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Related Reading: Chris Marker: Memories of the Future by Catherine Lupton.


The Embassy, 1973

Embassy Filmed in the wake of the staged military coup d'état on September 11, 1973 that overthrew the leftist government of elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, Chris Marker's The Embassy is something of a cross between the immersive docufiction of Peter Watkins and the reflexive diaries of Jonas Mekas in its clinical dissection of the zeitgeist of transformative history. Prefaced as an amateur, vérité-shot Super 8 found film recovered at an unspecified embassy in the immediate days following a coup, the unidentified narrator's pre-emptive declaration, "This is not a film" serves as both a portent and potent statement on the myth of cinema as a direct representation of reality. In a sense, Marker reinforces the idea of the camera gaze as an invariably compromised one: arbitrated by the limitations of placement (as political refugees passing time in relative comfort inside the embassy rather than dissidents struggling to evade capture - and summary execution - outside diplomatically immune walls), resolution of information (selectively filtered through disrupted media outlets and limited channels of communication on the state of unrest), and subjectivity of human sentiment.

Marker alludes to this assignment of perspective and consequent narrowing of filmed - and filmable - representation in a sequence that illustrates the refugees' makeshift activities as they struggle to pass the time while waiting word on their safe passage by playing games and recounting stories of their ordeals, remarking that for these displaced people, outside has become synonymous with before, residing not only in a state of limbo, but also at a point of no return. Framed against the images of a photojournalist continuing to take photographs that remain undeveloped, their existence becomes emblematic of their own irresolution and dislocated identities, a state of figurative transcendence that is reflected in the narrator's observation of a mother and child singing together at a kitchen table that, in its innocence, also evokes a sense of irretrievable loss: "What we call <em>past</em> is somehow similar to what we call abroad. It is not a matter of distance, it is the passing of a boundary."

Moreover, in depicting the ideological intransigence and petty infighting that continue to surface in the aftermath of the coup, Marker also converges towards Nagisa Oshima's Night and Fog in Japan in its self-critical deconstruction of the failure of the left movement, where the attempted radicalization of the bourgeois through engagement has, instead, produced a contamination of values, abandoning the plight of the working class and bartering ideology for privilege (a betrayal that is implied in the narrator's observation of the absence of workers who seek refuge in the embassy). It is this specter of unreconciled factionalism and disconnection from ideals that is also invoked in the film's subverted final shot, a reopened moral wound that integrally connects the deflated idealism of May 68 with the end of the Allende presidency in Chile - the collapsed dream of a social revolution.

© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved. First posted on The Auteurs Notebook, 04/03/08.

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Le Fond de l'air est rouge, 1977
[The Base of the Air is Red/A Grin Without a Cat]

Guevara An off-screen narrator (speaking in first-person narrative for the filmmaker) recalls early memories of Battleship Potemkin as a series of images from the film converge towards the moment of the sailors' call to arms - and revolution - with the singular word "Brothers!" before the order to fire from the bridge of the battleship is given. A complex montage of protest, defiance, mourning, solidarity, procession, and riot control provides, not only distilled visual summary of the inevitable fate of the New Left, but also a global context to the images of struggle as left-wing activists and intellectuals (such as Chris Marker) sought to achieve a "universal standard of civilization" that would elevate the human condition beyond the societal illusion of an improved quality of life afforded by material gain and competitive economy. To this end, the filmmaker juxtaposes footage from a contemporary television commercial to underscore the delusive irony and false panacea of created demand and consumerism, as a pleasantly surprised elderly couple receives a second television - an anniversary present from their family - and proudly boasts, "We're a two set family now!". However, for Marker and the socialist movement, the sentimental war resided away from these disposable, saccharin images of "advanced" civilization and was, instead, waged in the distant fields of Vietnam: a campaign for national self-determination that plays out against an intrusive, international politics of an escalating Cold War. In an archive footage, a French communist party official remarks, "Never before has history placed a nation at such a point of convergence for all the world's modern contradictions. And it's because people around the world felt concern for the Vietnamese struggle that they are fighting now for independence, for socialism, and for peace."

Tracing the seeds of May 1968 to an ideological synchronicity among several global events, the film examines the evolution of the counter-culture movement from a philosophical, armchair intellectualism to a more aggressive and militant approach to demonstration and political resistance of the New Left: a willingness to endure personal sacrifice for a greater cause that was instilled in Paris during the protracted Saint-Lazare workers' strike in 1967, the June 2, 1967 student protests in Berlin against the repressive regime of visiting dignitary, the Shah of Iran, the revolutionary campaign of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Bolivia, the Bolivian arrest (while following Guevara's troops) of French journalist Régis Debray, author of the seminal publication, Revolution Within Revolution? (a work inspired by Fidel Castro that served as a manual for conducting guerilla warfare), the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong in 1966 and the birth of the Black Panther movement later in the same year.

Olympic Art ExhibitionThe themes of historicity and temporal and international convergence are also explored within the context of contemporary German Olympics history: first, in a modern-day encounter with a South Korean Olympian who, in 1936, had been filmed by Leni Riefenstahl in the propaganda documentary Olympia as (then) a Japanese Olympian competing for the empire in the Berlin Games, then subsequently, in the (repeated) politicization of the 1972 Munich Games, this time, by Palestinian terrorists who kidnapped members of the Israeli Olympic contingent in a hostage crisis that ended in the athletes' death. For each point of reference, the film becomes a cogent reminder of the transience of history, (collective) memory, and identity. Visually, Marker reinforces the incestuous (and inseparable) interrelationship within the sphere of international politics, global commerce, human exploitation, and the conduction of the Olympics by juxtaposing archival footage of the games with a morbidly wry, tongue-in-cheek art exhibition of skeletal sculptures posed in various forms of athletic competition.

For the European New Left, away from the bastardization of socialist ideology under the repressive, totalitarian regimes of notorious political figures such as Joseph Stalin (and the continued paranoid, ingrained threat of a Red Scare in the U.S.), the great (and perhaps, last) hope for a national transformation into a true socialist democracy (and political model for laying the groundwork for a relevant socialist party within democratic states) lay in the election of physician Salvador Allende in Chile. However, the inevitability of a Marxist democracy under an Allende administration would immediately come into the crosshairs of the Nixon administration who sought to undermine the democratically elected Allende's incoming government by initially attempting to stage an unsuccessful coup in order to prevent his inauguration (in a botch operation that would lead to the kidnapping and assassination of General Rene Schneider on September 11, 1973, and whose family would seek to make Henry Kissinger and other members of the Nixon-era administration accountable by filing a lawsuit on the fateful day of September 11, 2001), then sought to destabilize the Allende government by instituting crippling economic embargoes even as it provided financial and tactical support for the (Allende opposed) military that would ultimately lead to Augusto Pinochet's successful coup in 1973. A subsequent footage of Allende's daughter, Tati, delivering news of her father's death to Fidel Castro, post-processed through a monochromic blue filter, reinforces the image of mourning and death - the dissolution of an embodied ideological hope and political progress reflected through the aural breakdown of distorted, down phased sound of the audience clapping, and subsequently punctuated with the solemn postscript of Tati's own death on October 12, 1977 in Havana - not in the throes of armed struggle by an archetypal Che Guevara revolutionary, but from suicide - her death seemingly representing the collective despair and figurative collapse of the ideological dream.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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Sans soleil, 1983
[Sunless]

Sans soleilAn early episode in Sans soleil shows a series of porcelain cats - some intact while others, weather worn or cracked with missing appendages - curiously lining a shrine in a Japanese temple that, as the unseen narrator (Alexandra Stewart) reveals, has been consecrated in memory of these benevolent creatures. In a subsequent, unrelated musing on television images, the subject of assigning a name and face to horror is examined, juxtaposed against representational shots of film villains striking a similarly neutral, animalistic stance - one limb raised - as the figurines of the cat cemetery. In a similar juxtaposition, a traditional festival is captured in the streets of modern-day Japan as young women dressed in traditional garment and formed straw hats perform a rhythmic dance, and is intercut with a fragmentary image of a pulsating, African tribal ceremony. Are the respective episodes related, or does the viewer ascribe an unintended significance to the relation of the images because of their observed pattern - their collective semblance to each other - within the context of the film? It is this innate process of association that is propelled equally by sensorial experience as it is by the assimilation of learned and acquired information that provides the mechanism for memory. And it is this integrally personal and human cognitive function - the act of remembering (which, as the narrator incisively remarks, "is not the opposite of forgetting") - that film essayist Chris Marker explores through a sublime montage of ethnographic vignettes, documentary footage, feature film stills, and post-production special effects by artist Hayao Yamaneko (resulting in an abstract digitization of the recorded image - a technological analogy to the processing of memory - that he calls 'The Zone' in homage to Andrei Tarkovsky). Set against a third person narration of paraphrased letters (that invariably introduces an added level of subjectivity) from a fictional filmmaker, global traveler, and intellectual named Sandor Krasna, the film becomes a compelling exposition on the nature and malleability of memory, history, time, and reality.

Alternating between excerpted stills from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, a film that depicts the construction (and haunting) of memory, and Krasna's own captured images from a personal tour of the film's shooting locations (in essence, recreating the construction), Marker further illustrates the interactive confluence of reality and memory. Krasna's first-hand experienced memory of the pilgrimage to the California landmarks becomes as real as the memory of the same sites experienced indirectly through the medium of film, creating a personal significance that is reflected in the subsequent remark that accompanies the images of a temple where people pray to commemorate the new year: "I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather, I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory." It is a comment that acknowledges the engagement, if not implication, of the audience into assimilating the collective images presented by the film - propagating a synthesized reality that is borne of indirect, second-hand experience - perpetuating an external consciousness and memory that evolves and transforms independently of its creator. In the end, it is this transcendence beyond linear and finite physical existence that is evoked in the idyllic, bookend image of the three children holding hands as they travel down a road in Iceland in 1965 - a favorite footage that Krasna acknowledges he cannot "link" to other images and therefore presents apart from the other images contained in the film, separated by an extended black screen - now visually resolved and interconnected within the circular, iterative plane of the viewer's created and experienced memory.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Le Tombeau d'Alexandre, 1993
[Alexander's Tomb/The Last Bolshevik]

MedvedkinThe Last Bolshevik opens to an insightful and relevant excerpted passage from author and critical thinker George Steiner's book, In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture: "It is not the literal past that rules us [save, possibly, in a biological sense]. It is images of the past." Composed in the structure of montage (an homage to the characteristic editing and filmic language of pioneering Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko, and Vsevolod Pudovkin), the film is a series of posthumous video letters (narrated by Michael Pennington) to film essayist Chris Marker's personal friend, mentor, and fellow filmmaker Alexander Ivanovich Medvedkin, examines the trajectory of Medvedkin's life and career from within the context of the evolution of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and in the process, provides a broader, incisive meditation on the nature of reality, fiction, art, ideology, and history.

Born in 1900, Medvedkin was 17 during the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. A staunch believer in the communist ideology, he fought with the communist Bolsheviks against the tsarist White Guards during the subsequent Civil War (1918-1921) that led to the creation of the USSR under Vladimir Lenin. Commissioned with an agit-prop train (a post-revolution Soviet method for disseminating agitation and propaganda materials throughout the country for political education of the population), Medvedkin developed an in-house film production and development laboratory within the 'film train' in an attempt to provide a more direct and instantaneous conduit for chronicling real life and achieving documentary realism (an ideal similarly held by Vertov who envisioned the camera as a surrogate for the human eye, kinoeye). A politically suppressed artist whose reputation was 'rehabilitated' in post-Stalin Soviet Union, Medvedkin was re-discovered by a new generation of film students and cineastes both within the Soviet Union and internationally, most notably, by the activist Marker (whose own espousal of cinéma vérité was conducive to the Russian concept of kinoeye) for his excoriating (and idiosyncratic) carnivalesque peasant satire,
Happiness (1932).

However, as writer and critic Viktor Dyomin comments, Medvedkin's plight was "the tragedy of a pure communist in a world of would-be communists", and it is in this innately irreconcilable dichotomy between personal ideology and state implementation of doctrine that Marker illustrates the systematic destruction of artistic creativity and ideology at the hands of insincere, political opportunism, state-sponsored information control and manipulation, and demagoguery. Citing fictional events in Sergei Eisenstein's
Battleship Potemkin - specifically the heroic insurrection and subsequent massacre at the Odessa steps - whose dramatic images have become ingrained and preserved in Soviet society as historical truth, Marker provides a provocative chronicle on the role of film as a medium for social commentary. In illustrating the temporal metamorphosis of fiction into accepted cultural reality, Marker creates a compelling examination of the imperfection of memory and the transformation of myth.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Level Five, 1997

Medvedkin Exploring similar territory as Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov on the continuity of collective history, spiritual desolation, and immanence, Level Five also serves as a thoughtful and reverent homage to Alain Resnais' films on the interpenetration of memory and the subconscious. Presented as a series of video feed confessionals by a woman (Catherine Belkhodja) to her recently deceased lover as she articulates her increasing frustration over her inability to finish his video game by reaching Level Five, a game of strategy that, in order to cross over, entails a victory in what would prove to be the final, decisive battle of the Pacific War: the Battle of Okinawa. At first, the task seemed simple enough - repositioning planes and troops to defend the region that, during the actual landing by the Americans, were nowhere to be found. But the seemingly expedient strategy of logistical re-appropriation has an adverse affect on the game and causes the system to crash. Gradually, the woman who calls herself Laura (a name given by her lover after the enigmatic, titular siren of the Otto Preminger film) begins to reconstruct a true historical portrait of the decisive battle through information derived from an internet-styled, global virtual network known as Optional World Link (or OWL, a tongue in cheek reference to Marker's production company Argos Films and its emblematic mascot), further retreating into a hermetic world of immersive retrospection and irreconcilable grief - an unlikely union of kindred souls between a woman who lives within the memories of her past and a contemporary, increasingly Western-assimilative nation suffering from a "collective amnesia" of its cultural history.

While Marker makes direct allusions to the Resnais films, Hiroshima mon amour (Laura refers to her Level Five quest as an "Okinawa mon amour") and Last Year at Marienbad (in her interaction with a Marienbad game that curiously "ends" with the inconclusive prompt, "I won, but we may go on."), the film is also a thematic reference to Je t'aime, je t'aime and in particular, Muriel: the former, as the past plays out in a recursive loop in the present from which only death can offer an escape, and the latter, as the hidden transgressions of the past resurfaces in the consciousness of the present. Furthermore, the bifurcation between "official" history and personal memory that pervades Resnais' Muriel and La Guerre est finie - a theme foreshadowed by the genesis of the heroine's name - is similarly explored through interlaced interviews, historical documentation, and news footage that reveal Okinawa, not as a battle lost, but one never fought - a sute-ishi or a piece sacrificed to the save the game in Go - in which civilian casualty (through bombings, armed combat, and mass suicide) greatly outnumbered military casualty. Another aspect of the film's exposition lies in the impossibility and limitations of perfect memory, a realization that a state of total recall cannot be achieved because of its inevitable assimilation into consciousness. As in Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour, the heroine's realization that a perfect re-enactment of human tragedy is unfilmable similarly pervades Laura's despair in her inability to reconstruct the battle completely without wholly existing in that past. It is this state of total immersion (a state achieved by the womb-like apparatus of Je t'aime, je t'aime) that is reflected in Laura's final recording, as she increasingly magnifies the camera focus to the point of indeterminate abstraction: a kind of cognitive visual equivalent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in which a perfect assimilation of the past is impossible without creating irresolvable ambiguity with the existential state of the present.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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