An early episode in Sans soleil shows a series of porcelain cats – some intact while others, weather worn or cracked with missing appendages – curiously lining a shrine in a Japanese temple that, as the unseen narrator (Alexandra Stewart) reveals, has been consecrated in memory of these benevolent creatures. In a subsequent, unrelated musing on television images, the subject of assigning a name and face to horror is examined, juxtaposed against representational shots of film villains striking a similarly neutral, animalistic stance – one limb raised – as the figurines of the cat cemetery. In a similar juxtaposition, a traditional festival is captured in the streets of modern-day Japan as young women dressed in traditional garment and formed straw hats perform a rhythmic dance, and is intercut with a fragmentary image of a pulsating, African tribal ceremony. Are the respective episodes related, or does the viewer ascribe an unintended significance to the relation of the images because of their observed pattern – their collective semblance to each other – within the context of the film? It is this innate process of association that is propelled equally by sensorial experience as it is by the assimilation of learned and acquired information that provides the mechanism for memory. And it is this integrally personal and human cognitive function – the act of remembering (which, as the narrator incisively remarks, “is not the opposite of forgetting”) – that film essayist Chris Marker explores through a sublime montage of ethnographic vignettes, documentary footage, feature film stills, and post-production special effects by artist Hayao Yamaneko (resulting in an abstract digitization of the recorded image – a technological analogy to the processing of memory – that he calls ‘The Zone’ in homage to Andrei Tarkovsky). Set against a third person narration of paraphrased letters (that invariably introduces an added level of subjectivity) from a fictional filmmaker, global traveler, and intellectual named Sandor Krasna, the film becomes a compelling exposition on the nature and malleability of memory, history, time, and reality.
Alternating between excerpted stills from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that depicts the construction (and haunting) of memory, and Krasna’s own captured images from a personal tour of the film’s shooting locations (in essence, recreating the construction), Marker further illustrates the interactive confluence of reality and memory. Krasna’s first-hand experienced memory of the pilgrimage to the California landmarks becomes as real as the memory of the same sites experienced indirectly through the medium of film, creating a personal significance that is reflected in the subsequent remark that accompanies the images of a temple where people pray to commemorate the new year: “I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather, I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory.” It is a comment that acknowledges the engagement, if not implication, of the audience into assimilating the collective images presented by the film – propagating a synthesized reality that is borne of indirect, second-hand experience – perpetuating an external consciousness and memory that evolves and transforms independently of its creator. In the end, it is this transcendence beyond linear and finite physical existence that is evoked in the idyllic, bookend image of the three children holding hands as they travel down a road in Iceland in 1965 – a favorite footage that Krasna acknowledges he cannot “link” to other images and therefore presents apart from the other images contained in the film, separated by an extended black screen – now visually resolved and interconnected within the circular, iterative plane of the viewer’s created and experienced memory.
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