Chris Marker’s projects tend to begin without prologues or otherwise obvious beginnings. His two most cherished films, La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), start off in non-places, an airport and a ferry, respectively. While each setting seems to connote discontinuity—coinciding with a sense of longing—Marker himself has suggested otherwise. In an unusual 2010 interview with The Critical Quarterly, he stated that he began his films, “in my usual way, beginning at the beginning and ending at the end practically in real time.”
Unusual not just because of the quipped answer. As a matter of course, Marker—the prototypical “all-of-the-above” French filmmaker who died in 2012 at the age of 91—inhabited the masterly quality that he captured in his travelogue with Akira Kurosawa, released as A.K. in 1989. In person, Marker seems to have preferred avoiding abstraction. He spoke, like Kurosawa, to the factual experiences of his work. Unlike Kurosawa, though, Marker did not seem to do so out of unwilling resolve, but rather out of humility and a paradoxical sense of humor and candor.
Fittingly, Marker is described by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who met him in the early 1990s in Paris, as “socially-oriented.” The 2010 interview is unusual nonetheless, purely because of its existence — Marker was known to refuse interviews. Details of his upbringing are murky; on Wikipedia, his birthplace is described as “highly disputed,” and he seemed to keep much of his personal life a secret, avoiding even photographs. His reputation as “reclusive” is thus not entirely inappropriate. In the years since his death, Marker’s expanded non-presence has seemed to further complicate appreciations of his idiosyncratic memoirs. Memories—for isn’t that what they are?
“His biography is full of blank pages.”
No truer words were spoken of Alexander Medvedkin, the early Soviet filmmaker and the object of Marker’s 1992 biographical and epistolary project, The Last Bolshevik. Like a laugh without a grin, it maybe goes without saying that these words could have easily been said about Marker himself. Even the way the editing chops out shortly after they are uttered on-screen seems to suggest so much. It is as if Marker’s direction is not for the audience, but to himself. It begs the question: as Medvedkin was to be the last Leninist, did Marker see himself as the ultimate “freelance Marxist” (to use a phrase of Rosenbaum’s)?
It can be argued that the camera itself is a mirror held up by all of cinema’s auteurs. But much of The Last Bolshevik is stock—consisting of reels of Happiness, the Medvedkin film that inspired Marker, as well as other archival materials book-ended by talking-head interviews. It reminds us that Marker was much more than “just” a filmmaker; he was a real-time collagist, an intuitive writer, an experimental comedian. Styled as a multi-linear cascade of visualized cues and unopened letters, The Last Bolshevik rejoins an unfinished (and apparently un-finishing) conversation between Medvedkin, Marker, and the world. Lengthy, it is arguably Marker at his most challenging and self-amused.
In this way, The Last Bolshevik re-creates the art of biographic film in its own cataclysmic self-image. But only once, and very briefly, do we get a glimpse of Marker himself, the man, in the flesh, as if in mockery of Christ. He is seen fiddling with a digital camera before the clapperboard slams and a near-comic pan focuses the film’s ostensible subject, Medvedkin. The creative device is both defiant and hilarious. It is not, however, solely a gesture at the deliberate ambiguities of film (at what point is an accident “happy”?) It is also, a reflection of Marker’s awareness of anonymity and its constraints. When the man wishes to show himself, we do not even recognize him.
To be sure, we do not even hear much of his voice. The Last Bolshevik’s narration, as with all of Marker’s films, is delivered by other gifted actors, with both English- and French-language audio tracks accompanying home releases. This seeming effort in cryptology is furthered by the film’s chronology, which draws narrative parallels between Medvedkin and Marker to such a degree that their lives feel largely co-linear, confused even. Like much else in life, the similarities are almost obvious to those who look for them. Marker’s daring comparisons—between Medvedkin’s internecine rivalries with other Soviet filmmakers and his own with the French “Right Bank” cineasts—seem to confirm this. (“Isn’t that true, Godard?” the narrator grins at one point.)
Twin poles of survival—“I don’t know anyone who works as hard or as much as he does.”
Marker’s late-career magnum opus, Sans Soleil, functions similarly to The Last Bolshevik, sensuously revealing its author’s hand in ways perhaps less immediately personal, but in no way less striking. Through shots of life and death on location at Guinea-Bissau and Japan—so-described by Marker as the “twin poles of survival”—Sans Soleil meditates on the paradoxes and cultural meanings of time, as well as its differing local concepts. An early line in the English version of the film relates the truth that, “We do not remember—we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.”
(Full of violent digressions and non-sequitur, red herrings, and other devices, Sans Soleil anticipates future, similarly multilayered projects, like his 1998 CD-ROM-based project, titled—naturally—Immemory.)
To photograph is to distill in memory. And so dedicated to the photography of others but not himself, Marker was of course a contradiction. He was not, however, a paradox. By avoiding press, it was as if he meant to ensure not that he not be remembered, but rather the functional opposite. That his memory be as diffuse as possible—shaped only through time and the vectors of the minds of others. Though once described as “the prototypical twentieth-century man,” in this way, Marker remarkably anticipated the twenty-first-century man.
It was not that Marker could not see himself without others, though one certainly may get that impression from initial viewings of Sans Soleil. Rather, it is that, through his interviews and documentations of people, places, and things—the brutal poaching of a giraffe, the smile of a betrothed girl, the drunken wails of a proto-Lost Decade youth—one gets a sense of a semi-reluctant observer, one who chose to see himself when seeing others—neither in opposition to, nor, really, in harmony with them, but in soft coexistence.
And yet, it is this very idiosyncrasy and completely undramatic internal conflict that enables his work to possess its unique signatures of humanism and anti-exploitative humor. It is through the identities of others that Marker seemed to find himself, although, ironically and fittingly, rarely on-screen.