Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wonders if Tokyo will still be as weird in 4001 as it is today.
Our review of La Jetee / Sans Soleil (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published February 8th, 2012, is also available.
"The first image he told me about was of 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 piece of black leader; if they don't see happiness in the picture, at least they'll see the black."—First words of Sans Soleil
You've heard the saying "Jack of all trades; master of none." For Chris Marker, an accomplished photographer, writer, digital multimedia artist, editor, poet, philosopher, and filmmaker, a more apt phrase is "Jack of all trades; master of all."
While confronting the two films on this disc and attempting to absorb them, you might be tempted to draw comparisons to other works and people. Kurt Vonnegut. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Heart of Darkness. Jean-Paul Sartre. The New Yorker. Popular Mechanics. Gorefest. Pac-Man. Lost in Translation. Eventually, you'll give up and realize the immense scope of the associations you'd have to draw to capture all aspects of what Chris Marker is doing. His singular intelligence distills disparate themes to their essences and combines them to open up a world of questions. Some artists are different from others. Marker is simply different, which makes his work as hard to absorb as it is rewarding.
Facts of the Case
La Jetée, which inspired such works as 12 Monkeys, The Red Spectacles, and the video for David Bowie's "Jump They Say," is a science-fiction tale told through still images. A narrator explains what we're seeing as images flash across the screen. A man is sent back in time in hopes of restoring humanity; it ends badly for him but swell for the rest of us.
Sans Soleil (Sunless) is also told through narration. Photojournalist Sandor Krasna sends letters to a woman, who reads the letters to us. These narrations accompany footage of his time in Japan and Africa. He documents the idiosyncracies of each culture and infuses them with philosophical (and often amusing) insights. Potent darkness and ruminations on the tenuous nature of memory and time haunt the corners of the film.
If the exploding popularity of anime, manga-based films, and remakes of Asian films are any indication, America is obsessed with Asian culture (specifically Japanese culture—Glico Pocky, anyone?) Chris Marker was way ahead of the curve on that one. Whether tracking down the original Whack-a-Mole (which featured Japanese businessmen instead of rodents) or exploring the juxtaposition of intense Japanese censorship with carved phalluses and explicit animal sex museums, Chris Marker documents the intensely odd and deeply spiritual labyrinth of Tokyo. Now anime and quirky observations that used to be the realm of the otaku are creeping into the mainstream, from Fruity Oaty Bars in Serenity to surreal karaoke bars in Lost in Translation. The roots of such ironic observations are all here in Sans Soleil. No, not the roots…make that the whole tree.
This is hardly unusual for Marker if you believe the people who write and speak about him in this DVD from Criterion. Enigmatic and driven, Marker explores each new medium and coaxes excellence from it.
With the exception of a few seconds of actual movement, La Jetée is told entirely through narration and still images. Marker plays with us at first by zooming out from the extreme end of a long runway and panning downwards, as though La Jetée were a typical film with elements like acting and movement. Eventually you realize that nothing is moving and that the runway is actually a photograph of a runway. For most of the remaining runtime, a series of static images is loosely coupled to a narration about time travel and the Apocalypse. For this to work, both the narration and the photographs must be compelling, and they are. The photography is exquisite. La Jetée feels as though you're leafing through an Ansel Adams coffee-table book, assuming that Ansel Adams had been interred in a post-apocalyptic underground prison. Many images emerge from pure black, showing us a flash of gnashing teeth or cold, protective eye gear. Memories of the past are unbelievably airy and spare, as though only the essential details were recalled.
The net effect is disorienting and preposterous. Marker is essentially destabilizing cinema by removing one of its pillars: movement. He tells an impossibly broad science-fiction tale with no special effects. Despite every instinct you have that the movie should fall flat on its face, it does not. Gilliam's remake 12 Monkeys feels less pure because of its movement and effects. Watching La Jetée is not comfortable or relaxing; in fact, it is taxing. Our insuppressible inclination to fill in the rest of the frames adds to the horror and intensity of the work.
Though Sans Soleil provides relief in the form of actual footage, it shares the same disturbing cadence. Sans Soleil feels like thought. The film immerses itself in a rut of observation—an endless stream of ticket purchasers dropping coins into a machine, a parade of African women walking down a path—as you might in your own mind while mulling over a shopping list or absorbing the details of some foreign custom. But like any good train of thought, Sans Soleil jumps to tangential themes, sometimes quickly, sometimes leisurely. Through the added benefit of narration, Marker creates a complex commentary on culture, memory, and humanity that is as piercing as it is amusing.
Sans Soleil is a scrapbook of multimedia. The jewel in the crown as far as I'm concerned is a "video synthesizer" that converts film footage into flat blossoms of blue. Tints and shades of color in the original become tints and shades of blue, while all depth is removed. The resulting output contains the essence of the original footage while retaining none of the detail. The effect is a disconcerting amplification of meaning and reduction of perception.
But if that's not your thing, Marker weaves anime, animation, television game shows, sex, travelogue, photography, senseless killing, prayer, kitsch, and philosophy into Sans Soleil. If you wait long enough, one of these images will bubble to the surface and grab your undivided attention. I was as affected by graphic footage of a gunshot giraffe and the vultures pecking out its eyes as I was charmed by Marker's wry commentary on Japanese youth fitting themselves into a strict subculture.
When your friends return from their trips to foreign lands, a photographic show-and-tell is inevitable. "There I am on the steps of the Louvre, and here's a row of quaint houses…" Most of these slide shows are indistinguishable. I'm even bored looking at my own pictures of Europe. The unique power and energy of global touchstones seems to affect people in similar ways, but photos after the fact are dull approximations. In Marker's hands, the photographic show-and-tell becomes sublime and even greater in some ways than the source locales. If you want to hear from a delightfully wry, perceptive, ambitious denizen of the world about his personal perceptions, settle down with Sans Soleil.
As with other recent Criterion releases, the liner notes are superb, hefty volumes. Crammed full of dense prose in small point font, the liner notes reveal tidbits such as this one from Catherine Lupton: "Yet this octogenarian polymath remains a tantalizingly impenetrable enigma." Like Marker's work itself, such criticism will delight some and turn others off: the intellectualism in this volume takes no prisoners.
Less impenetrable (but equally rigorous) are the interviews with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, who grasps what Marker is doing on a personal and technical level. Gorin is able to explain his interpretations in a way that is approachable and believable, even when he makes some bold claims about Marker's standing in the art-world hierarchy. The other three segments are somewhat lighter and more focused deconstructions of Marker's work.
The video transfer is "framed" in a thin black border but is clear and detailed. The image judders ever so slightly in the frame, which is most noticeable during the static La Jetée. Both French and English narrations of each work are perfectly matched in terms of tone, pitch, and narrative clarity, so listen in your native tongue without fear of missing anything. Subtle, infectious monaural scores come through clearly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even by Criterion standards, much of La Jetée/Sans Soleil will strike some as pretentious. It took me awhile to realize what Marker was shooting for through his unusual pacing and cadence, and I haven't fully grasped it in a few scant viewings. From another, less patient point of view, you could accuse Sans Soleil of overindulgence. Street carnivals, subways, and shots of hurrying feet consume endless minutes of the runtime without much in the way of commentary or plot. If your idea of entertainment does not include staring at people's feet for ten minutes and then mentally connecting the image with still images of porcelain cats, you might wish to steer clear of this disc. Because La Jetée is even worse from that less patient point of view. The entire "film" depends on your drawing associations between images.
Because of its audacious anti-cinematic stance, its repeated focus on eyes and perception, and its stream of cinematic references, many people consider La Jetée a potent rumination on cinema posing as a science-fiction tale. To be honest, I did not get that at all when viewing La Jetée, but Catherine Lupton did, and she makes a convincing argument in the liner notes. This makes La Jetée even more attractive to the diehard cinephiles who embrace Criterion with open arms.
People often comment that no art is original and that everything has been done. That's a defeatist point of view, though it often seems accurate. Fortunately, guys like Chris Marker are around to prove that fresh, original works are extant. Be forewarned; such originality is by nature a challenge to established conventions. The conclusions you draw from these films will not come easily, but they will be rewarding.
This court finds Chris Marker guilty on the count of subverting cinema.
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Scales of Justice, La Jetee
Perp Profile, La Jetee
Distinguishing Marks, La Jetee
• New video interview with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin
Scales of Justice, Sans Soleil
Perp Profile, Sans Soleil
Distinguishing Marks, Sans Soleil
• New Video Interview with Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin
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