Chris Marker

April 2 – June 4, 2011
at Peter Blum SoHo & Chelsea

Homage to Chris Marker
April 5, 2011

 Chris Marker's Exhibition. Courtesy the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, NY.

I’m blessed. I’ve met  Ansel AdamsManuel Álvarez Bravo,  Alfred Eisenstaedt,Ernst HaasBill Owens,  my all-time hero Josef Koudelka, and many others who generously shared with me their skills and wisdom.  But none of them inspired me as much as the great French photographer, filmmaker, and artist, Chris Marker. Marker is relatively obscure here in the States but people who know of him are filled with reverence. His brush with popular fame came in 1995 when his 29 minute film, La jetée (1962), created almost entirely with still images, inspired David and Janet Peoples to write the screenplay for 12 Monkeys, a Hollywood blockbuster starring Bruce Willis and directed by Terry Gilliam.

I met Chris Marker a couple times in Paris back in the 90s and for many years carried on a lively fax correspondence.  I wrote a cover story on him for the now defunct magazine Digital Creativity.  Our personal correspondence dropped off but Chris has always kept me in the loop with his various projects and exhibitions. Just the other day I received notice of a show at the Peter Blum gallery in New York  titled, Passengers. It runs from April 2-June 4, 2011.

From the Peter Blum gallery press release:

PASSENGERS captures the many private actions and gestures that take place daily in the public sphere. Mothers cradling their children, couples whispering intimately, women wistfully staring out the window or into the middle distance, engrossed in their own personal thoughts. In several of the shots, we see whole train cars filled with similarly disengaged people. Taken as a complete body of work, this series very clearly illustrates the various ways in which people create invisible walls and boundaries in order to cope with modern urban life. Chris Marker further to the photographs he takes, enhances, changes or colors his images on the computer, giving them often an eerie, almost otherworldly presence.

The amazing thing is, Marker was 75 when I met him in 1995.  That makes him… you do the math.  I want to be going strong at 90!

Here is an excerpt from the article I wrote after meeting Chris in 1995:

At precisely 11 a.m. Marker met me at the door of his modest apartment in a working-class neighborhood. He was tall, handsome, completely bald and, like me, seemed a little nervous. He welcomed me in perfect American English. There was no hint of his age except in his Old World graciousness. I followed him past walls of shelves containing videos, past the well-kept kitchen into a room full of books. I observed leather-bound books, books by Jules Verne and Rainer Rilke. Although Marker has authored many books himself I didn’t see any of them. Everywhere were images of cats and owls, which I remembered from [his film] Sans Soleil were his favorite animals. A backroom was filled with video- and sound-editing equipment. As Marker stood in front of the console I suddenly saw him as a captain of a giant spaceship, looking in fact like Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. When I mentioned this to him, he pulled up his ears and said he’d prefer to be Spock.

And then, when he showed me his computers, he surprised me again. I’d read that Marker was considered both a man of the 18th century and of the 22nd. Indeed, he once wrote “I betrayed Gutenberg for McLuhan long ago.” Sans Soleil clearly showed that the man wasn’t intimidated by technology, but I wasn’t prepared for what followed. Marker launched into praise of his simple Apple II GS, and then complained bitterly about Apple’s abandonment of what he considers a wonderful machine. He knowledgeably commented on how Roger Wagner’s HyperStudio was one of the most flexible and witty systems he’d ever used for creating interactive media. We then carried on a conversation about, of all things, encryption software. I was amazed at the depth of his computer savvy. Here was a legendary filmmaker fascinated with personal computers and interactive media.[Remember this was back in 1995!]

Marker then offered me a drink of Polish pepper-flavored vodka, which I downed quickly. I pulled out my tape recorder and asked if I might record the rest of our conversation. “No, no,” he replied firmly. “No interviews. Instead, if you must write something, use your imagination. Place us on a boat on the Nile. We are drunk. It’s your story.” He didn’t realize that sitting there in a Parisian apartment with him was as exotic to me as being with a pharaoh on the Nile.

Marker was clearly uncomfortable with any discussion about his past, waving my questions aside as if they were annoying mosquitoes. So, I asked him if he was involved in any interactive CD-ROM projects. He told me about Immemory, an autobiographic CD-ROM recently begun, which, he said, played with the subjective nature of memory in a way only interactive digital media can. He demonstrated a rough version, showing archival images, text and sound and a map of unknown countries and islands interconnected by hyperlinks. One image is stamped in my memory: a pile of severed heads, all with Slavic features. Marker said he had found the image in a family album with no explanation or date. I remembered a line from Sans Soleil: “I look at the machine and I think of a world where each memory could create its own legend… Poetry will be made by everyone.”

In response to requests for photos of himself Chris Marker mails off a picture of a cat. Unlike other artists of his stature, he has never sought publicity and, in fact, has studiously avoided it. Indeed, this legendary French writer, filmmaker and multimedia artist has never granted an interview.

Marker lives amid a sea of rumors, some believable, some outrageous. Film encyclopedias report that Marker was a paratrooper during World War II. That his father was an American soldier. That he was born in Mongolia. That he is actually from another planet, or the future, “which,” one writer wrote, “leads one to believe that the race of Earthlings will resemble Marker in a few centuries.” That his real name isn’t Chris Marker but Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve. Like all good legends, the boundaries between the facts of Marker’s life and the fiction are blurred.

At some point it occurred to me that Marker’s encounter with the computer and new media had been inevitable. Hadn’t he always challenged boundaries of time, space and place? Hadn’t he broken through the restraints and limitations of writing to become a filmmaker? I was witnessing a man clearly free of yet another restraint. I recalled the story of the great Russian writer Tolstoy who, at the end of the last century, near the end of his life, saw the simple, yet revolutionary film of a train bearing down the tracks. Tolstoy is reported to have left the theater utterly depressed, remarking that he was born 80 years too early.

The last time I saw Chris Marker was on a boat on the Nile.  He had left his new computer (a fully loaded Power PC) behind.  It was early evening.  We had both drunk way too much vodka.  He was amazed when I told him that my friends and I actually got together to watch La jetée.  “Do you know there is a bar in Tokyo called La jetée?” he asked.  “It is filled with pictures from the film.  We should meet there some time.”  Then he revealed that La jetée wasn’t really his film.  “The film came through me,” he said, “I’ve never done anything like it before, or after.”

As the boat drifted near the banks and I watched the sun gloriously set behind the Sphinx, I recalled the last sequence in Sans Soleil which begins with the face of a cat and ends with the face of an enigmatic African woman.  The images were electronically enhanced by the Japanese video artists, Hayao Yamaneko into beautiful psychedelic colors.  I asked Marker if he was still in contact with the artist because the name sounded familiar to me.  He threw his head back and laughed. “There never was a Japanese video artist.  That was me.  Most of the credits in Sans Soleil are made up.  I am so tired of filmmakers plastering their names all over a film.”

Finally, emboldened by the alcohol, I ask him, “Were you really born in Mongolia?”  He looked at me painfully, clearly embarrassed by my directness.  But then he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “What is so strange about being born in Mongolia?”

Copyright 2011 Mikkel Aaland