Blog o’ the Humours

In which one modern American man, semi-permeable in both mind and body, through rarefied feats of biochemical introspection (powered by an impeccably cursory knowledge of contemporary biochemistry in admixture with an equally negligible grounding in thoroughly discredited medical theories of antiquity), (a) pinpoints the one internalized substance that has bested all others to govern his thought, temperament, behavior, and overall mojo on a given day, and (b) offers random ruminations on same.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

This post is offered in tribute to Chris Marker, who died yesterday (making "Memory" the obvious-choice humour of the day, in keeping with the theme of this long-dormant blog).  I wrote this piece back in ’97 with no real aim for it beyond a vague notion of "Maybe I'll try to publish it somewhere, someday"—this was before the days of blogging, of course.  Re-reading it now, it seems earnest but not especially publishable, in the sense of some outside arbiter deciding to kill a tree in its behalf, and there are a number of elements in here I'd change (e.g., typos, factual slip-ups, saying "comprised" where I should say "composed," public lusting over Irène Jacob) if I were to start trying to make improvements.  But I know I won't have time to do so, so I'll take a warts-and-all, "good enough for Blogger" approach and just click "Publish" (closing an aspirational circle of sorts).  Spoiler alert: There's a La Jetée spoiler in here, so if you have yet to see the film, do skip the paragraph beginning "The plot twists. . . ."  Or better yet, get your hands on a copy of the film and watch it—a much better use of your time than this humble essay, if you're new to Marker.—MC

Still Life With Motion: The Images of Chris Marker

An outdoor shrine where people offer up prayers to their lost cats, so that when the animals die, the spirits will know their names.

A gathering in a public square of young people who dress colorfully, like clowns, and move about jerkily, in imitation of robots.

A department store display with a JFK robot that lip-synchs to “Ask not what your country can do for you...” while an eerie female chorus echoes, “Ask not, ask not...”

In my mind, there is a messy drawer holding scraps of information on each place I have never visited but would like to, one day. I might glance through its contents when I come across a new image of the place in question, before adding that image, in turn, to the pile; I might also do some rummaging at a party, comparing my fading mental pictures with the more reliable narrative snapshots of travelers.

The three scraps shown above inhabited my “Japan” drawer, and were gleaned, it seemed to me, from magazine pieces I had read over the years, supported perhaps by clips on television or by NPR reports. How surprised I was in 1993, then, while watching a videotape of the movie Sans Soleil (‘Sunless’), by French film maker Chris Marker, to realize that all three of these images, along with an embarrassingly high number of the rest of my Japanese “recollections,” came from this one film, which I had first seen five years earlier.

This phenomenon, the casual yet crystalline image that lodges itself inside one’s memory, is not only a recurring property of Marker’s work, it is quite often his subject matter. In his creation of such elemental images — film sequences that behave like still photos in the memory, or, conversely, stills that behave like moving images — he ponders not only how such memories are made, but how these images look back at us over time, guiding us and, as I learned firsthand, often deceiving us.

Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée (‘The Jetty’), is comprised entirely* of black-and-white still photographs, linked by a spoken narration and a sparse soundtrack of faintly heard music and incidental voices. The inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s full-length feature 12 Monkeys, La Jetée is the story of a post-apocalyptic era in which the inhabitants of a ravaged Paris send emissaries both forward in time, to seek power sources from the re-built civilization of their descendants, and backward, in order to try to prevent the ruin they have wrought upon themselves. (Whether they deserve such a reprieve is another question, as they have created a subterranean totalitarian state in which citizens are forced to take part in these time-travel experiments, which routinely render them mad, or, just as often, dead; one would think that, after having destroyed one civilization with nuclear weapons, presumably through an excess of selfishness, it might dawn on these folks that a little live-and-let-live would be in order, but some people never learn, I suppose.)

The nameless hero of the film is chosen (read “coerced”) to be one of these emissaries due to his strong visual link to the past — in particular, he is haunted by a single image from his childhood, of a woman’s face on the jetty at Orly airport at the precise moment that a man nearby is murdered. The present-day experimenters know that, due to this propensity toward visualization, this man will be able to successfully relocate his own past when projected backward (the procedure seems to be somewhat noncorporeal; while the exact mechanism is never explained, this does not detract from the film, as the real issue here is not “how” he time-travels, as in genre science fiction, but “that” he travels).

The plot twists, as the mysterious, dark-toned still photos progress, until the man makes a final decision to remain in his past and, finding himself on the jetty at Orly airport one day, runs to meet a certain woman, only to encounter a certain goggled, armed emissary from his own present, only to realize that it was his own death he so memorably witnessed all those years ago.

What do the still photographs suggest? Aside from their mimicry in form of the time-traveler’s single image of fixation, they suggest a story that has already been told. When we watch a “live action” film, we lose ourselves not only in the story, in the characters’ predicaments, but in the illusion that the events we witness are taking place as we watch them (even if we are viewing an old movie: just watch Sunset Boulevard, and feel your heart seize up when Nora Desmond takes aim and fires into Joe Gillis’ back — Joe Gillis, another screen quasi-hero who, at the beginning of the film, bears witness to his own death).

With stills, though, we know that this film has been “processed”; while most of us have not directed films, we know what it is like to have photographs developed, and there is no illusion as to their reflection of past events. We thumb through them and see, for example, the progression of events in our family vacation: we were driving from San Francisco to San Antonio, so first, we see several shots taken within fifty miles of our Bay Area home (we’re all a bit trigger-happy at the beginning of a new roll of film), followed by two or three of the Mojave Desert (whether separated by five miles or fifty, it’s hard to tell, the landscape is so uniform), followed by Arizona desert outside Phoenix, with cactus, and so on, until the final exposure that we saved for the Alamo. We know as we look at these pictures that we have been to all of these places, but we are certainly not there now; we are just looking at highlights of our trip.

Likewise, the images of La Jetée proceed in an inexorable order, like photos laid down one-by-one on the dining room table — the highlights of a man’s life, from youth (and adult death) to death in adulthood (and youthful witness of it), a series to be replayed again and again without reshuffling, for, as the narrator says, you cannot escape time.

So are we, in fact, viewing these stills from a safe perspective in the past? Can we be fooled into thinking these images occur in an ever-present present? Before you answer, consider the fact that every film, including Sunset Boulevard, is nothing other than a series of still photographs. Is La Jetée, then, a collection of stills, of snapshots, assembled in the temporal order of a movie, or an actual movie that has been selectively — even extremely — edited down to its most memorable images? Or is all this really just a question of scale, and not of form? And is there, at bottom, a “smallest indivisible unit” of meaning in the Marker image?

In Silent Movie, a 1996 installation at U.C. Berkeley’s University Art Museum (now renamed the Berkeley Art Museum), Marker stacks five televisions in a tower formation. Each screen plays images from a laser disc Marker has produced: antique film footage (of buildings, clocks, etc.) combined with new images shot on video by Marker, of a handsome yet slightly mannish woman dressed in clingy femme fatale garb and executing a number of film noire gestures (smoking seductively, looking furtively over her shoulder, etc.). The content of the images says, “We are all of the same era,” but the video format says, “No, I am newer.” While each television shows images from an identical laser disc, a computer orders these images differently on each screen through random selection.

Over a half hour’s time, as I watched the various screens, the individual images recurred quite a bit. But while the pictures became familiar, their temporal order, of course, did not. As time passed, I could sense a feeling of familiarity, even of nostalgia, rising in me via this exhibit — nostalgia, clearly, for events that had never happened. These images had not just become detached from their original temporal order; there had been no original order. I now knew them all well, but simply as a jumble.

But isn’t this how much of our memory works? Remember that driving trip from San Francisco to San Antonio? I made it with my parents in 1978 (I was twelve), and I now recall the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Carslbad Caverns in New Mexico, and a beautician’s sign in El Paso, Texas (which featured a man on a surfboard with what appeared to be a tidal wave curling over his head and a caption that read, confusingly, “California Hair Salon”), with equal clarity, and only my knowledge of basic Western States geography serves to inform me that these images were experienced in the order just presented.

Silent Movie, then, undermines our notions of traditional narrative, but it does so in the familiar language of memory. So this “movie” comes closer to our daily reality than we are accustomed. How like those first silent movies, in which incredulous viewers were riveted by the image of a man sneezing (as though he were contaminating their very breathing space!) or terrified — and sent ducking for cover — by the image of a silent, black-and-white train hurtling toward them, though of course they knew that there were no tracks leading into the theater. (Didn’t they?)

An aside: Recently, after watching the film Microcosmos, a beautiful nature “documentary” (I put the word in quotes because there was more classic narrative in this film than in a good number of recent “dramatic” movies; especially winning was a retelling of the myth of Sisyphus through the indefatigable efforts of a certain dung beetle), I was hypothesizing that there is no human equivalent to the behavior of certain insects in mating with species of flora that mimic the look and smell of their own species’ genitalia. Nope, we wouldn’t fall for that, I mused. And then I thought of the arousal we might experience while viewing a film (in my own experience, for example, watching Irène Jacob doing her stretching exercises in Red), and I realized that we, in our squeaky cinema seats and with our feet planted firmly on the sticky ground, are the bee pollinating the flower. There is no sexy woman or man up there — it’s just light on a screen, a succession of stills. But for a moment, you could’ve fooled us — and in fact, someone did.

Which brings us back to Chris Marker, who fools us, in Sans Soleil, into thinking we are experiencing the filmic notes and written correspondence of a late filmmaker and world traveler, Sandor Krasna, as gathered somewhat arbitrarily by his widow, or surviving lover. A few seconds of a cherry blossom festival in Japan. A few frames of a woman in a bustling marketplace in Cape Verde who avoids and then confronts the camera (and, by extension, the viewer), this moment being frozen into a still image before our attention flits somewhere else in the world. All in all, a series of short clips that all function like stills, like color slides arranged in a carousel in questionable (unfathomable, irrelevant) temporal order.

The narrator explains: “He wrote, ‘I’ve been around the world several times, and now only banality still interests me. On this trip, I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.”

As the film progresses, a dichotomy arises between two public cultures: the crowded Cape Verde, where refuge from cameras is, nevertheless, sought and defended, and the even more crowded Japan, where all is recorded, and the image — the clever copy — is celebrated. “Ask not, ask not...”

Sans Soleil begins and ends with a single image, that of three children walking down a road in Iceland in 1965. Why is this image present in this film, this feigned posthumous documentary on Japan and Cape Verde, on viewer and viewee? It was said to haunt Sandor Krasna. As the voice-over informs us, “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.’” Black, as in “Sunless”?

I think so. After my third viewing of the film (and the second confounding of my memory of the film), in late 1996, this thought came to me: In architectural circles, there is often talk of “positive space” and “negative space.” Positive space is occupied by plasterboard, beams, doors — the “stuff” of buildings. Negative space is concerned with what remains when the building is removed: the walking space, the living space, the space that makes the building useful (in the sense of Chapter Eleven of the Tao Te Ching, which, to paraphrase, asserts that it is the empty space in a vase, and not the clay, that makes the vase useful). I believe Marker is thinking along these lines when he calls this collection of filmed images “Sunless”: it took sunlight to make all of these images, but it is only when these images are stored away in our individual memories (where it is absolutely dark), becoming the remembered scenes that haunt our own lives, that they take on their true meaning. The “Sunlessness” makes them useful, the frame for our images of happiness.

Three years before he filmed the Icelandic children on their road, Marker came across another primal image of happiness in his documentary Le Joli Mai (translated a bit too bouncily for my taste as ‘The Lovely Month of May’), which he shot in Paris throughout the month of May 1962. A man who sells suits for a living (and who wears a white dress shirt that maddeningly obliterates many of the film’s white-lettered English subtitles) describes to the camera his unhappy life; he is angry because he can never get ahead, he is always working, there is too much traffic, his wife nags him. When asked about politics, he says he has no interest in it, nor in films that make him think. “I like a picture where guys bring out their guns and do some killing” he says, “or where they use the phone.” After reminiscing about these images, and attesting to his vicarious enjoyment of seeing tough guys on the screen (“being small myself and running to fat”), he contradicts his earlier position, asserting that basically he is, in fact, happy.

Somehow, these filmed images slip seamlessly into our lives, influencing our notions of who we are, and of how we feel about ourselves (happy/unhappy, worldly/woefully undertraveled). For one man, it’s children walking in Iceland; for another, it’s tough guys “busting up the works” (or, of course, using the phone). For such images — in their banality, in their constant readiness for recall in no particular order — the remembered temporal order may be irrelevant (at best) or mistaken (at worst). In these images — in so much of Marker’s work — movement is remembered as a frozen moment, and stillness follows stillness in imitation of movement. So the “smallest indivisible unit” of the image would appear to be elusive, and, like temporal order, a misleading concept to begin with. To fix the image in our minds, we must, as Marker urges, “see the black.”


* OK, this is the one factual error I need to address.  There is one key, brief scene in which La Jetée becomes a "motion picture."  Silly me, I either missed it or forgot about it back when I was writing this.  Or, in keeping with the film itself, perhaps I blinked.....