Monday, April 5, 2010

Sans Soleil

As a documentarian, Chris Marker makes Werner Herzog look like Ken Burns. That is, if you take a film like Sans Soleil to be a documentary, which would be a fatal, though understandable, mistake. Less concerned with the truth even than that cantankerous German dreamer, Marker uses his 1982 opus, almost unanimously considered his finest, to deconstruct, reconstruct, critique and praise, well, damn near everything. It is a film about film, life, politics, travel and, most importantly, the perception of those various subjects.

Of course, if anybody could pull off such an ambitious essay film, it would have to be Marker. After making films and writing books of his travels following the end of World War II, Marker teamed up with such rising stars of French cinema as Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda before crafting a number of idiosyncratic travelogues (the most famous likely being Letter from Siberia). Marker pioneered the film collective with the 1967 anti-war film Far From Vietnam and formed SLON (Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles) beating his contemporaries to the radical punch even before May '68.

Sans Soleil marked the filmmaker's -- he prefers to be called a 'filmmaker' over 'director' -- great return, the sort of return that required turning a blind eye to over a decade's worth of film making. At last, Marker would return to the realm of the personal, not the political. No longer would his name be scrubbed from a title card in favor of collective identity. Now, if Godard's radical period is hard to find, Marker's can be a downright chore to track, so I've not seen any of his post Loin de Vietnam films (nor his pre-La Jetée work). Ergo, I cannot say for certain the degree to which Sans Soleil distances itself from one of his styles or combines them. However, one must assume that the film comprises at least some of his previous work, given its mixture of both political musing and personal travelogue, as well as its open quotation of La Jetée.

A mishmash of images and sound -- it was, after all, shot with a 16mm silent camera and recorded asynchronously with a tape recorder -- Sans Soleil charts the journey of a fictional American filmmaker, identified as Sandor Krasna and obviously meant to be Marker, who travels to several locations around the world but fixates on Japan and the microscopic African nation of Guinea-Bisseau. For Marker, the two stand as polar opposites: both were once occupied by Western forces, yet only one now prospers among the world's richest nations while the other rates as one of the poorest.

From its opening moments, Sans Soleil breaks from any form of convention. A female narrator discusses Krasna's idea for a film and how it should open with narration over black leader; we realize, listening to the woman relate this to us over a black screen, that the hypothetical film is the one we're actually watching. Krasna's travelogue, delivered to us through the filter of the narrator, becomes a meditation on the nature of memory and truth. "We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten," he wrote to his friend, and Marker uses Sans Soleil to communicate, as best it can, the way certain memories stick with us, even if they first require a bit of adjusting to make them more memorable.

"I've been around the world several times, and now only banality interests me," Krasna says of his most recent journey to Japan. "On this trip, I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.” It's true: much of the Japanese scenes, the most dominant in the film, concern daily rituals practiced both by the more modern members of society and those traditionalists who keep old customs alive. But Krasna mentions a book by Sei Shonagon called The Pillow Book, which features a segment of experiences broken down into lists, one of which categorizes events or sights that "quickened" the author's heart. Marker infuses that idea into the film, capturing something in these routine practices that enticed the filmmaker.

He entices us as well through his jumbled editing technique and skewed presentation. Marker places sound effects over some images that sound ripped from the nearest science fiction movie -- later, the narrator mentions Krasna mulling over the prospect of making a sci-fi movie about a time traveler who seeks to preserve his culture's past, a sort-of spiritual sequel to La Jetée, naturally named Sunless (work it out) -- as if their customs are alien to a presumably Western audience (or that the filmmaker is the alien watching these humans). Marker's use of imagery and sound is free-associative, jutting from one fragment of thought to the next, connecting concepts that do not easily join and digging under preconceived notions of the world around us.

Take a few of its damning political musings: "History throws its empty bottles out the window," he says of fading of an impressive colonial revolt that won a nation its independence but never received proper credit for its achievement. The use of comic books plays into several shots, including an attack on the bizarre criteria for censorship in Japanese manga and television despite their fairly liberal views toward nudity, culminates in a depiction of atrocities in Southeast Asia -- Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, etc. -- via comic book imagery. Under these soft-shaded images of outrage, Marker plays Marlon Brando's "Horror has a face" speech from Apocalypse Now. Is Marker suggesting that Apocalypse Now, with its bombastic "Ride of the Valkyries" scene and its psychological -- and psychedelic -- look at the war is itself cartoony? Possibly, though the narrator has kind, insightful thoughts and applications for Kurtz's words. Perhaps instead Marker is saying that these atrocities are such a disgusting farce for humanity that they should only be depicted in a comic.

A clear impetus for the political ruminations of Sans Soleil is the filmmaker's first-hand knowledge of major left-right politics in the latter half of the 20th century. Marker views the failure of May '68 with bitterness and regret, noting that all those hippies and radicals who preached against the system and learned about its ways to take it down instead became its most greedy, merciless exploiters. No group ever sold out their cultural values quite like the Baby Boomers, and apparently this was as true in Europe as it was and is in America. The filmmaker does spare a kind and supportive thought, though, for all the wee Ches out there, who "tremble with indignation every time an injustice is committed."

Krasna's friend, Hayao Yamaneko (who may be simply another identity Marker took for himself) feeds some of the documented images into a video synthesizer, adding vivid color textures and creating a sort of silent music in the process. By adding the filter of the synthesizer's "re-interpretation" to the images, Marker creates a visual signifier of the line he crossed to find the truth in them: over these distorted visuals, the narrator mentions that not all kamikaze were loyalists or reckless samurai looking for glory, as well as the lingering existence of the burakumin class, perceived to be a relic of the feudal caste system.

For all of the asides and allusions in the film, Sans Soleil does have a focal point, the concepts -- it is important to use the plural -- of time. Time warps both memory and history, so one must seek out not the concrete truth of events but the truth as it is for that person. "Memory is not the opposite of forgetting but the lining," we are told, and that insight explains the borderline desperation with which Marker throws up some of these images, frantic to commit them before the perception fades, leaving behind only faint recollections of figures and facts warped by forgetting, not of the true moment as it was. When you combine this idea with the film's use of comic strips, Sans Soleil recalls Alan Moore's take on the Joker in The Killing Joke, in which the arch-criminal picks and chooses between pasts, opting for the one that sticks out as opposed to whatever humdrum background actually formed him.

Central to these themes of memory and time is a fascinating, ingenious breakdown of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film, Vertigo. Upon its release, Vertigo went largely unheralded, and even the Cahiers writers who argued for the director's iconic status ignored it, save Godard* -- Truffaut barely mentioned the film in his lengthy interviews with the director. Yet Marker championed the film, packing as many references and reworkings as he could into his 27-minute La Jetée in 1962 (several years before critic Robin Wood wrote his rave for the film in his book on Hitch) and reconfiguring both films here. For him, no other film so quintessentially captured the idea of "impossible memory," with Jimmy Stewart's character forcing Judy to undergo his obsessed demands in an attempt to reset time via his memory of Madeleine. Marker/Krasna visits San Fransisco to document all the areas where the film was shot, and the repetition and alteration of key moments of Hitchcock's masterpiece leads to the most insightful commentary on the film ever written or filmed.

Despite the intellectualism of such comparisons as a group of elderly Japanese women on a small island to Gauguin, Marker is fairly unpretentious: he treats the video game, then far from any pretense of being considered art, as a legitimate medium (he would later make the CD-ROM Immemory). He also looks fondly upon comics, or at least Japanese manga. If anything, Sans Soleil is an enthusiastic treatise to get out and see the world. Yes, it has its moments of sarcasm and bitterness, but it looks lovingly on its images, arranging them in such a way as to be both repellent in their grainy 16mm quality and beautiful for what that camera captures and how Marker relates each shot to the next. His method of digressing into asides and frenzied, offbeat comparisons and notations practically predicts the rise of the Internet and the impact that free-flowing information has on the mind (here I am using yet another parenthetical statement in a review because I always want to talk about some other thing). In that sense, it's like David Lynch's mindfuck mapping of the modern age, Inland Empire, and every bit as hypnotic. That's what's most surprising about the film, actually: it requires that you pay attention to its barrage of ideas and innovation, and yet it can easily whisk you away if you give in to its charms.

*Thanks, Doniphon


  1. Jake just so you know, Cahiers didn't ignore Vertigo. Godard listed it as the third greatest American sound film ever made in 1963 (he only put Scarface and The Great Dictator ahead of it). That may not have been the consensus at Cahiers at the time, but it certainly complicates the idea (put forward by many) that Wood "discovered" Vertigo.

  2. Oh damn, that's right. I used to have a copy of that list too. Editing now. I never meant to suggest that Wood was the only one responsible for seeing Vertigo as the great film it was, but I do think he, and Marker, were instrumental in setting the stage for its re-evaluation. Well, that and them finally re-releasing the damn thing after Hitch pulled it from circulation in the 70s.

  3. Not really necessary to take down Herzog to prop up Marker. It is actually to Werner Herzog that I owe the pleasure of ever being introduced to Chris Marker's films at all. A few years ago at Film Forum retrospective of his (Herzog's) films, he set aside one night of the retrospective to show a film that he *didn't* make, and that film was Sans Soleil. I had never heard of the film before, or of Marker, but I walked out afterward confident that I had seen the greatest film ever made. Herzog said that to call the film an "essay film" was almost not to do it justice, that it was really more similar to poetry than essay.

    Also I think you are right about Marker being Hayeo Yamaneko; I have never been able to track down a mention of him outside of the appearance of his name in Sans Soleil.


  4. Uh, I didn't tear down Herzog at all. I was saying that viewing Sans Soleil as a documentary because it uses footage of real people doing real things makes even the antics of Herzog (one of my favorite filmmakers) in manipulating his films for the Ecstatic Truth look as researched and journalistic as Ken Burns' ways.