Things that Quicken the Heart

By Catherine Lupton

sans-soleil-chris-marker.jpgSans Soleil, 1983

A Chris Marker Compendium

Like Sei Shonagon, lady-in-waiting to the Heian court in 10th century Japan, Chris Marker has a passion for lists. Think of the globetrotting cameraman Sandor Krasna, whose return to Tokyo is described for us in Sans Soleil, roaming the streets and stores to make sure everything is in its right place. “The Ginza owl, the Shimbashi locomotive, the temple of the fox at the top of the Mitsukoshi department store”; followed pell-mell by images of a cat on a parapet, a monkey on a leash, a clarinet playing itself, a sombre traffic cop, and so on and on. Krasna is a bounty-hunter of the banal, and the list remains a time-honoured method for celebrating the everyday, the litany of creation in all its humdrum splendour (and the most overlooked source of knowledge, according to Don DeLillo in Underworld).

Making a list is also one of the better ways to sneak off the royal road of linear narrative and bypass the need to tell a proper story, into the byways and detours of digression, whimsy, free association, mosaic construction or just one damn thing after another. Lists are certainly for nerds, the mildly or tragically obsessed, but they are also supremely ephemeral, made up on a wing and a prayer to satisfy the whim of the moment, scribbled on a scrap of paper (or film, or videotape, or hard drive) and never cast in stone. Tomorrow, in a decade, for somebody else, the contents of the list and criteria for inclusion will and should be different. Appearances notwithstanding, the illusion of authority in the list is pure feint: making lists is an invitation to the incomplete, to the realisation that you will never get to the end of them. As Marker in If I Had Four Camels quotes Jean Cocteau, “Seeing as these things are beyond us, let’s pretend to organise them.”

letter-from-siberia-chris-marker.jpgLetter From Siberia, 1955


Everyone knows that the gates to Chris Marker’s animal kingdom are guarded by the owl and the pussycat, the twin totems whose presence functions more or less as his signature. (Legend tells that he would always send a picture of a cat when anyone requested a photograph of him.) Once inside, animals become signs that divulge the best-kept secrets of human cultures. Letter From Siberia has collectivist ducks, commercials for reindeer, and Ouchatik the tame bear (less frightening than the police); Description of a Struggle twins owls from Jerusalem’s Biblical zoo with oscilloscopes – which the wiser? Anti-Castroist crocodiles and barracudas snap in Cuba Si and The Battle of the Ten Million; emus wander in the Ile de France; SLON the elephant tangos; cine-bear Alexander Medvedkin, the last Bolshevik, begins writing plays in which all the characters are horses. In If I Had Four Camels (whose title comes from Apollinaire’s inventory-poem Le Bestiaire), animals are the tutelary spirits of the Garden: that space where utopian impulses flourish and human beings live in peace, harmony and good-humoured equality; precisely because everywhere else they do not or cannot. Consider the photograph of a lioness who has pushed her muzzle through the wire grid of her cage, to which Marker has added the caption: “This photo expresses what all my films are trying to express.”

Friends and Collaborators

(See also Animals and Interviews). For all that he appears to fulfil Alexandre Astruc’s promise of the solitary cineaste communing alone with his camera-pen; friends and collaborators are everywhere across Marker’s work, and he across theirs. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he was unthinkable without Left Bank co-conspirators and fellow cat-lovers Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda. With Resnais he co-directed his first film, Les Statues meurent aussi; and left his magic marks on Night and Fog and Toute la mémoire du monde. To Varda he gave the apocryphal role of ‘consultant Sinologist’ on A Sunday in Peking, and a hairdressing salon in Tel Aviv. Later, Marker developed a neat sideline in portraiture – François Maspero, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Matta, Medvedkin (twice), Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky (twice again) – which is never better than when animated by cheery sparks of complicity between filmmaker and subject. Marker himself contains multitudes, and – keen auteur theorists take note – some Markers are a collective (SLON; the production teams of Le Joli mai and La Spirale among others), to which in certain cases he doesn’t even belong, other than in a spirit of solidarity (the Medvedkin Groups).

sans-soleil-chris-marker-2.jpgSans Soleil, 1983


Resnais remembers that after Marker won a Belgian literary prize for his first (and so far only) novel, Le Cœur net (1949), he used the money to buy a portable tape recorder (quite a novelty at the time), and went about recording amusing interviews with everyone he met. Marker promptly acquired exactly the opposite reputation, as The Cat Who Talks By Himself, for the witty, erudite, poetic and (some would say) precious literary commentaries of his earliest essay-films. Then Marker went and slid borrowed vérité interviews with Fidel Castro and a revolutionary priest into Cuba Si, and took the long but effortless step into the direct encounters with ordinary Parisians that make up Le Joli mai. Henceforward, for every Marker-penned commentary, somewhere else in the balance of the œuvre there would be a project driven by interviews: an A Bientôt j’espère, The Owl’s Legacy, The Last Bolshevik, or Casque bleu. Marker’s interview technique usually consists of holding himself discreetly on the margins, allowing people to have their say, and then retiring to the editing table to forge his judgment; unless his desire for the subject undoes him (as it does in The Koumiko Mystery), and his questions trip over themselves in veiled pursuit.


Recently interviewed in Libération, Marker emphasised that he is only interested in politics insofar as it is the history of the present. Although it’s tempting to harbour the delusion that history is what happened back then, Marker understands that in order to cast history into urgent relief, the record needs to be played forward. La Jetée, Sans Soleil, Level Five, Embassy, A Grin Without a Cat and 2084 are all barometers, sensing the pressures of undeclared or forgotten wars and reading them through the sci-fi device of an imaginary future. Contrary to the oblivion manufactured from the side of power, Marker – like Walter Benjamin – builds careful constellations of the random, obsolete and overlooked. A Grin Without a Cat reworks off-cuts and out-takes from militant films, pondering their significance from the other side of history. Sans Soleil speaks eloquently, via Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, and the last letter of a WW2 kamikaze pilot, of the personal feelings that seethe beneath the masks of official memory. The pristine photographs of La Jetée dissolve the past into the present and future, as the camp guards of a future nuclear holocaust whisper in German, and the unspeakable terrors of the Cuban missile crisis and the Algerian War gather in the spaces between the still shots.


“When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.” Museums are the great repository of cultural death, and are criticised as such in Les Statues meurent aussi, which attacks the cultural amputation wrought by imprisoning African art in western museums. (See Death). Yet museums also preserve memory – one of the zones of the CD-ROM Immemory is consecrated to them – and memory is liable at any moment to explode the walls of official culture and force something intimate, vital and liberating to the surface. (See History). Few things fascinate Marker’s camera more than the sight of people looking intently at exhibits, as if he hopes to capture that magic instant when cultures spring to life in the field of an animating, sympathetic, if not sycophantic gaze. Never fond of tourists and culture vultures, Marker favours those who sense that exhibits are alive enough to explain themselves to the uninitiated: the Soviet worker in If I Had Four Camels who challenges a Picasso; the Japanese in Sans Soleil inspecting treasures from the Vatican with an eye to industrial espionage; the silent dancers who in From Chris to Christo spontaneously animate the wrapped Pont Neuf. At the origin of all these looks is the extraordinary gaze of the black woman in Les Statues meurent aussi, who symbolically causes the vitrines to shatter and African art to exist not as a novelty, but as a prayer.

last-bolshevik-chris-marker.jpgThe Last Bolshevik, 1993


Right at the end of The Owl's Legacy, Marker’s epic thirteen-part television series examining the influence of ancient Greek civilisation in the modern world, a participant cites Plato’s remark that philosophy is ultimately a preparation for death. Death is never far from the dazzling surfaces of Marker’s work, and its presence is complex. It always threatens to strip everything away from the image, leaving only memory, but it is also something to be accepted with equanimity. In Sans Soleil, the commentary (quoting Marlon Brando’s character Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now), speaks of the need to make a friend of horror, to give it a name and a face; but in Marker’s film horror is substituted for images of death and female beauty (the Japanese actress Natsume Masako, and perhaps Kim Novak in the citations from Vertigo). (Marker is much taken with women as intermediaries for death – one need look no further than La Jetée, or the remarkable associational montage in If I Had Four Camels – but seems inspired more by fascination and respect for both, than the usual fear and loathing). Sans Soleil restores death to its place in the natural order of things, by honouring the multitude of rituals and beliefs that regulate its passage; but for all this it cannot mitigate the pain of death, nor redeem the violent slaughter – the senseless killing of the giraffe – that signals a human world profoundly out of kilter. (The same ecological anger surfaces in Vive la Baleine, an impassioned attack on the international whaling industry made with Mario Ruspoli in 1972.) In Level Five, Marker’s last feature film, Laura ponders film footage capturing the expressions of people on the verge of death – including the women suicides of Saipan – and voices the anxiety that it is the look of the camera itself which is the agent of their destruction, creating an eternity and obliteration in the same moment.

Catherine Lupton is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at University of Surrey Roehampton. Her book Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, will be published by Reaktion Books imminently. Sans Soleil and La Jetée are currently available on a single DVD, along with a short essay film, Chris on Chris, by Chris Darke.