Part of the allure of French filmmaker Chris Marker — besides his mesmerizing, unclassifiable oeuvre — is that he was a recluse. Not exactly Salinger-level, but Marker seldom gave interviews, was rarely photographed, and never appeared in public forums. Even his provenance was in question. “Marker” was a pseudonym: According to most of his 2012 obituaries, he was actually born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly sur-Seine, just outside of Paris — though he claimed that his birthplace was Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
Now, five years A.D. — yes, Marker inspires an almost religious devotion among cineasts — we get not an actual portrait of the artist, but instead a glance into the space where he lived and worked. Studio: Remembering Chris Marker, the newly published book by photographer Adam Bartos and film scholar Colin MacCabe (with an introduction by the novelist Ben Lerner), turns out to be a rare foot in the door into what the enigmatic artist was really like. This week, it forms part of the mini-retrospective “In Chris Marker’s Studio” at the Metrograph, which presents a portrait of the artist in absentia.
“That element of his desire not to be photographed made [the project] extremely interesting,” says Bartos. The Manhattan native, who has done books on the United Nations building and the Soviet space program, did his shoot in just a few hours one afternoon in 2007, when Marker was 85. MacCabe, an old friend of Bartos’s who had curated a video installation piece by Marker at MoMA, introduced them. There was no thought of a book, but the idea of documenting the filmmaker’s studio in Paris’s twentieth arrondissement “seemed tremendously attractive to me,” he says. “Certainly the aura and authority of his work was completely unquestioned in my mind.” If the book is slim — and it is, with ten gatefold images of the studio’s interior, plus shots of the walk from the Maraîchers Métro stop that accompany MacCabe’s essay — Marker, who defied categorization, always valued brevity; some of his best films were shorts.
Among the work being screened at Metrograph is Marker’s ethereal Sans Soleil, which some (MacCabe, for one) consider the quintessence of the essay film. It’s only become more influential the further it gets from its 1983 release: Teju Cole cites it several times in his new book, Blind Spot; it imbues Fiona Tan’s recent film Ascent; Lerner referenced it quickly in his 2014 novel, 10:04. (Even this humble writer used a snippet from it as a chapter epigraph in his 2008 Bronx memoir.) The retrospective also includes 1963’s Le Joli Mai — as insightful and unguarded a portrait of Paris, or any city and its people, that’s ever been made — and the unfinished and rarely seen Congo Oyé, a collaborative effort from 1971 that involved Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, who shot footage in Africa. Then there’s 2011’s Agnès de ci de là Varda, a ten-minute short on Marker’s home by Agnes Varda. “Don’t show my mess, you’ll dishonor me,” Marker tells her while out of camera range, to which Varda replies, “I won’t dishonor you, it’s beautiful to be surrounded by what one does.” But where Varda’s handheld camera work is jittery, making it hard to get a handle on what’s inside, Bartos’s images are fixed and, with his 4-by-5 large format camera, rich in detail.
Messy or not, what’s clear are Marker’s catholic tastes, deep intellect, and sense of play. There are books, piles of them, on cinema, philosophy, and history; all manner of technology, from late-twentieth century through the early Aughts; bric-a-brac from his world travels; anything having to do with the movie Vertigo, including a signed photo of Kim Novak; a T-shirt from Film Forum, and another of the Cuban boxing team (he was a lifelong leftist); images, everywhere, of his beloved cats and owls; and page proofs from Staring Back, the catalog to his 2007 photography exhibit at the Wexner Center.
Bartos remembers Marker as “very relaxed, friendly…no sort of arrogance.” If he hosted visitors, and he did, it was usually late in the day, and he greeted them with small cups of pepper vodka.
“I first assumed Marker was cut off from the world beyond his cave, but I was wrong,” MacCabe writes in his essay. “He was a recluse because that enabled him to live fully in the world. And his friends loved him.”
Studio: Remembering Chris Marker
By Adam Bartos and Colin MacCabe (with introduction by Ben Lerner)