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Time Immemorial: A Tribute to Chris Marker (1921-2012)

By Sheryl Mousley

Chris Marker has always had perfect timing: born on July 29, 1921, he passed away on July 29, 2012, exactly 91 years later. Dubbed “the prototype of the twenty-first-century man” by his friend and sometime collaborator Alain Resnais, Marker seemed to be everywhere at the right time, hitting every political hot spot of the later 20th century: burgeoning China, the then-just-formed state of Israel, Vietnam during the war, Cuba after the revolution, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. As a filmmaker, he had a journalist’s passion to “capture life in the process of becoming history,” as he put it, but there was also a science-fiction edge to many of his travelogues.

Considered to be among the most influential French filmmakers of the postwar era, Marker created a singularly personal film genre that was part diary, part essay, part documentary, and part fiction. His 1962 classic La Jetée (The Jetty)—a 28-minute post-apocalyptic movie comprised almost entirely of still images—is often ranked among the best time-travel films ever made. It is also credited as the inspiration for the Terry Gilliam science fiction thriller Twelve Monkeys (1996). Another Marker classic, Sans Soleil (1983), is a portrait of distant locales—Japan, West Africa, and Iceland—captured in ravishing imagery with the poetic letters of a traveler spoken by an unseen narrator. This film is quintessential in Marker’s use of voice-over and remarkable for its prescient incorporation of video processing early in the development of video as art.

While Marker’s birthplace and his early life seem variously reported as if myth and fact are equal, most agree that he was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Yet Marker reportedly said this was an error and that he actually was born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I think he must have enjoyed the vagaries of his past, as he assuredly kept moving forward. What we do know: he studied philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1930s and was a member of the French Resistance during World War II. Though he was reclusive and mysterious, one thing I’d love to believe is true about Marker is the story that his pseudonym was created while writing with a magic marker pen. His byline originally appeared in print as Chris.Marker in the late 1940s, when he published criticism, editorials, poetry, and fiction, including the novel Le Coeur Net, set in Indochina.

From his first directorial effort, Olympia 52 (1952), about that year’s Helsinki Olympic Games, Marker made more than two-dozen films, working well into his eighties. It now appears that his last film addresses the history of cinema, a short commissioned as a trailer for the 50th anniversary of Vienna’s Viennale Film Festival in October 2012. As a tribute to this master filmmaker, it is also scheduled to be shown at the Locarno Film Festival on August 4.

Marker’s timeline hit Minneapolis as well. In 1996, the Walker collaborated with Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, to present an exhibition that connected two seminal figures of French cinema in a gallery setting, Chris Marker and William Klein: Silent Movie/Moving Pictures. Born in the United States, Klein has lived in Paris since the 1950s. It was in 1956 when Marker, then an editor for French publisher Éditions du Seuil in Paris, lobbied for the publication of Klein’s landmark photographic book on New York City. Collaborations between the two artists continued throughout the 1960s. Klein is credited for editing La Jetée, and both artists worked on the influential French antiwar film Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam) in 1967. By the time of the exhibition opened, the Walker had La Jetée in its Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection and had acquired most of Klein’s complete body of work.

Marker also wrote film criticism for André Bazin’s Cahiers du cinéma before joining a collective of Parisian artists known as the Left Bank Film Movement, which included Resnais and Agnès Varda. Not only a filmmaker and writer, as an artist he explored photography, video, digital technology, and later in his career, cyberspace: In 2008 Marker granted an interview—to the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles—on the virtual medium of Second Life. Two years later, he made Ouvroir, the movie, set on the island chain of the same name Marker created on Second Life.

This eye to the future marked his later years indelibly. An early adopter of multimedia and digital art, he released a CD-ROM in 1997 titled Immemory, which offered an interactive journey through memory composed of stills, film clips, music, text, and fragments of sound. It is more than 20 hours long and meant to be viewed in many different ways.

Marker’s life and legacy—his mastery of science fiction, his innovation of the essay film, and his influence on generations of young filmmakers—echo in the words of the letters narrated in Sans Soleil: “In the 19th century, mankind had come to terms with space, and the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time.” And, perhaps more potently, “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting but rather its lining.”


Sheryl Mousley is senior film/video curator at the Walker Art Center.

Chris Marker

La Jetée, 1962

Installation view of Chris Marker and William Klein: Silent Movie/Moving Pictures, 1996

Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam), 1967

Still from Ouvroir, 2010