Chris Marker's 1997 film "Level Five" looks at how we look at tragedies like the Battle of Okinawa. Credit: Icarus Films
Chris Marker is not an easy filmmaker to categorize, as we so like to do today with artists. He didn’t make fiction films — save his most famous, the 1962 short “La Jetee” — but his documentaries are far from traditional. His films exist in a netherworld between the two poles, but always reflected the personal obsessions of their maker: politics, memory and cats. (Perhaps Marker’s most prophetic prediction was the rise of the cat video, as seen in 1990’s 3-minute “Cat Listening to Music.” He is, with no close competition, cinema's reigning cat fanatic.)
BAM’s new Marker series crams as many as it can into two weeks, some of them obscurities that rarely show up Stateside. When Marker — born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve in France — died in 2012 at 91, he left a vast and diverse CV. Only a fraction of these are known in America, but he’s long been a reliable crowd-getter, rapturing audiences with his loose, montage-heavy films, which often play like film-essays, and sometimes film diaries.
Catherine Belkhodja plays a woman anguishing over how to present the past to the technological present in Chris Marker's "Level Five." Credit: Icarus Films
The biggest get in the series is “Level Five,” a mysterious feature from 1997 making its belated North American screen debut. It’s a sci-fi film, of sorts, but about something scarily real: It looks at the Battle of Okinawa — which wrought a horrifying mass suicide — from an increasingly technological present.
A woman (Catherine Belkhodja), sitting in a cramped computer room, records proto-vlogs about her research into the incident, as well as her dead lover. She’s Marker’s mouth-piece, voicing Markerish philosophical concerns on the preservation of the past — how history is transformed into images that simplify or even betray their original meaning. Computers may have the capacity to store more information, but, she worries, perhaps it will lead to people “storing the past so as not to revive it.”
The film itself, at 17 years old, is now itself a thing of the past. Marker uses 1997 video as well as 1997 computer layouts — low-res, draggy video and fat icons, both which now look more antiquated than 1940s newsreels — as if to show how cutting edge tech looked at the time. It’s a time capsule, and one that can see how the future will cut us off not only from the past but from each other.
Here are six more from the series you should pen into your schedule — although, of course, you should make room for all of them:
A man uses a strange form of time travel in Chris Marker's "La Jetee." Credit: Provided
‘La Jetee’ (1962) and ‘Sans Soleil’ (1982)
These are Marker’s two most famous films (and are often packaged together, although not here), but don’t let that throw you. The first is a sci-fi short that (very loosely) inspired “12 Monkeys,” which Marker called the better film. He was wrong (and “12 Monkeys” is a masterpiece). In it, a man from a post-apocalyptic future is teleported to the past, which is presented in haunting still photographs — with one magical exception. The latter is ostensibly a travel piece, with someone reporting, via read letters, on journeys to Japan and Guinea-Bissau. But it’s really about everything, an attempt to capture the way not just a mind but a tirelessly curious mind wanders from subject to subject, doubting one’s thoughts and building on them in the neverending pursuit for enlightenment.
‘The Koumiko Mystery’ (1965)
While covering the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Marker happened upon a young woman who was either vapid or atypically intuitive. Either way, she was a great subject for a film about city life, and about someone completely divorced from her culture. Of all Marker’s films, this may be the most aggressively edited and visually rapturous, favoring a blood red color scheme and cutting around her so much that it feels the entire world is trying to swallow her up.
Cats, as seen in this image from "Sans Soleil," are at least somewhere in nearly every Chris Marker film. Credit: Provided
‘A Grin Without a Cat’ (1977)
At least the most ambitious of Marker’s political works, this epic crams all (or at least most) of the world’s revolutionary acts in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s not a mere assemblage of facts; Marker covers skirmishes in Asia and Europe and South America, going from Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to Salvador Allende to Watergate, weaving between them all and finding connections, differences, etc. Marker’s beef is the failure of a global socialist revolution to get off the ground, but it’s the dense and intellectually restless way it’s put together that puts it over the top.
‘One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich’ (2000)
No mere director profile, Marker’s doc on another cinema legend, Andrei Tarkovsky, is a reliably restless examination of his life and the autobiographical nature of his films. It’s one filmmaker looking at another, and it understands what made him tick the way only another filmmaker could.
‘Remembrance of Things to Come’ (2003)
Late in his career, Marker returned to the gimmick of still photographs. This time they’re someone else’s: He fills the frame with the work of ’30s photographer Denise Bellon (her daughter, Yannick, co-directed), whose subjects ranged from the Spanish Civil War to her surrealist artist chums. The issue is the reproduction of the past, and how memory passes on, however clumsily and inaccurately, in photos, films and recordings. It’s a subject that crops up through the Marker series, in films that are themselves now memories, living on from the grave.
The Chris Marker retrospective runs at BAM from August 15 through August 28. A full line-up of screening times can be found on their website.