This is Not a Story about TV...
Although, in the manner of its enigmatic subject, film auteur Chris Marker, who passed away July 29, it is...
When French director Chris Marker died July 29 at the age of 91, the news rippled across the Internet and more traditional media worldwide, from CBS News to the Washington Post and Wired magazine. Fimmaker online referred to the auteur as "one of the greatest artists of the 20th century." And that's probably not exaggerating the influence of the photographer, novelist and even interactive CD-ROM designer, given the significance of his work and how it's reverberated amongst writers and directors since the early Sixties.
Marker may be the most important filmmaker you’ve never heard of – although his name, most likely, is familiar to every writer and director of television. (At least the old guard, anyway.) Most obituaries and essays noted Marker's four-decade cinematic career of over 50 films for its impact on other artists. And it's inarguable that two of them, cited in virtually all the obituaries, are the most remembered and respected by those familiar with his work.
Former New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once wrote that La Jetee (The Pier, at top) was "very possibly the greatest science-fiction movie yet made." The 1962 film is a scant 28 minutes, composed almost entirely of still photographs dissolving into one another, accompanied by a narrator's voice-over. (It was later released with an English narration, clip below.)
The black-and-white film envisioned a post-apocalyptic Paris where a captive soldier, subjected to paranormal experiments, is successfully sent back in time to change the present. It showcased Marker's technique of narrative voiceovers, which he had used in prior films and would go on to refine with even greater success.
La Jetee also contains what may be the most revered 10 seconds in all of independent cinema, in which, surprisingly and quietly, the film shifts, almost imperceptibly, from still photos into motion. It's an unforgettable fragment – from a film made 50 years ago – that still provokes passionate film discussion today. As small as it was, it looms monumental still.
La Jetee was remade in 1995, by director Terry Gilliam, as Twelve Monkeys (right). In a short documentary on Marker's work (below), Gilliam said, "It works because it is so technically brilliant. It's like we're listening to music... The editing is the most extraordinary, because it's the rhythm and the voice he's setting up. You're dealing with poetry at that point."
San Soleil (translated as Sunless), released in 1983, probably was Marker's greatest achievement, as well as the hardest to characterize. In the Gilliam clip, director Michael Shamborg asks, "Is it a documentary, or is it a narrative, is it an essay, is it a piece of art?... I mean, it is everything. And that's what makes it so wonderful."
Sans Soleil (below) begins with footage of three blonde children walking in a field and cuts to a jet fighter descending below deck of an aircraft carrier – both to the voice of a narrator reading a personal letter. (See clip below.)
That description makes the movie sound absurdly cryptic, almost to the point of satire. Yet its originality is haunting, and the film is immediately and thoroughly engrossing. Sans Soleil also established Marker's signature technique of a film essay, wrapped inside a documentary-style presentation, without a direct soundtrack.
Done as a free-association memoir and montage on the nature of history and the structure of memory, Sans Soleil is a mash-up of grainy stock footage, clips of early video art, and travelogues to far-flung, eerily isolated places: Iceland and the Cape Verde Islands.
One of Marker's main obsessions in Sans Soleil (and other works) is how we experience and remember – time and memory – and how historical fact is an impossibility. It is always tainted by whomever writes it, as slanted by his or her own experiences.
In Sans Soleil, the letters ascribed to the phantom journalist, Sandor Krasna, were from none other than Marker himself (Krasna was a pseudonym used in the opening credits). These letters, and the scrapbook effect of pairing silent image and voice-over, come closest to a sense of the quirks of recollection, of how we remember things in loops and fragments: out of chronological order, with varying degrees of clarity and accuracy.
They're fleeting, dissolving moments – at once understood, and almost as immediately lost. In other words, they're much like life itself. It truly was an original method, evocative of an underlying, different, honest way of understanding the world, and it was Marker's alone.
If all this sounds pretentious – for arty quietude, long scenes, a film attempting to be a novel (OK, boring) – point taken. The French "Left Bank" of New Wave filmmakers of the Fifties and Sixties, of which Marker was a part, were concerned more with film as a modern medium of art, as something that could challenge and provoke the way literature could, not just simply entertain.
Today, on a more commercial level, Errol Morris and Michael Moore have successfully used the essay-documentary form and found wider audiences; although it is hard to place them next to the breadth and sheer prosody of Marker’s work.
Given all that, how does Marker connect to television, and where is his imprint on it?
It is indirect, of course, since he never made a work for television – but, one might argue, his influence is all over it.
Certainly, Sans Soleil opened up the territory for novel-like works using montage and disconnected plot lines which eventually collide. It demonstrated how the slow reveal was the art of the experience.
One bold modern example example of it, in film, was 2004's Crash, in which seemingly unrelated events, flung far across the world, were woven together at the end. In 2008, the Starz series of the same name serialized the technique into a weekly format.
In 2010, AMC's Rubicon made a point of stressing how the smallest inconsequential events could be connected, and built on Marker's world of panopticon of video snippets, as does CBS’s Person of Interest (above). Every episode of Touch, which premiered on FOX this year, is structured on seemingly unrelated characters, connected to each other via some underlying mathematical metaphysics. It's arguable that Marker's vision of fragmented history filtered into all of these.
But more important, perhaps, was the the underlying tone of Sans Soleil and its impact on certain subsequent TV series. Certainly, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, premiering later in the same decade, found success with a free-floating mood (OK, a really dark mood), and wildly divergent images that were somehow guided by a hidden, pervasive logic of its plot.
And after La Jetee, time-travel stories appeared everywhere in all kinds of science fantasy, from the BBC's Doctor Who and the quirky universe of Lexx (1997) to the Back to the Future movies and today's wild paraphysics of Fox's Fringe. Last year, in the Family Guy episode "Back to the Pilot," Brian and Stewie had to travel back in time repeatedly to correct a change in the future they created on their first trip – and ran, hilariously, into multiple versions of themselves attempting to return and do the same thing.
And this year's NBC thriller, the doomed Awake, had one character experiencing, along with perplexed viewers, two unexplained simultaneous timelines.
In the style of Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger, Marker was a life-long recluse, who seldom gave interviews and declined to be photographed. This only added to his mystique and cult status.
Like the alter-ego "Krasna" in Sans Soleil, even the surname Marker was a fiction. Early in his career, Marker had changed it from his original – Bouche-Villeneuve – choosing something he thought would be pronounceable in any language.
As he predicted, the name Marker is easily remembered – and, now, often repeated. It can also be spoken, in the same revered tones, as when film fans drop the names of Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Venders and Kielslowski.
Ask any TV writer or director...