Çarşamba, Haziran 27, 2007

Sans Soleil

This week Criterion released on DVD one of my favorite short films and one of my favorite documentaries, together in one package. Both are by French filmmaker and essayist Chris Marker. "La Jetee" is his famous science fiction short which inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, although it retains a poetry and power that transcends most work in the genre. Sans Soleil, made two decades later, uses one of the themes of the film--memory--as a launchpad for a digressive, euphoric travel journal. Both rely heavily on still photography and narration. Here's an essay I wrote after viewing Sans Soleil a few years ago.

* * *

"The first image he spoke to me about was the one of the three children on a road in Iceland in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I'll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long stretch of black; If they have not seen the happiness in the image, at least they will see the black."

-Sans Soleil

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 Salt Lake City. Or was it him? I think it was. My memories are so vague of that figure—much stronger for the performer I’d come to see, but Mr. Smith is distant, receiving fervent applause from those around me. What I do remember, unless my mind is embellishing, is that some girls near us were singing along with a song or two. He probably sang something from Good Will Hunting, which exposed many to his work, because there was thunderous clapping as he struck up some songs. An unfamiliarity with his music clouds the rest, but I have such a vivid memory of Tori Amos that night—my mind has chosen what it wished to remember. But if I were to really analyze, they are only the things I asked myself to remember, and they are still scant. That night is ninety-nine percent gone, and what remains is my mental drawing of it, which might not be accurate. Elliot Smith is completely gone. He may not have even been there.

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 Guinea-Bissau, Africa, or San Francisco, or the Île de France, or Heimaey, Iceland before and after a devastating volcano wipes it from existence and reduces it only to impermanent memory. Impermanence is the key: he notes that the Japanese are unique in understanding it, recognizing that we are separated from death only by a thin border. But lives are not the issue; memory is, and the massive death of moments.

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 Washington for the funeral.

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 Salt Lake City, and, to take the unlikely notion further, there may even be a recording of me watching Elliot Smith, or of the girls around me singing and the thunderous applause, which may not have been as thunderous as I’m misremembering it. There may be a recording proving that it was not Elliot Smith after all. These things can be checked, but I know that there might as well have been no Elliot Smith, because my memory, selective, has let me down.

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 Tokyo walking the streets or performing an obscure ceremony, a woman in Guinea who does not want to be seen looking at the camera but glances surreptitiously, in twenty-fourth of a second, “the length of a film frame.” He tells anecdotes and returns to them again and again, establishing his own motifs around his central theme of memory. Sometimes you can see the connections he is making, and they are striking, clear, and moving; sometimes it’s as though his private symbolism is too obscure, and you let the poetry wash over you and watch the images. I think that’s all he asks. There’s Jungian philosophy here, ruminating over the collective unconscious. There’s the “synthetic imagery” of Marker’s friend Hayao Yamaneko, whose computer paints over Marker’s images to the point that, Marker observes, they look like burning paper. Yamaneko believes that “electronic texture is the only one that can deal with sentiment, memory, and imagination,” and indulging his friend, Marker utilizes many of these electronic images to process the moments in Sans Soleil, taking them into a neutral place Yamaneko calls “the Zone”. *

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 Pearl Harbor, and following this connection he reads the last letter of a kamikaze pilot, in which he justifies his function as a machine. Responding to that desire to be a machine, Marker throws the image of a diving kamikaze pilot into “the Zone,” to look like burning paper. And we realize that to be a machine is to preserve memory, to become preserved, reliable, ever-functioning with total recall like the time traveller from 4001. To be this kind of machine would be to live without unhappiness.

He talks about Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and talks about visiting Hitchcock’s locations around San Francisco, obsessed with the film’s “spiral” of time; and here he forms another link in an essay that has continued over several films and into my own life. As a child I was at the mission Hitchcock used as a location, which Marker visits. I saw a snippet of Vertigo on television shortly thereafter, and was thrilled that I had been there, and I remember someone falling, on the TV, from a churchtower. In college, at a friend’s house in the country, I watched Vertigo again with that pleasant déjà-vu, and fell through a different vertigo when I saw Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys just a few days later. While watching 12 Monkeys, it reminded me of Vertigo for some reason, and when the two characters entered a theater and watched Vertigo, and Gilliam shows us the scene of Kim Novak saying “I was born here…and died here,” as she points at a sequoia’s rings, I smiled in comfort and discomfort, the cycle of memory returning. And this scene with the sequoia is mentioned and shown in Sans Soleil, but it really cannot be much of a coincidence, because 12 Monkeys is based on Marker’s legendary short film La Jetée, and although Gilliam had not seen Marker’s film until after 12 Monkeys was completed, surely the screenwriters, David Webb and Janet Peoples, had seen not just La Jetée but also Sans Soleil, which is like La Jetée’s companion film. (Both are about memory and time travel, and La Jetée plays like the science fiction film set in 4001, which Sans Soleil describes as unmade.) These connections are all linked, with me, in my déjà-vu, which recurs, and recurs, and recurs, more times than I have actually seen Vertigo (I haven’t watched it since that time in college). According to the American Heritage dictionary, déjà-vu is either (1) an impression of having experienced something before, or (2) “dull familiarity.” That last definition doesn’t seem so inappropriate, since Marker, tromping the Earth filming people’s faces, announces himself to be a “bounty hunter” of the “banal.” But familiarity isn’t so dull, and if we can experience something again it might be the most comforting illusion of all: being rescued from the trap of each moment becoming lost and dying, irretrievable. And so, watching Sans Soleil on November fourth, 2003, I was returned for a moment to 1983, when Marker was filming Sans Soleil and I was in California, possibly walking past the mission where Vertigo was filmed, maybe walking past Marker, who was pursuing his vertigo of time.

Marker’s film is an unanswered riddle, which is appropriate enough, like Elliot Smith in Salt Lake City. Smith returns in film and digital recordings, a ghost of the past who will continue to pass into the future. Maybe we should pick up a camera and film everything we see, catching moments in the present like panicked archaeologists who see everything escaping through the fingers into history. Or maybe we should resign ourselves to memory—but remain aware of what our memories are, and question them.

* A reference to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which also deals with memory, in a science fiction context.

Çarşamba, Haziran 06, 2007

Capsule Reviews

Ganja & Hess (U.S., 1973) * *
D: Bill Gunn

I made the happy mistake of getting a subscription to Video Watchdog, one of the best magazines I've ever enjoyed, and now my Netflix queue is filling up with movies that the writers at VW are convincing me I must see. One of those--though I had to hunt it down at local video store Four Star Video heaven--is this obscure horror film, recently restored to a "director's cut" (though that term is problematic, as the VW article described) and released on DVD. Director Gunn was hired to make a black vampire film on the heels of Blacula, but he wasn't an exploitation director and had no interest in horror--though he did cast Duane Jones, from Night of the Living Dead. Instead he made an art film, essentially, about addiction, decades before Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, which took a similar riff on the vampirism theme. Jones plays a scholar who becomes addicted to blood, and when he gets married, he slowly initiates his wife into his world. It's told very abstractly, with minimal expository dialogue and a lots of arty editing (the editor was a director of experimental films who did not look at the script, and pieced together the narrative on his own). The feel is like Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, but lent a disturbing undertone with its jarring use of mismatched chronology, creepy African music, and unexplained digressions. It's more of a mood piece than a film, and amateurish in many parts (some of the dialogue is difficult to hear, and many scenes drag on too long), but certainly, if you stay awake through its languid pace, it leaves its mark on your psyche, which counts for something.

Hot Fuzz (U.K., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Edgar Wright

One of the funniest movies I've seen in ages. Director Wright is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors: I'm just catching up with his 1999 U.K. series Spaced right now, and loved his previous feature, Shaun of the Dead, along with his fake movie trailer, "Don't," which played in Grindhouse. Both this and Shaun starred his Spaced regulars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and together all three seem to be the true heirs to Monty Python in the comedy troupe movement--forget the disappointing Broken Lizard. Pegg plays a perfectionist London cop who is transferred to the small town of Sandford simply because he's making all the other cops look bad. It seems like a quiet farmer's village, but soon he's following a trail of mysterious and grisly murders, insisting--to an incredulous police force--that they're connected. Frost plays his partner, who's obsessed with American cop movies, and director Wright and co-writer Pegg quickly send up every American cop movie cliche imaginable, leading to an hilarious finale. Exquisitely executed, but packed with so many gags that you're almost afraid to laugh, lest you miss another one.

Marie Antoinette (U.S., 2006) * * 1/2
D: Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola's follow-up to Lost in Translation casts Kristin Dunst as Ms. "Let Them Eat Cake," following her rise from pampered teenager to even-more-pampered royalty living in Versailles and married to a sexually disinterested Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). I was prepared for Coppola's anachronistic take on French royalty--80's New Wave hits and all--but I was still left wondering why she was so disinterested in anything but the accoutrements. There's a lovely montage set to "I Want Candy"--a song I usually detest--that consists of some of her finest filmmaking yet, as she fetishistically frames the various ornaments, baubles, desserts, silks, and lace that have become the treasures of Marie's new life. But that's all there is to the film: the final shot sees the Queen departing, looking sadly at Versailles fading behind her coach, as though she doesn't even know why she's being forced to leave. Watching this film, you wouldn't know either.

Spider-Man 3 (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Sam Raimi

The third in the Spider-Man trilogy is overstuffed, most obviously, with three villains (The New Goblin, Sandman, and Venom) and way too many subplots and supporting characters. It seems that director Raimi had at least one of those subplots--Venom--forced upon him by one of his producers. Such is Hollywood filmmaking. As a result, it's a flawed finale to the saga, offering plenty of moments of whiplash as Raimi dashes from one plotline to another; Topher Grace has a nice role to play as Eddie Brock, somewhat cast against type, but Raimi barely has room or time for him. There are too many coincidences pushing events forward--a meteor falling from the sky is fine in this comic book universe, but the same universe can't sustain Brock just happening to be standing in the church where Spider-Man is pulling off his evil symbiote suit: credulity is strained to the breaking point. But there's a lot to recommend this film too, with plenty of goofy Raimi comedy and even a musical number, and a Stayin' Alive-style street-strutting scene with the deliberately dorky Tobey Maguire. Undoubtedly it's time for Raimi to pull away from the Spider-Man franchise, and doubtless he will, but for a little while it was a match made in heaven.

Pazar, Haziran 03, 2007

The Prisons and Passages of "Innocence"

Innocence (France, 2005) * * * *
D: Lucile Hadzihalilovic

In her first feature film, Lucile Hadzihalilovic has made something so fine and fragile that you almost worry about pressing too hard and cracking its surface. It has antecedents, however--more often in literature than in celluloid; Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves is the only film that seems to possibly exist in the same universe, and also uses the qualities of fairy tale to chart the progress from girlhood through adolescence toward adulthood. But even here, Hadzihalilovic's film, Innocence, has the feel of greater accuracy, and cuts with a sharper blade.

If you go into it, as I did, knowing next to nothing about the plot, you will be held in a state of suspense--and antigravity suspension--for almost all of its two hours. Is this a horror film? A piece of surrealist art? A dramatic expose of boarding schools? All seems to hinge on a revelation that is perpetually kept out of reach. The film emerges like a phantom from out of your closet in the middle of the night, opening up a realm of mysteries before drifting out the window. Innocence opens with an ornate title-card that suggests a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and plants in your mind his collaboration with Marc Caro, The City of Lost Children, which might set the right atmosphere. You're then granted a glimpse of a coffin sitting on a rocking train, and almost abstract images of rushing and bubbling water, the latter to recur intermittently throughout the film. Then we're introduced to the world of the girls' boarding school, nameless, in which a new student, a very young girl named Iris, arrives via that coffin, stepping out, perplexed, as she's greeted by an assortment of girls of various ages, each wearing a ribbon in their hair to denote their class (red is for the youngest, violet is for the oldest). Iris learns, gradually, that there are several dormitories in this thickly overgrown forest--like a summer camp that lasts all year--and only a few adults: Mademoiselle Eva and Edith, and an older woman who acts as "chateau attendant." The children are permitted to swim and play all day, provided they attend some classes (ballet and biology are shown), keep themselves within the high walls that surround the grounds, and obey a strict curfew. Iris is distraught to know that she cannot return to the outside world, although it's unclear exactly what she was taken from: an orphanage? Did her parents send her away? She is only given the vague promise that if she doesn't disobey, and concentrates on her lessons, eventually she'll be too old for the school and will be permitted to leave. This is granted to those of the violet ribbons, who, in their final year, must leave the school every night, following a lamplit path through the trees to attend--what? Iris tries to learn, in vain.

The story gradually moves away from Iris to various other girls: Laura, who rebels against the system and plots an escape; Alice, obsessed with the annual visits by the "Headmistress," who always chooses one of the younger girls to leave the school with her; and Bianca, bossily taking over the role of veteran school expert as she ties her ribbon into her hair in the opening scene, and who prepares to finally learn some of the school's secrets as the year draws to a close. The progression, from a storytelling point of view, is beautiful, collapsing the career of the students into a single year by shifting its focus from one girl to the next, showing how each copes with her imprisonment, but also demonstrating each one like an exhibit piece, scrutinizing each stage of development in either wonder or wondrous fear. The girls are compared, constantly--by the mademoiselles as well as the film's lens--to caterpillars slowly metamorphosing into butterflies. It's the dominant motif of the film, and perhaps might be heavy-handed, if it weren't for the darkness lurking in the story's corners, and that creepy path into the woods, which constantly puts you at unease. You will ask yourself repeatedly what the purpose of the school is, and the nice trick of the film--and a key that it's a fairy tale--is that when the purpose is "explained," it remains just as illogical and diffuse.

Hadzihalilovic maintains a tightrope walk throughout the proceedings, and what emerges is a portrait of the passages of pre-adolescence--with puberty looming like an unseen wolf in the woods--that is deliberately hazy in the details, as a dream would be. Yet it is all so vividly shot, with lush greens and vibrant hues to match the ribbons that mark the girls, and a fetishizing eye that treats each moment like something one lost, and is now, in memory, trying to recapture. There are dark, secret, subterranean passages--the scene in which we finally pass into the outside world is as elaborate as penetrating the headquarters of a bootlegger, or the Phantom of the Opera, or Fu Manchu. Everything is sustained as a ritual, so that even when the children are playing on the swings, the imagery might evoke Maxfield Parrish, but the movements are rehearsed; only when one girl flings herself from the height of the arc, collapsing onto her face in the dirt, do we have the feel of abandon and transgression.

The story bears certain similarities to an excellent anime miniseries, Haibane-Renmei, from 2002, which deals with girls who are delivered into a walled city, and grow actual wings and halos without knowing what design they serve, or what lurks beyond the walls. But if you watch Innocence expecting some great supernatural explanation, or a head-slapping twist in line with the films of M. Night Shyamalan, you'll be disappointed--or, rather, delivered. Innocence knows how to conclude the story without betraying the mood of its setup.

Although it received a limited arthouse and festival release in the U.S., Innocence remains without a DVD distributor, perhaps out of paranoia over the abdundant child nudity. The MPAA has rated it R for "some sexual content and brief nudity involving a minor." This is a good case to be included in the documentary This Film Has Not Been Rated. In fact, there is no explicit sex--one scene only hints briefly at the idea of this thing called "sex"--and although the nudity is anything but "brief," it's of course "innocent," because it involves prepubescent children. Since when does child nudity rate an R rating? Anyone who's been to the beach has been exposed to it. The rating, which is almost irrelevant anyway given the film's limited availability in the U.S., nevertheless speaks volumes about the current American cultural climate. Really, this film is more of a PG, though I imagine it works better for adults looking back on childhood, rather than for children stepping through the lamplit woods on their own.