“History Throws its Empty Bottles Out the Window”
For this final installment of my series, let us look at perhaps the most enigmatic of these filmmakers, Chris Marker, and his approach to the notions of Truth and Signature. After having seen a wide sampling of his work, I find that, to approach a filmmaker like Chris Marker, one has to forgo any attempts at summarizing or finding a clear center to his work and instead must approach his work as the convergence of multiple interests. Marker’s filmmaking style has been usually called essayistic. Nora Alter, in dealing with Marker, reminds us that “to essay, within the French tradition at the time, meant “to assay,” “to weigh,” as well as “to attempt,” suggesting an open-ended, evaluative, and speculative search” (18). She goes on to add that the essay’s “weapons are humor, irony, satire, and paradox; its atmosphere is contradiction and the collision of opposites” (18). I believe this is as close as one can get to a definition of Marker’s film work; yes, he is oftentimes humorous, ironic, satiric, paradoxical, but, above all, his work exhibits the never-ending presence of contradictions and opposing notions, as if the filmmaker were in a constant search for Truth but always recognizing himself the caveat, a humility of sorts, that such a search is futile. Thus, for Marker, I would assert, the task of filmmaking is about the search for truths, often banal, sometimes revelatory, but always many.
Having belonged to the Dziga Vertov group along with Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, one finds in Marker the type of documentary filmmaking that characterized Vertov himself. Vertov’s mantra called for the “capturing of life unawares.” The camera eye, or Kino Eye as Vertov called it, possessed the capacity of registering things that the human eye was incapable of. Marker takes this mantra and commingles it with a personal montage style to construct not just films, but voyages into the heart of humanity. Marker’s work, thus, devotes its focus to those sites where humanity has deposited all that defines it; the archives of history and memory dominate Marker’s filmic gaze. Consequently, one finds in watching a Marker film the trite and the historically paradigmatic, the personal and the worldly, together, converging. Marker’s method functions in what I would characterize as an echo. Moments appear in his films which initially seem to have no import, only to return later as a marker of something relevant to his approach. All the while, Marker questions the dependability of history and memory alike, noting how in the example of film, images come to substitute any original memory one might have retained of the earlier moment. As the narrator of Sans Soleil (1983) expresses at one point in the film,
I wonder how people remember things who don't film, don't photograph, don't tape.
How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new
Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself
constantly just to know it existed.
One can see here an awareness of the act of filmmaking and life itself as a questioning of existence, defining existence as an attempt toward remembrances and the subsequent lapses in memory that accompany such an effort.
From Sans Soleil
Marker’s approach is best captured in what is considered by many to be his masterpiece; the aforementioned Sans Soleil. Here, Marker can be found constantly blurring any lines usually held on to by the majority of documentary filmmakers. Sans Soleil captures life unawares (and sometimes fully aware) in various locations: Okinawa, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, L’île de France, Isle of Sal, San Francisco and Iceland. Through either the use of stock footage or the inclusion of images captured by Marker himself, these locations, mostly islands, are brought together, according to Nora Alter, by “Marker’s fascination with the dual literal and figurative meaning of island as an isolated monad separated from the mainland and operating according to its own, relatively autonomous flow of time” (104). The director’s female narrator reads letters received from “Sandor Kransa,” one of the many pseudonyms Marker used throughout his life as an artist. Sandor has been visiting all these locations, some for the first time, others in return voyages which bring about questions of how the writer has thought of the former and remembered the latter. With all these choices, Marker offers something that at points resembles a travel film or an anthropologic study, at others a historical review, and even at others personal home videos or collages. As a result, the same object possesses multiple forms, all of which, when brought together, capture a sense of what the Russian Formalists called “ostranenie.” The viewer finds him or herself questioning what is fact, what is fiction, whose experiences are truly being captured, and, more importantly, what does it all mean?
From Sans Soleil
During the intro, the film presents us with three highly contrasting images. The first is the image of three children walking along a field in Iceland. The voice over provides some context to the image.
The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in
Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and
also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never
This image suddenly leaves the screen and in its place Marker chooses to leave the space completely black. At this point the voice over adds, “He wrote me: one day I'll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don't see happiness in the picture, at least they'll see the black.” However, along with the image of the children and the black leader, Marker includes the image of a fighter jet being put away inside an aircraft carrier. No mention of this image ever comes up during the intro or at any point during the rest of the film, for that matter. The image is just there. Right at the beginning Marker establishes a disconnect between the image track and the aural track.
From Sans Soleil
Such a disconnect is key to Marker’s oeuvre. Like the New Wave filmmakers, which included the members of the Vertov Group, sound becomes an extension to the montage techniques available for documentary filmmakers to exploit. Various interpretations could be offered regarding the addition of the aircraft image: maybe Marker wanted to signal his history of activist filmmaking, which included critiques of the Vietnam War; perhaps he wanted to juxtapose an image of “happiness” with an image that calls attention to the bellicose nature of a modernity characterized by the military-industrial complex; perhaps, he wanted to signal a flash of some underlying memories in something that calls attention to the collective, historical unconscious; or maybe he wanted to train the eye to the multiple cuts that will follow. Whatever the case is, Marker never offers an explanation. Instead, in referencing the creation of the same film we are witnessing, he is calling on the audience to remain aware to the fact that they are watching a constructed object where the filmmaker ultimately has the privileged position. But I would contend that it also goes beyond this; in this sequence, the filmmaker is, I believe, showing the capacity of film to deal with the difficulties of recollecting the “moment” and the truths that originate from the moment. Thus, when asked about the film, each audience member will chose to construct his or her own narrative, much as the letters of Sandor Kransa are trying to construct the narrative of this particular construction.
As the film continues, the voiceover constantly refers to different letters received by the speaker. One particular detail remains constant in the speakers narration of said letters; the speaker always prefaces her incursions with some variation of “He wrote me” or “He spoke to me.” If we consider that Sandor is Marker himself, then we see how Marker reinscribes the voice of the filmmaker in his film. However, this inscription is variously problematic. Firstly, Marker has opted for a separate personae, so while his symbolic voice is contained within the text embedded inside the film, Marker, it could be said, is seeking an erasure of sorts, a death of the auteur.
From Le fond de l'air est rouge (1977)
This notion isn’t new to Marker, an engaged Leftist, who in many of the works he directed prior to Sans Soleil opted to include his name in the credits as a technician along with the other “workers” involved in the films. Marker has always sought the erasure of his direct presence. But then, there’s also the fact that the physical voice “speaking the testimony” is someone other than the filmmaker. The physical voice is female, at a distance, away from the events in both space and time, witnessing them solely by way of the written text, but also disembodied; we are never allowed access to this narrator. Therefore, one must conclude that Marker seeks a total erasure by way of these multiple distancing choices. Yet, despite all of this, Marker’s signature manifests precisely because of these choices. After all, Marker is the one responsible for the text as well as for the majority of the images contained in the film. He is also responsible for the editing. But Marker’s signature, contrary to Wiseman’s silent disruptions or Morris’ physical vocalizations (see previous blog entries here at CineCero for more on these two filmmakers), works by way of a play of signification, a game of chance revelations, or what I would call Marker’s (fluctuating) assemblages of truth.
The assemblages of truth are at the center of Marker’s ultimate attempt at (and recognition of) various truths. And this play, a game of open possibilities, seemingly detached like a child’s act of playing, becomes the reason why Marker can at least question Truth in favor of some truths; the pieces of information, experiences, and recollections turn, in effect, into pieces to a game for Marker. Approached like a game, the search for truths admits variety over totality, playfulness over complete seriousness, randomness over stricture. And, as a result, this flexibility allows Marker to freely revisit instances in order to reinterpret “what once was.” This way, Marker recognizes the mutability of truths not just from the vantage point of personal perspectives but through the very perspective of changes through time and space.
From Sans Soleil
For example, close to the beginning of Sans Soleil, Marker’s camera captures Japanese citizens either sleeping or reading on a ferry that is taking them back to the Japanese mainland. The narrator tells us from one of Sandor’s letters,
He wrote: I'm just back from Hokkaido, the Northern Island. Rich
and hurried Japanese take the plane, others take the ferry: waiting,
immobility, snatches of sleep. Curiously all of that makes me think
of a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small
fragments of war enshrined in everyday life. He liked the fragility of
those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only
function had been to leave behind nothing but memories. He wrote:
I've been round the world several times and now only banality still
The mutability of history and memory are brought into question in the juxtaposition of the text and the images. While we are offered images of relaxation and stasis, the letter retrieves haunting memories of conflicts. Noticeably, neither indexical nor iconic references are contained in such an instance. Instead, we find Marker’s work emphasizing the third category of Peirce’s typology of signs; Marker opts for the Symbolic as his choice image. Thus, in conjunction with the voiceover, the images of Japanese people lying down in wait elicit the specter of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the same time that they call forth memories of other conflicts around the world. That is why Marker adds images of Vietnam, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, and other locations where conflict has changed the face of history and scarred the memories of the modern subject.
Later, close to the end of the film, Marker takes these same images, as well as the more trivial ones he has provided of cats, emus, and other animals, real or otherwise, and filters them through a visual digitizer. Speaking of the memories of a strike calling for the liberation of a Japanese activist in 1973 (elicited during a visit to Narita), Sandor’s letter tells us,
My pal Hayao Yamaneko has found a solution: if the images of the
present don't change, then change the images of the past. He showed
me the clashes of the sixties treated by his synthesizer: pictures that
are less deceptive he says—with the conviction of a fanatic—than
those you see on television. At least they proclaim themselves to be
what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an
already inaccessible reality. Hayao calls his machine's world the 'zone,'
an homage to Tarkovsky. What Narita brought back to me, like a
shattered hologram, was an intact fragment of the generation of the sixties.
From Sans Soleil
To begin, it must be pointed out that “Hayao Yamaneko” is none other than Marker again; another personae which provides additional separation while being spoken into the film. Marker is the one who owns the digitizer and the one who is removing the indexical and iconic characteristics of the images he has built throughout the film, instead deciding to provide audiences with images that do not contain the same nearness to the original moments, those moments which the conventional documentary seeks to capture. The solarized images bear an imprint of the original images, but fail in capturing a Real. Like footprints in the snow, Marker’s images of history and memory are voided from their direct referents; in the place of these erased images, we are called to supply our recollections of the earlier images, all the while questioning whether in fact we are capable of eliciting these images. After all, many of the images were taken in for their indexical or iconic reference. Now, bestowed with a malleable symbolic imprint, the audience finds itself in the same situation it would when attempting a recollection of his or her personal history, his or her personal memories. And like the snow that helped capture these moments, the film in its mechanical mobility -- a recognition of our experience of life as a collection of moments in time and space -- eventually “melts away,” leaving at its end a trail of “memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories.” As Catherine Lupton reminds us, Marker once took the liberty to rephrase the notion of cinéma vérité, deciding upon a different label which better defined his documentary philosophy; “Faced with (Jean) Rouch’s label..., with its troublesome connotation of some general truth discovered through cinema, Marker is credited with promptly rephrasing it as ‘ciné, ma vérite,’” i.e. cinema, my truth (84).
What we experience in Marker’s films, then, is the convergence of these pieces, placed on an imaginary board which allow for a multiplicity of moves, operations, and outcomes. These pieces are then arbitrarily brought together, permitting Marker and the audience to create open-ended truths whose interpretation respects Marker’s and each individual audience member’s experience within a personal, social and historic context. The process proves malleable enough to permit variations, or assemblages of truths, that contest each other, moving away from any form of a totalitarian claim to Truth.
Agnes Varda's Tribute to Marker
As I finish this series, allow me to consider this idea of Voice once more. At the start of her book Recording Reality, Desiring The Real, Elizabeth Cowie brings up the idea of the voice in documentaries.
Documentary, in presenting the sights and sounds of reality,
enables reality to “speak” at the same time as it “speaks about”
reality. It thus realizes the desires that cinematography
inaugurated: of knowing reality through its images and sounds,
that is -- figuratively -- of allowing reality to speak for itself. (1)
I’ve tried to tease out the voices, or signatures, I believe can be found in each filmmaker’s work. Simultaneously, I’ve sought to analyze how these signatures mark each filmmaker’s claim to Truth or truths. Despite their admiration for the Flahertys and Griersons as well as the traditions these creators originated, I would assert that the three filmmakers here showcased exhibit a full break away from the traditional modes of documentary. Each style functions and achieves something different from the others. To claim that one style works better than the others is to not fully grasp each filmmakers attempt at discovering something otherwise left hidden. If anything, these directors have shown that “to assay,” “to weigh,” and over all, “to attempt” a Truth is part of the makeup of being human. If it is true (for lack of a better term) that “films cannot reveal the truth of events, but only the ideologies and consciousnesses that construct competing truths” (Williams 385), then at least in their work these filmmakers have revealed the dialogue that comes from these ideologies and consciousnesses. But above all, by simply engaging in the act of “speaking,” in one way or another, these filmmakers, I believe, are allowing for some level of “reality to speak for itself.” They may not grasp the Real, which is always already out of reach; but as I expressed before, for these filmmakers the documentary is “truly” ultimately about the approach, the need to explore, and not the need to answer.
Each director here documented is invested in exploring his own notion of the truth. Thus, the idea of “ciné, ma vérite,” a notion that I would interpret as the individual search for a truth, grounds documentary to its traditional origins while it allows for the ongoing flexibility in its explorations. The arrival of digitized images offers an added “problem” to consider in documentary’s notion of Truth. Marker, I believe, was ahead of the curve in his recognition of the image as the inherent problem of a mode dictated by the visual register. Considering Marker’s notion, I would contend that, while the focus on the image worked for the tradition of the documentary as a way to explore truths -- starting with the Lumière brothers, on to Grierson and Flaherty, and later on with the three directors here showcased -- moving on in the digital age documentary as a form will need to focus on the development of the signature as its focus in meaning-making. Much as audiences tired of the capturing of the Real during the origins of the documentary, audiences in a post-Postmodern world, exposed to “reality television” will inevitably grow cynical to the idea of Truth, instead searching for a return to a “creative treatment of actuality” that actually allows for the Voice of the filmmaker to make his or her own personal statement. The inscription of the signature will then call forth a dialogue between filmmaker and audience. Therein lies the future of the documentary; in offering a space for truths to engage in dialogue, shifting the focus from the untrustworthy image onto the openness of Voices in dialogue.
Part 1: http://cinecero.blogspot.com/2014/03/claims-to-truth-in-documentary-pt-1.html
Part 2: http://cinecero.blogspot.com/2014/04/claims-to-truth-in-documentary-pt-2.html
Part 3: http://cinecero.blogspot.com/2014/05/claims-to-truth-in-documentary-pt-3.html
Alter, Nora. Chris Marker. U of Illinois P: Urbana, 2006.
Cowie, Elizabeth. Recording Reality, Desiring The Real. U of Minnesota P: Minneapolis, 2011.
Lupton, Catherine. Chris Marker: Memories of the Future. Reaktion Books: London, 2005.
Marker, Chris. Sans Soleil. 1983. Criterion Collection. DVD. 2007.
Rosenthal, Alan and John Corner, Eds. New Challenges for Documentary. 2nd Edition. Manchester UP: Manchester, 2005.
Williams, Linda. “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary.” Rosenthal 59-78.