Sunday, July 1, 2007

La Jetee by Chris Marker

The filmmaker Chris Marker, throughout his career, has questioned photography and filmmaking and their roles in storytelling and representation of life. His films have often defied categorization. They are part documentary, part self portrait, part history, and part fiction. They challenge representations of history, time and memory and the technologies that record and mediate them.

Chris Marker, who was born Christian-Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, adopted his nom de plume in the late 1940’s and until the 1990’s he created an odd punctuation for it as well. In many of his films he is credited as Chris.(period) Marker. As he is reclusive and refuses to grant interviews it has only been guessed as to whether he adopted this to “leave a mark” as his last name implies as additionally the punctuation seems to “pin” itself to the films. There are very few photographs of Marker as well. When requested, he often sends an image of his favorite animal / alter-ego Guillaume the cat.

Curiously, Marker with a rather defeatist attitude turned to film rather than still photography in the 1950’s because he would “never be, say, Robert Frank.” Regardless, his films use still images as a part of the storytelling and three of them, If I had Four Camels, Remembrance of Things to Come and La Jetee, are created totally from still images.

La Jetee, his legendary film made entirely from photographs has been tirelessly cited as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys. I say tirelessly but I probably would rather use the word annoyingly as Gilliam pursues the story and plot twist of Marker’s creation in a modern filmic language that Marker had abandoned for his remarkable film La Jetee. Marker “slows” film down to the individual frame by filming not action but photographs of action. Shot probably with a 35mm still camera common to any photographer, he assembled a complete 29 minute film narrative from these separate photographs.

This was done as an experiment in storytelling, but also relieved him of one difficult and costly problem with shooting such a story. He wanted to make a science fiction or futurist film but could not accept the cost that normally comes with such a project. Shooting stills allowed for a more creative approach and avoided complication. (Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville could serve as another fine example of how to make a futuristic film without resorting to expensive sets or special effects.)

Interesting fact about La Jetee is that William Klein (credited as Bill Klein) and his wife Janine appear in the film as beings from the future. William Klein also narrates the story. What is additionally interesting is that Marker is credited as the only photographer for La Jetee, but there are a few shots in the film that seem remarkably in the style of William Klein. Notably when the two main characters are walking in a park and children run through the scene. This isn’t to say that Klein actually shot those few photos but rather to point out that Marker, as a photographer, had remarkable instincts towards capturing subjects on the fly.

One other image that caught my attention was during a sequence of the film representing the destruction of Paris in a World War. This brought William Klein’s version of the apocalypse to mind.

A book of stills from La Jetee: Cine Roman was published by Zone Books in 1992. It is now out of print as very expensive when found. It is worth searching out but will do damage to your wallet.

What is interesting about the book in contrast to the film is that even though they are essentially the same, still photographs, I found the book implies more of a sense of “movement” of images. Even knowing that the film is made from still photographs, we read the book as images in motion. In the film, the images pass by with a similar sensation to a flashgun going off in a darkened room and latent images are frozen, (unmoving) on your retina.

In their Contemporary Film Directors series, the University of Illinois Press has recently released Chris Marker which is a comprehensive study of Marker and his films. Authored by Nora M. Alter, it also includes several interviews made early on in his career.

Many thought provoking aspects of Marker are brought up by Alter. For instance, in discussing “the photograph as spectacle” Alter relates the following:

Events unfold differently if a camera is trained on them. In Level Five (1996) Marker includes two examples of such influence. In one of the clips from Okinawa a woman runs across a field toward a precipice from which her compatriots are leaping. A close examination of the clip reveals that she momentarily hesitates and begins to turn back. Yet the woman recovers her resolve upon meeting the camera eye and takes the plunge. Marker then shows the same clip again, only this time he superimposes onto it images taken in 1900 from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, where an inventor demonstrates a new personal flying device. The filmmaker shows that at the last moment the inventor realizes his new contraption will not fly, but because he is being filmed, he is still compelled to jump, like the unknown woman in Okinawa, to his death. Thus the very act of tracking a film camera on an event is shown to produce actions and, hence, to have the potential to affect and steer the course of history. In Level Five (1996), even more than in his previous films, Marker problematizes the relationship between historical events and their mediated representations.

Marker’s thoughts on photography and fact as related by Alter:

By the time he made Level Five (1996), his primary concern had become that of exposing how the photographic image is both contrived and manipulated. This skepticism reaches an apogee halfway through Level Five when the camera turns to an image of the U.S. flag being raised atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima near the end of World War II. As the commentator observes, the event, presented as if caught spontaneously, has actually been carefully restaged; because the original marines were not available for the photo session, the U.S. military found substitutes.

In many of his films, “the gaze” of a subject being filmed and that relation to camera and meaning is a preoccupation with Marker. The gaze could originate from people, animals or inanimate objects such as statues. Where as Michel Frizot, in a discussion of “the gaze” in relation to the subjects of Henri Cartier Bresson photographs (HCB Scrapbook) describes the creation of additional geometric complexity within the photographic frame, Marker is fascinated with a more direct response to a filmed gaze. In Sans Soleil (1982), a woman whose return of the camera’s gaze at the market in Praia “had lasted 1/24th of a second or the length of a film frame.” For Marker, it is a representation of a fleeting instant of truth that is no longer there except as an image the moment the shutter snaps shut.

In short, Marker underscores that although film and photography may have a high degree of verisimilitude; under no circumstances are they to be taken as anything other than what they are – signs and representations.

Other titles in this Contemporary Film Directors series are: Pedro Almadovar, Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Wong Kar-Wai, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Joel and Ethan Cohen, Edward Yang and Abel Ferrera.

Book Available Here (CFD Chris Marker)

DVD Available Here (Sans Soleil / La Jetee)