[Delivered as an introduction for La Jetee and Case of the Grinning Cat for the Annual French Film Festival, at Boardman’s Art Theatre in Champaign, Illinois.]
Every artist starts with a set of assumptions about her medium. In conventional cinema, the artist assumes that camera will be used to record a passage of time, and then re-play that passage later to tell a story. In experimental cinema, sometimes it seems that the one assumption is that one avoids that very task.
Chris Marker’s assumptions about film start outside of this polemic – they start instead with a collection of interests about the world. This is what makes his films experimental in the best sense, because he thinks through his medium, not before his medium, or about his medium. It sometimes seems like every film is made from the same collection of interests and questions. His work benefits more than most from being seen as a group, and so I think you’re in for a treat tonight.
In La Jetee, you’ll see Marker’s departure. The main character of that film is a time traveler, not a Time Lord like Dr. Who, but a man subject to time, cast around by it, trying to make sense of it. After a very traditional narrative set-up, you’ll see Marker depart, and in his later films, such as the Grinning Cat, we can see that he never came back to living in our time. Think of the main character in La Jetee escaping, living among us today. He starts to make films, they end up looking like the Grinning Cat.
We’ve all known deja vu, the experience of having experienced the present moment before. We’ve all known the Sunday night before another work week where we don’t know where the last week went. We all know the frustration of trying to remember something for someone that’s just at the edge of consciousness. We’ve all had the odd experience of coincidences, in which the same image or word or color or reference emerges several times throughout a week. We’ve known nostalgia, when a memory comes flooding back that may or not relate to what really happened.
Those are the experiences the Chris Marker mines, breathes, darts through like shortcuts or hyperlinks or holes in the swiss cheese.
For Marker, images in film don’t have to follow one after another to replay a passage of time. When they do, it’s sometimes remarkable, and very intentional – there’s one part of La Jetee that you may almost miss where film behaves like film, where still images play in a row to produce the illusion of time and movement. Images follow one another in Marker’s films for very different reasons. They allow him to skip around a city, or around a timeline, bouncing back and forth and in and out of the present to make comparisons in the search for meaning and sense. His edits are like neurons firing in the brain, growing new connections to construct memories that may or may not emerge again in consciousness.
This may all sound like high-falutin’ and advanced stuff, but it’s not really so different from some films you know. Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a favorite of Markers’, and La Jetee shares a great deal in common with it. There is at least one scene in La Jetee that is even a direct quote from Vertigo.
I just want to point out one of Marker’s many themes that occur throughout his films and in these two tonight, and then I’ll let you see for yourself.
“They are without plans, without memories. Time builds up around them, their only landmarks the flavor of the moment and the markings on the walls.”
The idea of markings on the wall as landmarks is an interesting glimpse of a strong theme for Marker, because writing on a wall doesn’t just help one navigate space – it helps one navigate time. Through the layers of marks, through the fading of some and emergence of others, we can notice the passage of time. This is a theme Terry Gilliam seized on in his remake of La Jetee, 12 Monkeys. Think of bulletin boards, sidewalk chalk drawings, bathroom stalls, grafitti on telephone poles. These are the images and marks that we see everyday, and that change each day.
Significantly, they change through human action, through the pause to stop and inscribe. Freud talks about memory using the analogy of the magic writing tablet, the toy for kids where you draw on a piece of clear plastic, and it picks up wax from a piece below. By lifting the plastic, you erase the mark and can draw again. But if you were to look below at the wax, all the marks from before are there.
This is the sort of writing that Marker is interested in, the writing that produces memory through accumulation, though recall is never easy. Writing comes up often in his films, writing on sidewalks and walls and on film and on screens.
And it’s significant that for Marker, this investigation of how we remember through the ways we impress ourselves on the world, the ways in which our feet and hands leave imprints, doesn’t happen in a neutral, conflict-free space.
The hero of La Jetee struggles against powers to live in memory the way he chooses, and in the Grinning Cat we see Marker looking not just at graffiti but at all the competing markings through the city, the advertisements and protest signs and newspapers and screens. He reads the city of Paris after Sep 11 as a muddle of marks, competing for memory and space.