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The Criterion Completist – Ceramic Cats and the Impermanence of Things: Reviewing the Work of Chris Marker

August 26, 2012

The film world was hit some sad news recently as we learned of the passing of French filmmaker Chris Marker on July 29th, his 91st birthday.  Marker is perhaps best known for his 1962 short film “La Jetee”, but enjoyed a long and acclaimed career as a multimedia artist, film essayist and photographer.  Criterion has put “La Jetee” and his other most well-known work “Sans Soleil” onto one extras-loaded disc, and since I haven’t seen “La Jetee” since my college days, I thought I’d use this week’s article to plunge into the world of Marker, and examine the legacy of this extraordinary artist.

The 27 minute long short film “La Jetee is best known as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys, but was a highly regarded work of art long before that film came out.  Told almost entirely in a shifting montage of single black and white photographs, and voiced by an unnamed narrator, it tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic society that is experimenting with time travel.  Scientists look for subjects who have strong visual memories of the past, and attempt to send these people to various times in the future and past to help avoid their apocalyptic fate.



They find a man (Davos Hanich) who has a vivid memory from his childhood of a woman standing on a pier, and a man being killed shortly thereafter.  When the man meets some representatives from the future, they offer him sanctuary in their time, but instead he asks them to send him back in the past, to the comfort and familiarity of the past.  Unfortunately, the past is not as safe as he remembers, and instead becomes a changing, mutable thing.  “La Jetee is the beginning of Marker’s exploration of themes that he will return to time and time again, including the persistence and unreliability of memory, the fluctuating and subjective nature of time, and the place and role of history in our common psyche.  It also has strong anti-war sentiments, as France was still reeling from their own protracted war in Vietnam, and looking to it’s own past for safety and peace.

It could be argued that “La Jette does not even qualify as a “film” due to its lack of moving images.  In this sense, it acts almost more like a comic book, with its combination of still images and narration.  Yet it was very significant to filmmakers around the world, and apart from the Gilliam film, I think you can spot the influence it had on everything from music videos to modern documentaries.



Chris Marker’s other most famous work is 1983’s “Sans Soleil, another film that stretches the definition of that word, and yet it an undeniably powerful and important work of art.

Sans Soleil” (“sunless”) is a film that defies description, but I guess it could be called a philosophical travelogue in documentary form.  Marker takes his camera to various locales in Japan and Africa, filming scenes of everyday life while a female narrator reads “letters” from the cameraman (essentially, Marker himself).  These narrations are a free-form, meandering commentary on everything from the banality of public transportation to the beauty of a decrepit cemetery.  Marker is interested in the simple beauty of everyday people and things, in the context of the time and place in which they exist.  For instance, he lets his camera take long strolls through a colorful and boisterous street fair in West Africa, followed by a slightly more civil and controlled parade in Tokyo.  But the effect is the same: people in groups having fun.  They might be celebrating different gods, or holidays, or traditions, but at the core level, both groups are simply acting human.  Marker is also fascinated by the memory, and the way people remember things.  A shot of a robotic John F. Kennedy figure, reading famous political quotations in a bustling Japanese shopping mall is placing history in a modern context, and changing the way in which one might remember the famous leader.  “We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten” the narrator exclaims.

Marker also spends much time examining the psyche of an actual place, of locations, of certain geographies, as if the land itself has its own thoughts and feelings and history.  A memorable scene early on is shot in a temple devoted solely to cats.  An elderly couple goes to light a votive and say some prayers for their lost cat Toro.  He ran away years ago, but they want to make sure that he is prepared should he make it to the afterlife.  The camera lingers, gazing with respect over the countless ceramic statues of cats, red and white, each with one paw raised as if in solemn salute to the gathering worshippers.



Marker films and intercuts various scenes of bizarre sex museums, women selling vegetables in open-aired markets, violent political rallies, drought-ravaged fields, drunks careening through the streets.  These long, hypnotic shots, and others like it, give the viewer an overall sensation of connectedness with the human race, of being one with a place, and feeling the past and present intertwine.

If Marker is fascinated with the looping nature of time and memory, then his short film “Junktopia” (included as an extra in the Blu-Ray Criterion version), examines our connection to the past through inanimate objects, namely the strange pieces of folk art to be found in the Emeryville Mudflats outside of San Francisco.  A plane flies upside down, a fish flies through the air, and the familiar becomes unfamiliar as seen through the lens of modern society.

A sequence in “Sans Soleil” examines this idea further, as he visits the locations around California where Hitchcock’s “Vertigo was filmed, the most perfect movie about the “impossibility of memory” according to Marker.  His obsession with the film led him back to these places in an attempt to recapture the magic he had felt after watching it over 19 times, but as in “Vertigo, his memories clash with the reality of seeing the locations in person.  Is our memory a safer, more reliable place to exist?  Or is our dependence on the certainty of our subjective past a dangerous tool to use when moving on into the future?  I’m not sure that Marker ever found the answers to these questions, but we are certainly better off for having his films to ponder over.


RATING: La Jette  ****/Sans Soleil ***1/2





Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

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