La Jetée (1962)
Borges tells the story of an elderly Saxon man, lying in the ruins of a forgotten stable, "willing himself to death." This man is the last living witness to the pagan rites that once dominated his land, the present's one direct link to a long-since abandoned tradition—and he'll take those final few images with him into death. "Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder," the author intones. "And yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man or woman’s death."
It boggles the mind and saddens the heart to think how many moments of time long since past, how many faces and locales now unrecognizable, and above all how many names—names for places, people, customs, works of art—must have passed away with Chris Marker on Sunday. To be sure, Marker was nothing short of a visionary: one of the few filmmakers who, in his pioneering work with the essay-film, can be said to have developed a form—even a genre—completely his own. And yet Marker's films thrill above all because they seem to give us but a tiny glimpse, as if through a hollowed-out window, into the full-to-bursting palace of their author's memory.
Chris Marker is the closest cinema has gotten (if the cinema can even claim this prolific photographer, essayist, and activist as its own) to a true citizen of the world. To say that few have seen as much as Marker, or retained their visions so studiously, is not hyperbole but statistics. The man travelled voraciously, all the while reflecting madly, desperately, on his own capacity to translate the stuff of experience into something tangible and enduring—if I may unjustly reduce to a maxim Marker's lifelong concern with the twists and turns of remembrance, forgetting, and the possibility of return.
He was the purest and most humble sort of artist, unmoved by fame or attention, one who seemed to consider his own works unfinished sketches when they now seem to us polished and deeply precious stones. Perhaps for Marker his work was but a small, inevitable extension of his travels, principles, and reflections, but that proves only that his life was remarkably, uniquely rich.
Sans Soleil (1983)
And what works they are! La Jetée, his most famous film, is in some sense an anomaly: it's a narrative work, its montage of meticulously composed still photographs suggesting little of the spontaneity of Marker's later films (though the urgency of its montage surely anticipates their restless, questioning spirit). Its cyclical, self-fulfilling narrative, though, introduces what would become a central image in Marker’s work: the moment when memory advances on and informs the present moment, when it becomes terrifyingly, undeniably real.
This is perhaps the highest compliment that we can give Marker’s masterpiece, the globe-hopping reverie Sans Soleil: that, of the many films centered around remembrance and loss, none have been as vital, or as alive. In a sense Marker turned the great problem of the cinema—its stubborn, unbreakable causal connection to the past—into its highest virtue: not by severing the bond but by bringing the past to life. Hence that one shot in La Jetée—you’ll know it when you see it—that, in the blink of an eye, both defined the stakes of the filmmaker's dilemma and triumphantly swept them away.
I haven't even mentioned Marker’s deep-set commitment to leftist politics, which he approached with a theologian's balance of doubt and resolution, bafflement and hope. In films like A Grin Without A Cat he did for collective, national memory what Sans Soleil did for personal recollection—and proved that each would always, to a greater or lesser extent, inform the other. Nowhere, for Marker, was the boundary between the personal and the universal more fluid than in the cinema. Which might be why he was able to imbue even the material of a treatise with the lightness, the sensitivity and, above all, the mystery of poetry.
In 1997, Marker released Immemory, a CD-ROM containing enough of its creator's notes, photographs, musings and recollections to fill a small library, arranged within a few broad categories that branch in and out of each other in a near-infinite combination of pathways and directions. It now seems like the fullest realization of Marker's vision: equally an encyclopedic record of the man’s own memory and a continued reflection on the function, process, and efficacy of remembrance—both of which, Marker might say, are really one and the same thing. "I will have spent my life," says the narrator of Sans Soleil, "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."
Marker would likely say, then, that the great store of memories he accumulated during his 91 years were nothing but imperfect reflections of an unattainable ideal: the exact reproduction, the perfect image of lived experience. And yet we still, I think, have the right to be immensely grateful that Marker lived at a time when he could directly record his eloquent grasps at recollection. If it's worth mourning the loss of a great man and of his impossibly rich past, it's worth celebrating that now, thanks to Marker, we remember a trio of children on a path in Iceland, the broken china cats in a Japanese shrine, or the enigmatic stare of a beautiful African woman; that we remember the great frozen seas and ruined cities of Immemory; that we remember the flutter of an eye. And that the past Marker worked so hard both to build and resurrect might outlive him, and us.
I hope, though, that, carried away by Marker's grander and perhaps more profound visions, I never forget this modest reverie: the director's affectionate ode to his beloved cat Guillaume-en-Egypte. Here's proof that Marker, though ever-occupied with the ephemeral, the ambiguous, and the uncertain, stayed attentive to the pleasures of the small—proof that this restless searcher still allowed himself moments of peace.