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Chris Marker

Nora M. Alter

(University of Illinois Press)

French filmmaker Chris Marker isn’t a household name, and chances are he never will be.


One reason is that he’s a truly serious director, with no interest in the easy laughs and cheap thrills that drive most commercial movies. Another reason is his commitment to far-left politics, radical enough to make Michael Moore seem like a mild-mannered centrist. Still another is his restless and experimental nature, which makes his artistic signature hard to pin down. He’s made movies, videos, TV segments, multimedia installations, and a CD-ROM, and his printed work ranges from articles and photo books to poetry and comic strips.


Marker’s modesty may also contribute to his lack of fame. To quote Chris Marker by University of Florida professor Nora M. Alter, he has cultivated “a reclusive, elusive, and mysterious identity” during the 50-odd years of his career.


It’s true Marker doesn’t like to be photographed or interviewed. Yet he’s known and respected among moviegoers who share his adventurous spirit, even if they can’t tell you the name he was born with (Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve) or what he looks like. His air of mystery may itself be a sly public-relations ploy. Alter says he’s done “little to dispel the cult of personality that has developed around him.”


All this said, Marker deserves far more recognition than he’s received. With his 1958 feature Letter From Siberia, about the possibilities and pitfalls of communist ideology, he pioneered the “essay film,” going with the flow of his own thoughts rather than the “objectivity” of standard documentaries.


During the 1960s he joined other forward-looking directors in exploiting new camera and sound-recording technologies that helped launch the cinema-verite movement. A Grin Without a Cat, finished in 1977 and updated in 1993, may be the most comprehensive movie ever made about the rise and fall of ‘60s radicalism. Other major works, including The Koumiko Mystery and Sunless, combine sociology, cultural analysis, and far-flung travel footage into cinematic essays of amazing breadth and depth.


With sprawlingly ambitious movies like these to his credit, it’s ironic that Marker’s best-known film is La Jetee, a 28-minute short composed almost entirely of still photos. Set in the future, after a horrific war, it tells the science-fiction story of a man used by scientists for time-travel expeditions meant to prevent the disaster from happening. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Terry Gilliam used the idea for 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis as the human guinea pig, whose obsession with an enigmatic image from the past echoes Marker’s own fascination with the meanings and mechanisms of memory.


Alter’s book will perform a valuable service if it raises Marker’s public profile, encouraging viewers to see the handful of his films available on DVD and video. But it’s a pity the book isn’t better written and more judiciously put together. Even the densest, lengthiest, most challenging Marker movie is easier to get through than many of these pages.


Part of this comes from the format, dictated by the Contemporary Film Directors series at the University of Illinois Press, which puts out trim, concise volumes. Instead of devoting her limited space to thorough considerations of Marker’s most important screen works, Alter gallops breathlessly through pretty much all of them, glimpsing into countless corners of his career but illuminating few. If you don’t already know Marker’s films, you won’t get a very clear sense of them here—the section on La Jetee is a welcome exception—and you may be downright puzzled some of the time.


Alter’s prose style doesn’t help, either. She’s one of those writers who never says “filmmaking” when there’s a chance to say “filmic practice” instead.


Her book is billed as the “first comprehensive study” of Marker, and precise word choices are important when engaging with the work of such a smart, sophisticated artist. Alter seems careless at times, though, and even muddled. Amid many favorable comments about the 2001 photo-film Remembrance of Things to Come, for instance, she calls it “mired in a nostalgia for the past,” a negative judgment so abrupt and unexplained that you can’t help wondering if the word “mired” came from her computer’s thesaurus function rather than her real intention.


One more example out of many: Writing on Le Joli Mai, an essay-film about Paris, she says the “advantages of modernization are undermined by the image of an advertisement in 12 points that makes fun of an elevator.” How does the ad make fun? What does the size of the type have to do with anything? And what’s wrong with elevators, anyway? Would modernization be better without them?


Other problems run deeper, such as the labored definitions of “essay” and “documentary” that guide portions of Alter’s argument. The volume ends with a couple of brief texts by Marker and several interviews he gave between 1962 and 1997, most of which are too narrowly focused to carry much interest. The best part of the book is its well-compiled filmography, followed by a bibliography of Marker’s writings that his admirers should find helpful.


Chris Marker isn’t a household name, but he deserves a book that at least approaches the levels of complexity, lucidity, and wit that underpin his remarkable career.

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