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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?

Discovering Ferrania’s P30 film

Discovering Ferrania’s P30 film

I don’t deny that I have a deep appreciation of Italy and of the Italian language and culture. I learned a lot during my two years in Bologna more than a decade ago. Today, I enjoy every trip that I make back there. Each time I return there is a chance to speak Italian with Italians in Italy and to re-immerse oneself again in that complicated, beautiful, contradictory country. I don’t hesitate to repeat to everyone, in three different languages, the perhaps apocryphal quote from James Joyce: The only difference between Ireland and Italy is the weather and the food.

Ferrania in 1918 (from Ferrania’s excellent history page)

And so to Ferrania. At one time this company was the largest manufacturer of film in Europe, and thousands worked in their vast factory in the woods in Liguria. In Italy, the Ferrania name is associated indelibly with film. So, when I learned that two friends Nicola Baldini and Marco Pagni had launched a kickstarter to buy all the old Ferrania machinery and re-start production at a scale appropriate for the digitally-dominated early 21st century I was intrigued. Their first product would be… Ferraniacolour film. I was interested, but you know, colour is not really my thing. Then, at the beginning of 2017, came the surprising announcement: In fact, Ferrania would start by producing black and white film, and not any black and white film, but P30, the stock used by many famous Italian neorealist directors, among them Michelanglo Antonioni.

A still from M. Antonioni’s L’eclisse

Antonioni is a little different from the other directors of his era. Antoniennui say the detractors. Nothing much happens his films, but then should it? Life is not always about fighting wars, saving the planet, being heroic. A few years after I arrived in Paris I discovered all his films at the Champo cinema, and I even wrote about them on this blog. Although probably my favourite now is wonderful (colour) film “The passenger” with Jack Nicholson, the trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse are for me one of the high points of cinema. Each scene of each film is so carefully, cooly framed. And, as I discovered reading the Ferrania web-site, shot in P30! You have to understand why this is important: one of the reasons Italy is so unique is because of that aesthetic sensibility so deeply ingrained in the culture and attitude. There is different approach towards beauty, something which is at the same time casual but profound. Different again I think from France or Japan, for instance. I follow with interest the announcement of new photographic films, and Ferrania P30 immediately announced itself as something different, a film with a uniquely storied history, from a country with a long and important cinematic tradition.

The handwritten formula for P30 (Ferrania)

I ordered five rolls just as soon as I could. Yes! Like the old Ferrania publicity, my photography would be transformed (or perhaps not)! And then last week, returning from a meeting, I found my film waiting for me, just in time for the weekend. Ever better, bright sunshine was forecast, and I had a friend visiting who wanted to walk around Paris with me and take photographs. Appropriately, I broke out my second Leica M6, together with the wonderful fifty-year-old Summicron-M 50mm lens that my friend Jean-Francois has loaned to me, and loaded it up with P30. My friend an I walked around the Marais on a hot Sunday afternoon where there were a lot of people and not many of which paid attention to me and my camera. Soon enough, I had shot my first roll of P30.

But first: these days, many people scan film. It is the easiest way to get the images into a computer, and good-enough scanners can be had for a few hundred euros. But scanning does not tell you the full story about the film, how it has been exposed, what it looks like. I’m fortunate: I have access to a darkroom. So a few days after developing my first roll of P30 in Rodinal at 1+50 for 8mins in the kitchen of our small Parisian apartment (sorry for the technical details, but it’s important to mention them) I made a trip to the observatory darkroom which I maintain. Despite having already scanned the roll a week previously, I am old-fashioned, so the first thing I did was to make a set of contact prints, following the rule that one should expose enough so that the sprocket holes are as dark as anything in the frames. I like looking at contacts, although I admit they are not very practical today.

Contact prints from my test roll of P30

Looking at the print with the light on I realized that something was wrong: the images looked underdeveloped (underdeveloped and not underexposed, because in most cases the shadow details are still visible). The developing time quoted by Ferrania in their “best practices” for Rodinal seemed too short. And in fact, when I got out of the darkroom I discovered that this was the case: the data sheet has been updated a day or two ago and the new times in Rodinal are almost double the old ones. But I could already see from these underdeveloped contact sheets and from the scans I had made earlier that P30 was something special.

Rather than showing scans of the negatives, I thought I would show here scans of the prints which were made, appropriately enough, with an Italian Durst enlarger. Remember, these emulsions were formulated to be printed and not scanned, of course! In the dark-room, trying to adjust the focus and looking through the grain enlarger I discovered that I almost couldn’t see the grain. Ferrania P30 must the be finest grain film I have ever used (although I admit I never tried film slower than 100 ISO before). Peering through the grain enlarger I could well understand why such a film was so attractive to cinematographers. I made all on the prints with a grade 2 filter: the contrast is nicely reduced. Eagle-eyed folk will note the notch on the left-hand side of the images: my friend’s camera has a hole cut in the shutter, so you can easily tell which photograph was taken with which camera. Apparently, many photographs did this once…

A certain Parisian elegance (but don’t smile)
On the street, with a cat.

(I think it’s fun scanning the prints, but you’re even more at the mercy of bits of dust and imperfections; of course it is time consuming. I think the best thing to do with prints is to give them to people, or put them on the wall. For reference, the scanned version of the first one of these images can be found here)

So, what do I think of the film? Like it says in the wonderful Ferrania video, it is a beautiful film. It is beautiful not just because it is fine-grained, it is beautiful because how light looks in the photographs. The scans do not do it justice. I have tried a lot of different films in the last two years, and Tri-X is probably my favourite; but after this one roll I am thinking that P30 might just might be my preferred slower film. Of course, an 80 ISO film is not ideal for shooting street photography in Paris in winter, but in bright sunlight I can just about make it work!

I have so much admiration for Film Ferrania and what they have managed to do in re-creating this film. I know how hard it can be sometimes in Italy to achieve something like this, and perhaps not everyone appreciates this. The Film Ferrania founders write modestly on their website how they were supported by the local government but to achieve something like they have achieved requires much determination and perseverance. I wish them much success, and as soon as the shop is open again, I will be buying more P30!

And I’ll be taking my other rolls of P30 with me on my up-coming one month trip to Japan and Thialand. To paraphrase Gary Winogrand, I will take photographs of these places to see what they look like when photographed… on P30.

Note added later (August 2017): As mentioned in the text, the The Ferrania P30 “Best Practices document” has been updated since I wrote this. The recommended time for P30 in Rodinal 1+50 has now been increased to 14mins. I’ve since developed two further rolls under different lighting conditions, it seems to me that 14mins is perhaps now a touch too long. Midway between the two numbers might be right! I need to make further tests in the darkroom…

Note added later (May 2018): Now see Scott Micciche’s extensive article comparing how P30 fares in different developers.