Essays (book reviews)

Chris Marker, Posthumously, in 3 Books

Books Reviewed:


Adam Bartos and Colin MacCabe, Studio: Remembering Chris Marker
OR Books, 2017, 35 text pages plus 9 large-scale colour photos

Catherine Roudé, Le cinéma militant à l’heure des collectifs. Slon et Iskra dans la France de l’après-1968
Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017, 306 pages

Maroussia Vossen, Chris Marker (le livre impossible)
Le Tripode, 2016, 125 pages

All Bets Are Off

Early in 2010, I happened to be chatting with a programmer of the Cinémathèque française. The institution was keen to include, in one of its séances, a 1960s TV interview with Jean-Luc Godard, directed by Éric Rohmer. The problem was that the segment had no directorial credit – and Rohmer himself steadfastly denied his authorship of this minor job of work, although other sources confirmed his involvement beyond doubt.

Then Rohmer died.

I commented to the programmer that this probably doomed the intriguing TV segment to historic oblivion but, on the contrary, they exclaimed with glee: “Now that the director is gone – all bets are off!” The screening duly went ahead, with this item credited, once and for all, to Rohmer.

This anecdote returned to my mind upon receiving news of the many new publications and events planned to honour Chris Marker, six years after his death at the age of 91 in July 2012. Marker was famously disdainful of most – possibly every – attempt to memorialise him as a great artist or auteur. As early as 1963, upon meeting the young critic and Artsept magazine editor Raymond Bellour – then already a firm Marker fan – the multimedia maker impulsively grabbed the scholar and made him promise on the spot: “Don’t ever write a book about me, OK?” (Bellour has held to that promise.)

Such stories of Marker’s recalcitrance in the face of his own, looming legacy are legion. In the early 2000s, a young, Eastern European artist told me how she and her colleagues had approached Marker with the idea of re-exhibiting his 1990 video installation Zapping Zone. He had a better idea: he would provide the specifications for its set-up (the dispositif, as the French say) – a sculptural arrangement of 13 TV monitors, programmed in a particular sequence – and, inside it, they should simply place their own audiovisual works, rather than his.

Likewise, when Australian critic-curator Vikki Riley once asked Marker in the late 1980s to approve a particular selection and presentation of his short films, she was greeted – via fax – with a suggested list of better and more interesting films by other people!

The legend that accrues to Marker – sometimes exaggerated in its mythic dimensions – conjures him as someone who shunned publicity (no photographs!), enjoyed using extravagant pseudonyms, allowed himself to be interviewed only via email, and generally hid himself away from the limelight, like some reclusive hermit à la J.D. Salinger. The anonymous, clandestine, faceless Marker!

One would not know, from this legend, that he also took regular walks around Paris, shot footage and still photos in the streets, rode trains, and even occasionally attended his preferred event, the Midnight Sun Film Festival organised by Peter von Bagh and Aki Kaurismäki, in Finland.

Nonetheless, it is certainly true that Marker (like Jacques Rivette) refused requests, during his lifetime, for his past writings to be collected and/or republished. (Now that the bets are off, the volume Early Film Writings will be appearing in English in 2024.) It is a fact that certain of his earlier films, such as Letter from Siberia (1957), Description of a Struggle (1960), and Cuba Si! (1961), were works he preferred (for whatever reason) to leave buried in the dust of time – hence withholding permission for them to be screened or distributed. (As far as Marker was concerned, those works were trial efforts, and his filmography truly began in 1962.)

And I know from my own brief, fleeting, email encounter with Marker on a project – the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of his mighty video installation Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, in 2007 – that he often left his contribution to certain works deliberately unsigned and unstated: few readers of that catalogue (which can be glimpsed sitting on a table in his studio during the playful 2011 video portrait Chris Marker by Agnès V.) will be aware that its distinctive (and very cinematic) design/layout were devised entirely by Marker.

Friendship, with its pact of mutual trust, was, by all evidence, the most powerful and driving principle in Marker’s career. If he liked and trusted an individual or an organisation – such as, in the USA, Icarus Films, Peter Blum Gallery or the Wexner Center for the Arts – he would happily provide his past work or initiate new projects, such as the superb photo-books Staring Back (2007) and Passengers (2011).

It was the larger, less personal, more anonymous institutions of art that turned Marker off, with their hard veneer of elite, high-bourgeois culture. His sensibility closely resembles, on this score, that expressed by American art critic Dave Hickey [1938-2021] who, in his book Perfect Wave: More Essays on Art and Democracy (2017), offers a chilling narrative of how he became, in his advanced years, a mere “token rebel” to be wheeled out at official seminars and biennales.

Marker, mercifully, dexterously escaped that fate ever befalling him. While he lived, the Pompidou Centre in Paris initiated discussions with Marker concerning a major, retrospective exhibition devoted to his life and career. He quietly but firmly resisted the idea, without ever entirely putting the kibosh on it, and so erected various, clever obstacles in the path of immediately realising any such project. (Using the resources it had already collected, Pompidou Centre turned the idea, after Marker’s death, into the exhibition Planète Marker in late 2013.)

In his last years, Marker, spending most of the time in his home studio, was more concerned with tinkering in the virtual reality platform of Second Life – where, indeed, he engineered the weird kind of floating immortality that he preferred. Reportedly, when a Pompidou representative tried to make Marker an attractive offer – “We’ll give you anything you want!” – Marker thought it over for a bit, and then replied: “Maybe you can pay my Internet bill?”

Finally, all bets are utterly off, so it is all happening: the retrospective and exhibition (now passed into the responsibility of the Cinémathèque française), the collected writings, the DVD/Blu-ray sets. The first, major wave of this memorialising activity is occurring in France, but will no doubt spread its ripples across the globe, eventually. Which is good news for Marker fans everywhere, even if it accords little with what he may have personally wished.

Here, I offer a brief survey of three books of the late 2010s devoted, wholly or in part, to Marker and his work; many more are on the way.

Starting with the least entertaining but certainly most scholarly and informative tome, Catherine Roudé in Le cinéma militant à l’heure des collectifs (“militant cinema in the era of collectives”) looks at the creation of Slon (Société de lancement des œuvres nouvelles) in 1968, and its successful continuation as Iskra (Image, son, kinescope et realisations audiovisuelles) in 1973 – a collective devoted to political cinema.

Although the book’s focus is on the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Iskra is, in fact, far from being only an intriguing historic episode: it still operates today, and a celebratory retrospective programme was devoted to it in March 2018 at the Cinémathèque française, including such works as Jacques Loiseleux’s La Parcelle (1969) and Dominique Cabrera’s Rêves du ville (1993).

In her fastidiously documented tome, Roudé offers a sociological account of how Slon/Iskra functions as a mechanism tooled simultaneously for production, exhibition and distribution (sales to TV, for instance, became crucial to keeping the enterprise afloat – an important aspect of independent cinema’s economic sustainability often stressed by Luc Moullet).

Sociology in France (as this book led me to discover) defines itself in the tension between a Pierre Bourdieu tendency and a Becker tendency – not the filmmaker Jacques Becker, but the American scholar Howard S. Becker, author of Outsiders (1973) and Art Worlds (1982).

Following the Beckerian path, Roudé traces the network of daily, working relations that have structured (and continue to structure) Slon/Iskra’s multiple activities – covering everything from the parcelling up of office duties, to the (alas) seemingly inescapable inequities of gender.

Slon/Iskra has never been, as Roudé makes helpfully clear, a rigidly ideological, partisan group: although squarely on the left, it has remained open to diverse viewpoints, has never been affiliated with a political party, and seriously pursues its avowed goal to put cinema and other audiovisual tools in the hands of workers, women, students and so forth. What matters is less any individual auteur than the fair, collective process of decision-making that gives rise to each completed piece.

This is where – especially in the early years of Slon/Iskra – Marker fits into the picture. Inspired by the collective project he had successfully co-ordinated for Far from Vietnam (1967), Marker put a great deal of effort into kickstarting and helping maintain the loose, ever-shifting Slon model. Roudé seeks to downplay (as Marker himself was at pains to do) the legendary aspect of his “starring”, public relations role in Slon/Iskra. Nonetheless, she notes the evident “signature” of Marker whenever it reveals itself in wittily worded press releases and other documents from the archives.

Although the book strives for objectivity and balance – it is hard to ever forget its origin as a doctoral thesis (the publisher, after all, is Presses Universitaires de Rennes) – sometimes a more candid admission peeks out (as it were) between the lines, thanks particularly to the interviews Roudé conducted with participants past and present.

Marker’s talent for friendship, once again, played a decisive role in the history of Slon/Iskra: his pal Alain Resnais added his support in the early days of the group; and later, a central member, the prolific activist-filmmaker René Vautier (1928-2015), joined in because, as he declared, “I had a conversation with Chris”. At one point, Roudé casually records the ledger of celebrities – “Marker’s entourage”, as she describes them – on whom the filmmaker leaned for Slon-Iskra’s financial aid: this list includes director Joris Ivens, artist Roberto Matta and actors Yves Montand and Marina Vlady!

Chris Marker (le livre impossible) is by dancer-choreographer Maroussia Vossen, the filmmaker’s adopted daughter. It is undoubtedly the best of the three publications reviewed here. Although – in a typically French, ultra-discreet way – most of the private details of the family arrangement are left unspoken (the mother is not even named! Perhaps because, for reasons Maroussia could not penetrate, Marker cut off contact with her), Vossen allows us, via a beautifully written sequence of brief anecdotes, recollections and reflections, an intimate view of the man she knew for almost sixty years. (Note: an excellent English rendition of the text is freely available here.)

Although Marker took the decision to adopt Maroussia as a way to help out a friend in dire, sudden need, he eventually assumed his unplanned-for parental role with full commitment and fidelity – but also performed it in his own, unique, sometimes eccentric way.

Translating and quoting any one passage will not adequately give the flavour or tone of this remarkable book. Many of its pages record the smallest of details – a nickname (“Zonzon”) with which Marker blessed Vossen, his passing suggestion that she dance during a projection of Ivens’ Rain (1929), his fondness for all things Russian – but the accumulative effect of the whole is powerful.

It is a jolt, for instance, to discover – and Vossen herself only found this out indirectly, through a mutual friend – that the reason he suddenly took up train travel (as opposed to walking) around Paris, hence providing the impetus for the photos comprising Passengers, was that he was undergoing treatment for cancer. This was something he withheld from even his closest associates.

There are things that, as Vossen declares near the beginning, she is scarcely privy to in Marker’s life; she muses that he always seemed to be “between two trips, two women, two identities, between heaven and earth, between his outer life and his inner prison”.

Marker was someone who, in an unostentatious way, constantly reinvented himself as he flowed along with the tides of history. When I asked, in 2007, his opinion of the great film critic Roger Tailleur (1927-1985), who had written such wonderful texts on his work in the early 1960s, his recollection was void, and he explained: “After all, that was several lifetimes ago for me”.

Vossen keeps those secrets she does know close to her chest, and teases us – Marker’s army of devotees – with them. She addresses herself to his ghost in a “last letter”: “In the secrecy of your studio, you had tried to assemble some pieces of your family puzzle – the family that, in your wild youth, you impulsively dismissed with contempt”. But no further details follow.

Another example: the strange, whispering voice on the soundtrack of La Jetée (1962), a voice that is not “synthetic” but belongs to “a real man … unnamed in the credits. Is he forgotten? No! It was Chris’ decision, and I know why. Maybe one day the identity of this ‘whisperer’ will be revealed” …

Vossen writes about the real Chris Marker that she knew – not the myth or legend, which she regards with understandable scepticism. She occasionally cites an academic study or article from the Internet, but never names their authors – and she gently mocks one publishing house that inadvertently advertised a forthcoming book on Christ [sic] Marker!

More pointedly, Vossen records her disconcertment upon discovering, at his funeral, the bewildering existence of so many self-professed close friends and associates of Marker – some of whom even claimed knowledge of how he wanted his dead body to be treated (donated for medical experiments, rather than – as Vossen knew better – cremated).

The account given in this “impossible book” suggests something of which Vossen herself was perhaps not entirely aware: namely, that Marker seems to have managed his life on the principle of divide and conquer, having many friends and contacts both on personal and professional levels, but (for the most part) keeping them all distinct and separate – never mixing them up into anything resembling a conventional “social life”.

As a result, every person who knew him reasonably well, or who enjoyed relatively regular dealings with him, naturally tends to imagine they experienced a unique and special relationship. As well – and as I have several times observed this phenomenon – those who treasure their own special relationship with Marker also tend to regard other self-proclaimed best friends as utter fakes!

It is intriguing, in this light, to compare Vossen’s very moving and personal testament with another recent publication devoted to the memory and legacy of Marker: Studio by Adam Bartos and Colin MacCabe.

Like Vossen’s book, Studio is a lively amalgam of image and text, each element occupying around half the total content. Vossen draws from a touching archive of postcards, drawings, annotated cuttings and other ephemera created by Marker’s own hand and given to her. Bartos provides a spectacular set of colour photographs documenting the nature and character of the filmmaker’s amazing home-studio (“both remarkably cluttered and remarkably clean”, as the introduction by Ben Lerner observes) at 3, rue Courat in the Charonne quartier of Paris’ 20th arrondissement. Although Marker himself is absent from the photo shoot, he was still alive at the time, and gave Bartos full access to the site.

In this book”, remarks Lerner, “Marker will forever almost be right back”. In Bartos’ photos, images are frozen on monitors, computers blink and hum in sleep mode, books in thematic groupings wait nearby to be picked up and quoted, and new acquisitions of VHS tapes, DVDs and magazines pile up discreetly before their eventual, methodical shelving.

There’s nothing spooky about Marker’s personal non-presence here – quite the contrary; everything on display seems alive, in motion, about to be put to good use. It is the very image of a healthy, circulating, dynamic archive – not at all a mausoleum.

How different this is to Vossen’s agonised evocation of the same studio after its owner’s death, when cataloguers delegated as a “scientific committee” by the Cinémathèque française (see Jean-Michel Frodon’s account of this group in Cineaste June 2018) buzz around recovering and classifying every last, whimsical trace of Marker’s daily activity.

MacCabe’s text in Studio is well-written and brimming with deep affection for Marker. His first encounter with Marker was in 2002 (they discussed the life and times of André Bazin), and he later had a hand in the preparation of what became Owls at Noon – originally merely the first volley of a much larger, very ambitious project that remained unfinished.

MacCabe relates a common experience that Vossen also touches upon, as does Jean-Pierre Gorin on the Criterion DVD of Sunless (1983): no matter what subject, past or present, arose in the course of their wide-ranging conversations, Marker was always able to fetch some pertinent, rare, forgotten book, article or videotape from his vast personal archive.

But MacCabe, too, also seems to have fallen somewhat for the special-friend syndrome. He shares with us his sense that Marker’s relationship with Simone Signoret was “perhaps the most important of his life”, and tells us, near the very end of this memoir, about the “most beautiful of dreams” that Marker recounted to him concerning Signoret and her partner Montand. It is an affecting and revealing tale.

At the same time, however, MacCabe (who may also be respecting the French code of civility) mentions neither the filmmaker’s cancer, nor his adopted daughter! Divide and conquer …

Let the last word go to Maroussia Vossen. “At the end of his life, when he almost never left his studio, I asked him what he needed. He replied, without missing a beat: ‘Time’.”

Postscript: Maroussia Vossen responded warmly to this text. “This morning I sent a little message to say how touched I was by your article, and your very sensitive remarks on my bookI believe you have truly grasped the essence of what I tried to convey in regards to my connection with Chris. Moreover, you've fanned in me a desire to go on writing, because I have much more to say and, with time, thoughts are forming within me that demand to be shared ... So I am starting to write again and ... we shall see. I am very moved by the attention you have paid to my book. My deepest heartfelt thanks.

MORE Marker: The Owl’s Legacy


© Adrian Martin April 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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