The singer Elliot Smith stabbed himself in the heart a few weeks ago, and I felt sad that I had never really exposed myself to his music, but had disregarded the recommendations of friends and let his life pass by. But then, just this morning, I realized that I had seen Elliot Smith. He opened for Tori Amos at a concert in 2000 in
That makes me feel profoundly sad and helpless—that memory is all that history is, and memory is open to doubt. Assisting with my coping is Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, which I just watched. It tells me, “the function of remembering…is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” This is consolation? Marker’s breakthrough is that memory is the present, not the past. We exist moment for moment, and each moment constantly dies. I have a feeling it will be an uphill battle to convince you this is an inspiring film.
I admit it: it’s a heartache of a film, suggesting the fleeting nature of memory and the impermanence of everything, somehow (miraculously) reducing key elements of his theories into found symbols in Japanese culture as the unnamed traveller (Marker) wanders that country. He is also, in moments, in
Let’s go back to Elliot Smith. What pains me the most is that I don’t really have a strong image of his performance for my memory. I can’t go back there, I can’t relive it, and I can’t even grab a moment or a picture to say, “That was Elliot Smith, I saw him and knew him for a while.” I was foolish when my grandfather died. I had the smallest window of opportunity to see him on his deathbed, and I refused. I preferred to keep the image of him in his chair at home, laughing with me as we watched television together. I should have realized that the memory would fade, was already probably corrupted and inaccurate. I should have realized that I was turning down a moment with him, my last chance to exist beside him. Instead, I went out to
Of course, we have instruments for recording history and its people. Elliot Smith, as a celebrity, not only has CDs and songs that will be played for years and years, but also, no doubt, endless hours of video recordings of his performances. In fact, there may exist a video recording of that night in
Marker says, “I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.”
Sans Soleil is a documentary in the “purest” sense (which requires some explanation). It is Marker’s essay, read by a narrator. These words are linked—sometimes vaguely, but often directly—with footage he shot in the places I named. Sometimes the monologue ceases and he allows us to simply watch the moments he recorded, the people of
The revolutionary coups in Guinea, and their domino effect upon the once-conquering Portugal, are chronicled a bit confusingly if you don’t know the history (as I don’t); but the point is that the revolutions are perpetual, and that the revolutionaries are not just forgetting their past, but have “an amnesia for the future.” Marker shares his unrealized dream to make a science fiction film called Sans Soleil (“Sunless”), which would tell of a time traveller from the year 4001—a time when the human race has learned total recall, and has lost the ability to forget. The time traveller would propel himself into the past (without the ability to forget, I suppose everyone would have the ability to time travel) to seek out the meaning of the “Sunless” song cycle by Mussorgsky, and to examine the meaning of unhappiness, since there is no unhappiness in 4001.
Marker talks of a funeral for a family cat, Tora, in which a woman says “Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you,” and Marker begins to see this cat everywhere, in a culture that is often more moved by the deaths of their animals than their people; he notes that in a zoo in Ueno a ceremony is held to remember all the animals that died that year: “For two years in a row this day of mourning has had a pall cast over it by the death of a panda, more irreparable—according to the newspapers—than the death of the prime minister that took place at the same time. Last year people really cried. Now they seem to be getting used to it, accepting that each year death takes a panda as dragons do young girls in fairy tales.” He finds it odd that the dead cat Tora’s name should share the name of the order for the attack on
He talks about Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and talks about visiting Hitchcock’s locations around
Marker’s film is an unanswered riddle, which is appropriate enough, like Elliot Smith in
* A reference to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which also deals with memory, in a science fiction context.