Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Thursday, June 21, 2007


      Chris Marker, the writer-director of La Jetée and Sans Soleil, is at least as enigmatic a personage as his films. Personal information about him is scarce and much of it seems apocryphal and deliberately contradictory. The only reliable facts I’ve been able to scrape up about the man is that he is /or was a French National (although some sources claim he is of American descent) and that he was born shortly after World War I (most biographies list his year of birth as 1921, but Marker himself seems unwilling to confirm this). The few existing interviews or personal anecdotes concerning him seem to suggest that he himself seeds this cloud of ambiguity; a likely enough affectation for a filmmaker whose every movie seems obsessed with memory, it’s malleability and the inevitability of its decay.

      La Jetée (”The Pier”) is not a conventional movie, in which images flash by at 24 fps; but essentially a series of individual still pictures edited together, accompanied by a vocal track from an off-screen narrator, and occasional snippets of dialogue and sound effects relating to the scene depicted -- it all may sound a little distancing, but my own reaction to it was strongly the opposite. It’s an incredibly involving experience; as if I was watching the most emotionally wrenching PowerPoint presentation ever created. The plot of La Jetée is going to sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s seen Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys -- which is not a surprise, as Gilliam’s film is a fleshed-out remake of this half-hour short. In a post-nuclear holocaust Paris, a man is selected for a scientific experiment in which he will be “projected” back in time, to a period before the war, in an attempt to find an “escape route” from the devastated present. The man selected for this assignment is particularly well-suited to the task, as he has very strong memories of a visit he made to the airport pier as a child, and of a couple he saw there that day...

      The film’s score is a selection of cues by a prolific composer of stock film music, Trevor Duncan -- his ‘score’ has proven very popular with fans of the film, intriguing the Brothers Quay enough to recycle portions of it for their latest feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Duncan’s other major contribution to film composing is that another selection of his cues were used to score Ed Woods', Plan 9 from Outer Space. Which of these is the greater accomplishment? Don’t let me influence you; I can scarcely make my own mind up on the matter.

      Sans Soleil (”Sunless”) is no less unconventional, but in a different way. First off, it is a “film” (flashing by your eyeballs at the standard velocity of 24 fps), a documentary of sorts; it’s tone is sometimes journalistic, sometimes philosophical, and sometimes just verité style in-your-face funny. There’s no point in trying to describe the “plot”, as it doesn’t really have one of those; the film begins with an off-screen narrator (a woman) speaking as some children are shown walking down a road. The woman relates the contents of some letters she’s received from a friend who’s been traveling between Africa and Japan. From there, it becomes a kind of travelogue, a filmed “essay” covering topics as diverse as the nature of memory, the contrast between modern, technologically advanced society and “primitive” undeveloped ones, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, our relationship to the animal world and Computer Generated Imagery. if the range of topics covered seems rather scatter-gun,       uhh ...well, I suppose it is. What makes the film so amazing is that, by it’s end, Marker manages to convey the idea that they’re all connected...    somehow.

      Marker is frequently credited as being the originator of the cinematic essay, a particular documentary form in which the thoughts and opinions of the documentarian are very much a part of the finished film -- I don’t know if that claim is valid; Luis Buñeul (in regards his film Land Without Bread) seems the more likely recipient of that honor. But Marker, I think, can reasonably be said to have perfected the form; and his style has influenced other documentary filmmakers to this day -- You can see it, from time to time, in the documentaries of Errol Morris or a film like Mysterious Object at Noon; most recently perhaps in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.
      La Jetée/Sans Soleil: Two films by Chris Marker comes to DVD this Tuesday, June 26th, as released by the Criterion Company, with brand-spanking new HD transfers and a host of special features (so throw away those crappy VHS copies you may have of either) -- you can rent it from Netflix, purchase it from Amazon, or get it from your local Video Store -- assuming they’re in the habit of carrying Criterion releases.

Some links:

Chris Marker on the IMDb.

The Criterion Collections’ webpage regarding this release.

An interesting article regarding some of Mr. Marker’s films.

An interview with Chris Marker.

Next post -- 06/29/07


Kalibhakta said...

La Jetée is a painfully beautiful film (or whatever you called it--assemblage of pictures)... it's one of those works of art that will probably stay with you the rest of your life...

and Sans Soleil--oh my god... it's like Derrida hijacked a Michael Moore film...

grigorss said...

it's like Derrida hijacked a Michael Moore film...

There's been a real crack-down on that kind of thing, ever since 9/11...

Kalibhakta said...

and I SWEAR, the opening scene of Team America: World Police, in the Paris street crowd, there is a puppet made specifically to look like Derrida. Film fans: if you don't believe me, watch tha flick again...

grigorss said...

If you do a Google search for "Team America, Derrida", you'll see that kalibhakta is right -- there is just such a puppet at the beginning of the film -- usually seen in profile or 3/4 view -- but it's him!