The origin myth of cinema is that when the Lumière brothers gave the first public screening of their 50-second documentary The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in 1896, the audience screamed and ran to the back of the theater in fear of the image of the oncoming locomotive. As hexing as the movies are on me, I’ve never felt them come alive—except once: in a magical scene in Chris Marker’s La jetée.
Chris Marker, the great French writer and director of “essay films,” as his friend André Bazin called them, just died on July 29, his birthday. Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, who was born 91 years earlier, began going by a pseudonym at some point in the ’40s, perhaps because he liked markers. We don’t know a lot about his life, because he cultivated secrecy, only once granting an interview. The few pics of him show him with a camera, or behind a camera. “My films are enough,” Chris Marker said.
After World War II (it’s said that he fought in a guerilla band in the French Resistance), Marker published poems, short stories, a novel, leftist journalism and various essays. Befriending the various writers and filmmakers who became known as the Left Bank Film Movement, he collaborated with Alain Resnais on Statues Also Die (1953), a lyrical documentary of the meaning of African art and how it has been appropriated by Western audiences, and Night and Fog (1955), one of the few movies that is spiritually equipped to have the Holocaust as its subject.
In 1959, Marker alchemized his personal style of filmmaking in Letter from Siberia, collaging startling bits of newsreel footage, cartoons and stills to intelligent, elliptical narration. In one scene famous among devotees of Marker, he shows the same banal images of a Siberian city and its workers three times in a row, each time with a different narration and soundtrack: the first in the tones of a spirited Soviet celebrating the happy workers and the well-run town, the second in the tones of an anti-communist denouncing the oppressive conditions, and the last in his attempt at an honest description, which he immediately admits is insufficient. The scene is a neat introduction to Marker’s central obsessions: the blending of imagination and reality, the politics of freedom and his own desire to know the contours of truth.
From the ’60s onward, Marker worked at a steady pace, averaging over a film a year, though only a precious few ever became widely available. His most famous movie is almost not a movie at all. His only foray into fiction, La jetée (1962) is a “photo-novel,” 28 minutes long, told in still images about a post-apocalyptic Paris where the few remaining humans’ only hope of survival lies in the possibility of time travel. Because of the protagonist’s powerful childhood memory of a woman on an airport peer with her hair gently blown across her face, he is selected as the experimental time traveler. If you haven’t yet seen La jetée, be forewarned: This absolutely unique document in the history of cinema very well may obsess you, as it has Terry Gilliam, who based Twelve Monkeys (1995) on it; David Bowie, who centered a weird video around it; various contemporary sci-fi authors, whose time-travel tomes are invariably variations on it; and film buffs like me who know it by heart.
Though viewers sometimes still watch his Grin Without a Cat (1977), a panoramic documentary about the beautiful energy and ultimate failure of 1960s leftist movements, and A.K. (1985), an interesting documentary about Kurosawa during the making of Ran, there’s really only one film besides La jetée for which Marker is well known: Sans Soleil (1982), the quintessence of his art.
Sans Soleil (or Sunless) can’t be neatly described. When you start trying to list its subjects (time, a memory of three girls on a road in Iceland, obsession, video games, Tokyo, Guinea Bissau, things that quicken the heart, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, freedom, Mussorgsky, revolution, death), you quickly realize that it’s simply about being alive.
Not only that, Sans Soleil itself is a kind of living thing that moves with the density of time. It’s certainly not for everyone, particularly not for those who reasonably demand a dose of entertainment in their movies. But if you believe that film can be a medium for the poetic and philosophical exploration of the world, Sans Soleil is a miracle. Though it’s not without cinematic influences, the predecessors I think of are the classic solitary walkers of human experience: Basho, Montaigne, Rousseau.
One of Marker’s gifts is his ability to film the products of culture—from ceramic cat statues to video games to African masks—as if they were living things. They glow with their own uniqueness, energized by the memories and obsessions that created them. After watching enough Chris Marker movies, you eventually realize that these things really are alive. For time is what all experience is made of, and imagination—which also goes by the name memory—weaves and repairs time.
So it’s no surprise that, in my book, he’s the filmmaker who has most successfully conjured life from a few celluloid frames. If you’ve already seen La jetée, you know which scene I’m talking about. The time traveler has finally made it back to the living woman whose face he could never forget. She’s asleep. Like the rest of the movie, the scene is told completely in still images; we see still after still of her sleeping face. Suddenly one of the still images blinks. And the heart skips a beat.
Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College and blogs about music with his son at