Tag Archives: Chris Marker

Chris Marker Study Day

This post was contributed by Ricardo Domizio, an MPhil candidate, in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies

The Chris Marker Study Day held in Birkbeck Cinema on 23 February was the inaugural event of the newly formed Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI).

The event was organised and hosted by Dr Michael Temple, and was kicked off with a few introductory words by Professor Laura Mulvey. She indicated how apt it was to initiate BIMI’s programme of research symposia with a day dedicated to a filmmaker who worked so creatively and conceptually with the complexity of cinema – a kind of “patron saint,” as she said, for cinephiles everywhere. Structured around a cluster of short screenings, the day proved a fascinating insight into Marker’s lesser known collaborative works, interspersed with commentary and discussion from invited speakers.

Chris Darke, who is writing a new book on Marker’s most famous work, La Jetée, took over to introduce two short, relatively unknown film essays, with commentaries written by Chris Marker. The first, Three Cheers for the Whale (Mario Ruspoli, 1972, 17m), is mostly composed of a series of still pictures depicting man’s age-old relationship with the whale. The word ‘still’, though, should not be confused with ‘static’, as the means by which Marker and his collaborators put the stillness into motion (physically via rostrum work, and metaphorically through the poetics of commentary) was one of the issues picked up in the following discussion. The next screening, A Valparaiso (Joris Ivens, 1963), is a quirky documentary about the eponymous Chilean port town, exhibiting a similar ecological edge as the Whale film, but one gradually displaced by a more anthropological eye.  The initial idiosyncrasy of the images (women walking pet penguins down the street!) is gradually overtaken by a more serious and political slant, as the film begins to focus on the plight of the poor and the desperate. One of the more interesting lines of discussion afterwards explored Marker’s political sensibilities in the post-war period generally, and the ways in which his films might speak a non-doctrinaire politics of the left during the heady decade of the 1960s.

The morning sessions were now and then seasoned with tantalising snippets of information about Marker’s famously eccentric, if not mythologized, personal history. The fact that this master essayist of French cinema was elusive about his place of birth, and refused to be photographed or interviewed, increased his enigmatic aura. On the other hand, the fact that he fought in the French resistance and the US Army during the war, and that he was inseparable from his pet cat, Guillaume, made him seem truly human. The traces of this unique persona were vividly in evidence in the next screening of the afternoon, a UK premiere of Agnès Varda’s visit to Chris Marker’s studio (2011). A long standing friend, Varda was granted special access to film the sacrosanct space of the artist’s studio (which doubled as his home). The result was rather like a home video that voyeuristically but affectionately rifled through the jumble of assorted hardware, software, books and trinkets. Naturally, Marker himself did not want to be filmed, but his disembodied voice did embellish the production, cutting a rather understated and avuncular figure. We learn, not surprisingly given his predilection for travel, that Marker exists as an avatar on an archipelago in Second Life.

Next on the agenda was a screening of Remembrance of things to come (2011), a documentary made by Marker and Yannick Bellon on the life and work of the photographer Denise Bellon. A pioneer of photojournalism, Bellon’s photographs evocatively capture an extraordinary period in French culture and social history from the 1930s to the 1950s. An aspect of Marker’s work that has perhaps not had the attention it deserves, but which is made explicit in this film, is its empathy with surrealism. Bellon not only documented the first surrealist exhibition in 1938, she was also a friend and associate of the leading lights of the surrealist movement. Marker’s pithy and redolent commentary (read by actress Alexandra Stewart), brings forth a kind of ominous surrealism that marks the whole of the pre-war situation in France. After the screening Professor Janet Harbord gave a talk on the film that picked up the theme of surrealism and its paradoxical use in Marker’s work, which is often classified as ‘documentary’. She also spoke about other important features that run through the film and the wider oeuvre: a fascination with the sensuality and movement that lies within the supposedly ‘cold’ and ‘still’ photograph; and the possibility of achieving the complex personal and political truths that reside between narrative, memory and history.

The event was brought to a close with another UK premiere, To Chris Marker: An Unsent Letter (2012). As the title suggests, the film is an homage to Marker made by an erstwhile production colleague, Emiko Omori. It consists of a collection of interviews with Marker’s friends and collaborators animated with musings and vistas relating to his life and work. A tender and heartfelt farewell to an admired friend, the film exhibits a similar tone of remembrance and mourning that permeated much of Marker’s own work, but with a sentimental edge that Marker largely eschewed.

Overall, the day was mostly effective in widening the field of study from the rather narrow set of films that constitute the more conspicuous Marker canon, and in providing a tiny (and necessarily partial) insight into the personal life and working methods of this most private and ‘unclassifiable’ of French post-war auteurs.