Eye to Eye: Jason Simon on Chris Marker
October 1, 2007
When I first saw Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1982), I felt that I was watching a newsreel of consciousness. It is a film that stands alone as a literary document in the medium of cinema, layering intellectual and historical labor and play into a sublimely reflexive discourse. Along with La Jetée (1962), Marker's science-fiction short composed almost entirely of stills, it has recently been released as a Criterion Collection DVD. (Marker's other films, fifty-plus and counting, are still hard to find, and the filmmaker has never been much occupied with building their reception.) La Jetée and Sans Soleil feature as their respective protagonists a post-World War time traveler chasing a memory and a globe-trotting cameraman making literary and visual notes on history's margins, and these two figures in combination turn out to be a close enough description of Marker himself-the film essayist about whom few verified facts are known other than the name of his cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte, and, of course, that he has been an enormously influential cultural producer for more than half a century.
Marker began as, and has always been, a writer. His novel, Le Cœur net, aka The Forthright Spirit, was published in 1949; many of his early essays were published in the French intellectual journal Esprit. Writing and editing led him to cinema, his first film being the documentary Olympia 52 (1952), a record of that year's Helsinki Olympics. In 1954, he took a side job as editor and designer of the Petite Planète series of travel guides published by Éditions du Seuil. These modest guidebooks consist of essays that inform the reader about an individual country's history and culture, and Marker's designs play to the seductiveness of knowledge: The cover of each book is graced by the face of a beautiful woman-occasionally photographed by Marker himself-who often stares directly at the reader and the photographer from the country she knows best of all. I collected these guidebooks for their prescience of his portraiture and their global optimism, and exhibited them at Orchard in New York.
The humanism of these books returns in force in "Staring Back," an exhibition of Marker's portraits on view this past summer at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio (the show is currently installed at Peter Blum Gallery in New York, and travels next spring to the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich). "Staring Back" was organized by Wexner curator Bill Horrigan, who has a long history with Marker, having championed his work in the United States ever since the filmmaker's ambitious installation Zapping Zone: Proposals for an Imaginary Television, 1990, appeared at the Wexner in 1991 as part of the Centre Pompidou's traveling exhibition "Passages de l'image." Marker and Horrigan's subsequent correspondence led in 1995 to "Silent Movie"-Marker's first solo show to originate with an American museum, consisting of five stacked video monitors and several large movie posters for imaginary films-as well as to the current exhibition. Last year, Marker sent Horrigan some frame grabs from video footage of the 2006 protests against the French government's misguided "first employment contract" (contrat première embauche [CPE]); a selection of the images also appeared in these pages last summer. The two men's subsequent dialogue prompted the artist to compile a collection of roughly two hundred of his portraits dating from the 1960s to the present. Some were culled from footage, and some were actual photographs, taken in the course of various projects separated by decades and continents, now linked together perhaps above all by what Marker describes in the exhibition as "the everlasting face of solitude."
"Staring Back" mines two seams in Marker's archive: One is his political witness bearing over forty years, and the other is his portraits, in which he is in effect conjured by his subjects as they look at him. Two main groupings result from their approach, creating an exchange between portrait and action: "I Stare 1" follows a time line of political activism, while an opposing wall of portraits, "They Stare," follows none. These two extended arrangements open upon two smaller sets of images. "I Stare 2" resembles an enlarged contact sheet of portraits, including some of Marker's better known confreres, Aleksandr Medvedkin, Simone Signoret, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Delphine Seyrig among them, while "Beast of . . . " is composed entirely of animal photography. Animals are the graces of Marker's films, usually statuary, legend, totem, and cartoon, and so, like the political turning points in "I Stare 1," these photos point to the show's center: origins. Traversing nearly every continent on the globe in an exchange of glances, even across species, "Staring Back" proposes that political and creative will is signaled first and always by the glint in the eye of Marker's subjects. And within that collective regard, his portraits are a chorus of glances narrating the narrator.
Scattered throughout the exhibition are brief wall texts by Marker, in which events and faces open up to a mercurial interrogation through the observations and associations of a benevolent analyst. The texts narrate the forty years during which Marker shoots his first protest footage at an Algerian War demonstration, and is present as Norman Mailer is hauled off in the first hours of the march on the Pentagon in '67, May '68 in Paris erupts, the precariat overturns the CPE, and a sapling tree at Paris's place de la République widens a few inches. André Bazin had described how the voice in Marker's films results in "horizontal" montage "from ear to eye," where voice plus image has us witness ideas in formation; it is a dialectical voice. With the wall texts, "Staring Back" achieves in a gallery setting the image-voice effect known from his films.
That said, my first impression of "Staring Back" was of its modesty. As with Chats perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat), Marker's 2004 film about a cat graffitied on the walls of Paris and also about France's political culture of the street, the intimate scale is deceiving: "Staring Back" is not only a lived testimony to political and creative camaraderie but is also the confrontation its title suggests. Marker's archive calls to account the current age, seemingly robbed of its will to look back at power with the force of history. Quoting Sans Soleil in the wall text to "I Stare 1," Marker describes May '68 as "The 'utopia of uniting in a common struggle those who revolt against poverty and those who revolt against wealth'"-leaving us to wonder at the chances of such a union today.
As Marker revisited his archived photographs and film footage, the images themselves began to morph. A great number bear obvious digital manipulations of the focus, highlighting, and shading. In his correspondence with Horrigan (selections from which are published in the catalogue), Marker reflects on how his images have transmuted through time and technology:
"These are not bona fide photographs. They're stills from my video footage, somewhat manipulated thru the jujucraft of Photoshop and Painter. It's an experiment I conducted for years, in order to extract meaningful images from the inordinate flow of video and television. I developed the concept of 'superliminal,' which is a sort of counterpoint to Subliminal. Instead of one frame lost in the stream of other, different frames, Superliminal is one frame lost in the stream of almost IDENTICAL frames, or so it seems, for when you take 'em one by one, one happens to be THE real photogram, something nobody then has perceived, not even the guy who shot it (me, in most cases)."
A radical reconception of photography is at stake in this digital tinkering, as the images cycle through Marker's promiscuous technological palettes. His source material is his own history as an activist and artist; there is no appropriationist distancing here. And while his photography shares much with that of his friends Robert Frank and William Klein, Marker makes it plain that the release of the shutter and the emergence of the print have no guaranteed bond. While the photographs are of a modest size and mounted unframed in the style of Edward Steichen's legendary 1955 "Family of Man" exhibition, Marker's digital reworking pushes those historic gestures into a dialogue with the contemporary viewer. He has restlessly, urgently, and blatantly processed these images for the here and now, releasing them from the constraints of memory and allowing their subjects to emerge from the archive as if from the present. Through the video frame found to be the "superliminal" frame, the production still found to be the experience of a lost film, and the cover image from an obsolete guidebook that writes a new text, Marker's archive produces, generates, and projects. If "superliminal" is the counterpoint to subliminal, then it is also the surface of our memory, a symptom, the thing we recall most, even if so far removed from its source as to be, merely and unspeakably, that which "quicken[s] the heart" (to borrow a phrase from Sans Soleil).
Many of the "Staring Back" images make appearances in Marker's prior museum projects: Zapping Zone, "Silent Movie," OWLS AT NOON Prelude: The Hollow Men, 2005, and most important, the autobiographical CD-rom Immemory, 1998. Immemory was the first revision of Marker's photo archive entirely for the computer, and it similarly organizes a collection of gazes around Marker's most personal histories, here as a kind of mouse-driven montage. In Qu'est-ce qu'une Madeleine?-a book published concurrently with the disc-French critic Raymond Bellour asks, "How to touch oneself more directly, so as to coincide, at last if not with the absolute image of one's personal memory, at least with a form that allows one to better understand it by keeping it alive up to the last instant?" This question is central to "Staring Back" and its digital resurfacing of memory's record: "Keeping it alive up to the last instant" is precisely the method of Marker's digital processing of his own photography.
In Immemory Marker's archive becomes a novel with multiple beginnings and no end. One chapter on the disc, featuring photographs re-rendered with the brushstrokes of modern masters, opens with: "Then the game begins: bringing familiar faces into the museum, disguised as paintings. Here the Imagined Museum takes form. I'm the only director, the only watchman, and up to now, the only visitor." In another sequence one finds the originating image of his cinephilia, as Marker describes it: a portrait of the silent film actress Simone Genevois as Joan of Arc, in Marco de Gastyne's Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d'Arc (1929)-the face of Petite Planète Marker. In screen after screen Marker's archive is transfigured through a digital reenvisioning for the private pleasure of the individual in front of a computer. "Staring Back" engages a similar set of tools for the public viewing context-digitizing play with the images, reflexive texts on history's ironies on the walls, even music provided by a selection of Marker's CDs played in a continuous shuffle-but with the artist's photographs as the decisive medium of memory's unfolding. As Bellour suggests, all roads lead back to La Jetée's photographed memory of a woman's face.
Horrigan has written that "in Marker's work, the face as irreducible mystery has been a gravitational force." From the Petite Planète covers to La Jetée, Sans Soleil, and the archive's emergence in Immemory and "Staring Back," his portraits are an encounter of equals, comrades of the lens, rather than examples of the imbalanced power relation generally created by the camera. True to Marker's roots in the literary Left of the '50s and '60s, the photos evidence friendship's necessity in political agency. At the same time, his archive is a testimony to the age, an eloquent yet excoriating record of one generation going from marching on the Pentagon to a tacit acceptance of stolen power, to the next generation reclaiming again (we hope) the power that begins with a glint in the eye.