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From Mongolia or Outer Space?

Idiosyncratic sci-fi films Sans Soleil and La Jetée hit DVD. Plus, good directors gone bad and bad directors gone worse.

In 1982, magnetized tissues were discovered in dolphins. Scientists speculated that the clever mammals might be tuning into the earth’s magnetic fields to help navigate the oceans. Channel 4 was launched in England that same year, while in America the FCC eliminated restrictions on the length and frequency of TV commercials. Sun Myung Moon presided over a mass wedding at Madison Square Garden, Solidarity was banned in Poland, a Soviet spacecraft took color photographs of the surface of Venus. Disney World unveiled its Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. In France, a film called Sans Soleil appeared.

The author of the film, Chris Marker, was probably born on July 29, 1921, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, though it has also been suggested that he came from Mongolia or outer space. Once attuned to Marker’s wavelength, either possibility seems perfectly reasonable and equally irrelevant. He has understood as well as anyone, and put into practice better than most, two defining characteristics of his age—the age of Wittgenstein and Vertigo, Heisenberg and Hello Kitty, semiotics and Windows. First, that how things mean is as significant as what they mean. Second, that as technology increasingly mediates identity, identity must develop new strategies of lightness and mobility in response to bewildering technological change. “Chris Marker” is equal parts auteur and avatar. Though Sans Soleil is classified as a non-fiction film, it has more in common with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), William Gibson’s sci-fi novel Neuromancer (1984), and the Brian Eno/David Byrne album My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (1981) than any of its documentary contemporaries.

This week the Criterion Collection releases Sans Soleil on DVD paired with La Jetée (1962), Marker’s most famous film even before Terry Gilliam "remade" it on an immense scale in Twelve Monkeys. Their kinship is obvious. Both invent a mutant form of science fiction. Set in the aftermath of World War III, La Jetée tells of a survivor journeying back and forth through time. A travelogue concentrated in Japan, Africa, and the matrix of digital circuitry, Sans Soleil reports on the signs and rituals of contemporary life with the curiosity of an alien anthropologist. Both are a series of images about images. La Jetée is composed entirely of still photographs (with one exception). A montage of original, archival, and appropriated footage, Sans Soleil pays special attention to advertisements, television, symbols, and simulacrum.

But I'm more interested in a difference. La Jetée is ideally viewed as a projected film. Its slideshow format makes pointed use of the fade or cut to black, reminding us, as Marker noted in a rare interview of the shutter’s role in cinema: “Out of the two hours you spend in a movie theater, you spend one of them in the dark. It's this nocturnal portion that stays with us, that fixes our memory of a film in a different way than the same film seen on television or on a monitor.”

While Sans Soleil is no less conscious of that nocturnal function—it begins by meditating on a length of black leader—it isn’t the least bit compromised by home viewing. The freshest surprise from this inexhaustibly surprising film is that it plays even better on DVD than it does in a theater. This has partly to do with the emphasis on video images. When, as a projected film, Sans Soleil muses on the uncanny sense one has watching Japanese TV that the TV is watching you back, a critical space is created by one medium commenting on another. But when that same sequence is watched on TV, the distance is collapsed. Electrified, the idea is brought close.

Much in Sans Soleil benefits from that closeness, the tactile intimacy of small-scale viewing. Calling it an essay film helps describe the formal characteristics (elasticity, multiplicity, quotation), but also a sense of its beckoning quality. Like the text of a book, the text of Sans Soleil invites you to grasp, savor, underline, re-read, set it aside to revisit at whim, venture into other texts, stop and look at the world.

More than anything else, it’s an intimacy of voice that enlivens the home viewing of Sans Soleil, the way in which it speaks to the viewer as a friend. Framed as a series of letters sent by a peripatetic cameraman named “Sandor Krasna” to an unidentified woman, the aphoristic script is her commentary on his commentary, shared in turn with us. This displacement of the author gives Marker different points of view to play with: that of Sandor, whose imagistic travelogue we appear to be watching; that of the woman’s quizzical yet deliciously knowing voice; and that of the elusive filmmaker who, even as he hides behind this rhetorical construct can be felt shaping the design, controlling the tone, slipping in his pet touches and totems.

Engaging this multivalent, polyphonic poetry is strikingly akin to surfing the Internet. Where La Jetéeis a fixed meditation, cool and detached, the hybrid Sans Soleil is mercurial, unstable, given to flux, digression, swift juxtapositions and associative links. There’s tremendous discipline in Marker’s freedom, else his horde of subjects would fail to cohere so incisively. His journey through the world of appearances can gather up anything (department stores in Tokyo, markets in Africa, a poem by Basho, the grave of Rousseau, post-colonialism, and videogames) because the subject of Sans Soleil is intellection itself. “A grand map of how the imaginary functions,” summarizes filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin in an interview feature so insightful it’s a shame he couldn’t be persuaded to do a full commentary track. Marker would be delighted to note that Gorin sits before a large painting by Manny Farber entitled, after a film by Straub-Huillet, History Lessons.

More idiosyncratic sci-fi lands this week courtesy of the “Cult Camp Classic Collection” from Warner Home Video, a celebration of good directors gone bad, bad directors gone worse, and girls gone every kind of wild. Volume 1 contemplates the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, genuflects before Queen of Outerspace, and gawks at The Giant Behemoth. Volume 2 gets down with women in prison (The Big Cube, Caged, Trog). Volume 3 honors terrorized travelers, notably those trapped in Zero Hour! (the fruitfully preposterous inspiration for Airplane!). Amongst the abundant sword-and-sandal delights of Volume 4 is the spectacle of Lana Turner hamming is up as a pagan priestess in The Prodigal. Those of an auteurist bent should seek out Sergio Leone’s early epic The Colossus of Rhodes and Howard Hawks’s Land of the Pharaohs, an ersatz-Egypt classic as silly as it is spectacular.

TOP FIVE UPCOMING DVD RELEASES

1. La Jetée/Sans Soleil. Dir. Chris Marker, 1962/1982. The Criterion Collection Marker’s most famous film is paired with his finest and supplemented by an insightful interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin, a fascinating feature by Luc Lagier on the influence of Vertigo on Marker, notes by the filmmaker, and more.

2. Le Silence de la Mer. Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949. Region 2. Eureka - Masters of Cinema. Unavailable domestically, Melville’s debut, a minimalist resistance drama, arrives on DVD via an excellent UK label.

3. Climates. Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006. Zeitgeist Films. “A terrific movie in the Antonioni tradition” wrote J. Hoberman of this nuanced breakup drama, a paragon of high-def video elegance.

4. “Cult Camp Classics.” Warner Home Video. Where to begin? Try Howard Hawks’s ersatz-Egypt spectacular Land of the Pharaohs.

5. Miami Vice: Season Five (5-disc set). Universal Studios. Its peak was over, and executive producer Michael Mann had moved on, but you can never have too much Vice, can you?

Commentary Track runs biweekly.

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