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The Ideology of Chris Marker: Film History, Documentary Form, and Dialectics

Consumer Society in Sans soleil (1983)

The Ideology of Chris Marker: Film History, Documentary Form, and Dialectics

Cody Lang   |   May 2020

Image above: Consumer Society in Sans soleil (1983)

Images of the past have always been crucial for Chris Marker’s films. His film essays take images and film form and place them into new contexts, appropriating them for new purposes. Marker uses images of the past for political purposes, dialectically seizing on images of the past for vital interventions in the media sphere. Throughout his work Marker uses images from Vertigo (1958), emulated the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925), adapted Dziga Vertov’s radical editing techniques, referenced popular cycles of film history like film noir, studied famous directors like Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Nagisa Oshima, and interrogated the practice of documentary film. His work is interested in film history and how images from the past can illuminate historical contradiction. Marker experimented with the documentary form to become the master of the film essay. This paper will look at the ideology of the form of Marker’s essay-films and explicate how his radical experimentation with the documentary form by appropriating images from film history and interrogating those images from the perspective of labour has ideological content in its own right. Each of these three films deal with social relations, politics, and history in widely different ways. Marker’s cinema is interested in trying to make sense of the present conditions and representing the past without reducing it to reductive linear narrative that glosses over social contradictions. This aesthetic struggle over the means of representation necessarily forced Marker to symptomatically interrogate the documentary form by moving beyond conventional documentary1 methods in order to represent the contradictions of historical reality.

French Titles for A Grin Without a Cat (1977)

A Grin Without a Cat :“Why Do Images Begin To Tremble?”

A Grin Without a Cat (hereafter referred to as Grin) is divided into two parts titled ‘Fragile Hands’ and ‘Severed Hands’. Apt titles given that Marker is tracing the explosive impact of the New Left in the sixties and its eventually downfall by ideological battles and reactionary resistance to them in the seventies. Marker drew from an enormous amount of archival footage which came from militant films and newsreels, film libraries and the French national broadcast archive INA (l’Institut National de l’Audiovisuelle).2 Grin concludes Marker’s period of political-collectively produced films3 wherein he diminished his mediated on-screen presence as author-director of his films in favour of making movies with a collective voice of the oppressed. This was done by eliminating references to his own personal obsessions like cats, movies, artworks, etc., and focused solely on the issues being treated in the film essays. The SLON (Societe pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles AKA The Society for Launching New Works) group was a left-wing filmmaking collective that Marker created to encourage industrial workers to create their own films. After May 1968, Marker devoted himself entirely to this group and for the next ten years he abandoned his personal film career. Grin is the culmination of this collective group’s efforts and this collective filmmaking enterprise.

For Grin, Marker used numerous images that he did not create himself. Grin is a proletarian film wherein Marker effaced the traditional production methods for making movies. Not only is Grin a proletarian film on the production side but it also presents the perspective of labour, a perspective that has been repeatedly excluded from popular media and news coverage to this day. In 1973 Valerie Mayoux discovered cans full of outtakes from SLON productions and believed they could make a film out of this material.4 The collection of rejected footage exemplified the nature of this documentary in contrast to the mainstream media’s coverage of these events. Marker believed that the unused material Mayoux found countered the ideologically ‘safe’ images from the mainstream media’s coverage. Marker uses this footage in what Marx would call ‘critique’, that is, the “critique of existing reality by existing reality (either by another reality, or by the contradiction internal to reality)”.5 The unused footage is the contradiction internal to the reality of these political revolts, the contradiction that was smoothed over by ideologically safe images. Again, like Marx, Marker grounds critique in the real matter of history — the class struggle of the exploited6 — by uniting his experimental movie with the practical concerns of anti-capitalist resistance and their relationship with the working classes in the sixties and seventies.

The opening sequence of Grin is a clever a reworking and homage of the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925).7 This is, however, not an Eisensteinian montage but an expansion of the montage principles and filmmaking practice of Vertov. Marker stages a battle between the collective subject of the New Left and the repressive state apparatuses from various countries by bringing together images from across space and time, constructing a battle sequence of socialist resistance across the space-time continuum. Like Vertov who amassed an archive of images from disparate places and times, Marker takes images from his vast archive to produce a battle sequence that represents the New Left’s political struggle in the sixties. This is an example of what Vertov called “the skillful organization of factual footage”.8 In this film Marker is using aesthetic strategies from previous radical films (Eisenstein and Vertov) to capture the historical truth of the rise and fall of the New Left. Depicting truth is one of the primary concerns of Vertovian cinema and Marker’s opening montage does this by synthesizing Vertov’s principles of montage with Eisenstein’s. He synthesizes the affective impulses of dramatic fictional cinema, in Vertov’s words “film-drama tickles the nerves”, and the truth impulse of the kinoks, again in Vertov’s words, “helps one to see”.9 Marker tells a story of the revolutionary Left, modelled after the battle sequence from Battleship Potemkin with all of the emotional impact that comes with it while showing us the truth behind the revolutionary Left’s revolts in the sixties. Marker shows us that the intellectual impulses of Vertov’s montage can be combined with the dramatic effects of Eisenstein’s cinema. Hoberman noted that Marker replaced the individual characters from Eisenstein’s battle scene with a collective hero embodied by political movements.10 This montage exemplifies Marker’s dialectical film form. He takes two opposed aesthetic strategies (Eisenstein’s dramatic staging style and Vertov’s archival work) from the Soviet montage tradition and synthesizes them into a new aesthetic concept. Marker exploits the dramatic potential of real concrete history by replacing fictional drama with the narrative created by the class struggle and the conditions forced on collective praxis.11

Grin is not simply a documentary that reviews various political movements and offers concrete conclusions on them but instead creates a dialectic of images and sounds. This dialectical cinema depicts the drama of the past without reducing it to a single narrative. By reducing the voice-over track that had become a trademark of Marker’s style the images now speak for themselves and the void created by the lack of voice-over is now occupied by the spectator’s hypothetical voice-over brought to the montage. The reduced use of voice-over supplies a different form to Marker’s documentary which produces a space for contradictory notions to clash. For example, we are shown various speeches from Castro on the CPSU’s actions; the FCP proceedings on the Czechoslovakia uprising; a historian of the FCP on the CPSU, etc., which produce a dialectic of radical left ideas that present how the New Left was eventually destroyed from established communist party officials. The absent voice-over is then a structuring absence wherein the spectator is invited to produce their own conclusions, their own commentary on the past without Marker’s poetic statements to guide them. This is zero degree Marxist filmmaking wherein the passivity encouraged by the medium of film12 has been overcome by Marker’s dialectical style. Grin recovers the truth of the revolutionary sixties by revising the aesthetic strategies of documentary filmmaking. Marker moves beyond the production of documentary value by inserting a structuring absence into the film which creates the potential for a dialogue to appear that includes the voice of the spectator. Marker’s decision to remove as much of his personality from his political films made with SLON and ISKRA spilled over into the Grin essay film allowed him to produce a Marxist cinematic account of the past. One that does not reduce it to one simplistic narrative but rather recovers the contradictions of the past that have either been sanitized by the mainstream media of the West or forgotten after the dust from the struggles settled.

Salvodor Allende in A Grin Without a Cat (1977)

The utopian impulse of Marker’s film is in its form. It is a negative utopian13 style that rejects the present conditions but invokes no positive content to replace them. It is art that declares the failure of the present system of production, whether it be the production of commodities, social relations, or images. Marker’s utopian film form does not present specific content — either a new vision of the collective that reorganizes social relations without exploitation or a realistic depiction of the present that exposes exploitation of one class by another. The prescriptive aspect of the utopian impulse of his work is the film form he uses: to properly register the critique of the present conditions of production, the class struggle, commodity fetishism, and political revolt at the level of cultural struggle documentary producers must interrogate the very form of representing reality. Furthermore, Marker’s film form demonstrates how the meaning of an image can change depending on the fate of material struggles. “You can never tell what you might be filming” (a line from the voice-over) in this context means that the meaning of an image lies outside of it, it rests in another sphere in the social structure, its meaning-effect is articulated in material struggles. He refuses to fix the meaning of the images by inserting a voice-over commentary but instead invites the spectator to fill in that void. The void is then what the negative utopia of Marker’s film form produces: the political space to ‘think the impossible’ by brushing aside the failures of the present.14 At the level of film form and its history, Marker demonstrates the failure of conventional documentary formal strategies to properly represent the past in its heterogeneity and contradictions. He revives and revises the Soviet montage tradition to depict a historical account of the failures of the New Left to produce a new system of social relations against the opposition of both the imperialist West and the totalitarian Soviet Union.

Rocketship above Earth in Sans soleil (1983)

Sunless: “Poetry From The Future”

Marker’s experimental documentary, Sunless, was heralded by critics and admirers as a return to personal filmmaking after a decade of radical, collectively produced films. Ostensibly a documentary about Japanese culture, Sunless blasts apart the realist documentary tradition, continuing the radical aesthetic ideology of Vertovian cinema. Marker’s revival of Vertov’s montage techniques are used in this film to study the ontology of truth in documentary images and narrative films from the past.

Sunless features sequences from Tokyo, the Il de France, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, and outer space much in a way that resembles how Vertov combined images taken from opposite ends of the Soviet Union that compressed space-time in their montage. Vertov did it in the service of creating agitprop films that were meant to buttress the Leninist political program and Marker did it to explore connections between various practices, rituals, objects, nations, and cultures that were already confronting each other because of the increased acceleration of space and time (i.e., the space-time compression of postmodern social formations) characteristic of late-capitalist culture.15 Vertov’s experimental cinema was directly connected to a political party and praxis whereas Marker’s Sunless was attached to no official party line but simply connected to his affinity for Marxian dialectical theory and his appreciation for Russian cinema.

Marker’s dialectical film style combines various modes of documentary address, using the poetic, expository, participatory, reflexive, and the observational mode, referencing the varied history of documentary filmmaking practices.16 Sunless has poetic aspects with its use of discontinuous editing and abstract space-time juxtapositions. Marker’s film juxtaposes objects, animals, cultural artefacts, and humans as if they were on the same plane of importance and explores associations between these phenomena. Sunless uses the ‘expository’ mode by addressing the viewer directly and recounting history for us. We learn about Japanese culture, the Guinea Bissau, the Il de France, the Cape Verde islands, the movie Vertigo, and about the personality of Sandor Krasna — a fictional character Marker created that mediates between the spectators and Marker as director. Sunless is ‘observational’, Marker candidly captures activities, practices, and people as if he were a tourist documenting his travels. It is also gives the impression that Marker was not merely observing but participating with the people he was filming, especially his ‘friend’ (another fictional character that stands in for Marker) who programs video games which Marker uses to reference the Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). The participatory mode favours the first-person narrative registers which certainly complies with Marker’s experimental brand of documentary — notwithstanding the complicated set of mediations he has put in place to distance his personality from the constructed media image of himself. And more than any of the four modes of address listed above, Sunless is a reflexive work. Marker questions the realist access to reality and the construction of reality itself by the cinematographic apparatus much in the same way that Vertov questioned this process in Man With a Movie Camera (1929). The manipulations of the image by Krasna’s computer programmer friend replicate the shots of Vertov filming Svilova edit the film or the shots of Vertov filming the cameraman film scenes. Both movies are reflexive works because they force spectators to readjust their expectations and assumptions with respect to the documentary mode. Marker, like Vertov, position the spectator to question the construction of images, history, and the relationship between works of art and the real concrete struggles of history.

Marker’s dialectical formal strategies involve seamlessly moving from various modes of documentary address. The bricolage of various forms appears on the face of it to be a set of aphorisms, disconnected points Marker is streaming together into some de-centered structure of filmic thought. Combining five modes of address exemplifies the ‘totalizing’ character of the dialectical thought at the level of film form.17 Not satisfied with using one mode of address but many to produce various forms of knowledge that are unique to each one. Like Vertov, Marker is a collector of images but to an even greater degree. He observes unknowing bystanders in Japan taking part in daily rituals, deads animals in Guinea Bisseau, sleeping commuters on a train, cemetery patrons, etc. His montage connects disparate spaces and periods of time together create a poetics about death —the shooting of the giraffe intercut with the dead animal ceremony— and political struggles —the past and then present struggles against the Portugeuse in Guinea Bissau. His female narrator reads us fictionalized travelogue letters from Krasna which directly tell us about Japanese culture and whatever else the fictional Krasna discovered while globetrotting. Marker’s reflexive use of these images and these modes of documentary address exemplify the totalizing form of dialectical thought.

Marker’s reflexivity exemplifies another aspect of dialectical thought, the way dialectics is thought to the ‘second power’. The problem that plagues conceptualizations of documentary film is the production of documentary value.18 The transformation of this problem into a solution —the most sensitive part19 of dialectical thought— was first done by Vertov in Man With a Movie Camera because Vertov’s documentary was about the construction of reality through film and the making of the film we are watching. Reflexive, that is, dialectical, documentaries are thought to the second power because they transform political/formal problems into solutions once they expand their horizon of thinking to a more totalizing perspective. The form of documentary — the process of depicting reality on film and the history of documentary filmmaking practice — is the content for Marker’s dialectical cinema. Sunless reflexively blasts apart the demarcations of the various modes of documentary address to create a dialectical cinema that is concerned with the ontological nature of documentary images.

Marker’s dialectical interrogation of the documentary form includes images from the history of narrative cinema. There are three sequences in Sunless that employ images from other fictional films. The first is when Marker intercuts images from Japanese horror movies with footage of Japanese commuters sleeping on a train, images of floating heads and monsters are depicted as the commuter’s dreams. Marker then intercuts images of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Marker’s favourite movie) with documentary footage of himself returning to those same places in San Francisco which is then presented in Sunless as Krasna writing about returning to those places. Krasna repeats the stalking done by Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson however Krasna’s search is missing a Madeline. If Scottie obsession with Madeline is Hitchcock way of representing how the gaze interacts with desire (the fixation on an image rather than something concrete), Marker blatantly dramatizes the process of desire itself. He is aimlessly wandering without precision,20 embodying the logic of desire which is simply the continual movement motivated by lack whose origins are never uncovered or explicated. Krasna admits to having seen Vertigo nineteen times and then remarks that in Iceland — the place where Marker began Sunless — is where he first laid the stone for a movie he was planning to make. Marker’s juxtaposition between Krasna’s cinephilic obsession with Vertigo and his desire to make a film makes Sunless the depiction of this desire: not the movie Krasna desired to create (we never see that movie) but the filming of that desire. Marker shows us desire as such, the endless movement from thing to thing, never settling on one object because to settle would end the search, and to end the search would mean annihilation.21

By depicting the process of desire, Marker is again blasting apart the bourgeois conventions of documentary filmmaking. In this context it is desire to show us the truth of documentary images, a will-to-truth. In Sunless, Marker is suspicious of the desire to produce documentary images that purport to deliver objective truth (this suspician has been present since his first film) and wants his spectators to consider the practice of producing truth-images, which like the production of anything, the practice of manufacturing truth-images is the result of desire.22 In Letter from Siberia (1957), Marker presents the same information through radically different formal strategies demonstrating the way ideology connects form and content. From the beginning of his career, Marker defied the Griersonian and Flaherty traditions of documentary filmmaking and the ideology of that practice. The bourgeois documentary formal strategies posit an objective reality that can be faithfully reproduced on film. This idealist ideology fits perfectly with capitalist culture because it posits a centered-ego in the subject position of the subject-object duality. This centered-ego implies an individualistic subject position that is against the collective ideology of Marker’s collectivist film practice.

Manipulated Images in Sans soleil (1983)

The third time Marker refers to past fiction images is when Krasna introduces his good friend Hayao Yamaneko, the video game programmer. Hayao has a computer that he uses to create video games and manipulate images. Krasna’s favorite two animals are the cat and the owl (Marker’s favourite animals as well) so Hayao makes sure to put those in his video games to please his friend Krasna. The insertion of the Hayao persona leads Marker to reference one of his favourite directors, Andrei Tarkovsky, and his science fiction movie Stalker (1979). Hayao calls the virtual world of his computer the ‘zone’ and Krasna plainly admits to the spectator that this is an homage to Tarkovsky. In Stalker, the zone is a place where the laws of reality no longer apply and it contains a sentient ‘room’ that grants the unconscious wishes of anyone who steps inside. In Sunless, the zone refers to the space where true images are produced by Hayao’s computer, the unconscious of reactionary media images. Krasna declares that Hayao discovered a way to battle reactionary images of the present: he manipulates images of the past. Marker shows images of political struggle filtered through a video editing system turning the images into blue, pixelated, video images. Krasna argues that these are more honest images than the TV news coverage of political struggles because Hayao’s images bluntly identifies themselves as images unlike TV images which are presented as unfiltered reality. How can pixelated, blue, video images be more honest than the original images? TV news coverage is made up of iconic signs — images that contain a part of the reality that they represent — so they are inherently treated as a document of reality and the work of editing is hidden. Hayao’s/Marker’s synthesizer images announce themselves as images. Marker is injecting his political theory of documentary truth through another fictional character mediation of Hayao, arguing that the categories of true and false are still valid (even though he defies the realist documentary form). To represent truth means to unpack the formal ideology of a particular aesthetic form and demystify it. Marker does this with the Hayao synthesizer sequence where Hayao’s blue images decode the TV-documentary signs of politics as images and not the inaccessible reality as they are presented by TV news coverage.

The ideology of Sunless continues the radical dialectical filmmaking practice of Grin but solely at the level of film form. Marker’s subject is not political struggles per se (although he does include some footage of political revolts in Sunless) but the very act of producing documentary images and the history of documentary film practice. Marker’s montage in Sunless is composed of a complex set of mediations that posits an anti-capitalist ideology of collective filmmaking. After a decade of radical filmmaking wherein Marker actually collectively produced films he returned with Sunless to make a film about the prospect of anti-bourgeois documentary form. Sunless is then the formal embodiment of Marker’s collective filmmaking practice wherein the multiple personalities created to mediate between the images and himself imply a decentered ego which is made up of contradictions. The ideology of Sunless is a reflexive commentary on the desire to produce truth-images in capitalist societies and the implied spectator position of this form is counter to capitalist notions of spectatorship in documentary films.

Mediated History in Level Five (1997)

Level Five: “Access Denied” or “All Your Bases Are Belong To Us!”

With Level Five Marker followed suit from his CD-ROM Immemory (1997) and explored the form of video games and what this medium offered for creating new narratives for documentaries. The video game as a medium was early in development and Marker had the foresight to explore its narrative potential. Level Five is concerned with the battle of Okinawa and marks another return to the subject of Japan which Marker had long been obsessed with ever since his first film on the subject, The Kuomiko Mystery (1965). It also marks Marker’s return to the fictional mode which he only used twice in his career before Level Five (La Jetee (1962) and The Embassy (1973)). The film’s protagonist, Laura (played by Catherine Belkhodja) is tasked with finishing a video game on the Battle of Okinawa while she tries to preserve the memory of her dead lover who began the game. Marker mixes this fictional story with images from the archives on the battle and personal accounts from Japanese citizens. Marker uses the most conventional documentary techniques to augment the fictional story starring Laura to create another variation of the documentary form.

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the most brutal events on the Pacific in World War II. It began on April 1 and ended June 22, 1945 (an 82-day campaign) where the Japanese forces lost more than 77,000 soldiers and the Allies lost 14,000. Civilian casualties in Okinawa amounted to nearly 100,000 and many families committed suicide to escape the battle. Both commanding officers died in the battle: American General Simon B. Buckner died by artillery fire and Japanese General Ushijima Mitsuru committed suicide. This battle is considered to be the prelude to Hirshima and Nagasaki. The American forces were hoping that the Japanese forces would surrender but instead Japan sacrificed Okinawa in an attempt to scare off the US. They were met with two atomic bombs that forever changed the 20th century. As Marker notes in Level Five, the Battle of Okinawa involves all of us because it made the Bomb a reality.

Marker presents all of this information in his documentary-video game movie but filtered through the narrative of Laura attempting to write the code for the game. The unknown narrator named ‘Chris’ speaks over the images of Nagisa Oshima interviews, archival footage of the battle and the aftermath, interviews with survivors, and a sequence from John Huston’s Let There Be Light (1944). Level Five presents through this montage the horror that has been forgotten. Laura’s task is to write a video game that replicates the battle and in the process of this writing the spectators revisit the bureaucratic, utilitarian, and territorial decisions that went into this tragedy. Laura examines how both the US and Japanese forces they prepared for this event and how they represented it afterwards. The Japanese decided to forget about it, ashamed of their loss and the fact that they sacrificed an entire island like it was a pawn in a chess game while the US restaged the victorious flag plant, turning the event into an icon that was to be reused for future political conquests and advertisements. Level Five is in part an essay on representation and the way history is represented by those in power, an obsession he continually returned to in his film essays ever since Letter from Siberia. Marker compares the original scene of the flag planting by the Americans with coverage of its restaging where the action was created to look more inspiring and heroic. By doing this Marker demonstrates how this type of manipulation distracts us from the details of the battle itself. The massive amounts of casualties on both sides, the collective suicides done by the Okinawan civilians, and the battle itself being the prelude to the atomic bomb. The heroic images we associate with this event commodified it into a moment about victory over foreign enemies rather than what it truly was, a senseless massacre.

The battle over representation becomes more complicated in the digital age. Level Five deals with those complexities by depicting the creation, modulation, and editing of images. We continuously see Laura in her computer room staring up at the video camera recording her ‘Log-Ins’. We see her work on the computer game, recreating the battle of Okinawa by sifting through a plethora of archive material. Marker invokes, again, Vertov’s propensity for showing the audience all of the tools and techniques for making movies. However, Marker again goes beyond Vertov’s experimental documentary form and reincorporates elements of fiction into his work. Marker references film history with his lead character Laura, named after the movie Laura (1944) by Otto Preminger. Laura is a film noir about a detective who investigates the death of a beautiful woman named Laura and throughout his investigation he falls in love with an image of her. Like Sunless did with Vertigo, the reference to Laura show Marker’s fascination with films about detectives searching for truth but who become obsessed with images that obscure rather than reveal reality. In Level Five, Laura tells us that Chris called her Laura after they saw Preminger’s movie together. These intertexts are used as both interpretive codes for understanding the movie — Laura is obsessed with finishing a game that her dead lover began which mirrors Detective McPherson’s obsession with the death of Laura in Preminger’s movie — and mediations for Marker’s personality — Marker’s own affection for Preminger’s movie factors into his choice for his protagonist’s name and Chris’s (the name Marker gave to Laura’s dead lover and the narrator of Level Five) decision to rename his lover Laura. Marker revises stylistic codes of film noir, the past haunts the present, images obscure the search for truth, which in turn revises the practice of Vertovian film essays by including fictional film sequences alongside documentary footage.

Cyberspace in Level Five (1997)

The video game aesthetic chosen by Marker allows him to explore the relationship between power-knowledge, representation, and images. The video game platform becomes a metaphor for the bourgeoisie and Western nation-states in the Global North who establish and enforce the rules of the game of late-capitalism. When Laura tries to change the outcome of Okinawa her hand print is processed by the computer screen until finally it is rejected, receiving an ‘Access Denied’ response from the computer. Chris on the voice-over tells us that this horrific battle will be repeated an infinite amount of times in a loop and we will never be able to escape it, referencing the fatalistic worldview of film noirs. The computer is the mediator between Laura’s access to history and the Optional World Link network (O.W.L. Net) — a stand in for the Internet and a reference to Marker’s second favourite animal, the owl. The full screen images of the battle and the survivors are frequently reframed for spectators as being played on the computer screen. The computer screen transmits information but it also limits what we can do with it resulting in the ‘Access Denied’ prompt when Laura tries to rewrite the conclusion of the battle. Our technology, the mediating tools between us and the past are always already implicated in the power structures of late-capitalist social formations. Level Five uncovers the truth of Okinawa which means exposing the historical repression of it by Japan and America following the end of World War II. Unlike Grin and Sunless, Level Five is more interested in uncovering the way corporate media misrepresent history in the service of those who have social, political, and economic capital. Level Five demonstrates the way images are manipulated so as to repress historical trauma and help us forget, precluding utopian visions of the future. Like the historical cycle of film noir that Level Five references, the traumatic past emerges to disrupt our notions of the present.

Conclusion: “The Cat is Never on the Side of Power”

Marker’s experimental documentaries are rare works in the history of cinema that perfectly comply with Marxist dialectical theory. The radical form employed by Grin, Sunless, and Level Five each represent exercises in dialectical thought that confronts the failures of the present images to properly account for the contradictions of the past. Working from the radical tradition of documentary filmmaking that was first done by Vertov, Marker’s cinema involves collectivist practice, anti-capitalist spectator-positions, and dialectical form that goes against the grain of documentary filmmaking in the 20th century. Marker’s analysis of history involves analysis of film history. He creates an equivalence between fictional and non-fictional images in his dialectical analysis of historical tragedies. The film essay form that he perfected further radicalizes Vertov’s practice from the period of Soviet montage by interrogating the status of images when representing the historical past.

Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 105-107.


Catherine Lupton. Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 138.


Beginning with Far From Vietnam (1967) (with William Klein, Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch, Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais), Marker embarked on a period of collectively produced films wherein he absconded his role as primary author of the film and worked with a group of radicals. In this period he collectively made 18 films: Rhodiaceta (1967), La sixieme face du pentagone (1968), Cinetracts (1968), Be Seeing You (1968), Classe de lutte (1969), On vous parle du Bresil: Tortures (1969), Jour de tournage (1969), On vous parle du Bresil: Carlos Marighela (1970), On vous parle de Paris: Maspero. Les mots ont un sens (1970), Cuba: Battle of the 10,000,000 (1971), On vous parle de Prague: La deuxieme proces d’Artur London (1971), Three Cheers for the Whale (1972), Puiqu’on vous dit que c’est possible (1973), On vous parle du Chili: Ce que disait Allende (1973), The Train Rolls On (1973), L’ambassade (1973), and La solitude du chanteur de fond (1974).


Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 140.


Louis Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter (London; New York: Verso, 2006), 17.


Ibid, 17.


J. Hoberman. “Almost Heroes”, The Village Voice, (April 30, 2002).


Dziga Vertov. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1984), 48.


Ibid, 48.


10 J. Hoberman. “Almost Heroes”, The Village Voice, (April 30, 2002).


11 Fredric Jameson prefers to think of History as a narrative with its own drama. See Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1981), 87-88.


12 T.W. Adorno, The Culture Industry (London: Routledge, 1991),183.


13 Fredric Jameson, “The Politics of Utopia”, New Left Review (Vol 25, no.1, 2004), 48.


14 This notion of politics as thinking the impossible can be found in the late work of Louis Althusser. See Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us (London; New York: Verso, 1999) and The Philosophy of the Encounter (London; New York: Verso, 2006).


15 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 284-307.


16 Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 102-132.


17 Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 306.


18 Brian Winston, “Introduction: The Film Documentary”, The Documentary Film Book (London: British Film Institute, 2013), 1-6.


19 Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 307.


20 Barr Burlin, “Wandering with Precision: Contamination and the Mise-en-scene of Desire of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil”, Screen 45, no.3, 2004, 173-189.


21 Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 825.


22 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972), 5.

Cody Lang

Contributing Writer

Cody Lang is a PhD candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at York University.

Althusser, Louis. Machiavelli and Us. London; New York. 1999.

Althusser, Louis. Philosophy of the Encounter. London; New York. 2006.

Barr, Burlin. “Wandering with Precision: Contamination and the Mise-en-scene of Desire in Chris Marker’s Sans soleil”, Screen 45, no.3, 2004: 173-189.

Casebier, Allan. “A Deconstructive Documentary”, Journal of Film and Video 40, no.1, 1988: 34-39.

Harvey, Oscar. “The Limits of Vococentrism: Chris Marker, Hans Richter and the Essay Film”, SubStance 41, no.2, 2012: 6-23.

Hicks, Jeremy. Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film. London: I.B. Tauris. 2007.

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