“Chris Marker” was merely the most frequent of the pseudonyms used by the man who, at his birth in a posh Paris suburb in 1921, was named Christian Hippolyte François Georges Bouche-Villeneuve. With some fifty works on celluloid and video to his credit—more than sixty if you count the thirteen episodes of L’héritage de la chouette (The Owl’s Legacy), a 1989 television series on the history of philosophy, as separate works—his filmography alone suggests a kind of ubiquity, yet Marker was by choice an elusive figure. Has anyone whose life was lived with and through the camera’s eye ever been so averse to having it turned on himself?
Marker, who died in 2012, neither started nor finished his creative life as a filmmaker. He began as a man of the printed word—a writer and editor—and then, as he put it, “traded film for video and video for the computer.” As a student before the war and during the early years of the Vichy government, he threw himself—already using pseudonyms—into various editing projects, including a magazine of Pétainist hue. But Marker soon switched sides and joined the Resistance, later fighting for the US Army, according to one source, during “a brief period after the Battle of the Bulge [when] the Americans recruited Frenchmen directly into the American Army. He fought right through to the end of the war, and one of his most treasured possessions was the signed letter from Eisenhower thanking him for his service.” After the war, he fell into the orbit of Emmanuel Mounier and his magazine Esprit, which promoted a left-wing Catholicism. He published a novel, Le coeur net (translated into English as The Forthright Spirit) and a study of the playwright Jean Giraudoux, as well as translating into French the stories of J.F. Powers and James Thurber and E.B. White’s Is Sex Necessary? In 1954, Éditions du Seuil, which before the war had been founded as a Catholic imprint, hired him to edit a long-running series of travel books.
By then, however, Marker had become a man with a movie camera, directing Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) in 1950–53 with his friend Alain Resnais, for whom he would also serve as assistant director on Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), the famous documentary about the Nazi death camps released in 1955. Commissioned by the Paris-based magazine and publishing house Présence Africaine, Les statues meurent aussi is a ringing (if nostalgic and essentialist) denunciation of European colonialism and, in particular, European museums as the graveyard of African artworks. “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears,” warns the film’s voiceover.
The exhortation applies as well to the big, pleasantly messy retrospective “Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat,” on view at at the Whitechapel Gallery in London through June 22; it travels to the Lunds Konsthall in Sweden early next year. Marker did eventually become a museum artist rather than a writer or (in the traditional sense) a filmmaker, and he was one of the first filmmakers to try his hand at multimedia installations: Quand le siècle a pris forme (Guerre et révolution) (When the Century Took Shape [War and Revolution]) dates from 1978. But it’s not clear whether the whole of his career lends itself to a museum treatment, or whether those of his works that take the form of what, in the end, he preferred not to call “installations” (“the word,” he complained, “has been applied to too much rubbish”) are his most representative.
The problem with showing Marker in a museum is one of distraction, which is really a problem of time. Museum exhibitions of other filmmakers’ work—Jonas Mekas at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2012–13, for instance, or Chantal Akerman at Bozar in Brussels in 2013—have suffered from the problem too, but I sensed it more poignantly at Whitechapel. Time—especially, to borrow a phrase from Marker’s 1982 masterpiece Sans soleil (Sunless), the inability to “repair the web of time,” and the anguish of being caught in it—is so much the essence of his art. Yet a museum demands that the contents of an exhibition be comprehended spatially, as part of an array in three dimensions. You can devote however much time you want to the works there, unlike a film, which must be followed at a pace set by its director. And then always, out of the corner of your eye, another moving image beckons your attention away from the one you’ve just started to watch. A black-box theater with comfortable seats is the best way to see most films; at home, something of the same concentration can be mustered. But while milling around in a museum? Not likely.
As for Ouvroir (Workshop), the domain that Marker built within the online virtual world Second Life, one should probably have joined him there in real time while it was still possible. He felt that this was something “absolutely new in the history of communication. It’s not quite reality and yet.” It was a way of being Schrödinger’s cat. But all of this is lost in the video recap. Nor is a work like Immemory (1997), which was originally conceived as a CD-ROM (and can now be accessed online), any more amenable to museum presentation. Surely, it is only in private that this “guided tour” of Marker’s own recollections could somehow become one’s own (or, as he wrote, “that the reader-visitor could imperceptibly come to replace my images with his, my memories with his, and that my Immemory should serve as a springboard for his own pilgrimage in Time Regained”).
Marker may have created this dilemma himself, through the very attempt to render “the fragments of memory in terms of geography. In every life we would find continents, islands, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae.” That’s Marker the traveler and editor of travelogues talking, and from the very beginning his camera roved worldwide: Les statues meurent aussi was followed by films made in Finland (Olympia 52, 1952), China (Dimanche à Pékin, 1956), the Soviet Union (Lettre de Sibérie, 1957), Israel (Description d’un combat, 1961) and Cuba (Cuba si!, 1961)—none of them shown at Whitechapel—before finally turning to his home city with a discerning eye in Le joli mai (1963), which is excerpted in the exhibition. He soon enough resumed his peripatetic ways. But Marker’s urge to roam may have been an escape from the deeper implications of his preoccupation with memory. His real desire was to be a time traveler.
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I don’t mean to suggest that Marker should have stuck with filmmaking in the traditional sense. His work reflects an insatiable curiosity about the world that flourished undimmed through the decades, and so it seems only natural that he would have become curious as well about how to use the new ways of working with images that emerged in the course of his long life. Besides, he was never exactly a “pure” filmmaker. Early on, André Bazin explained that whereas the image is the basis of most cinema, in Marker’s essayistic films “the raw material is intelligence, its immediate expression the word, and the image comes in third position with reference to this verbal intelligence.” For Bazin, the appeal of Marker’s films lay precisely in the way he had allowed himself to remain the writer he had started out to be.
His writerly disposition may account for the ease with which Marker took to digital culture, where the word and the image coexist on an equal basis, being merely so many incarnations of information. At the same time, Bazin’s observation should not obscure the fact that Marker’s films also gravitate toward another pole that is equally foreign to most other cinema—the still image. Throughout Marker’s cinema, there is a recurrent urge to fix an image, to hold on to it against the flow of time. In his most famous work, the science-fiction love story La jetée (1962), one of the few that at first glance seems quite distinct from his usual essayistic mode, every shot but one is a still. By the same token, his photographs—represented in the show by selections from those he grouped under the title “Staring Back,” spanning 1952 through 2006—all seem stolen from some ongoing cinematic sequence. Some of them really are taken from his films, though they exist with equal vividness as separate images.