Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sans Soleil

SANS SOLEIL            A                    
France (100)  1982  d:  Chris Marker

L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.
(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the times.)
—Jean Racine, preface from Bajazet, 1672 (opening in French version)

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place.

—T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, 1930, Poetry X » Poetry Archives » T. S. Eliot » "Ash Wednesday"   (Opening in English version)

Basically a 1980’s time capsule, largely based on an assemblage of footage shot from 1978 to 1981, Chris Marker has created a poetic non-fiction film essay which explains man’s existence, beautifully expressed with humor, insight, and an extraordinary breadth of thought, essential viewing for anyone who has a thirst for knowledge.  The film uses written letters full of images, sounds, and ideas from a wandering cameraman (a stand-in for Marker himself) to express the essay’s content along with weird electronic sounds produced by Michael Krasna on EMS VCS3 and Moog Source synthesizers.  Concentrating mainly on contemporary Tokyo, the film also contains footage shot in the Portuguese West African colonies Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, two of the poorest and lesser known countries on the continent, but also Iceland, Île-de-France, and San Francisco, where the filmmaker tracks down all the original locations in Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo.  An abstract ballet of contemporary thought, Marker hones in on what constitutes thought, ideas, cultural difference, mortality, memory, the imagination, and even the art of filmmaking itself, where the film exhibits an all-encompassing Buddhist Herman Hesse Siddhartha sensibility, with the suggestion being that the human spirit is in all things and all things are in the human spirit, where woven into the fabric of the film are stream-of-conscious images that reflect the flow of human imagination simultaneously flooding the brain with thoughts and images, each human being undergoing similar streams of thought, where all are interconnected even when sitting in a theater or standing silently in the same room, as there is a collective flood of consciousness taking place that broadens our grasp of what it is to be human.  Coming on the heels of The Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de L’Air Est Rouge) (1977), where for a significant period in the late 60’s and early 70’s Marker had been working closely with militant French left wing film collectives SLON and ISKRA, this was a return to personal filmmaking, perhaps the defining work of his career, a tour de force essayist film where it’s still, nearly half a century later, hard to believe the complexity of personal thought injected into just 100 minutes.    

Part documentary, part travelogue, and part poetic essay, Marker uses only a 16-millimeter camera (blown up to 35 mm) and a standard cassette tape recorder in a film that contains no interviews, graphics, or explanatory information, and no synchronous sound, but instead consists entirely of an unknown woman (Florence Delay in the French version, Alexandra Stewart in the English version) who serves as the narrator reading and commenting upon a series of letters received from an unseen friend (entire text seen here:  markertext.com : Chris Marker : Sans Soleil), a fictitious free-lance cameraman traveling around the globe expressing his thoughts along the way, who we later learn in the closing credits is named Sandor Krasna.  Neither the woman nor her friend are ever pictured, their relationship remains shrouded in mystery and is never explained, yet the film is a flood of images and philosophical reflections of the cameraman, where the woman invariably begins each sequence with “He wrote me,” “He said,” or “He told me” as he wanders back and forth between Japan and the Cape Verde Islands on what he calls “a journey to the two extreme poles of survival.”  Stretching the limits of what could be called a documentary, the film is an escalating free associative kaleidoscope of ideas and personal revelations while also offering meditations on time and memory expressed in words and fleetingly gorgeous images from various places around the world.  In the opening sequence we hear from the narrator, “The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.  He said that for him it was the image of happiness.” However, by the end of the film we learn that the site where the picture was taken on the Icelandic island of Heimaey was destroyed in 1973 by lava flow from Eldfell, an active nearby volcano that destroyed half the town.  This temporal nature of existence becomes a prominent theme throughout, as nearly everything seen in the film either no longer exists or is barely recognizable in its current form. 

In the 60’s Marker traveled to Tokyo hoping to shoot the Olympics, a job that ultimately went to Kon Ichikawa in the form of TOKYO OLYMPIAD (1965), but developed a love affair with the country and its culture.  While the view in Japan and Africa is inevitably seen through the lens of a Westerner in a foreign land who is never seen interacting with the natives, or even asking them questions about their lives, but instead sees in the smaller details a larger view where he’s attempting to navigate life for the entire planet.  What’s immediately noticeable is how easily Marker literally overwhelms the viewer with an intensity of experience that is rare in cinema, as few of us can match Marker’s level of engagement, where even subjects that might not ordinarily capture our interest become fascinating material in Marker’s hands, suddenly elevating our attentiveness simply by how it is presented, using experimental film techniques to add amusement, a bizarre electronic soundtrack that even though it sounds dated, also adds a futuristic dimension, as electronic computer technology, so prevalent today, was only just being discovered in such a raw and primitive form.  Marker’s cinematic techniques make it all seem so playfully mysterious, including clips from Japanese films and television, exploring the all-pervasive presence of manga and anime, spending time daydreaming with the passengers on a circuitous network of trains, with their criss-crossing electric power lines, watching a drunk Japanese man directing traffic, witnessing the crowds intermingling with the public festivities at Shinjuku Square, already overflowing from the traffic from Shibuya Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest railway stations, where he discovers already in progress a blessing for broken dolls, where they end up being thrown into a fiery pit, also a blessing for the animals at the Tokyo zoo that died the previous year, or a temple shrine consecrated to cats, literally surrounded by white ceramic statues of cats, known as maneki-neko, a popular symbol of good fortune, where in each case the idea of processing complex information is suddenly seen in a new light, as the director himself seems to relish in the delight of discovering strange public rituals happening on the streets of what was then contemporary Japanese society, where the camera becomes fascinated by what it sees. 

Colin Marshall from The Quarterly Conversation, December 3, 2012, Our Curious Man in Japan: Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, and Films that Stand for Us:

This time, Marker’s lens, by way of Krasna, opens onto the wider Japanese population, and not only the segments of it watched by Western business pundits during this brief era of profitable doomsaying. “I bow to the economic miracle,” reads another of Krasna’s missives, “but I really want to show the neighborhood celebrations.” We see these neighborhood celebrations, strikingly captured, but we also see strictly regimented teenage street dances; the bleeping catharsis of video arcades; museums of animal copulation and genitalia-themed sculpture; dispossessed blocks “of bums, of lumpens, of outcasts, of Koreans”; and a great deal of haunting, blue-glowing imagery shot straight from Japanese television sets. All this has a surface strangeness, a first-order wackiness, the kind to which Westerners still thrill when watching, say, Japanese commercials. Yet, acquire just enough understanding of the Japanese tongue and this foreignness ebbs away. A void opens up, demanding a strangeness more complex and enduring. In Marker, we have the man to fill it.

One of the common motifs of the film is to take established pictures and put them through a Spectre Image Synthesizer machine designed by another fictional artist Hayao Yamaneko, suddenly reshaped and reconfigured in a “Zone,” a reference to Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), an isolated and heavily guarded region that operates according to inexplicable, unearthly laws of nature, churning out otherworldly, near psychedelic imagery, where the visual transformation resembles how initial thoughts and ideas change and evolve over time, continually becoming something completely different from what it was at the start, representing a kind of human growth, as we constantly replace old ideas with new ones, where there is a constantly shifting brain pattern at work as we continually shed our former skin with a process of continual renewal and rebirth.  With this incessant drive towards the future, there is a futuristic, sci-fi element that lends itself to a dreamlike atmosphere.  From one of Krasna’s letters, “I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo.  They have substituted themselves for my memory.  They are my memory.  I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape.  How has mankind managed to remember?”  Even as Marker was making Le Joli Mai (1963), he was wondering what that film would mean to people in the years to come, drawing a link to this film by contemplating its place in the future, wondering out loud how it might be perceived after a significant passage of time.  Concerning himself with “the function of remembering,” Marker, in turn, questions how our collective memory, filled with individualized recollections, forges an official version of history.  In the process, no doubt, countless numbers of incidents or experiences are lost in the forgetfulness of time, some quite intentionally by the prevailing powers, while only certain, often manufactured stories are used to write and actually embellish a nation’s history, like the exaggerations of a fish story, where the size of the fish always gets bigger with each repeated telling of the story, literally creating their own version of national identity.  Marker travels to the Ponta do Sinó lighthouse tower, seemingly located at the end of the world on the desolate Cape Verde island of Sal, discovering one of the last working lighthouses anywhere in the world whose lamp continues to be lit by oil, an outdated practice that has long since disappeared.  In other travels to Guinea-Bissau he finds stark images of working-class people, like fisherman and women in the market place, freeze framing on one woman who actually smiles, and for a brief instant glances at the camera, which lasts a twenty-fourth of a second, “the length of a film frame,” while offering a commentary about the nation’s revolt, eventually toppling the Portuguese colonial rule, a revolution that inspired young intellectuals and budding revolutionaries from the continent of Europe at the time, but then adds somewhat despairingly, “Who remembers all that?  History throws its empty bottles out the window.”

“We do not remember.  We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.  How can one remember thirst?”  In our present age, images have become a substitute for memory, a parallel reality often at odds with our own recollections, which are subject to self-interest and distortion, much like written history, where “Memory is not the opposite of forgetting but its lining.”  While unusual at the time, interjecting one’s own subjective viewpoints into a documentary is certainly not without precedent.  Norman Mailer’s non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night (1968), his own personal testimony told in the third person, won a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, which is probably not that different from Walt Whitman’s 19th century diary of the Civil War, Specimen Days (1882), the man who wrote in the Song of Myself section (Section 33 | IWP WhitmanWeb - The University of Iowa) of his epic poem Leaves of Grass (1855) the words “I am the man.  I suffer'd, I was there.”  Robert J. Flaherty, considered the father of the documentary, staged much of NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922), interjecting a woman to play his wife, also giving him a fictional name (which was actually Allakariallak), yet it shows us a kind of ethnographic truth.  Perhaps time has finally caught up to Marker, and all these other visionary reporters of the world around them, as this practice has become the norm, where fact and fiction are often indistinguishable in the strange hybrid of movies being made today.  Despite the failures of the 60’s idealism and the failed revolutionary movements, where other more cynical leftists have become bitter and bogged down by their own ideological dogma, sounding dry and overly professorial to the point of being tedious, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D (Adieu au langage) (2013), Marker displays a surprising amount of optimism in his hope for the future, generated, one supposes, by his incessant curiosity, displaying a probing and inquisitive nature always driven to look below the surface into a deeper meaning of things.  In fact what other film would take us through the historical uprisings of the once colonized Bijagós archipelago off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, using images from another documentary source, interweaving fake memories with real ones, while also revisiting the locations used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, finding most still intact, where Marker is similarly drawn to Hitchcock’s obsession with the delusion of memory, where a character in the film literally invents a visual double pulled from another dimension of time and applies it to the present, referring to a memory that exists only for him, and one that only he could decipher.  Mixing true memories with stock archival footage while in search of a larger truth, that is precisely what lies in store for prospective viewers of this film when attempting to extract significant meaning into their own lives, as the narrator recalls, “I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances.  In a way the two worlds communicate with each other.  Memory is to one what history is to the other:  an impossibility.”  Quoted in his June, 1994 essay entitled A Free Replay from Positif 400, A free replay (notes on Vertigo) by Chris Marker - Chris Marker, Marker writes, “the vertigo the film deals with isn’t to do with space and falling; it is a clear, understandable and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent — the vertigo of time.”  

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