Monday, July 30, 2012

Chris Marker (1921-2012)

I've only been moved to attempt a filmmaker obituary blog post once before, but learning of Chris Marker's death this morning, just a day after his 91st birthday, compels me to do it again. For a compendium of information and criticism on Marker look no further than the incredible David Hudson, now blogging for Fandor. This piece, although it includes more links I think are well worth clicking, will be more about my personal history with Marker's work than about the man himself.

I've only seen eight films from his prodigious output, but each of them are more than just films to me: they're signposts of my own cinephilia. If there is a single film which transformed me from an essentially passive viewer and consumer of (mostly science-fiction and fantasy) movies as entertainment into someone compelled to learn about motion pictures as a form of artistic expression, it must be Marker's 1962 film La Jetée, which I first viewed on a videocassette borrowed from, I think, Blockbuster Video, after learning it was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's then-recent 12 Monkeys. I'm not sure if I was hoping that seeing this earlier version would help me figure out some of the time-travel puzzle aspects of the Gilliam film, but La Jetée was like nothing I'd ever seen before- and certainly the first "art film" I'd really connected with. Marker's aesthetic strategy of using still photographs to convey images of narrative might have seemed like nothing more than a cost-saving shortcut to someone with my preconceptions of what a "movie" is, had it not been presented so masterfully. It opened my eyes to the notion that big ideas can actually be dwarfed by a huge Hollywood apparatus (as subsequent viewings of 12 Monkeys demonstrated, although I still am fond of the film) and that sometimes the seemingly simplest techniques can be more awe-inspiring than bombastic special effects.

Purely by coincidence, La Jetée will screen along with Maya Deren's Meshes Of The Afternoon, at a free noontime screening at SFMOMA next Tuesday, as part of the museum's ongoing Cindy Sherman Selects series.

The notoriously camera-shy Chris Marker spied in Wim Wenders' 1985 film Toyko-Ga
Each Marker film I've seen has opened my eyes in another way. Watching his 1985 documentary A.K., on Akira Kurosawa filming Ran, did as much to help me truly understand that film (and its maker)  as finally seeing it in a 35mm print (along with others in a large Kurosawa retro) did a couple years ago. Catching up with his 1977 A Grin Without A Cat reconfigured my conception of political filmmaking, and subsequently catching up with his 1963 Le Joli Mai years later re-reconfigured it. And then there's Sans Soleil. A film about life, death, memory, cinema, Japan, and San Francisco, at least as seen through Alfred Hitchcock's eyes in Vertigo, it's known as Marker's greatest masterpiece, and I have no objection to that. How could I, when I'm as in thrall to Vertigo as any cinephile (I'm thrilled the Castro Theatre is bringing it back in 70mm August 31 through September 3 as I haven't seen it in over a year) and I've been inspired by Marker's tour of its locations to take similar tours to see my city through filmmakers' eyes. A little over a year ago, I was convinced by visiting critic Adam Nayman to join him on a San Francisco International Film Festival-sponsored journey along Jimmy Stewart & Kim Novak's trail hosted by Vertigo expert Miguel Pendas, who writes about Marker's connection to his annual tours in a recent book:
I thought that I knew this Hitchcock film, but Marker opened doors into head-spinning interpretations that would never have occured to me. "The Spiral of Time," he called the film's metaphorical referent in the whirlpool of Madeline's hair, the swirling waters of San Francisco Bay, the tree rings of the Sequoia, the twisting dizziness of Scottie's acrophobia.
While wandering in the Mission Dolores cemetery, Pendas told us of his own opportunity to meet the famously-shy Marker, and Nayman cited Sans Soleil as his favorite film. It was, after all, just as much a tour of that segment of the Marker film that we were making. 

Marker shot at least one other film here on Frisco Bay, however, and it must surpass even Sans Soleil and La Jetée as my own sentimental favorite of the octet of Marker films I'm lucky to have seen. It's called Junkopia, and though running only six minutes in length, it has two credited co-directors, both local filmmakers who had worked on Apocalypse Now for Zoetrope Studios, the local film company which Marker visited during the shooting of Sans Soleil. John Chapman, a local documentarian who made Nicaragua: Scenes From The Revolution died in 1983 while working on a documentary about the island nation of Palau and its nuclear-free constitution. Marker's death leaves Frank Simeone as the last survivor of this Junkopia trio (although Simeone credits himself only as producer, not co-director, on his own website.) 

Growing up here in the seventies and eighties, I fondly recall every time I rode in a car toward Contra Costa County and beyond, the highlight of the drive was the stretch of bayside highway where artists built giant animals and other structures our of driftwood and similar found materials. It seemed that this collection of sculptures was new every time we drove by, like a rotating collection of works displayed in an art museum. But the Emeryville Mud Flats, as this makeshift exhibition site is called, was purged of its wooden wonders many years ago. So when I first saw the Pacific Film Archive's 35mm print of Junkopia before a screening of The Case Of The Grinning Cat, alongside my cinephile cousin visiting from New York City, I was agog that Marker and his cohort had not only documented some of these structures at a point (July 1981) when I might have driven by them myself, but done so extremely artfully. Unlike Marker's other films (at least those I've seen) there is no voice-over narration, and in fact the only words in the film besides the end credits are beginning title cards marking San Francisco's (not Emeryville's) latitude and longitude, and the seemingly-random voices recorded from static-y local radio broadcasts that appear on the soundtrack in the film's final minute or so, paralleling the visual introduction of contexts of so-called civilization: the racing automobiles, the first of the Watergate Towers, etc.

A television broadcast version of Junkopia is viewable at Ubuweb, and the short was also included on the recent Blu-Ray edition of the Criterion Collection edition of Sans Soleil and La Jetée. But seeing it in its native 35mm can't be beat; I'm lucky to have done so twice. The PFA screened their print again in 2010 at their launch of the release of Kathy Geritz/Steve Seid/Steve Anker-edited book Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000. That book includes a terrific little paragraph on Junkopia written by Michael Sicinski, which I shall now excerpt:
A 35mm evocation by a visitor acutely attuned to the ability of detritus to speak our story, Junkopia is itself something of a castoff, relegated to a line or two in Marker monographs and passed over on the way to Sans Soleil. . . . The film departs from Marker's essayistic style, instead adopting the rhythms of experimental cinema. Still, its status as a standard-gauge court métrage has kept it out of dialogue with the tradition of co-op filmmaking. Is there no place where this film could possibly belong?
I hope it can, like La Jetée, belong on a local screen sometime soon. Any number of Frisco Bay cinemas would be appropriate venues for a proper Chris Marker send-off. If it can be organized anywhere near as quickly as next month's Yerba Buena Center For The Arts tribute to another politically-committed director, Kaneto Shindo, who died shortly after his own 100th birthday this year, I'll be impressed.

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