'To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter' Has Insufficient Postage

Collaborators and admirers provide an enlightening, but at times opaquely idiosyncratic assessment of the maverick French filmmaker.

To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter

Director: Emiko Omori
Cast: David Thomson, Tom Luddy, Peter Scarlet, Marina Goldovskaya, Michael H. Shamberg, Janet and David Peoples, Dirk Kuhlmann
Distributor: Icarus
Rated: Not rated
Year: 2013
Release date: 2014-04-22

As a tribute to the celebrated, celebrity-shy French filmmaker Chris Marker (1921–2012), Emiko Omori’s documentary succeeds. Omori, who worked as a cinematographer on Marker’s 1989 miniseries L’héritage de la chouette (Heritage of the Owl), has interviewed collaborators and admirers—critics, filmmakers, and Marker fans outside the world of cinema—and compiled their enlightening, and at times opaquely idiosyncratic, memories into a compelling picture of the maverick filmmaker.

Marker—best known for La Jetée (1962), which served as the inspiration for 12 Monkeys (1995), and Sans Soleil (1983)—emerges as a tirelessly creative artist who embraces technological developments in the medium, like digital filmmaking, and who, in his reclusive way, is generous with fellow filmmakers and supporters of cinema.

To Chris Marker is an odd amalgam. In an strangely academic touch for such a personal film, it begins with film critic and historian David Thomson reading his assessment of La Jetée, without ever looking at the camera.

Other interviewees’ contributions are more direct. Filmmaker and UCLA professor of cinema Marina Goldovskaya, who assisted Marker on The Last Bolshevik (1993), marvels that Marker assembles films without making a rough cut and observes that “he is interested only in one thing: in creation.” Producer and filmmaker Michael H. Shamberg claims that “Chris is like an artist in the studio, and his studio is the world.” Omoria herself provides a succinct explication of La Jetée.

Other interviewees seem to have been included simply because they were influenced by Marker’s work, no matter how tangential their connection to the filmmaker or cinema studies. Computer scientist Dirk Kuhlmann claims it was Marker’s vision of a universal electronic language that led him to choose computer science over philosophy or physics. Margaret Collins, identified as an X-ray technician, responded to the “political edge” of his work. Daniel Potter, identified as a web master, praises the “rhizomatic” nature of Marker’s film, borrowing the term from Deleuze and Guattari.

Marker trivia abounds. 12 Monkeys screenwriters Janet and David Peoples report that he made La Jetée on the weekends while shooting Le Joli Mai (1963), that he hesitated to claim ownership of La Jetée “because it had just been dictated to him”, and that the he gave the prize La Jetée won at the Berlin Film Festival to the projectionist who showed the film with the reels out of order.

The director tries to capture the global reach and texture of Marker’s work, including footage shot in San Francisco, France, and Asia to accompany voiceovers from her interviewees. Filmmaker and Hong Kong radio journalist Erica Marcus reveals that a segment of Sans Soleil is based on a broadcast she co-wrote about Chinese New Year.

While Omori never carried out her intent to show her documentary to Marker (presumably the title refers to the fact that he died before the film was completed, though Omori never explains this), metaphorically the letter has become an open one with the film’s release. It thus invites critique of To Chris Marker as a film rather than a private gesture, and from that perspective it doesn’t fare so well.

Omori has made some very odd choices in structuring her film. Many segments of Marker films are included as if they appear to be playing on a laptop screen while moving footage (of sped up street traffic in several instances) plays behind the computer. The effect is amateurish and distracts rather than augments.

At times her shot selection seems to follow the literal or sophomorically humorous practice of early music video. We see fishermen hauling in a catch as Thomson, reading from his assessment of Marker, sums up the audience reaction to Sans Soleil: “...a net full of shining fish, and we’re the fish”. As Peter Scarlet, artistic director of several film festivals, details an anecdote whose punch line involves Marker eating a donut, we see donuts being made.

When the documentary turns to Marker’s obsession with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, we see a poster for the film submerged in shimmering water. When we learn of Marker’s rare participation in a film festival, we see large fragments of glacial ice falling into the ocean.

At other times Omori’s shot selections are baffling. Why do we see elephants feeding, to the tune of The Carnival of the Animals, as a lead-in to the Peoples’ account of meeting Marker? Is this footage Omori’s or Marker’s? Does it suggest anything other than Marker’s strong interest in animals?

As enjoyable as To Chris Marker is on balance, perhaps Omori, unlike Marker, would have benefitted from moving through an additional rough cut or two before releasing her work to the public.

Note: There are no extras with this DVD.

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