The Filmmaker Any Cinema-Literate Progressive Must Know

Finally, more of Chris Marker’s work is becoming available in the U.S. Here’s where to start.

Michael Atkinson October 30, 2014

Chris Marker’s Level Five, made in 1997, was released in arthouse theaters in August.

When Chris Mark­er died in 2012, at the age of 91, a spe­cial type of dis­course between film and real life van­ished. Mark­er is the great­est left­ist film­mak­er who ever lived, a major force in the Rive Gauche fac­tion of the French New Wave, friends with Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy and espe­cial­ly Agnès Var­da. But Mark­er is famous to Eng­lish-speak­ing audi­ences only for La Jetée (1962), the beloved time-trav­el short that was remade by Ter­ry Gilliam in 1995 as 12 Mon­keys. Yet Mark­er was pri­mar­i­ly a doc­u­men­tar­i­an, man­ning the ram­parts of 60s protests (in Paris, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and else­where) with a cam­era on his shoul­der, and under­stand­ing, as few film­mak­ers ever have, the trou­ble with cin­e­mat­ic real­i­ty,” the ques­tion­able ethics of lib­er­al pro­pa­gan­da and the need for cin­e­ma to act as a dia­logue. Three Mark­er films hereto­fore lit­tle-seen in Amer­i­ca have recent­ly bro­ken the stub­born sur­face of our media-con­cious­ness. Be See­ing You (1968) and Class of Strug­gle (1969) are sem­i­nal doc­u­ments of mid­cen­tu­ry class com­bat, while Lev­el Five (1997) is a pen­sive and atyp­i­cal metafic­tion about the then-nascent cyber­life zeitgeist.

In 1967, Marker captured the defiant we-are-the-99% spirit that shut down the French government the next year.

Hav­ing come to our art­hous­es only this past August, Lev­el Five’s inter­ven­ing 17 years of his­to­ry make Marker’s homo Inter­ne­tus look almost absurd­ly dat­ed. But Marker’s cen­tral ques­tions remain rel­e­vant: How are we to under­stand our present lives and our his­to­ry when it all becomes virtual?

A woman (Cather­ine Belkhod­ja) makes a video diary as she com­pletes her dead lover’s web game” — an inter­ac­tive plat­form that attempts to cap­ture all of the facts about the Bat­tle of Oki­nawa, whether Japan­ese cul­ture wants it remem­bered or not. Keyed to the song from Otto Preminger’s semi­otic noir Lau­ra (1944), the wor­ri­some space between image — or, today, dig­i­tized con­tent” — and what the imagery rep­re­sents is thor­ough­ly inter­ro­gat­ed. The oth­er two films, shorts released togeth­er on disc by Icarus Films as On Strike!, are more typ­i­cal Mark­er works. His default mode is the rumi­na­tive cine-essay, mix­ing the sub­jec­tive with hard­core fact. Typ­i­cal­ly his movies don’t have the tex­ture of enter­tain­ment or even of agen­da-dri­ven docs, but of per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence, ope­nend­ed and moral and explorato­ry. Thus we as view­ers are nev­er his stu­dents, but his com­pa­tri­ots in out­rage and rue.

In 1967, head­ing into a year of protests that rocked France, Mark­er caught the scent on the wind and went to Besanaon, where work­ers at the huge Rho­di­ac­eta tex­tile fac­to­ry were strik­ing. Inter­view­ing the strik­ers, Mark­er cap­tured the defi­ant we-are-the-99% spir­it that shut down the French gov­ern­ment the next year. But the fin­ished film, Be See­ing You, also riled the work­ers by empha­siz­ing suf­fer­ing over auton­o­my and by favor­ing the male perspective.

All ears, Mark­er assist­ed them in the mak­ing of their own film, and togeth­er they craft­ed Class of Strug­gle, a fierce screed that tracks anti-cap­i­tal­ist agi­ta­tors as they push the unhap­py work­ers at anoth­er fac­to­ry to strike. Bristling with right­eous­ness, the dip­tych is a prime exam­ple of cin­e­ma used as cud­gel and torch against the own­ers of society.

No cin­e­ma-lit­er­ate pro­gres­sive can afford not to be on speak­ing terms with Marker’s lega­cy. Begin with the affec­tion­ate, inquir­ing, post-Alger­ian War por­trait of Paris, Le Joli Mai (1963); the bristling and var­ie­gat­ed hand grenade that is his his­toric port­man­teau protest-doc Far from Viet­nam (1967), new­ly rere­leased; the just­ly famous, Tokyo-shot cre­ative non­fic­tion of Sans Soleil (1983); and The Last Bol­she­vik (1993), a mag­is­te­r­i­al biopic of Sovi­et film­mak­er Alek­san­dr Medved­kin. A Grin with­out a Cat (1977), per­haps the most Mark­er­ian, is a found-footage his­tor­i­cal depth charge that mourn­ful­ly exam­ines the lega­cy of the 60s, ric­o­chet­ing from Paris to the Unit­ed States, Bolivia, Chile, Chi­na and Japan and so on, to jun­gles and city streets where dis­tinc­tive surges of pop­u­lar fury rise, con­front vio­lent troops and become lost in their own ide­o­log­i­cal day­dreams. Mark­er was not a blind par­ti­san, and he blames the star­ry-eyed left­ists for their own self-immo­la­tion. It’s the strug­gle that inter­est­ed him, because it is moral and unde­ni­able, and his inquis­i­tive per­son­al­i­ty demand­ed no less.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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