image of the past, and therefore reshape history. As Krasna’s friend Yamaneko remarks: “if the images of the present don’t change, then change the images of the past.”
In her book, Nora Alter discusses a significant leitmotif in Sunless: the role of a mediator in translating emotions. Just like Krasna needed the black leader in order to adequately present that image of happiness, Alter discusses numerous other examples of the same. Krasna tells the story of a man who immersed himself in work after the death of his wife. After a year, he took his life in May, unable to stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’ Alter discusses how language here acts as the mediator. The word spring is imbued with all the grief that the man has gone through (Alter 108). In a wider context, the film itself is a mediator, between the audience and Marker. Through Krasna, the unnamed narrator and the moving images, he is able to convey to us things that otherwise might not have been possible. The film translates his emotions, his thoughts into bite-sized pieces that the audience is able to consume.
Technology as a mediator is also brought up through the Zone, a digital image synthesizer developed by Krasna’s friend Hayao Yamaneko (another stand-in for Marker). Yamaneko’s synthesizer processes images so that they become unrecognisable distortions of the reality that they claim to represent. It is not that the image itself is changed, but rather another mediator has been added to it, further distorting our vision of what the reality the image is supposed to portray. He runs the pictures of the burakumin, the Japanese untouchables, through the synthesizer, saying: “They are non-persons. How can they be shown, except as non-images?” The only way to confront the reality of these people is to view their images as non-images, since that is the role they occupy in society. It is not an escape, rather a distorted reflection, like that in a mad funhouse mirror. Yamaneko says that they are “less deceptive than those you see on television. At least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, and not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality.”
Television too serves as a kind of mediator, especially in Japan where images of horror are numerous and unavoidable. He quotes Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now: “Horror has a face and a name…you must make a friend of horror.” And that, claims Krasna, is what the Japanese have done. The unknown unassailable horror of their past, mainly the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are recast and remolded in the form of identifiable horror, that of “certain corpses.” It has been given “another name and another face.”
The clip of the three children in Iceland returns again towards the end. The film comes full circle, ending with the beginning. But now, we know of the fate of the village those children came from, which was probably their own fate. A clip shot by filmmaker Haroun Tazieff shows a volcanic eruption covering the entire village in black ash. And in the end, Marker is able to link that image of happiness to other images: “And that’s where my three children of Iceland came and grafted themselves in” he says. He lengthens the clip, adding the “somewhat hazy end.” It has taken him a hundred minutes of film to be able to resituate that image. The black leader is no longer required, instead we have another kind of black, that of volcanic ash.
Towards the end, the Zone starts to process images from the film itself. We recognise some: the festival in Tokyo, the emu in the Ile de France and the returning gaze of the woman in Sal, on which the frame freezes, locking us in her gaze. “Will there be another letter?” asks the narrator as we cut to a shot of a hand removing a device from the digital image synthesizer, ending the film. Even Sunless itself requires a mediator, a translator for it to be understood. The Zone stands for the film itself, a medium through which we can understand things that cannot be understood and see things that cannot be seen. The previous images of the burakumin are recalled, and we are made to understand that the film we have just seen also exists as just images, it is not reality, it merely and only, a reflection on reality.
Through both La Jetee and Sunless, Chris Marker alerts us to the subjectivity of images, that those things that claim to represent reality are in fact mere portrayals of reality. They depend on the photographer, the filmmaker, the editor; as more mediators are tacked on, the images travels farther and farther from reality.
Both of these films were born out of a lifelong obsession. La Jetee was Marker’s first foray into the subject and he explored it tentatively, as if afraid to broach the topic. Twenty years later, Sunless is culmination of that exploration. Or rather, it is his biggest and most thoughtful exploration.
This elusive artist has been in the shadows for way too long. For convenience sake, we must refer to him as a filmmaker but rather, he is so much more, an author, a cinematographer, an editor, a cameraman, a journalist to name a few. Ever since his first feature film in 1952, he has been constantly making films, writing and exploring. His latest film, Leila Attacks was released in 2006. Along with Godard and Varda, Marker is one of the very few remnants of the nouvelle vague who still remain active.
My own fascination with Marker was born out of La Jetee. It ensnared me like no other film. It wasn’t just the novel use of still images that amazed me but rather the philosophical questions it raised in my mind. On viewing Sans Soleil, my fascination was further solidified. My explorations of these two films remain just that, explorations. I have meandered my way through the films, picking up new ideas, thoughts and questions. It is necessary to conclude here that I’ve discovered very few answers. My interest remains piqued and I continue to explore but there are no answers, only questions and I find myself, like the narrator at the end of Sunless, asking: “Will there be another letter?”
Alter, Nora M.,. Chris Marker. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Cooper, Sarah,. Chris Marker. Manchester; New York; New York: Manchester University Press ; Distributed exclusively in the USA by Palgrave, 2008.
La Jetee. Dir. Marker, Chris. Perf. Negroni, Jean. Argos Film, 1962.
Sunless (Sans Soleil). Dir. Marker, Chris. Prod. Dauman Anatole. Perf. Stewart, Alexandra. Film. Argos Film, 1982.
Neupert, Richard John. A History of the French New Wave. Wisconsin: Madison – University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.