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Chris Marker

April 18, 2006

The Koumiko Mystery, 1965

koumiko.gifChanneling the zeitgeist of the French new wave, The Koumiko Mystery assimilates Jean-Luc Godard's enraptured clinical deconstructions of the feminine mystique (as well as a penchant for structuring these ruminations within the framework of noir) with Jacques Demy's achingly nostalgic evocations of elusive, romanticized longing into a whimsical, organic, and fractured, yet quintessential Chris Marker exposition on culture, identity, contemporaneity, and strangerness. Consisting of a series of conversations with - and observations of - an attractive, French-speaking, twenty-something Tokyo resident named Koumiko Muraoka, the film is set against the backdrop of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a critical milestone for postwar Japan to demonstrate to the international community that the nation had not only recovered, but also culturally evolved from its feudal, militarist history into a modernized, free economy, democratic society. In its characterization of a complex, historical city as an organic, self-propelled, and autonomous personality (and specifically, as an enigmatic woman), the film can be seen, not only as an homage to Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City but also as a prefiguration of Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her in which the ambiguously attributed "her" of the title becomes an interchangeable allusive reference to the city of Paris, the actress Marina Vlady, or her fictional character Juliette at different vertices within the film. As in Godard's subsequent film, a great city is shown at the cusp of transformation, regardable as both a quaint, hometown with indigenous character, and as a bustling, constantly evolving city on the threshold of becoming an impersonal - and intrinsically characterless - modern metropolis.

For Marker, a visual survey of European-featured mannequins at a department store and advertisements for cosmetic products that purport to create the appearance of enlarged eyes and narrowed noses illustrate this subconscious dissolution of identity in the face of globalism, even as Koumiko considers her own features to be too classically Japanese - a face more suited to the Heian period, she muses - and lightheartedly argues that she wishes that she had a more in vogue, "funny face" instead. This seemingly anecdotal exchange precisely articulates Marker's sense of alterity in this cultural encounter, as he interprets these aesthetics of contemporary fashion as a subconscious desire to neutralize Asiatic features - to erase the otherness that attracts him to the culture (and to the heroine) - even as she seeks her own sense of otherness in a culture of (perceived) monoethic sameness. The theme of conformity and erasure of identity is also presaged in the images of an Everyman comic strip that prefaces the film in which the interpenetration between occidental and oriental cultures is depicted as resulting in a superficial mimicry of the other in an attempt to model Japanese postwar society in the manner of "civilized" nations, and eludes true comprehension of either culture. In this respect, Marker's intrinsic sense of strangerness is the folly of melancholia for a lost, exoticized past that never was confronted with the curiosity for the mundane reality of an assimilated traditional and modern culture that is the identity of a "new" Japan, and it is this intrinsic bifurcation that inevitably captures the enigma - the ephemeral mystery - of Koumiko.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 18, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Chris Marker

February 6, 2006

Le Joli mai, 1963

jolimai.gifBefore Chris Marker would deconstruct the 1930s, postwar photo-reportage of Denise Bellon in Remembrance of Things to Come to unearth what would prove to be subliminal portents within the zeitgeist of seeming halcyon days that would prove to be a harbinger of an inevitable second great war to end all wars, he would first cast his critical gaze towards Paris in the spring of 1962 after the signing of the Evian accord that effectively ended the Algerian War, a hopeful season that similarly held the elusive promise of peacetime following years of political agitation and terrorist insurgency. The resulting film is Le Joli mai, a two-part exposition inspired by Jean Rouch's groundbreaking Chronicle of a Summer assembled from candid interviews of ordinary people on the meaning of happiness, an often amorphous and inarticulable notion that evokes more basic and fundamentally egalitarian ideals of self-betterment, prosperity, tolerance, economic opportunity, and freedom. The image of a near imperceptible man scaling, then descending the symmetrical apex of a modern building provides a curious introduction to the film’s first chapter, Prayer from the Top of the Eiffel Tower, as a narrator similarly suggests adopting a different vantage point of observation for this seemingly auspicious time - to see Paris at dawn with the estranged familiarity of someone returning after a long journey, "without memories, without habit."

For a high school educated apparel salesman, happiness is earning enough disposable income to afford a second television set or similar commodified luxuries in order to make his wife and children happy, even as the ephemeral notion of free time itself contradicts the very mechanism of productivity and leisure that serves as the socioeconomic basis for obtaining these articles of luxury. For a pair of boys spending idle time in the financial district, happiness is growing up to become a person of importance, a captain of industry whose wealth and power can single-handedly influence the dynamics of the stock exchange. For an impoverished mother living in a one-room tenement in an Aubervilles slum with her husband and eight children (including one adopted niece), happiness arrives in the form of a long awaited mid-day telegram from the housing authorities notifying the family that its application for a three-bedroom apartment has finally been granted. Segueing into a conversation with contemporary artists, intellectuals, and inventors - a recurring theme of eccentricity and innovation that is underscored by images from a space exploration exhibit - Marker presents an image of the local population that cannot be reduced to a commonality of interchangeable archetypes but rather, reveals an underlying iconoclasm that often borders on narcissism - a preoccupation towards self-absorption and, consequently, away from the collective needs of society - that is reflected in the comment, "if we dissect this many-faced crowd, we find that it is the sum of solitudes".

While the first chapter reinforced the idea of separateness and social myopia innate in the individual pursuit of personal happiness (as epitomized by a young couple professing eternal love, the sad irony of their woeful ignorance over current events rendered even more absurd by the young man's status as a soldier awaiting impending deployment overseas), the second chapter, The Return of Fantomas places the hopes of the individual within the context - and limitations - of one's social station. An African immigrant becomes a first-hand witness to the malleability of history when he disputes the "official" colonialist version of the conquest of Dahomey. An ex-priest recounts his difficult decision to renounce his faith in order to take up the Marxist cause, unable to find compromise within the two competing ideologies of moral service. An Algerian young man recalls with dispiriting resignation and sense of exclusion his traumatic experiences with racism in the workplace and police brutality at home when he becomes the victim of petty retaliation in both his native and adoptive countries. Like the evocation of the elusive master-criminal Fantomas in the chapter title, the lingering, unresolved issues of racism, marginalization, social inequity, labor struggles, and colonial exploitation cast a pervasive, sinister shadow on the prospect of a lasting peace that, on the surface, seemed possible after the resolution of the Algerian conflict. Inevitably, it is through this dual image of Paris as a city of hope and despair, promise and chaos, liberation and imprisonment that the film serves, not only as an encapsulated document of the spirit of the times, but also a prescient prefiguration of the social turmoil - and ideological revolution - to come.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 06, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Chris Marker

December 4, 2005

Letter from Siberia, 1957

letter_siberia.gifOne of the highlights of the 2004 New York Video Festival was Jacqueline Goss' disarmingly whimsical and tongue-in-cheek, yet witty and incisive ethnographic video essay, How to Fix the World - an animated reenactment based on the cognitive studies of psychologist Alexander R. Luria that preceded the Soviet government's mandate to promote Western education and literacy (and consequently, communist party allegiance) throughout the rural villages of Uzbekistan. Having recently revisited one of Chris Marker's earliest films, Letter from Siberia, it is not difficult to imagine the spirit of iconic film essayist imbuing every frame of Goss' charming film. On one hand, both essays assume the point of view of a distanced - and somewhat bemused - cultural outsider who objectively chronicles quotidian observations of an indigenous culture at the crossroads of profound and irreversible transformation - a historical record of a way of a life that will soon cease to exist - a reality that is (or will soon be) no longer real. On the other hand, the narrator also serves as a reflexive witness and facile commentator on the cultural repercussions of imposed assimilation, modernization, and Westernization on an Asiatic people during the Soviet government's cross-country campaign towards collectivization and political centralization. However, while Goss' film is rooted in the underlying interrelation between social psychology and cognition (in particular, logical deduction and problem-solving methods) that often lead to cultural misunderstanding, Marker's perspective proves to be more amorphous and open-ended.

This stream-of-consciousness approach is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence in the film in which the camera pans from an industrial dredging site to a line of trees as the narrator changes narrative course to the Siberian taiga by commenting that a hiker cannot attempt to traverse the forest in a straight line without invariably getting lost. In a sense, the film, too, necessarily diverges even as it retains continuity from its visible line of sight as adjacent, juxtaposing images reveal the intrinsic bifurcations that open up to other points of departure - to other uncharted frontiers of exploration. Rather than focusing the complexity of observations towards a point of convergence within an overarching logical argument, the validation of the argument itself becomes secondary to the documentation of ethnographic observation. In this respect, Marker's film proves to be groundbreaking because it diverges from the conventional cinematic approach of using montage to direct arguments towards the validation of postulate theory. Instead, Marker uses montage to underscore the contradictions and, therefore, negate the existence of a simple and encapsulable overarching theory that can neatly define the essence of a societal culture and history.

Moreover, the juxtaposition between the unnamed narrator (a prefiguration of the fictional globetrotter, Sandor Krasna in Sans Soleil) and the vanishing culture of the Siberian nomads becomes a intriguing study of the phenomenon of collective consciousness as a continuum (a theme that would also pervade Aleksandr Sokurov's cinema): an organic transference of memory, ideas, and collective cultural history without a physical medium of exchange (a fictional photojournalist, an extinct way of life, a projected film). It is in this examination of the ephemeral nature of information exchange that ultimately elevates Letter from Siberia from exoticized (albeit idiosyncratic) travelogue to seminal exposition on the study of human consciousness, an audience transcendence from passive, curious spectator to integral lifeline within the interconnected fabric of all human history.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 04, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Chris Marker

September 2, 2005

Remembrance of Things to Come, 2001

remembrance.gifA visual essay into - or more appropriately, a thoughtful process of signification for - a montage of photographs from Denise Bellon's photo-reportage from the period between the two world wars (as the "grand illusion" of a lasting peace during the mid 1930s after the Great War gradually unraveled to reveal an inexorable path towards another devastating world war), Remembrance of Things to Come resolves to reconstruct the evolution of European (and colonial) history during the early half of the twentieth century by examining the prefiguration of documented images taken by Bellon during that era. The first of these prefigurations appear in the idyllic, stylized poses of the uninhibited body for a print advertisement - celebrations of the precision and strength of the human body that would come to represent the proletarian images of totalitarian regimes such as the torch bearing athletes that metamorphosed into the iconic hammer and sickle Kolkhoz sculpture that became the symbol for the Soviet Union. Another prefiguration occurs in the documentation of the "shattered faces" whose disfigurement would bear witness to the barbarism of war and provide a glimpse into the inhumane physical consequences brought by the advent of technological weapons of mass destruction (such as the disfigurement caused by the atomic bomb). Even quotidian images from the reconstruction prove to be prescient as seen through Bellon's gaze as migrant workers from the French countryside foreshadow the influx of immigrant workers into the city, both classes of workers representing the notion of foreignness in the mindset of deeply entrenched Parisian sensibility (if not implicit chauvinism). From images of film archivist and Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois' legendary bathtub that was used to store film cans during the Occupation, to the brothels in Tunis that de-exoticized the pleasure industry that grew out of the profitable economy of serving colonial forces stationed throughout the French Empire (in essence, putting real faces of suffering in the trade (and cycle) of human exploitation), to the little-documented, forgotten history of the failed uprising against Franco by Spanish Republicans in the Aran Valley, Bellon's camera would also serve as a unique and irreplaceable chronicle of early 1940s zeitgeist.

Perhaps the most emblematic prefiguration of Bellon's gaze is in the photography of a gypsy bride that would be published for the cover of Paris Match, an issue that would also contain excerpts from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. The mental image of "gypsy", already a connotation for displacement, outcast, and marginalization, would later be inextricably bound with another shared history with Hitler through the human tragedy of their racial targeting for extermination during the Holocaust: their grim connection foretold through the portentous association of a glossy magazine. It is in this analytical deconstruction between the integral art of composing an image and the cognitive assignment of significance behind the captured image that filmmakers Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon create a compelling exposition on the processing and (subconscious) self-actualization of human memory.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 02, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Chris Marker