Chris Marker, Pioneer of the Essay Film, Dies at 91
By DENNIS LIM
Published: July 31, 2012
Chris Marker, the enigmatic writer, photographer, filmmaker and multimedia artist who pioneered the flexible hybrid form known as the essay film, died on Sunday in Paris. He was 91.
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Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images
Chris Marker, left, with Alain Resnais in 1954.
Critics' Picks: 'La Jetee'
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Courtesy of New Yorker Films
Hélène Chatelain in “La Jetée,” Mr. Marker’s best-known film.
His death was announced by the French Culture Ministry.
A transmedia artist long before the term was coined, Mr. Marker resisted categorization throughout his career; he once referred to “career” as “that despicable word.” His sprawling and constantly evolving body of work, which ranged from books to installations to CD-ROMs and included more than 50 films of varying length, was at once fragmentary and cohesive, united by an abiding interest in the nature of time and memory and by a strong physical and intellectual wanderlust.
Mr. Marker’s best-known film, the 1962 short “La Jetée,” about a man haunted by a childhood memory, was the basis of the 1995 Hollywood movie “12 Monkeys” starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Whether taking the form of time-warp science fiction like “La Jetée” or archive-rich historical surveys like “A Grin Without a Cat” (1977), about the fate of the New Left after the pivotal year 1968, most of his films involve a kind of time travel.
A lifelong leftist and perennial globe-trotter, he documented almost every political hot spot of the mid- and late-20th century: the Soviet Union, China, the new state of Israel, Cuba after the revolution.
In his later works — like the installation “Silent Movie” (1995) and the feature “Level Five” (1997) — he was also an early explorer of video, digital technology and cyberspace.
Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on July 29, 1921, Mr. Marker hid many aspects of his biography. He once claimed he was born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, though some sources have cited his place of birth as the Parisian suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine. He granted few interviews and typically refused to be photographed. Information about his survivors was not immediately available. But in his work, at least, Mr. Marker was not anonymous so much as he was playfully evasive.
His films often feature a first-person narrator, a device he once called “a sign of humility.” They abound with avatars and alter-egos, including his own cat, Guillaume-en-Egypt, which sometimes appeared, in the flesh and in cartoon form, as his surrogate.
The pseudonym Chris Marker — which originally appeared in print as “Chris. Marker” — dates from the late 1940s, when he published criticism, editorials, poetry and fiction, including a novel, “Le Coeur Net,” set in Indochina.
After his first directorial effort, “Olympia 52,” about the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, Mr. Marker wrote the narration for the documentary “Statues Also Die” (1953), which he directed with Alain Resnais. Ostensibly about African art, the film doubled as a critique of French colonialism. It received the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo but was banned by French censors for more than 10 years because of its political content.
Mr. Marker refined his signature approach to voice-over narration, at once intimate and quizzical, in the early works “Sunday in Peking” (1956) and “Letter From Siberia” (1957). The latter film’s provocative rethinking of the relationship between word and image — one sequence replays the same shots with vastly different commentaries — prompted the critic André Bazin to use the term “an essay documented by film.”
Borrowed from the poet Henri Michaux, the opening words of “Letter From Siberia” — “I write to you from a far-off country” — could serve as Mr. Marker’s motto. He had a foreign correspondent’s drive to “capture life in the process of becoming history,” as he put it, but there was also a science-fiction strangeness to many of his travelogues.
He retained his outsider’s perspective, his taste for oddity and digression, even when shooting at home. The ambitious “Le Joli Mai” (1963) was an attempt to map the national psyche as the Algerian War drew to a close, culled from dozens of man-on-the-street interviews in Paris. The film is often called an early example of the documentary mode known as cinéma vérité. But Mr. Marker rejected the term and proposed a more modest alternative: “ciné, ma vérité” (“Cinema, my truth”).
On days off from “Le Joli Mai,” Mr. Marker embarked on a photography project that became the half-hour “La Jetée.” Composed almost entirely of still images, this recursive loop of a film was both an homage to a beloved movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and a self-reflexive testament to cinema as a time machine.
Like many of his peers, Mr. Marker became increasingly politicized in the 1960s. In 1967, he formed a film collective called SLON (Russian for “elephant” and also an acronym for Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles, or Society for the Launch of New Works).
SLON’s documentaries include “À Bientôt, J’espère,” about a strike at a French textile factory, and “The Sixth Side of the Pentagon,” about an antiwar march on the Pentagon. One of the collective’s major initiatives was the omnibus film “Far From Vietnam,” a protest against American involvement in Vietnam, with contributions from Mr. Marker, Mr. Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, among other filmmakers.
“Sans Soleil” (1982), often acknowledged as the masterpiece among Mr. Marker’s late works, is one of his least classifiable, a free-associative mix of ethnography, philosophy and poetry. Purporting to be the footage of a fictional cinematographer accompanied by his letters to a nameless woman, the film roams from Iceland to Guinea-Bissau to Japan, a favorite destination of Mr. Marker’s since “The Koumiko Mystery,” which he shot in Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics. A bar in Tokyo’s famous Golden Gai district is named for “La Jetée” — an honor that Mr. Marker once said was “worth more to me than any number of Oscars.”
Mr. Marker also turned his attention to fellow filmmakers. He made two essays on Soviet cinema and history centered on the neglected director Alexander Medvedkin (“The Train Rolls On,” “The Last Bolshevik”), one elegy to his friend Andrei Tarkovsky (“One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich”) and a portrait of Akira Kurosawa on the set of the 1985 film “Ran” (“A.K.”).
He remained active into his 70s and 80s. His last film appears to have been a short about the history of cinema, commissioned as a trailer for the 50th anniversary of the Viennale Film Festival in October. The film is scheduled to be shown at the Locarno Film Festival on Saturday.
Mr. Marker gave one of his final interviews — in 2008 to the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles — through the virtual medium of Second Life. In response to a question about pseudonyms as masks, he said: “I’m much more pragmatic than that. I chose a pseudonym, Chris Marker, pronounceable in most languages, because I was very intent on traveling. No need to delve further.”