Brief Histories of Time

Freeze frame: a Denise Bellon self-portrait from Remembrance
photo: Denise Bellon/Les films de L'equinoxe

In the 1930s, working mainly in Paris, photographer Denise Bellon captured the "unique moment in time when post-war was becoming pre-war," as the narrator says in Remembrance of Things to Come, a ghostly montage of Bellon's images assembled by her daughter Yannick and cine-essayist nonpareil Chris Marker. Paris hums along blithely in the spring before occupation, radiating the eerie calm of the person resolved to suicide. Bellon's portrait of a Gypsy bride graces the same issue of Paris Match as an excerpt from Mein Kampf. Facially disfigured veterans, their Cubist physiognomy cruelly carved by the Great War, gather to bear wordless witness to what must never happen again, and it does anyway.

Comrade to many a Surrealist, Bellon the photographer was a documentarian, and a remarkably adventurous and prescient one. Her camera freezes hidden pulse points of the Spanish Civil War and, during WWII's first contractions, hops between military exercises in Finland and conscripts in colonized north Africa. Less discursive and more prescribed—albeit by an extraordinary single archive of pictures—than many of Marker's efforts, Remembrance is foremost a tribute to a proud career, though the homage is nearly upstaged by overenunciating narrator Alexandra Stewart, whose actressy pomp also disrupts Marker's synopsis-proof magnum opus, Sans Soleil. (You get used to her.) Like Sans Soleil and Remembrance's fellow still-frame montage La Jetée, the script and juxtapositions reiterate Marker's vision of recorded memory as a small, paradoxical death: at once a tragically irretrievable moment and a dread portent.

At Film Forum, Bellon and Marker's 42-minute film sits alongside Bellon's Colette (1952), a brief visit to the living legend's Paris apartment. Its heroine resplendent in Afro and dressing gown, Colette prefigures Adaptation when the author expresses her reluctance to grant permission for a film about the many houses she's lived and worked in—and then we realize we're watching that very film.

Agnès Varda also shares the bill with her fellow Left Bank vagabond and cat fancier Marker. Du Côté de la Côte paints the Riviera in baby pinks and blues, brims with happy heaps of sun(burnt) worshipers, and ticks off all the celebrity star points: Here's Matisse's grave; Zola honeymooned there; that's where Colette—"who looked like a cat"—kept a flat. Varda's witty narration suggests a promising alternative career as a scribe for Lonely Planet, though this edition ends on a bittersweet note. All summers must end, even on the Riviera.

Spiritual kin to the work of W.G. Sebald and Roland Barthes, Godard and Tarkovsky, Marker's documentaries, essays, and "fictive memories" (featured in Anthology's selective retro) toss soil on the graves of friends, ideologies, and anonymous victims of global upheaval. A Grin Without a Cat (1977-1993) mourns the desiccation of worldwide leftist insurgencies born in the late '60s. One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999) and The Last Bolshevik (1993) deliver eulogies to his dear friend Tarkovsky and the quixotic life and career of Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin, respectively. The latter video ends on Russian children clamoring on a fallen statue of Lenin and playing peekaboo with a Stalin bust.

As a historian, Marker's quarry is ruins; he accepts confusion, or prizes it. Sans Soleil (1982), whose footage ranges from Tokyo to Portugal's African colonies and whose central personage is an unseen Marker surrogate named Sandor Krasna, maps the blur between fiction and nonfiction, between an event and the memory created by the event, between a memory and its technologically mediated representation. A photograph is not a souvenir but the scar tissue that remains in place of what we have lost, or as the narrator says, "a wound disembodied."

Not included in Anthology's series, Marker's La Jetée (released in 1962 and somewhat popularized by Terry Gilliam's 1995 elaboration 12 Monkeys) is also, like Bellon's photos, a remembrance of a thing to come. (The thing past, of course, is Vertigo.) An image from childhood so obsesses the protagonist that, aided by technology, he plunges back into the memory, which, in one of cinema's sublime tragic seizures, proves to be the instant of his own death. He enacts a condition, implicitly identified in all of Marker's films, which Sans Soleil diagnoses as "amnesia of the future," its main symptom being a history as cyclical as the seasons.

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