French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker is best known in the States for his one fiction film, the 28-minute La Jetee (1962), a moody sci-fi story, told almost entirely in a series of photographs, which became the basis of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (’95). Aside from that, and despite his being a documentarian since the early ’50s (he’s now an active octogenarian), his films are rarely shown in this country outside of certain film festivals, possibly because short documentaries don’t easily fit into regular theatrical programming.
Marker’s films are distinct from most nonfiction films due to their essayist qualities; they tend to be discursive, even free-associative, to make surprising and insightful connections and to be visually unique. All of these elements are present in Remembrance of Things to Come (2001), a 42-minute impressionistic meditation on French culture and politics between 1935 and 1955.
Like La Jetee, the film is a series of photographs; to say “still” photographs would be misleading, since Marker’s camera moves over the pictures, guiding the eye and pacing the film. In this case, the photos are the work of Denise Bellon. The film is narrated in English by Alexandra Stewart, and co-credit for its creation is given to Yannick Bellon, Denise’s daughter.
The title refers to the general mood in France between World Wars I and II; specifically, as it was reflected in the work of the surrealists whose combination of fractured reality, irrational juxtapositions, and fondness for the grotesque and sexually scandalous seemed to predict the chaotic future. Of course, when one is between two bloody upheavals, it’s hard to distinguish between looking back and looking forward since the view either way is similar. The surrealists, like their predecessors the dadaists, were responding to modernism’s most devastating feature — mass destruction — and its attendant physical and psychological damage.
Bellon seems to have been at the center of things and she photographed acquaintances like Picasso, Henry Miller, Marcel Duchamp and surrealist kingpin André Breton, who dedicated a book to her. She also took pictures of less luminous folk, from café habitues to peasant workers, traveled to her country’s colonies in Africa to record their uneasy mix of European and native culture, and in general captured the contrasting moods of a formerly great empire heading toward its last hurrah.
But this isn’t a photo book of Bellon’s greatest hits, it’s a film stamped by Marker’s distinct sensibility. It moves rapidly and assumes the viewer has some knowledge of its subject. It helps, for example, to recognize a brief scene from G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box in order to appreciate Marker’s visual punning, or to know who Henri Langlois was and how he influenced a generation of French filmmakers.
For the uninitiated it may seem both instructive and obscure. It’s all more or less in chronological order but will turn aside from its narrative to accommodate the odd anecdote, like the story of the two sisters who appeared as children in a chocolate ad and then grew up to collaborate when one became an actress, the other a film director.
The tone is alternately nostalgic, ironic and biting — a typical Marker mix. It’s a brilliant evocation of a past that seems to have dim and distant specifics and yet, in our warlike present, it has a clear and relevant outline.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999) is a somewhat more conventional documentary about the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. The original footage consists of the director shooting the final and very complicated scene of his last film The Sacrifice (1985) and then his viewing of the completed film while lying in his sickbed, just months before his death in 1986. Tarkovsky was an imposing figure, an uncompromising filmmaker whose stated goal was to bring cinema up to the level of the great art of the past, and the seven features he made between 1962 and his death reflect this high-mindedness, often seeming a mix of genuine transcendence and artistic bloat. So one of the surprising pleasures of Arsenevich is discovering the man behind the films, who is revealed to be not only a perfectionist and dedicated craftsman, but an enthusiast with a sense of humor. (It’s the kind of revelation you have when you see Ingmar Bergman in a documentary and he comes across as a kind of Scandinavian Bob Newhart.)
The film also offers much footage from the Tarkovsky oeuvre, including a scene from a student film, a version of Hemingway’s The Killers, in which he acted. (He enters the scene whistling “Lullaby of Birdland” — another humanizing touch.) Marker’s analysis of the various films, of their linking themes and motifs, the way they reflect their director’s Russian mysticism, the motivations behind their long tracking shots and often godlike p.o.v., is given in an English narration (again by Alexandra Stewart). This combination, the insightful delving into the work and scenes of the artist toward the end of his endeavor, adds up to an experience that could be called intellectually poignant. It also has the effect of making one want to see, or see again, all of Tarkovsky’s films as soon as possible and to hope that more of Marker’s will come our way.
Both films show exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Dec. 8. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].