Chris Marker Staring Back Film Program
The Brooklyn Rail
November 1, 2007
“A moment stopped would burn like a frame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector.”
The subliminal image disappears below our conscious threshold, losing none of its effect, surreptitiously perhaps even gaining power. Used in mainstream 1950’s films to stimulate the audience’s appetite for candy, a discrepant image hides inside a stream of images similar to themselves. For Staring Back, an exhibition of 200 black-and-white photographs dating from 1952 to 2006, Chris Marker selected only what he calls instead “Superliminal” images: those exceptional shots that stand out strikingly from many virtually the same.
“If subliminal refers to the object the eye doesn’t catch but the brain does, Superliminal is the REVENGE OF THE EYE . . . that on slow-motion catches one image among many others apparently identical as being THE image . . .”
Staring Back recaptures that mute disruptive moment when “for the first time in the history of cinema”—as the Swedish director himself so somewhat presumptuously proclaimed—Ingmar Bergman had his actress abruptly look straight at the camera’s lens. Earlier, the brothers Lumiere scared moviegoers right out into the road, bearing down on them with their steam locomotive.
Marcel Proust’s diary tells us that his celebrated madeleine scene from Remembrance of Things Past had less to do with involuntary memory than it did with narrative mechanics. He’d needed a textual bridge or structural join to transport his readers to Combray. This concept of the Superliminal then might serve to link Marker’s photos with his films, though remembrance in La Jetée is surely of things to come.
La Jetée (1962) is a film composed almost entirely of stills, except for a shimmer of motion during which a photo breathes. Utterly enthralling, it’s the scrapbook of a man who travels back and forth through time ultimately to witness his own death. His obsession with an image, as an aptitude, alone directs this uncanny fate. Its 27 minutes effortlessly enfold one of cinema’s most heartrending love stories, a decimating doomsday portent, lo-tech sci-fi effects that outgun its pale knockoff 12 Monkeys, and it is as unnervingly spooky for black-and-white as is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. May a chill run down your spine. Its cult following mingles the religious inextricably with the deranged. I myself flew to Paris after a single viewing to see the Jardin des Plantes where a part of it was filmed! Edge of the seat, teeth bared superlatives here cannot be exhausted. For aesthetic metaphysics, this flick packs a wallop.
Proofs of mass hypnosis: Sandor Krasna, the imaginary film-maker narrated by voice-over in Marker’s peripatetic contemplation Sans Soleil (1982), visits locations from Hitchcock’s Vertigo when in San Francisco. There are explicit bows to Hitchcock’s film also in La Jetée, such as one episode wherein its protagonists count rings on a sequoia tree. Chris Marker saw Vertigo nineteen times.
“I think of a world where each memory could create its own legend.”
Emitting subtle signals Marker echolocates, reflexively relaying film to film; Sans Soleil to La Jetée then Sans Soleil back to itself. There his trace is magisterially erased. Within Sans Soleil, Sans Soleil is called a film he’ll never make.
“After so many stories of men who lost their memory here is the story of one who has lost forgetting.”
A recluse, at times even anonymous, adopting aliases, or serving only to facilitate other (often amateur) auteurs’ films, Marker smokes through screening rooms like the wind off of a ghost. Now 81, he cautioned in 2003, “Twenty years separate La Jetée from Sans Soleil, and another twenty separate Sans Soleil from the present. Under the circumstances, if I were to speak in the name of the person who made these movies it would no longer be an interview but a séance.”
Today, twenty-five years after Sans Soleil, on the wall plaque for Staring Back, Marker cites the poet Valery Larbaud, touching on an image Larbaud recalled from his own world the travels of two Dutch girls, no doubt sisters, “Rotterdam, the Boompjes wharf (September 18, 1900, at about 8 o’clock)” seen parting before work. Just as this ostensibly unprepossessing sight took on super power and stayed forever with Larbaud, Marker starts his film Sans Soleil with nearly identical girls. For Sans Soleil opens with this spoken thought: “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. He wrote me, one day I’ll have to put it 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.”
Thus, let us consider the role of the shutter. In a rare interview (2003) Marker reports, “Out of the two hours you spend in a movie theater, you spend one of them in the dark. It’s this nocturnal portion that stays with us, that fixes our memory of a film in a different way than the same film seen on television or on a monitor.”
Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist and self-styled “cinema addict” Eric Kandel, who studied cognition in the sea snail, maintains that film is what our brains have craved since the Stone Age. Its split-stream flicker from black to light and color affords both autonomy and stimulation. “This is an interesting kind of movement for the brain,” Professor Kandel states, and is “much better than reality.” What is more, he holds that cinema divides us from all else that walks, crawls, swims or flies, as it is the one form of experience that only humans can have.
Avowedly attempting to end all cinema Guy Debord screened his Hurlements en faveur de Sade in 1952. It closed with 24 minutes of silent black film. And may well be when cinema began.
For Silent Movie (1994-1995) Marker stacked 5 video monitors to form a tower, using random computerized playback so that no sequence occurs twice. In part of Letter from Siberia (1952) he presents one filmed segment with three variant sound tracks, altering its interpretation along oppositional ideological lines.
Finally, Marker clarifies his prevailing acceptation as a political artist. “What interests me is history, and politics only interests me to the degree that it is the mark history makes on the present.” History, however, is a Marxist buzzword, and what Marker says of politics might well hold for deep image. To complete its unraveling Marker outlines a choice he made during one demonstration in Paris in 1962 when eight people were killed by savage cops. “I decided to use my 16mm camera as a substitute for the gun my primary instincts would have preferred.” His humanity and humility astound.
The 1932 Marx brothers film Horse Feathers contests Bergman’s primacy. When Chico sits down at a piano to begin a musical interlude, Groucho turns to the camera and deadpans, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.”
- GEOFFREY CRUICKSHANK-HAGENBUCKLE