Chris Marker, one of the grand eccentrics of world cinema, died Sunday on his 91st birthday. I imagine he's sitting at some ethereal café, dryly chuckling over the turn of events.
Marker was a photographer, novelist, documentarian, and multimedia artist, but he's probably best known for 1962's "La Jetée," the 28-minute short that influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. "The Matrix" wouldn't exist without it and Terry Gilliam famously expanded Marker's storyline into 1995's "Twelve Monkeys," but the original obviously needs to be met on its own terms. Certainly there was nothing remotely like "La Jetee" when it came out in '62: A post-apocalyptic sci-fi romance told almost entirely in black-and-white still photographs. The one exception -- the one shot that moves -- remains one of the most gracefully hair-raising moments in the history of the medium, and it encapsulates Marker's obsession with time and memory, as well as his choice of film as the medium best suited to explore both.
You can watch "La Jetee" (minus the English subtitles) on YouTube if you really have to, but the only proper approach is to find the Criterion DVD and slap it up onto the biggest screen you can find. The disc also contains Marker's other primary claim to fame, 1983's "Sans Soleil," which is to the travel documentary genre what "War and Peace" is to a postcard. A witty and mysteriously rich meditation on geography, history, death, Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," and other subjects, "Sans Soleil" is a landmark in non-linear moviemaking. Narrated by an unseen woman from letters written by a globe-trotting journalist who doesn't exist, it's as playful as a put-on and serious as hell.
Marker was a self-created enigma, from his pseudonym (born Christian Francois Bouche-Velleneuve, he reportedly took his working name from a magic marker) to his birthplace (probably the suburbs of Paris, although he did tell David Thomson he was from Ulan Bator). He gave few interviews and was rarely photographed. A political leftist free of didacticism, his works roam the world with curiosity, wit, and a poet's nose for injustice. In documentaries and the personal essay film -- a form Marker more or less invented and that was taken up in ensuing decades by filmmakers as varied as Errol Morris, Godfrey Reggio, and Michael Moore -- he made connections between far-flung events and played endless games in the gulf between words and images. He was an intellectual prankster with a subterranean vein of anger, and he understood that the moving image itself was as untrustworthy as the civilization you could capture with it.
While Marker never professed to be part of the French New Wave, he co-existed alongside it, a ghostly fellow traveler moving at a discreet distance. He lived and worked long enough to create a conceptual CD-Rom ("Immemory," 1997) and to conduct interviews from the digital otherworld of Second Life. One of his most important works was "A Grin Without a Cat," a documentary made in 1977 (and reworked in 1993) about the failures of the Left during and after the 1960s. It's impassioned, allusive, and surgically precise, and its title could describe the man himself. In "Sans Soleil," the narrator (who is and isn't Marker) says, "We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten." Few rewrote either more bewitchingly.
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