Photo refinish: 'Remembrance of Things to Come' arrives with new Chris Marker releases in DVD from Icarus Films. (Photo courtesy Icarus Films)

Chris Marker Comes Home, At Last

Michael Fox September 1, 2008

I confess that for a long while I had the misperception, based on almost no exposure to his work, that French essayist Chris Marker made dense, dry films steeped in political theory and inaccessible to anyone but a narrow strata of irrelevant European intellectuals. This delusion persisted because Marker’s films truly were inaccessible; outside of the infrequent one-shot local premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival or the Pacific Film Archive, they never played. The exception is his tour de force short fiction La Jetée, which pops up with some regularity at venues like The Other Cinema and S.F. Cinematheque. (And even its army of admirers will concede that it’s less a pleasure trip about time and space travel than a pointed examination of the nature and meaning of images.) Marker’s unavailability wasn’t remedied by DVD, where one could only find La Jetée and Sans Soleil. Until today, that is, when Icarus Films releases The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (1967), The Last Bolshevik (1993), Remembrance of Things to Come (2001) and The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004). A gust of fresh air, they’re guaranteed to whisk away your boredom (it’s OK, you can admit it) with story-driven American documentaries with quirky characters.

I should point out that these are individual releases, not a box set, though it hardly minimizes the echoes that ricochet across the films and the decades. The earliest work, The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, is an intense 26-minute account of the massive rally against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., in October 1967, culminating with the march on the Pentagon. Marker starts on the outskirts of the demonstration, recording the minute of silence for Che Guevara and the goofy American Nazi Party members protesting the protestors, and zooming in on the departing commercial airliners rising over the Department of Justice building (evoking the B-52s raining fire on the other side of the world). The filmmaker imperceptibly slides ever closer until he’s in the middle of the fray, mirroring the journey from observer to participant that he wanted his viewer to take in real life. Yet all the while, Marker’s coolly distanced and at times arch narration lends the film a sly veneer of objectivity.

Thirty-five years later, Marker recorded another march of civilians opposed to American warmaking, this time in Paris. He started The Case of the Grinning Cat in the wake of 9/11, when connections between strangers and random acts of kindness and whimsy were especially precious. The film begins as a hopscotch portrait of urban dynamics, triggered by the sudden profusion of cartoon drawings of a beaming yellow cat high on the sides of buildings. Politics soon enters the frame in the form of the French presidential election (in which right-winger Jean-Marie le Pen made it to the runoff) and the U.S.‘s preemptive strike on Iraq. The Case of the Grinning Cat shows Marker as light on his feet as you’ll ever find him, segueing from the important (émigrés and descendants of émigrés rallying against le Pen’s anti-immigrant platform) to the trivial (a cat stuck in a tree). It’s a deceptively free-flowing style, but it’s anything but random. It’s consistent with Marker’s view of history, which encompasses the everyday person and the big picture of mass movements and social forces. Late in the one-hour film, Marker notes dryly, "It’s a great asset in life not to know what you’re talking about." He’s taking a swipe at some idiotic public figure, but he could be speaking about the condition that’s seemingly endemic to all of us, ignoring the lessons of history. (I’m not overlooking the possibility that he’s obliquely referring to George Bush, but Marker has a lot more on his mind than one powerfully dumb American.)

My favorite of all the new releases is Remembrance of Things to Come, which matches Marker’s narration to pictures shot by the late French photojournalist Denise Bellon between 1935 and 1955. (Her daughter, Yannick Bellon, is listed as co-director.) Marker’s verbal pyrotechnics are typically playful and sober, profound and droll, but their brilliance here lies in the ways he dances and dovetails and folds his musings in and around the photographs. Sometimes there’s a direct connection between his words and the luscious image, though he’s not apt to hit it dead on but to lead into a picture or away from it with a sharpened insight. It takes a moment for the impact to fully register, and its effect is to make you want to rewind 30 seconds and watch the bit again. At a brisk 42 minutes, Remembrance of Things to Come is a perfect length to simply start from the beginning after you’ve watched it once. If you don’t see 10 or 20 things you missed the first time, I’ll be amazed.

You may have already concluded that DVD is a perfect medium for Chris Marker, since his cunning, calculated work requires and repays multiple viewings. (Even if you’re not the kind of boob who describes a filmmaker’s work as "dense.") I certainly need to take a second look at The Last Bolshevik, a thoughtful and wise examination of the Soviet Union in the 20th Century and the failed experiment of communism, presented in the guise of a biography and appreciation of Marker’s friend and fellow filmmaker, Aleksandr Ivanovich Medvedkin. (His life, one friend recalls, was "the tragedy of a true Communist among would-be Communists.") The most ambitious of the new DVD releases, it’s also garnished with the best extra of the lot, Medvedkin’s 1934 silent masterpiece Happiness.

Marker’s great talent as a filmmaker is giving us the impression that any digression is welcome, any accident is providence and anything can happen, even as he is firmly in control. We don’t feel steered or manipulated, nor adrift and meandering. A philosopher of passionate ideals, Marker makes films that are, at their essence, generous invitations to join him in an inquiry into the mysteries of human society.