A Chris Marker photograph from the Paris Metro
Perhaps a central figure in my small, exclusive pantheon of household gods is Chris Marker, whom no one, I think, should characterize only as “French filmmaker” as is usually done. For me, his Stendhal syndrome inducing film essay Sans Soleil has more in common with The Sagrada Família than with any mere film known to me– its insightfulness, erudition, effortless, uninhibited subjectivist intellectual arabesque, free of pretension, is astounding and overwhelming (for some people apparently, it also takes 144 years to finish). Monique and I hosted a humble Marker film festival at Manette a few years ago, but contemplating this film in particular I find myself falling into a kind of consciousness I only ever experience when waking from the rarest, most disturbing dreams, where, I believe, certain inhibitory faculties of my brain are not online… I’m a different person completely without the cognitive filters of waking life standing guard, thinking and feeling what is normally not possible for me to feel, surveying a vast, hostile existential terrain in all directions.
To others, Sans Soleil is a travelogue. In any case it is a heavy vessel of zeitgeist– the film grain and stock, the confluent imagery of early 1980s Japan, the washes of characteristically dissonant FM synthesis. 1982 now seems very faint– I was only around 8 years old then– this now long-distant realization of futurism (this is an idea desperate for a Markerian neologism) is like an autumnal chill. In the culture of we-who-think-we-understand-a-little-of-Marker’s-work, though we can never be very sure of it, there is a half-joke that he is a time-traveler….
There is a system of synchronicity around Marker. In one of my favorite parts of the film, the protagonist “writes” the narrator that the wild german shepherds frolicking on the beaches of the Cape Verdean Isle of Sal seemed to him to be unusually active… only later does he hear a BBC radio broadcast speaking of this being the first time in 60 years that the Year of the Dog meets the element of water.
(I doubt anyone reading this far will need reminding that something doesn’t have to be “true” to be interesting.)
In the few months before I left Memphis in early 2002, as I was trying to discover as much about Marker as I could, having not seen any of his other work, I began to be included myself in this system of synchronicity. I played much of Sans Soleil on my WEVL radio show Gray December, and looked everywhere I could to find films I hadn’t seen– I found La Joli Mai at the library on VHS tape– but one day I went into an independent video store called Black Lodge to see if I could find the supposedly important film, La Jetée. I walked in and asked one of the two men standing there about it. They looked at each other in disbelief… the store did not have a copy I was told… but a friend of his had been there only five minutes before to loan the store a copy… and he was still holding it…! If this had been a film like Star Wars that he was holding, or a contemporary Hollywood box-office hit, this would not be difficult to imagine. But La Jetée?
But something more wonderful than even this happened not long after. Perhaps a week or two before coming to Portland, Judy, station manager at WEVL in Memphis, forwarded an email to me that was sent by a first time listener to my show, poet and electronic music composer Eric Tessier. We talked a bit about music via email and decided to meet at a restaurant called La Montagne… a former art student and friend tended bar there (search for “Elizabeth S.”). Eric ordered cranberry juice with some difficulty… then we talked about music and film, his wife Michelle being a professor of French New Wave film-making– so I brought up Chris Marker and probably spoke about Sans Soleil much like I have thus far in this post, speaking in particular of the film in a musical context because of my intense feelings for the Isao Tomita soundtrack and audio by Antoine Bonfanti. It was a shock to meet someone who understood what I was talking about. And that was the last time I have ever seen Eric.
A few months later I had been in Portland for some time… he wrote me he had returned to La Montagne one night and overheard French being spoken at a nearby table– so he introduced himself and fell into discussion with these travelers: they were filmmakers in town making the documentary By the Ways: A Journey with William Eggleston…. Eric was in fact that very night conversing with Antoine Bonfanti’s son Francis!
(Warning— Spoiler regarding the picture above: Take it from a portrait painter… don’t you think her eyes look crossed? They aren’t… but it’s an illusion one can’t un-see.)