Time Traveller

Remembering Chris Marker

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Chris Marker, La Jetée (The Pier), 1962, film still. Courtesy Argos Films, Paris

Chris Marker, La Jetée (The Pier), 1962, film still. All images courtesy Argos Films, Paris

It was one of those affinities of which he was so fond. The news of Chris Marker’s death earlier this year emerged just as it was announced that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) had been voted the greatest film of all time in a poll by Sight and Sound magazine. It granted little comfort, this is true, but did suggest that Marker might be continuing to exert his influence, even as he had crossed the partition towards whatever lay beyond. Hitchcock’s film first entered the poll’s top ten in 1982, the year in which Marker made Sans Soleil, an extraordinary cinematic essay based upon the letters of one of his alter egos, Sandor Krasna, a cameraman who writes on the possibility of making a film (one which would also take its name from Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 song cycle Sunless). Sans Soleil, then, is a film that both is, and would be, made from footage collected from Krasna’s many travels, to Japan and Guinea-Bissau, Iceland and Paris, but also to San Francisco, where he drove – as Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie drives in Vertigo – in search of someone whom he could not be certain was ever really there. To the florist Podesta Baldocchi, to Mission Dolores, to the Museum at the Legion of Honor, to San Juan Bautista and, most tellingly, to Muir Woods where is found the slice of a sequoia tree, its concentric lines having provided Kim Novak’s Madeleine the markers of time to which she could point and say, ‘Here I was born … And here I died.’

Within these circles of time, other circles swell and are brought to mind. ‘He remembered another film in which this passage was quoted. The sequoia was the one in the Jardin des plantes in Paris, and the hand pointed to a place outside the tree, outside of time.’ The film he remembers, of course, is his own, or Marker’s, or someone who bore his name. (Marker once told me that the film was made by someone from outer space; on another occasion he remarked that an interview with its maker would require a séance.) In this earlier film, La Jetée (The Pier, 1962), it is another man, and another woman, who consider this other tree, this other slice of different yet shared time. ‘She pronounces an English name he doesn’t understand’ — surely ‘Hitchcock’ — and ‘as in a dream, he shows her a point beyond the tree, hears himself say, “This is where I come from …”’ If there is the overwhelming sense of not quite originating one’s own actions, it is perhaps because these are gestures that embody a sense of already having been repeated, and so exist in a state similar to that so beautifully traced by the art historian Aby Warburg: that of a Nachleben, or afterlife. However, whereas Warburg was able to identify the reappearance of a gesture from antiquity in a painting from the Renaissance, for example, in La Jetée the return is both more physical and anterior – that of a man to his own childhood, and a place marked by a gesture, and a woman’s face.

We never learn this woman’s name, although much has been made of the name of the woman in Vertigo: Madeleine. Like images, like gestures, a madeleine has become the means by which one is returned to one’s past, or one’s past is returned. While it is generally assumed that Hitchcock took the name of Scottie’s amour fou from Marcel Proust, it is to be found more proximately in the novel on which Vertigo is based, D’Entre les morts (1954, translated as The Living and the Dead in 1956) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. (One can only presume that Proust was indeed their source.) However it is a name that the novel’s detective, Flavières, would never dare use, the name of a married woman, of another man’s wife. No, there is another name that he begins, playfully, to call her, one he first uses while they are having tea: Eurydice. She smiles, and after a long pause comments, ‘And you did bring me back from the nether world, didn’t you?’ 

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Chris Marker Sans Soleil (Sunless), 1983, film still

Chris Marker Sans Soleil (Sunless), 1983, film still

This rescue occurred not in Hades, or even San Francisco Bay, but in the Seine at Courbevoie, a commune near the centre of Paris and one that neighbours Neuilly-sur-Seine, the presumed place of Marker’s birth. Boileau-Narcejac’s novel is set not in California but the Île-de-France, and this reminds us that La Jetée is not only a remake of Vertigo, as Marker claimed – the film with which he was obsessed – but also a making of D’Entre les morts. It is in this book that the man and woman walk together through the Jardin du Luxembourg and Galeries Lafayette, prefiguring the rendezvous of Marker’s couple in a public garden and department store; if Madeleine and Flavières visit the Louvre rather than the Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle, then this only confirms that Marker’s film is not simply the memory of an event recalled but rather an event created.

One hesitates to offer so singular a reading of so diverse a practice, but perhaps this is what lies at the very heart of all Marker’s work, that memory is the means by which one might restore to the past the possibilities that it once held and which have petrified, like statues (and, as Marker and Alain Resnais noted so long ago, even statues die). I thought of this often, amidst the consolidation of regret, in the days following Marker’s death, as I recalled the times I had spent in his Parisian apartment. ‘Is there anything else you can remember?’, the newspaper editor asked after I wrote of these visits, my recollections of tea and wildlife programmes and Kipling. There then came the awful doubt that my memories of Marker, of this man for whom memory was matter with which one makes, were fabrications also. I lay down and, like the time-traveller in La Jetée thinking of the woman whom he has met, I did not know whether I moved towards him, whether I was driven, whether I had made it up, or whether I was only dreaming. Yet if I doubted my memory, I could trust my souvenir, a photograph of the time-traveller that Marker gave me that first time. Here was a man caught agonizingly between states, between his present descent beneath the earth and his return above it with the woman whom he has brought from this nether world. He was Marker’s Orpheus in Hades, and it was in a folder bearing this title, in a filing cabinet of the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute, that I had placed this photograph but a few days earlier. A gesture in this place of past gestures; a gesture, from amongst the dead, with which to make the past new.

Jeremy Millar is an artist based in Whitstable, UK, and art tutor in art criticism at the Royal College of Art, London, UK. 

Issue 150

First published in Issue 150

October 2012

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