Time on Our Hands

A month away from his 80th birthday, French filmmaker Chris Marker is the Janus of world cinema—as open to the future as he is fixated on the past. Marker's unclassifiable documentaries treat memory as the stuff of science fiction; he thrives on technological paradox. La Jetée (1962), which uses an archaic succession of still images to evoke motion pictures as time travel, could have been made for Eadweard Muybridge's 19th-century zoopraxiscope. The various post-cinematic video installations, computer games, and CD-ROMs Marker has produced over the past decade are typically memento mori.

It's a melancholy fact that Marker himself has nearly vanished from—or perhaps into—the film history he so cannily surveys. The Last Bolshevik (1993) and One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (2000), inquiries into the lives of two Russian directors, are his first films to get a local run since Sans Soleil, still the most convincing (and optimistic) example of the "last movie" genre, played Film Forum in late 1983. Both portraits memorialize a friendship as well as a filmmaker; both were made for television and are thus, by Marker's own definition, forms of reverie: "We can see the shadow of a film on television, the longing for a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never a film."

The Last Bolshevik, considered by some to be Marker's masterpiece, is the more epic of the two—a long goodbye to utopian dreams, political and aesthetic. The life of Alexander Medvedkin (1900-89) allows Marker to celebrate the development of Soviet cinema as he ponders the vanished Soviet Union, if not the modern times that began with the invention of the daguerreotype. In some respects, Medvedkin is a perfect representative of the "short 20th century" that began amid World War I and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A member of the Red Cavalry during the Civil War and a cine-activist whose 1934 masterpiece—the surreal folk comedy Happiness—was shelved for years and unknown in the West until 1968, Medvedkin managed to survive longer than anyone of his generation, perhaps even with his illusions intact.

"It is not the past that rules us—it is images of the past”: from The Last Bolshevik.
photo: First Run/Icarus
"It is not the past that rules us—it is images of the past”: from The Last Bolshevik.


The Last Bolshevik
Directed by Chris Marker
First Run/Icarus
June 16 and 17

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich
Directed by Chris Marker
First Run/Icarus
June 14 and 20

Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by David Diamond, David Weissman, and Don Jakoby

Conceived as a series of letters to Medvedkin, "a pure Communist in a land of would-be Communists," The Last Bolshevik is personalized by Marker's mordantly humorous first-person narration (characteristically read by someone else) and considerable film scholarship. The movie opens with George Steiner's observation that "it is not the past that rules us—it is images of the past," and Marker proceeds to demonstrate the thesis. He uses the 1924 sci-fi film Aelita as though it were a newsreel and points out that Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin virtually invented the historical truth of the event that inspired it. Much of The Last Bolshevik is a gloss on Happiness, which portrays the collectivization of agriculture as a kind of grotesque carnival and appropriately demonizes the wealthy muzhiks. Medvedkin's early activities on the cine-train (subject of an earlier Marker documentary, The Train Rolls On) are duly noted, and the fourth letter extensively quotes Medvedkin's 1938 New Moscow—a musical evocation of an imaginary Stalinist city that, for all its ideological ecstasy, was banned after a single screening.

No one has ever been better than Marker at isolating and analyzing a single frame. Arresting the flow of Happiness to end his documentary's first part, Marker's narrator remarks that "we see here what was in the muzhik's eyes when he faced authority—and it was terror." Thereafter Stalin moves to the fore. Marker quotes the infamous scene from The Vow (1946) in which the Chief—or rather, an actor impersonating him—repairs a tractor that has broken down in Red Square. (Meanwhile, Comrade Bukharin expresses a snide preference for American technology.) This allegorical moment is identified as generic and annotated by comparable tractor scenes from Dovzhenko's Earth and Eisenstein's The General Line, as well as Happiness. More artist than historian, Marker often romanticizes and simplifies for dramatic effect—making it seem as though The Vow was made before, rather than eight years after, Bukharin's trial and moving the Hitler-Stalin pact a year forward to 1940.

The Last Bolshevik flashes back to the show trials of the late '30s (in which "life itself [became] a fiction film"), then jumps ahead to the abortive 1991 coup that marked the "end of utopia." Here, for the first time, we have cinema verité, with Marker's camera being jostled by irate Muscovites in the streets of the no longer Soviet Union. It is as though Medvedkin, present throughout as the amiable subject of Marker's interviews, were a secret saint. The Soviet Union—"amnesiac bearer of a hope it had ceased to incarnate but that strangely had died with it"—could no longer exist without his faith.

According to his daughter, Medvedkin expected to be arrested. How then did he survive the '30s? The filmmaker's ebullient personality is full of contradictions that Marker cannot resolve. In his final letter, he reveals that Medvedkin made a color film of the May Day 1939 parade entitled Blossoming Youth—proof that Medvedkin, too, needed the Stalinist fairy tale. (The least sentimental of Marker's witnesses, filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya, whose father was liquidated during the purges, remembers her childhood joy at participating in such demonstrations, the sense of being among the elect on the cusp of history.)

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