The Mind's Eye: Chris Marker Level Five

By Allan Francovich

level-five-chris-marker.jpgLevel Five, 1997

Allan Francovich, Documentarist, remembered by Clare Downs

The night before Allan took that fateful flight to Houston, ironically to film the ninety-three year old arts patron, Dominique Dumesnil, before her demise, he called to tell me that he had just got news that now three of the four documentaries he had been planning, including one of the assassination of Olof Palme, had got financed. Sylvie De Clezio, his producer, had managed to raise the finance from Australia. He was a happy man, his mind already sizzling at the work to be done. Since his award-winning expose of the CIA, On Contemporary Business, in 1980, Allan had pursued his dangerous work in uncovering those dark truths that most filmmakers today feel powerless, or afraid, to uncover – Houses Are Full of Smoke in 1987 another expose of CIA dealings, focusing on South America, Dark Passage in 1990 about the death squads in El Salvador, Gladio in 1992 revealing the existence of out-of-control, ex-CIA, fascist cells throughout Europe and most recently his documentary, The Maltese Double Cross, implicating the CIA directly in the Lockerbie bombing. Since then, he had chosen to reflect in fiction. He worked non-stop to complete a moving play about the Spanish Civil War, a film script based on the Isle of Skye and had recently been given the green light to direct a short fiction film he had written. How was he going to realise all this and breathe, he bantered? His last piece of news was that in Paris earlier that week, he had made a new friend for life, as he put it, Chris Marker, whose Level Five had fired his imagination and again his pen. When news came through of his fatal heart attack, the feeling welled up in me, what a waste.

Spherical mirrors placed in a Japanese rock garden, sand raked into hollows and ridges around granite stalagmites which we see rising up in front of us out of bluish-grey waves of sand, but which we actually feel are stalactites hanging in a camera obscura from the mind's roof: stillness is at the centre of Chris Marker's films, the stillness of hinge and fulcrum. For us to see anything in the endlessness of space and time our eye must bounce off boundaries. Film is the framing of space and time through an eyepiece, the breathing of pulsing light through the spiral of a diaphragm opening and closing, light shuttered down into perception, movement dying twenty four or thirty six times a second, the very dying of motion is what makes it visible. Lack of movement which, when next seen, seems itself to have moved. In film, motion must be made into commotion, be joined together by the viewer's eye to become emotion, those inwardly speaking voices that move through us, dissolve us into time, dissolve with us into time.

In Marker's films, light caught in emulsion floats like oil on water, burns off in the darkness of the mind stopped dead between frames, so having time to think, before being washed over by more pictures.

Marker's best-known film La Jetée is about time. Made up almost entirely of stills except for one short sequence in which - through slight movements, three turns of a woman's head, three blinks of her eyes, three openings of her lips animated out of freeze frames - a frenzy of beauty born out of an ocean of stillness, a lover's face and eyes are made breath and light for a moment in a day that then immediately becomes lost in time.

La Jetée is a jetty jutting out into stillness. But then, every film is made out of stillness, is made out of stills, although most films leave us wheeling in dharma, enticing us into illusions from which we can only escape by being left in the stillness there is inside us to become our own hinge and fulcrum.

The hinge, the fulcrum of the film is always the cut. Cuts rake the white sand of the film into waves, into seas that surround rocks, create archipelagos of associations which then connect into sensations and thoughts. Marker is a magus of montage, a junk sculptor of images, as much a master of found footage as Bruce Conner.

A few years ago Marker sold the rights to La Jetée to a Los Angeles studio for a feature-length remake, the Terry Gilliam-directed, multiplex-screened, Bruce Willis vehicle, Twelve Monkeys. A mutual friend, who happened to put the deal together for Marker (himself as reclusive as a cat that flees petting, a wide-eyed owl who does his flying at night), recently read me Marker's amusing letter to the purchasing studio commenting on the absurd length of the contract. 100 pages of whereases and other provisos, all to secure the rights to a story which, in the original version, lasts barely thirty minutes, every frame full of the terrible beauty of the evanescent. The remake, like the contract, is full of sulphurous inflation.

Chris Marker is an action-film director. He does not push flamboyant outside actions across the screen; he illuminates the screen with inner actions. There is no swordplay, only the action inside Yojimbo, the stillness inside Toshiro Mifune as he rubs his beard before he slices up three blustering Rambo sans. Or the aquarium stillness of the gaunt, sad-sack samurai in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai that Mifune watches before he springs – owl-eyed cat instantly cuffing a mouse – whom Mifune afterwards approaches, asking him to join the gang of Ronin he is assembling to defend persecuted rice farmers.

Marker has just done his own remake of La Jetée, Level Five.

It too is about time, personal and historical time, how they overlap, how they are interiorized, how the time Marker has lived in has been imaged and imagined. The film is elegiac. It is Marker's long goodbye to his own time, a time full of passionate intensity that began with him fighting in the Second World War, a time that he now tries to keep still long enough so that he and we can see at least some of its indifferent cruelty.

level-five-chris-marker-2.jpgLevel Five, 1997

Catherine Belkhodja, the Laura of Level Five, avatar of Otto Preminger's Laura, the talked-about, always-present absence in Preminger's film of that name, tells us very early on through a direct unblinking address right into the camera eye and into us, that every act of remembering is at the same time an act of forgetting, that what we remember simultaneously involves forgetting something else. Although she does not go on to say more about what that implies, other witnesses do that by indirection. In particular the Reverend Shigeaki Kinjo who, with his brother, battered his parents to death during the battle of Okinawa, to save them from the humiliation of capture, to save them from what the Okinawans were told would be the vaunted brutality of American captors. By the end of the film we know that we can love each other only because we chose what we remember. That act, if it fills us, is enough for us not to remember that we have chosen to forget things in the act of choosing what we remember.

Level Five is an action film in which all the exterior actions are shot as interiors. The film is a love story, the story of an amour fou which, like all obsessive loves, happen inside the mind losing itself in time as it tries to find a way out of time: the mad love of the filmmaker for Laura's cheekbones, for her eyes, for her auburn hair, for her voice coming from a face that is a mask, the spherical mirror inside us which we look into as we each look at the world through our own eyes. The voice that speaks out of the mask is sometimes Laura's own, sometimes the mask speaks with Marker's own breathy tones.

Laura never gets to Level Five. She and we can get to level two, three or four, if no error of type fourteen occurs. But none of us can get to Level Five because Level Five is inaccessible. We can only ever get to Level Five by indirection because you cannot surf on sand waves.

Laura tells us a Hassidic story her absent lover had loved very much. How, before each of us is born, we know everything there is to know but just before we are born an angel taps us on the head so we forget everything. So we enter the world where we each must begin to build up our hard disk through random access memory.

As Laura begins to play her game of strategy with a computer, a Japanese game of Go, re-fighting the Battle of Okinawa, last battle of World War Two, the middle war of the century's three great wars, the computer sends her a message: "I have already won but we can go on playing if you want."

The game we play with our own life is always won by time and death. Some of us know that very soon after we begin to play, others learn along the way. All of us have no choice but to continue to play.

What Laura's rabbi does not say in Level Five is that when we finally lose the game, when we die, we are again tapped on the shoulder and so forget everything we have learnt; we enter Paradise as empty of memory and knowledge as on the day we were born. But, then, there is nothing to know in Paradise. We learn about things and about ourselves only in time and through time.

In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris' Botanical Garden founded by the great French naturalist Buffon – and one of Marker's favourite spots, where one of the central scenes in La Jetée unfolds – there is a zoo where the usual menagerie of caged animals cavorts for those interested in buffooneries, cages full of silly, unstill lickings, roarings, eatings, clawings, chewings, smoochings and humpings looking just like the humanly-mimed actions which fill thousands of movie screens. At the other end of the calcerous perspective through symmetrical alleyways of plane trees on the slight rise of hummock, there is a green garden maze, trimmed boxed hedges geometrically arranged, spiralling into itself like a galaxy, like time and history, some of the passages in the maze dead end where we become as lost as we are in our own lives, themselves the dead ends through which we learn everything we ever know.

If Muso Soseki, Zen monk, inventor of the Japanese rock garden, born in the Thirteenth century – ten years after Dante who himself had to travel through Hell and Purgatory to see his beloved Beatrice again in Paradise – had ever sat in the Jardin des Plantes he would have worn a Chris Marker mask and he would have written the poem below, in fact written by Soseki in 14th century Japan:

A hedge
of a thousand trees
standing in the cold

The green haze
so deep and dense
it keeps out the light

Don't blame me
for staying alone
with my door shut

The guidepost
always stood open
for anyone who passed.

Level Five ends when Laura pushes the button that controls focus, depth of field, the focal length of the camera's lens which had filmed her as she has sat before the computer screen to talk to us and to Coco Loco, her echoing mechanical parrot, who sometimes forgets her words and so cannot repeat them back to her. Laura puts herself first into soft, then completely out-of-focus as she voices a last homage to her never-seen lover whom she says was always modest, never lost his integrity, never had an ounce of cruelty in him. Laura finally obliterates herself into pixellations, leaving us there to sense that the Zen Monk, poet, samurai always on the side of the persecuted, the lover we sometimes hear but never see in Level Five to whom we too must say goodbye is Chris Marker himself, spherical mirror in a Japanese rock garden full of raked sand where the sun glints on granite slabs, where a voice from behind the garden wall recites from Arthur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell:

Elle est retrouvée
Quoi ?
La mer melée avec le soleil

It has been found!
What ?
It is the sea mixed into the sun.

Chris Marker, mon semblable, mon frère.
Merci, merci, merci for having passed
through this time we have shared.