Years ago, my husband would amuse me now and then with a re-enactment of the moment in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, where a society hostess is called out by Death for having inadvertently killed her guests by serving them mousse made with canned salmon. Her response — “I’m most dreadfully embarrassed”— became a go-to phrase useful for any faux-calamitous event. Years later, when my husband asked if I had ever eventually seen the sketch itself, I had to stop and think: Had I? Or did it just thrive in my memory, through his re-enactment and my subsequent adoption of the punch line, so that I only believed I’d seen it? In moments like those, I say that I’ve been Chris Markerized: A combination of images and sounds has become so vivid in my mind that it turns into a kind of memory-poetry, independent from any reality experienced firsthand and yet real in its own right — so real that my having seen the thing is almost inconsequential.
That’s just one admittedly personal example of the reach of Chris Marker, the experimental filmmaker, film essayist, political radical, and overall poet of the universe. Marker died in 2012 at age 91, leaving behind more than 50 glorious and enigmatic full-length documentaries and shorts, as well as some very perplexed moviegoers. He is credited with inventing the essay film, blends of images and sounds, dialogue and ideas, which don’t necessarily fit strict documentary templates. His movies aren’t necessarily difficult, but I always feel I’ll understand a Chris Marker film better if I can just see it one more time — as if there’s an elusive puzzle piece drifting off beyond the last frame, an astronaut on a tether that I’ll be able to reel in confidently after the next viewing. Fat chance. Take one of Marker’s two best-known movies, the 1983 Sans Soleil, a half-mournful, half-optimistic waking-dream travelogue spanning Japan, rural Iceland, and two impoverished African countries, not to mention that vast and unknowable country: the Vertigo that lives in our memory (which may or may not be the exact one Hitchcock put on the movie screen). I’ve seen Sans Soleil maybe half a dozen times now, and I’m no closer to being able to tell you definitively what this eloquent, invigorating picture is about than I was when, after first seeing it, I thought, “Wow!” and “Huh?” with the emphasis on the former.
You’ll have a chance to experience Markermania for yourself August 15 through 28, when BAMcinématek presents a retrospective of Marker’s films, including, of course, Sans Soleil (August 23), as well as his best-known calling card, the staggering 1962 La Jetée (August 22), a 28-minute reverie on love, memory, and time travel composed entirely of film stills. (It also inspired former Python member Terry Gilliam, post–tinned salmon, to make the 1995 Twelve Monkeys.) Those two films could be considered Marker 101, a basic introduction to the work of the rather reclusive man who was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve somewhere — accounts vary — in France in 1921, and who, reportedly, took his nom de guerre from the Magic Marker, a humble writing instrument with truly magical capabilities. But BAM gives you a chance to dig much deeper: Also included are the early narrated travelogues Sunday in Peking (1956) and A Letter from Siberia (1958; both screening on August 18), as well as Description of a Struggle (1961; August 25), set in Israel. The Koumiko Mystery (1965; August 27) focuses on a young Japanese woman Marker met by chance during the 1964 Olympics. In The Last Bolshevik (1993; August 24), Marker offers a semi-autobiography of the Russian filmmaker Alesandr Medvedkin, which morphs into a mini history of the Soviet Union.
But the jewel in the series’ crown, at least in terms of rarities, is the fully restored, birth-of-the-Internet meditation Level Five, from 1997, which has never had a theatrical release in North America. Level Five has perhaps more of a plot than many of Marker’s films: Laura (Catherine Belkhodja), a computer programmer, has been enlisted to design a video game based on the Battle of Okinawa. The more she researches, trolling the then-nascent wormholes of the world online, the deeper she’s drawn into a web of history and memory, her own and that of others. The project becomes deeply personal: As she works, she addresses some unseen employer or confessor or lover — or perhaps someone who is all three. She reflects on the burden of guilt that history places on humankind, on the idiosyncrasies of why we remember what we do, and on the mystery monkey who, over and over again, steals that single sock from the laundry.
That last detail is a sample of Marker’s playfulness, which animates even his most ambitious work. But he never uses silliness to divert our attention — or his own — from the things that matter most. The sound-and-image collage of Level Five includes Tron-like grids of light (sometimes superimposed on a Styrofoam wig head, proof of his shoestring creativity), a rumination on the theme from Otto Preminger’s Laura — as composed by David Raksin over an emotionally fraught weekend — and footage from a tense but blessedly unbloody Japanese bullfight. Most striking, and most unsettling, is the grainy footage of civilians dutifully committing suicide by leaping off the cliffs of Okinawa, to avoid being captured by the American enemy. At one point, a woman looks back toward the camera, a moment Marker juxtaposes with the image of a man who attempted to soar from the top of the Eiffel Tower in the early 1900s, knowing full well his homemade flying cape wouldn’t save him but jumping anyway: The cameras were running, ready to record his feat, and he felt he had no choice. And the woman from Okinawa, Marker notes (through his narrator Laura), sees the camera and doesn’t want her own cowardice preserved for posterity. She turns away from us and also makes the leap. It’s a moment of both grace and horror.
Marker, ever mindful of history, was also fond of looking ahead to the history of the future. At one point in Level Five, Laura wonders aloud what future ethnologists would make of humans’ relationship to the computer: “They’d consult it on everything. It kept their memory. In fact, it was their memory.” Now that we rely on Google for every bit of information we don’t want to, or are unable to, keep in our heads, the films of Chris Marker mean more than ever. Like few other filmmakers, he could process information and feeling in patterns that sometimes seem random but which actually possess a supreme artistic logic. Chris Marker is the anti-Google.