About Time

By Chris Darke

sans-soleil-chris-marker.jpgSans Soleil, 1983 [1]

Chris Marker is one of the most important artists of the moving image. A fine new study explores his remarkable, and ongoing, body of work

Finally, (at last), we have the first study in English of the career of Chris Marker (Chris Marker: Memories of the Future) in which Catherine Lupton takes the reader on a chronological journey through the work of the man she describes as ‘a towering and seminal figure’ in contemporary visual culture. There’s no arguing with that assessment, but a paradox underwrites Marker’s immense contribution: the most stubbornly reticent of any major film-maker, much of his fifty-plus years’ worth of work is hard, if not impossible, actually to view. For every well-known masterpiece such as La Jetée or Sans Soleil, there is a host of lesser known films, videos and collaborations. Added to which, Marker has declared his pre-1962 work (the year of Le Joli Mai and La Jetée) to be unrepresentative, off limits and not to be distributed. Lupton, then, has the task of arguing her claim for Marker’s greatness from a body of work that is largely invisible or, at least, little known outside France. Her motivation for undertaking such a task, though, is unimpeachable and timely; responding to ‘an exponential growth of interest in Marker’s achievements that has developed over the last few years among scholars, thinkers and creative artists in a range of disciplinary fields.’ 

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

A true polymath, Marker has turned his hand to many different creative endeavours over the years: photography, writing, editing, filmmaking, book design, multimedia production, installation art and music (he used to make a living as a bar-room pianist). It’s the attention to the range and breadth of Marker’s work that makes for one of the interesting aspects of Lupton’s study. Her first chapter is a fascinating excavation of post-WWII Paris, a period of artistic ferment and cultural reconstruction in which Marker was active as a writer and popular animateur. One of the most characteristic and celebrated features of Marker’s work is his facility for writing voice-over commentaries that combine playful allusiveness with discursive poetry, and political acuteness with erudite intelligence; and Lupton explores early examples of the Marker ‘voice’ through his extensive contributions to the magazine Esprit, as well as other writing, including his first (and only) novel and collaborations with Alain Resnais on the groundbreaking essay films Toute la Mémoire du Monde, Les Statues Meurent Aussi and Nuit et Brouillard. The image that emerges across the book is of an unquenchably creative spirit, able and unafraid to cross the boundaries between media, fascinated with the potential of technology but always attentive to the political and social realities of the time. Lupton deals well with the potentially overwhelming and protean nature of Marker’s interests, returning to and developing key features and themes that recur across his work, particularly the roles of photography, political solidarity, friendship and ‘new media’.

la-jetee-chris-marker.jpgLa Jetée, 1962 [3]

The question ‘who is Chris Marker?’ can only really be answered with reference to his work, something that Marker has cultivated over the years through his strategic disappearance behind pseudonyms and heteronyms. The odd glimpse emerges of the man behind the mask. The American photographer William Klein, whose work Marker helped publish with Editions du Seuil in the 1950s, provides a snapshot of the filmmaker as a somewhat otherworldly sci-fi fanatic: “Klein recalled visiting Marker in his office at Seuil to discuss the project and finding himself in Star Wars years before its time: ‘there were spaceships hanging everywhere from threads, he wore futurist pistols in his belt. And he looked like a Martian.’” Readers looking for further insights behind the pseudonym (Marker’s real name is Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve) will be disappointed. Marker has spent a lifetime assiduously avoiding celebrity, his reticence – bordering on invisibility – producing understandable curiosity about his life. It’s for others to undertake such biographical investigations but, in Memories of the Future, Lupton sets out Marker’s career with clarity and a pleasing balance between historical detail, description of the work and analysis. For enthusiasts and adepts of the oeuvre this is an invaluable overview; for newcomers wishing to learn more it’s a feast.

As luck would have it (surely this is far too serendipitous to be mere luck), Lupton’s book arrives at the same time as the latest work by the man himself, a 59-minute video chronicle of recent French politics presided over by his favourite beast, the cat, and entitled Chats Perchés (the title literally means ‘perching cats’ but requires something more elegant by way of translation if it ever reaches Anglo- Saxon audiences). Should Lupton’s prove to be the first of a number of studies of Marker to emerge over the coming years, as I suspect it might, one can only hope that some enterprising DVD publisher will start to get busy with reissuing the back catalogue; God – or Marker – willing.


[1-2] Sans Soleil by Chris Marker © 1982 Argos Films
[3] La Jetée by Chris Marker © 1962 Argos Films (this credit was omitted for the cover of issue 7. Our apologies) 
[4] Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, by Catherine Lupton is published by Reaktion Books (£14.95).

Chris Darke is a writer, critic and lecturer on the moving image. His book of selected writings, Light Readings, is published by Wallflower while his monograph on Alphaville is forthcoming from IB Tauris. He is also represented, with his film study Chris on Chris, on the DVD of La Jetée and Sans Soleil.