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.

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"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.

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