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52 Photographs (2018) #19: Discovering Chris Marker

52 Photographs (2018) #19: Discovering Chris Marker

I took a few photographs at the Chris Marker show at the Cinémathèque. I was particularly interested in the cabinet where photographs of Marker and his family were assembled. It was interesting to see them; as I mentioned in my article, Marker was a private individual. When asked for his photograph, we would invariably send a picture of his cat. So I certainly wanted to take a picture of this display. All those Chris Marker photographs in the same place! But there was a man who was examining the photographs very intently. After he heard the click of my shutter he turned to me and said, I am looking at these pictures so closely because this is my family! He explained that Marker’s family was essentially divided into the mother’s side and the father’s side, and the latter side didn’t care so much for art, culture and cinema. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Marker so rapidly changed his name. Anyway, this fellow was interesting character, and it was nice to talk to him.

Investigating the family of Chris Marker
Chris Marker at the Cinémathèque française

Chris Marker at the Cinémathèque française

Ceci est l’histoire d’un homme marqué par une image d’enfance. And so begins Chris Markers’ La Jetée, a story of memory, time, the past and the future. This is a story of man, marked by a childhood image. That could be, perhaps, Marker’s own story. At the new exhibition at La Cinémathèque française , one has the opportunity to discover all of Markers’ works, and not just his films, but also his writing, his activism — and his drawings of cats.

Chris Marker and Guillaume-en-Égypte. (c) Chris Marker

Marker was a singular figure in the history of French cinema, and one not easy to classify. After early experiences of being misinterpreted by journalists, he became reluctant be interviewed or profiled. He was not, however, a recluse: one may be reminded of Thomas Pynchon, who said: “’recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists … meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters”. On his library card, he substituted he picture with that of his cat, Guillaume-en-Égypte, who would serve as his public representative.

His interests were vast. He was at least novelist, director, publisher and photographer. Marker died in 2012, and the Cinémathèque were able to acquire the contents of his studio (all 500 boxes of it!). This show is a result of the last few years’ worth of cataloguing and sorting.

His most famous film in English-speaking countries is La Jetée, a remarkable short film composed almost entirely of static black-and-white images. It tells the story of a man in a post-apocalyptic Paris who is forced to voyage to the past and future and who discovers the true significance of a traumatic event remembered from his own childhood. But at the same time Marker was assembling the striking still images for La Jetée on the floor of his Parisian apartment, with Pierre Lhomme he was filming Le Joli Mai, a revolutionary documentary showing life in Paris in May 1962. Like Werner Herzog he had an amazing ability to get people to speak openly towards the camera. In the film, a young Algerian man tells of the casual racism he suffered at work; a stockbroker complains on how the Algerian war will affect his stock prices.

Investigating Chris Marker. Note the cat.

Today the details of Marker’s are reasonably well-known, but in the past he certainly liked to tell every person he met different and conflicting stories concerning his origins, and at times he had formative childhoods in both Cuba and Inner Mongolia. In reality, he was born in one of the more bourgeois Parisian suburbs and soon changed his name to “Chris Marker” because he’d already decided he wanted to travel. A name like Chris Marker, he reasoned, would be easier to pronounce in many different languages. Travel did indeed play an important part of his life: and in the 50s he edited a series of well-regarded travel books for Seuil. William Klein, who met Marker at this time, remarked that he was “the kind of person you’d expect to have a laser pistol tucked into his belt”.

Technically, Marker was always worked at the forefront of what was possible with the technology available at the time. Le Joli mai was one of the first documentary films for which the sound was recorded with the images, removing the need for a separate sound recording machine. At the one can discover many items from Marker’s vast collection of imaging-recording devices. He was always fascinated by the possibilities that new technologies created for recording and experiencing the word around us. The entrance to the exhibition itself is modelled around the virtual gallery he created inside Second Life.

Inside the expo, exploring Marker’s later works

In an interview on france culture Costa-Gavras (director of the Cinémathèque) explains that Marker understood immediately the potential of digital technology. Already during industrial disputes in the east of France in the 1960s, Marker and and a group of like-minded film-makers showed striking workers how to make films and how to use cameras and recording equipment to their advantage. The collage reproduced here from the exhibition catalogue seems remarkably prescient for our “citizen reporter” times.

Marker was deeply interested in understanding what the consequences were of the revolutionary fervour which spread around the world in the 1960s. This story is chronicled in his epic documentary film, “Le fond de l’air est rouge” which is amusingly translated into English as a “A grin without a cat”. The end results of these revolutionary upheavals? Not a lot. As Marker notes pessimistically in the DVD liner notes, for French intellectuals the bottom of the air would always be red but despite this, red would always be at the bottom.

Film is a weapon ! A collage (attributed to Chris Marker).

Like many of his generation he saw cities in ruins and expected the next war to come soon enough; his first film was made in the rubble of Berlin. The images of “Paris in Ruins” of La Jetée are in fact other European cities destroyed by wartime bombing. At the cinematheque exhibition, many of Markers’ films are shown on continuous loops in separate rooms without sound isolation. In La Jetée, the beautiful choirs of a Parisian Russian orthodox church are heard at the moment of the destruction of the city. These heavenly sounds resonate throughout the whole exhibition at regular half-hourly intervals, conditioned by the length of the film. Ceci est l’histoire d’un homme marqué par une image d’enfance? Perhaps.

For those not familiar with Marker, is wonderful source of information about the man and his work, in both French and English. Thanks also to Mr. J. Seagull for the loan of the exhibition catalogue.

Finishing stuff: Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”

Finishing stuff: Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”

A recent fascinating Freakonomics podcast explained why projects are always late. People tend to promise to do too much for too little money to get the thing accepted in the first place: but afterwards, there is not enough cash to actually complete the project. In general the cost of big projects are underestimated by 30% to 50%, but everyone knows worse examples, the most famous one being The Second Avenue Subway which has been in planning since 1919 but the first stations only opened in 2017.

The movie industry equivalent of the second avenue subway must be Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote which finally opened last week here in Paris after having been in planning since … 1989, almost thirty years ago. The travails of previous attempts to make film in 1998 were most famously chronicled in Lost in La Mancha: Gilliam’s lead actor Jean Rochefort is injured and leaves the set, low-flying jets disrupt the filming, a flash flood washes away their equipment and transforms the landscape. Finally, the filming is aborted. But Gilliam is undaunted. For at least two decades now, he has said that each film he makes is because he cannot make his Quixote.

Terry Gilliam’s Quixote is alive !

I can imagine just how difficult it must be to make any film: not only one has to be creative, but at the same time once must manage people and keep production on schedule. And the people you are trying to manage are not exactly compliant. Think of Kinski on the set of Aguirre, who only calmed down after Werner Herzog drew a gun on him. Then there are the money men — the producers — who may not be, shall we say, exactly aligned with the director’s artistic vision. In Wenders’ State of things the tough-guy American producer (played by a menacing Dennis Hopper) is under the impression that his German director is making a gangster movie when in fact it’s a surreal science fiction movie. You can understand why the director would want to keep that a secret from a producer like Hopper.

You mean after thirty years this movie is going to get made? (Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce)

So, at last, Quixote is on cinemas in Paris, despite having been threatened by a last-minute court injunction by a previous producer. And in fact it’s excellent fun, displaying all the traits of a Gilliam movie: lavish baroque sets, constantly shifting points-of-view, reality and dreams merging and shifting. Adam Driver, whom I last saw writing poetry in Paterson plays a determinedly rational film-maker who finds himself making a vodka commercial featuring … Don Quixote.

We soon discover that a decade previously he made his own Quixote. During a moment on the set he wonders just what happened to the actors who starred in his film, because, actually, the village where they filmed was really quite nearby. Leaving on a motorbike he soon finds them and his Quixote, ably played by Jonathan Pryce. Before long he gets a little too close to the source material, which is about the best way I can think of putting it without giving too much away. Intercut are flashbacks from our commercial-maker’s previous film. For an instant I thought they were out-takes from one of Gilliam’s failed previous productions; yes indeed there are many parallels between these different stories.

Of course it hard to see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote without thinking of the vast efforts that Gilliam took to bring it to the screen. But independent of this, it is still an excellent film, and certainly worth seeing.

Blade Runner 2049: the future is (thankfully) retro-futurist

Blade Runner 2049: the future is (thankfully) retro-futurist

We are now only two years from the dateline of the original Blade Runner. Ray Bradbury’s melancholic future of Martian settlement and abandonment, The Martian Chronicles, has since long passed, and along with it of course, 1984. Today we should be living in Jules Verne’s Paris in the 21st century. And now Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 decides consciously and unashamedly to continue in the same lost future imagined thirty years previously. A glowing hoarding for the defunct pan-American airlines, visible also in Ridley Scott’s original film, makes this clear. It’s certainly reassuring to know that PanAm made it unscathed through the thirty years separating the two films, despite all the terrible things that happened in there, which we will get to presently.

It’s a truism that our visions of the future reflect the age that we are living in. Blade runner 2049 has at its heart Philip K. Dick’s lifelong obsession with memory, identity and the nature of reality, understandable giving the shape-changing psychoactive-substance-abusing times he wrote it in. Layered onto this, then, there is Ridley Scott’s neo-noir down these mean streets a man must go, to which he added, who is maybe an android? At one point, one of the characters from the previous film resurfaces, and we remember that yes, the 1980s, that was big hair too.

Villeneuve has stated that he wanted to stay true to the original, and in Blade Runner 2049 he has gloriously succeeded. The film is a wondrous widescreen evocation of a ruined post-catastrophe future, beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins, who knows how to do retro-futurism, having worked on the film version of 1984. Ryan Gosling is as cooly implacable as you’d expect him to be, and Harrison Ford’s Deckard is as we remember him. His character seems to have spent most of the the three decades between the two films going through the world’s largest drinks cabinet. Happily, the intervening catastrophes have destroyed most digital media, which means there is still some gumshoe work to be done — in flying cars mostly, of course, because this is Blade Runner. That’s what drives the film along, and it’s for the most part compelling and fun to watch.

Blade Runner 2049: this is what repealing the clean air act will get you…

But within this retro-futuristic straightjacket of “being true” there isn’t much space left over to imprint our current worries. Pervasive surveillance and the effortless execution of miscreants by remote-controlled pilotless drones (whilst the operator gets a manicure) makes a showing, and as a counterbalance we are allowed a marginally hopeful scene involving bees. The Pacific Ocean is kept at bay by an enormous seawall, and weather conditions seem to change faster than you could switch channels on TV. Like in William Gibson’s The Peripheral, the world-melting disaster presented here drives humanity to desperately invent advanced technologies to survive, but the end result is to merely to exaggerate existing power structures. Big corporations operate well beyond the bounds of law enforcement, and we see one of the chief baddies sauntering around LAPD headquarters without so much as ringing the doorbell.

So, the film succeeds entirely as a sequel to the original, which has cast such a long shadow on cinematic history. By continuing down the fork in the road of its predecessor, it is an even more fully realized version of the same future. Yes, this is a retro-futurist film, unlikely to come to be, which is partly reassuring, because the future that it depicts is not a place you’d like find yourself living in. Cinema should not necessarily inspire us with a shining future of gleaming spaceships, brushed metal and inter-species kissing. But where are the utopias today?