"He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten."
So says the narrator in 1983's Sans Soleil, sharing with us the correspondence she's received from a fictional globe-trotting cameraman, and in retrospect supplying a succinct elegy for that film's maker, Chris Marker.
Marker, the film-essay pioneer, died in July at age 91 and now is the subject of a remembrance at the Pacific Film Archive, starting with Sans Soleil this Friday, November 2, 2012. He made movies as deliberate digressions, full of roving and ruminating, and to recall him through them is to trace our own seams on the lining of forgetting.
Experimental films can be chore-like, even with the force of a charismatic personality (you still have to warm to the personality). But openness is inherent in Marker's style. Rather than impose, he invites. Always, an abundance of personal touches, including frequent fond references to cats and to Hitchcock's Vertigo.
He was a writer first -- of novels, poems, plays, journalism -- and his movies are deeply literary in their textures and heady intimacies. His 1963 masterpiece La Jetée, for instance, is self-described as "un photo-roman." A thing to cozy up with. Built from still photographs, plus one rapturous, perfectly deployed moment of motion, La Jetée still haunts us as a marvel of deceptive simplicity. Which is not to say it's deceitful. But to quote its narrator, "images begin to ooze like confessions." Here again is Marker the cunning self-abstractionist. Yes, it's a movie full of great sci-fi stuff -- time-travel, apocalypse, cosmic desire -- but at its core is a delicious and doomed romance.
A Grin Without a Cat
In 1977's A Grin Without a Cat, Marker sorts through the tumult of the late 1960s and the beleaguered aspirations of the New Left. It's an untidy history, another rewriting, and another remembrance-dream built from incomplete and clashing images. "The nice side of that era," Marker would reflect many years later, "is that you can say practically anything about it and be sure to strike home from a certain angle and lamely goof from another."
Marker had Marxism and Surrealism in his soul, but not dogma. Could we say catma? We sense a never-complacent political conscience, and an artist eager to report back to us, to confess his findings, from the past-future threshold.
The PFA's program also includes a segment from The Owl's Legacy, Marker's philosophical miniseries about the heritage of ancient Greece, and Junkopia, in which another inspired science-fiction landscape, dotted with art-object flotsam, is gradually revealed as the shore of Emeryville. Plus Emiko Omori's searching appreciation, To Chris Marker: An Unsent Letter, which gathers warm testimony from local movie luminaries including David Thomson, Tom Luddy, and Janet and David Peoples -- the latter pair having adapted La Jetée into Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. For Omori, the broader project is tracing the conduits of artistic inspiration, or as the maestro himself would have it, "things that quicken the heart." There are many.
At Jetty's End: A Tribute to Chris Marker, 1921–2012 runs for three Fridays -- November 2, 16, and 30, 2012 -- at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and more information, visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.