Chris Marker

Chris Marker

by Nora M. Alter, James Naremore

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Nora Alter's short study of Marker's work does much to restore a sense of the complexity of his motivations and working methods . . . She is especially informative on the aesthetic and political involutions of post-war France. . . . For its filmography and the breadth of its coverage, her book is essential."—Brian Dillon, Sight and Sound

"A valuable addition to Marker scholarship."—Film International

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Contemporary Film Directors Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chris Marker

By Nora M. Alter


Copyright © 2006 Nora M. Alter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-07316-9

Chapter One

"The Cat Who Walks by Himself"

Introduction: The Solitary Cat

But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him. -Rudyard Kipling, "The Cat Who Walks by Himself"

"All right," said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone. "Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin," thought Alice; "but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life." -Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

We do not have cats, cats have us. Cats are our Gods, the most expansive and approachable of Gods, that goes without saying. -Chris Marker

The first of these epigraphs, repeated at rhythmic intervals throughout Rudyard Kipling's story, "The Cat Who Walks by Himself," refers to the elusive, mysterious, independent, and only half-domesticated nature of the common breed of cats. The tale evokes a prehistoric era when all creatures were wild, and "the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat." Through a slow but steady series of compromises, animals such as the dog and the horse trade their independence for a guarantee of safety and food. Theonly animal clever enough to strike a pact with humans in order to preserve its wildness, solitariness, and independence is the cat. In turn, the cat prompts the envy and dislike of both the dog, who will forever be destined to chase it, and the man, who will periodically kick it but rarely outwit it. The second epigraph, taken from a passage in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, comes at the conclusion of Alice's perplexing encounter with the Cheshire Cat. During the course of their conversation, the Cat declares that everyone is mad, including Alice, and supports his claim with the logic that, if she were not mad, she "wouldn't have come here." The rest of the exchange is punctuated by the Cat's appearances and disappearances until, as in the preceding quote, all that remains is his evasive grin. In both stories cats are emblematic of mysterious, elusive, transitory, and stubbornly independent figures. They navigate through the world of humans largely on their own terms.

"The Cat Who Walks by Himself" is an autobiographical description the French independent filmmaker Chris Marker uses as an e-mail subject header, and A Grin without a Cat is the title with which he released Le fond de l'air est rouge (1977), now reedited and updated, in 1993. Figures of animals, including owls, wolves, horses, elephants, and mammoths, are not uncommon within Marker's oeuvre, but the cat's status is special. Hence, it seems appropriate to employ what is perhaps Marker's first citation of the figure of the cat in his texts (specifically, from a review of a 1952 cat show in Paris) as the third epigraph. True, Marker uses the occasion to discuss the status not only of cats but of a whole spectrum of domestic and wild animals put on display and thereby transformed into "statues." He ends with the hope that in the future animals will be cared for the way that medicine and music are presently treated. Marker keeps returning to cats. Felines, whether live, imaged, or in the form of sculptures, appear in almost all of his films. Marker's CD-ROM self-portrait, Immemory (1997), figures the filmmaker's alter ego in the form of a red cartoon cat named Guillaume. Even his greeting cards feature Guillaume, who is also often summoned in salutational closings. Thus it comes as no surprise to hear that when asked for a photograph of himself, Marker sends one of a cat instead.

That Marker would choose the cat as his personal mascot is not surprising given his own cultivation of a reclusive, elusive, and mysterious identity. Marker does not allow himself to be photographed and rarely grants interviews. Deprived of direct information, authors of reviews, essays, and Web sites naturally resort to apocryphal anecdotes about Marker's life. They range from various myths about his origins-birth in Mongolia, aristocratic ancestry, son of a very wealthy colonialist in South America-to speculations about his "professional past": a paratrooper, a member of the French Resistance, an interpreter for the U.S. army. So much for stories. A search for facts yields somewhat more reliable, albeit still ambiguous, information: Marker was given the name Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve at his birth in late July 1921, probably in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. He seems to have adopted his nom de plume in the late 1940s, with credits to a "C. M." first appearing in print in the early 1950s. Whether his pseudonym is meant to connote the act of inscription, or that of leaving a trace-a mark-remains unclear. In addition, the alias does not immediately indicate a specific ethnicity or class, as did Marker's birth name. Then there is the matter of the peculiar punctuation of the name: until the early 1990s, film credits almost always recorded it as Chris. Marker; more recently the period after Chris has been dropped, and Chris Marker has become standard.

Marker is not entirely innocent in the proliferation of these myths. He has contributed to this phenomenon, even if only indirectly, by doing little to dispel the cult of personality that has developed around him, never addressing (let alone correcting) the rumors and claims about his past. One of these was made by his friend Alain Resnais, who recalls that Marker favored a 1951 English translation of his prizewinning (Prix Orion, 1950) novel Le Coeur net (The Forthright Spirit, 1949), precisely because it had so little resemblance to the original (Resnais, "Rendezvous," 207). Resnais' recollection is significant because it reveals that Marker has maintained a vehemently antiproprietary stance regarding his intellectual output from the very beginning of his career-a disposition that was no doubt due to his commitment to avant-garde cultural production. Marker's standpoint belies his lifelong involvement in leftist movements and his many collective endeavors. Part of this intellectual history can be traced to the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre (with whom, some say, Marker studied), who proposed that man is ultimately responsible not only for himself but for all other men. This positioning should not be confused with an antiauteurism, however, for, during the 1950s in France, when Marker was establishing his career as a filmmaker, auteur theory was one the dominant modes of understanding filmic production. Auteur theory included not only the notion that each director had a recognizable style but also implied a sincere belief in film as an art form that was fundamentally related intellectually to the other arts, especially literature. Thus, Marker's auteurism derives more from his literariness or, as we shall see, essayistic tendencies than from any cultivation on his part of a director-as-genius myth. In that spirit, the author/artist should be decentered when contemplating the films that bear Marker's name, and the interpretative and analytical stress should be placed on the deep sociopolitical structures that determine textual production. The more irrelevant the author to the process of understanding, the better the reader or viewer will be able to produce interpretations that derive from the very texts or films in question.

Marker has consistently refused to be fixed in any one role. Rather than static, his identity has been labile, changing, and dynamic. This mobility may explain why he has granted relatively few interviews and has avoided making theoretical statements regarding his work. Marker has been a writer (screenwriter, novelist, storyteller, critic, and poet), a photographer (producing books of photos Coreennes [Korean Women], Le depays [The Un-country]), as well as a filmmaker (directing many shorts, fictional and nonfictional features, television programs), a visual artist exhibiting in museums, an editor, a publisher, an organizer, a producer, and an assistant to numerous cultural projects throughout the world in the past half-century. Little binds all of this work together. Only a certain heterodoxy of thought; an aleatory approach characterized by chance, playfulness, wit, and humor; and a commitment to rescuing from the "dustbin" of history various figures and events, thread through the entire oeuvre. No wonder, then, that Marker's pronounced influence on a number of interrelated fields-film, art, letters, and politics-is due not to particular writings or films but to a practice that is multiple and slides as easily from medium to medium as it does from text to context. The diversity of his reception is indicative of this multiplicity. For instance, it would be difficult to agree on what else figures such as filmmaker Terry Gilliam (who based his feature film 12 Monkeys on La jetee), author Henri Michaux (who provocatively proclaimed that the "Sorbonne should be razed and Chris Marker put in its place!"), and artist Jonas Mekas (who averred that "Chris Marker is pure spirit!") would share in common. Marker's influence and assistance on films and other projects over the years have been large, though a prevailing sense of humbleness has led him to downplay his role. That humbleness, as I am calling it here, has also led to an underestimation of the artist's significance-a misjudgment that the present book aims to redress.

The diverse nature of Marker's work parallels his peripatetic journeying around the globe. From Peking to Paris, Tokyo, Siberia, Santiago, Jerusalem, Bissau, Berlin, Havana, Hanoi, Helsinki-all of these locations appear in his oeuvre. Indeed, his film Si j'avais quatre dromadaires (If I Had Four Camels, 1966), made entirely of stills, claims to include photographs taken in twenty-six countries during the years 1955 through 1965. Marker traveled to all of the continents (with the exception of Antarctica) and several islands in between, such as Iceland, Bijagos, Cape Verde, and Hokkaido. As this very cursory list already reveals, locating Marker in fixed geographical terms and categorically assigning to him a national profile is a difficult, if not impossible, task. His work is marked precisely by a transnationalism that eschews facile classifications. Although the literary and philosophical allusions and references in his films are primarily to French intellectuals (such as Michaux, Giraudoux, and Sartre), it would be too reductive to define Marker and his work as typically French. Indeed, Marker publicly refuses to dispel rumors that he was born in Ulaanbaatar, or on the Ile-aux-Moines, or that his mother was Russian. As his oeuvre reveals, his operative principle is to ignore ultimately constraining and divisive national and cultural identities and boundaries. He prefers to seek commonalities through unusual and unpredictable geographical and historical juxtapositions, however exotic they may be. His aversion to any conformity and to any mode of patriotism may be related to a social philosophy that aligns with those who are oppressed and abused by authoritarian regimes, regardless of nationality. As the commentary in A Grin without a Cat categorically asserts, "the cat is never on the side of power."


Chris Marker is the prototype of the 19th Century man. He managed to achieve a synthesis of all appetites and obligations without ever sacrificing any of them to the others. In fact a theory is making the rounds, and not without some grounds, that Marker could be an extra-terrestrial. He looks like a human, but perhaps he comes from the future or from another planet.... There are some very bizarre clues. He is never sick or ill, he is not sensitive to cold, and he doesn't seem to need any sleep. -Resnais, "Chris Marker," 52-53

Lore has it that Marker was a student of Sartre's in the 1930s when the former studied at the Lycee Pasteur, located in the upper-middle-class Neuilly-sur-Seine suburb of Paris. His role as editor of Le Trait d'union, a student newspaper, provides an early indication of his cultural ambitions. Nothing substantial is known of Marker's activities during World War II. Immediately after the war, however, he became very active on the cultural scene in Paris. Actor Gerard Lorin remembers that, after the liberation, Marker was part of a forward-looking avant-garde group that included filmmaker Resnais, theorist Alexandre Astruc, critic Andre Bazin, and actor Roger Blin. The group would meet regularly at 5 rue des Beaux-Arts in the fifth arrondissement to discuss cultural initiatives. They formed the basis of Travail et Culture (Work and Culture), a left-wing cultural organization composed of writers, filmmakers, theater directors, playwrights, and other cultural activists. The puppeteer Remo Forlani recalls that members of the group would frequent the Cafe Flore, then a popular meeting spot for intellectuals such as Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In the evening, Marker, Resnais, filmmakers Roger Vadim, Francois Truffaut, and others would go to the Filmclub organized by Bazin and initially held at the Maison de la Chimie in the rue Saint-Dominique. Travail et Culture had divisions of theater, music, literature, and film. It subsidized and provided logistical support for projects by artists, writers, and filmmakers on the left; it also distributed discount tickets for a variety of performances. Marker, rumored to be quite wealthy, had an office at Travail et Culture. Resnais remembers seeking him out there and soliciting him to finance the production of his films. A slightly different version of events has it that Marker was at the time a young actor in the theater division of Travail et Culture and first met Resnais during debate centered on whether the latter's film Van Gogh was viable in 16 mm or had to be reshot in 35 mm. According to this account, Marker also became acquainted with Bazin during these discussions and was so taken by the latter's views that he decided to quit theater and assist Bazin in the film division instead (Andrew 90). The leading role that Bazin played on the cinephilac group cannot be underestimated. It should be noted, however, that Bazin was neither a Communist nor a Marxist but rather a Socialist-Christian.


Excerpted from Chris Marker by Nora M. Alter Copyright © 2006 by Nora M. Alter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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