Name your favorite film. Now define favorite. Is it the one you admire the most? The one you watch most often? The one that keeps surfacing in your thoughts with the least prompting? Or simply the one you name when asked, hoping to project an affiliated identity in so doing? Your definition of the term, and even your answer to the prompt, may shift with the circumstances. Mine certainly do, though most of the time I find myself well-served in these discussions, for all those purposes, by Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. Object of my cinematic genuflection, ruminative touchstone, go-to piece of viewing material, cultural signifier: an unsurprising range, I suppose, for what Clive James calls a “brave attempt at the synthetic work that gets everything in.” But despite what the movie tells me about Japan—and ultimately, that doesn’t amount to much—it tells me more about myself.
My latest viewing of Sans Soleil found me on the eve of my own first trip to Japan. Glimpsing the country once more through Chris Marker’s eyes seemed like essential preparation. Had I the time for a double feature, I’d have also re-watched Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga, which documents the German filmmaker’s search for traces of the essence of Yasujiro Ozu. But Tokyo-Ga fits comfortably in the documentary section; Sans Soleil has simply occupied a place of its own. An assembly of material Marker shot, found, and gathered from collaborators, the film offers a globe-spanning epistolary travelogue as told to an apparently fictional narrator by, we suspect, a practically nonfictional protagonist. The movie’s fans usually treat this peripatetic letter-writer, a certain Sandor Krasna, as Marker’s barely altered ego. (See also Peter Greenaway’s avatar Tulse Luper, who stands at the center of Greenaway’s international, intertemporal, and nearly indecipherable early-2000s multimedia project The Tulse Luper Suitcases.) Krasna, no less impulsive a wanderer than Luper, reports from points around the world. He frequents Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, but draws his most frequent and most striking observations from Japan.
“After circling the globe,” Krasna writes, “only banality still interests me. On this trip I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.” But the narrator reads these lines as the film opens on an early morning Japanese commuter ferry, and to a non-Japanese observer Japanese banality couldn’t look or sound further from the real thing. This seemed especially true in the early ’80s, when Sans Soleil came out and when Japan, with its unparallelled technology, civilization, and drive, appeared to have forever surpassed the rest of the world. Unfortunate as the term may now sound, these qualities presented many a rapt observer with a wall of fascinating inscrutability. The forward-thinking Marker displayed a touch of this raptness in the mid-’60s, when he traveled to Tokyo, hoping to shoot the Olympics. That job ultimately went to Kon Ichikawa, emerging in the form of Tokyo Olympiad, and Marker came back with Le Mystère Koumiko, a lyrical portrait of the titular French-speaking Japanese woman aged “over twenty, under thirty” whom he happened to meet on the street.
This time, Marker’s lens, by way or Krasna, opens onto the wider Japanese population, and not only the segments of it watched by Western business pundits during this brief era of profitable doomsaying. “I bow to the economic miracle,” reads another of Krasna’s missives, “but I really want to show the neighborhood celebrations.” We see these neighborhood celebrations, strikingly captured, but we also see strictly regimented teenage street dances; the bleeping catharsis of video arcades; museums of animal copulation and genitalia-themed sculpture; dispossessed blocks “of bums, of lumpens, of outcasts, of Koreans”; and a great deal of haunting, blue-glowing imagery shot straight from Japanese television sets. All this has a surface strangeness, a first-order wackiness, the kind to which Westerners still thrill when watching, say, Japanese commercials. Yet, acquire just enough understanding of the Japanese tongue and this foreignness ebbs away. A void opens up, demanding a strangeness more complex and enduring. In Marker, we have the man to fill it.
We learn little, directly, about Krasna the character. “Everything interested him,” says the narrator, and perhaps no further description is required. Not that this quality distinguishes Krasna from his creator, a man stingy, to put it mildly, with the facts of his personal life, but one whose friend, the director/producer Jean-Pierre Gorin, describes as engaged in the “constant endorsement of human activity.” In this universal, unblinking fascination I class him with the American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who since the late ‘60s has trained his camera on the workings of high schools, prisons, factories, and gymnasia. But where Wiseman assembles his narration-free films with Spartan single focus and aesthetic utilitarianism, Marker’s projects come together with (if indeed they don’t epitomize) a Gallic sensibility: their disparate elements converge loosely under a lopsidedly rigorous regime of synthesis, recapitulation, flight of observation, and free association.
With every viewing—and it’s handily my most-viewed film—Sans Soleil strikes me more and more as the most robustly vital item in Marker’s broad filmography. This is an unusual accomplishment, considering that he made it thirty years into his career, already sixty years old (but, notably, with over thirty years left to go). Some Marker acolytes prefer the overtly political pictures of his first working decades, like Letters from Siberia and ¡Cuba Sí!, but I find that most every creator grows more intellectually and aesthetically astute when they shed an ideological skin or two. In the case of the cinematic coterie with whom Marker came up, that only holds if they indeed molted. “Marker struck foreign observers as being by far the best mind of the movement that became internationally famous as the nouvelle vague,” writes Clive James. He continues, “admittedly the competition wasn’t strong. From the political angle, Jean-Luc Godard was an obvious featherbrain, and François Truffaut had more sense than to make any overt political statements beyond the usual ones about alienation.”
When Marker ditched Marxism, he arguably left his future films exposed to the charge of “not being about anything.” But even in the era when he could still get worked up—when, in James’ words, “a man as intelligent as Chris Marker could still feel that there might be such a thing as a totalitarian answer to the world’s miseries”—he showed what we could really do when he took a political breather. 1962′s La jetée, which when it inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys brought Marker to at least two new generations, will undoubtedly still raise tears in the eyes of viewers in 2062. But even that photo-roman, so rich beyond its half-hour runtime, still assembles things already more or less easily aligned: nuclear apocalypse, time travel, love just out of reach, witnessing one’s own demise, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Although Sans Soleil also references Vertigo (Marker’s favorite film and, as of two days after the director’s death, the favorite of Sight and Sound‘s critics poll as well) directly and at much greater length, the list of subjects surrounding it reads nonsensically: the antiquities of the Vatican, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, space shuttle launches, anti-colonial struggles, signage on the Île-de-France, sumo wrestling, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, video image processing, a coup in Bissau, the shooting of a giraffe, the new abundance of recording media, and Pac-Man as “a perfect graphic metaphor for the human condition.” How could such an eclectic accretion possibly be “about” any one thing? And yet one unifying element stands out, as essential a part of Krasna’s personality as Marker’s: curiosity.
The Los Angeles Filmforum’s posthumous retrospective of Marker’s work described his movies, aptly, as letters received from a particularly smart, enthusiastic friend. During the early part of his career, when he could work up the self-convincing vigor for it, his work came off like postcards from the bold collectivist future. Letter from Siberia, its form called out by its very title, offers an immortal, if misleading, encouragement: “There isn’t any God, or curses: only forces, to be overcome.” A quarter-century later, Marker had gotten around to Sans Soleil, a movie that resists succinct description, but may best be described as letters received from a particularly smart, enthusiastic friend. And though fictional, the alter-ego Sandor Krasna allows Marker to speak with the sigh of weariness that he himself could never quite breathe publicly.
Several of the images Sans Soleil has burnt into my brain come from passages involving an artist named Hayao Yamaneko and his video synthesizer. (This fellow, by the way, may well be no more real than Krasna. “Yamaneko” means “wildcat,” a variation on one of Marker’s two favorite animals. Into this film and others he inserts both cats and owls at playful moments, of which he apparently experienced many.) Processing footage of Vietnam-era street clashes through his room-filling Spectron board, Yamaneko conjures a borderline abstract light show that puts Krasna into an even more reflective mood than usual. He tells us that the synthesis summons “an intact fragment of the generation of the ’60s. If to love without illusions is still to love, I can say that I loved it. It was a generation that often exasperated me, for I didn’t share its utopia of uniting in a common struggle those who revolt against poverty and those who revolt against wealth. But it screamed out that gut reaction that better adjusted voices no longer knew how, or no longer dared to utter.”
This voice has the ring of honesty, without which curiosity leads nowhere. Just as you wouldn’t relish reading a letter from an incurious friend, no matter how smart or enthusiastic, nor would you relish reading a letter from a dishonest one. The same goes for essays: I count myself as a particular fan of that literary form, and I ask little more from its practitioners than curiosity and honesty. It makes sense, then, that critics often place Marker’s work in the unusual category of the “essay film”; Roy Ames calls him French cinema’s “one true essayist.” Can the essay, in whatever form, attain any higher state than the one that reads like a letter from a curious, honest, smart, enthusiastic, trusted—not to mention somewhat eccentric—friend?
Though Marker, especially the Marker of Sans Soleil, seems possessed of an omnivorous fascination, what in particular draws his eye? We find one obvious suggestion in the very nature of Le Mystère Koumiko, an 45-minute investigation of and hymn to a young Japanese lady. Note also that in 1959 Marker published Coréennes, a photobook documenting, in the main, North Korean women. And over footage of a bright Coming of Age Day in Tokyo, he has Krasna observe that “what gives the street its color in January, what makes it suddenly different is the appearance of kimono. In the street, in stores, in offices, even at the stock exchange on opening day, the girls take out their fur collared winter kimono. At that moment of the year other Japanese may well invent extra flat TV sets, commit suicide with a chain saw, or capture two thirds of the world market for semiconductors. Good for them; all you see are the girls.”
A friend of mine recently revisited Sans Soleil, once a film he greatly admired, and dismissed it as “Orientalist.” But Marker’s art defies such easy classifications. To the extent that we can separate the facts of Marker’s life from the countless deliberately strewn falsehoods that outnumber them, he seems to have passed through the realms of journalism, photography, and film criticism after the Second World War. Yet his oeuvre has long inspired feverish academic analysis; like hypertext, and more recently Twitter, the films of Chris Marker have worked academics into a lather for no obvious reason and to no apparent end. But need we look much further for an explanation of why his movies are the way they are than to where his curiosity led him and what cinematic formalities his pure instinct for documentation let him escape?
Taking the inveterate letter-writer’s instinct to his times’ technological limit, Marker assembled his films with every available means of preserving reality. “I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo,” writes Krasna. “They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember?” Hence Alain Resnais’ prescience in calling Marker “the prototype of the twenty-first-century man.” Here was a creator perfectly suited to the Internet, born 72 years before the invention of the World Wide Web. But I suspect that those of us who create content for the Internet—an ever-expanding set that will no doubt one day include every citizen of the developed world—operate to an extent under Marker’s influence, even if we’ve never seen a frame of his stuff. For evidence, could you possibly require more than the fact that he made a cat video in 1987?
Marker made Sans Soleil with little more than a soundless 16-millimeter camera and a standard cassette recorder. Any of us could technically re-create it, but none of us could summon its essence. The most astute modern artists, the ones whose work stands the best chance of enduring, always make sure to give us the inkling that, just maybe, we could do it ourselves. But unless we can match Marker’s level of engagement with humanity, territory, culture, and memory, our own Sans Soleil equivalents—despite their technological superiority—will only reveal our inadequacy to approach and process our world’s complexities in an interesting way. We hope we can make our surroundings appropriately strange, should the need arise, but most of us fear putting ourselves to the test.
The film succeeds in making strange every place Krasna alights, from now retro-futuristic Tokyo to African republics before and after their latest coups to Iceland in 1965 to the San Francisco of Vertigo. But does it fulfill that implicit function of travelogues, essays on place, and dispatches from curious friends: to offer a kind of guidance? Sans Soleil presents no information current or verifiable enough to have assisted me in the practicalities of my own journey through Japan. But pay close attention to its mildly bewildered, seemingly meandering but nonetheless determined and absorptive approach to the country’s thoroughly visual culture. In Nara, Japan’s historical capital, I met an expatriate Canadian artist who kept a copy of Sans Soleil on his iPhone, available at any moment to watch. Despite having lived there a year already, and a year of the 21st century at that, he felt—and needed to feel—the resonances of Krasna’s disoriented but densely informative experience of Japan as strongly as ever.
“Dreamlike,” though an adjective a little too near at hand when one writes about Sans Soleil, nevertheless points to the connection between the film’s Japan, of the early 1980s but lifted out of time, and the real Japan today. Several western filmmakers have depicted Japan as a kind of waking dream; Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation has become the best-known modern example, possibly because of how sharply it divides the opinion of those actually invested in Japan. Some cite its faintly smirking distance and its characters’ willful incomprehension as evidence that Coppola uses the setting without giving a damn about it. Others respond more like a Mexican automaker manager I met in Hiroshima: “You see that movie, Lost in Translation? At first, I didn’t understand it. After working here for six months, I’m living it.”
During my own few weeks in Japan, the first stay of what I know will be many, I lived Sans Soleil. Or so I felt inclined to, and so I tried to. One technique for the sleepless advises not thinking in words, just in images; supposedly concentrating your mind on the visual rather than the linguistic will hasten your descent into dreams. In Japan, awake, I did my utmost not to think in words—not in English words, anyway. Marker had Krasna perceive the place in just that way, capturing and assembling images and penning the words later. Even then, his language comes in the form of letters to another, read by another, layered atop these images very often without explicit connection. Watching all of this put together showed me not the land I would soon visit but the way I should process that land.
“It’s a visual culture,” said several of the Westerners I talked to in Japan. “People here think in images, not words.” Without Sans Soleil, I wouldn’t have known how to handle that. The Japanese writing system, one of the most pictographic still in use, gives you an idea of what to expect. Chris Marker’s means of conveying Japan, using settings, icons, and performances laden with visual interest connected with logic immediately felt but only with great difficulty explained, tells you more. In pointing to the need to understand Japan as I would a dream, it highlighted a way of thinking that, so often lost in verbal labyrinths of my own making, I could stand to practice. A fascination with the same cultures that fascinated Chris Marker led me to his films; his films, in turn, show me how to deepen that original fascination.
The rest of my life will, with luck, afford me the opportunity to repeatedly revisit and thus come to know Japan. Having watched Sans Soleil countless times, I tell myself I’ve come to know the film, but speaking more realistically, Sans Soleil knows me. We all have pictures that, after years in the feedback loop of their fixations resonating with ours, and ours with theirs, have come to represent us. We don’t just enjoy them; we have, to the extent possible, become them, and when we screen them for acquaintances, friends, and lovers, we essentially screen ourselves. I watch Sans Soleil, which, with curiosity as its highest value, struggles valiantly to unite a thousand different interests, all the while keeping an eye on the girls in kimono, and I watch myself. When a film does this, it rises to the richest definition of “favorite” I can come up with, and so this one has become my favorite film. Go on; name yours.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @ColinMarshall.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Chris & Cronenberg There was a moment in September of 2009 that the Internet was sure David Cronenberg wanted to remake his remake of The Fly, and I have the Google Alerts to prove it. My reaction to the news was one of horror. I wanted to tell him that a re-remake runs...
- The Chris Andrews Interview As the translator of the first four books by Roberto Bolaño to appear in English, Australian Chris Andrews has played a key role in bringing one of the Spanish language’s major 20th-century voices to American readers. A member of the language department of the University of Melbourne, Andrews’s translation of...
- The Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani Chris Abani’s third novel, The Virgin of Flames, is set in the crumbling, beautiful parts of East L.A. where Hispanic and African Americans live. The City of Angels, “iridescent in its concrete sleeve,” has become a receptacle of wind and ash as brush fires sweep through the state. The atmosphere...
- The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian I. E.M. Forster devotes a chapter of Aspects of the Novel to the quality of prophecy, telling us that very few authors write with it. The realm of prophecy, he writes “is not a veil, it is not an allegory. It is the ordinary world of fiction, but it reaches...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Colin Marshall