The current exhibition about filmmaker Chris Marker (1921-2012) at Oslo’s Kunstnernes Hus (Artists’ House) features a unique historical-political witness on the revolutionary left wing. The exhibition centers first and foremost on the topics of time and memory, with travel and the museum as motives. Despite this, the exhibition is named after his most politically-oriented 1977 film, Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge, or in English A Grin Without a Cat. The majority of Marker’s films represent a thinker concerned with human condition and basic values. His extensive knowledge is expressed in his running commentary. He travelled the world for 60 years, and produced almost as many films. The theme of many of the films were revolutionary movements, and especially the film the exhibition is named after, expresses revolutionary dreams of a better society. Hi narrating style features prophetic-philosophical undertones, especially in the photo films La Jetée (1962) and Le Souvenir d’un Avenir (2003), where he commutes between past and future. The film essay La sixième face du Pentagone (1968) describes the 1967 Vietnam demonstration. Peaceful demonstrations break out into an onslaught against the Pentagon in Washington. The placards stated “Hell no, we won’t go!”, “No taxes for the war machine!” and “How many kids, Lyndon?”. Those protesting yelled “direct action!” on the stairs of the Pentagon in front of a number of nervous soldiers. They set fire to their military calls and several climb the building’s façade. Many left wing leaders are arrested, but this only increased the popularity of the protest and creates prison celebrities such as Norman Mailer. The event was a breakthrough for the Vietnam-protests whereby «the protestors political attitude became political actions», according to Marker.
Made fun of Castro. Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge is Markers greatest work. It is a unique historical montage of the revolutionary ‘60s and ‘70s, and skips between Berlin, Bolivia, San Francisco, Beijing and Paris. Marker cross-edits protest extracts from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) with Paris’ street scenes prior to peace-loving demonstrators are overrun by men featuring Nazi symbols in Washington. They shout: «Bomb Hanoi; Gas the Vietcong!». Thereafter, in Vietnam, a smiling American pilot boasts how fantastic bombs and napalm are in the battlefield.
Through his distinctive editing, Marker asks the spectator to consider who the world’s criminals really are. He shows the Shah of Iran visiting Berlin in June 1967, where the Shah’s secret police attack protestors and a student is killed. The narrator tells of the 2,500 year old kingdom where opponents are tortured, money wasted and great parties are held for the world’s leaders. The state power leaders avoid being called criminals, whilst the revolutionary, which Marker then cuts directly to, are repeatedly arrested or killed. We witness policemen pull Ulrike Meinhof by the hair as if a wild animal. Then pictures of several revolutionaries; there is Tania, Ben, Miguel, Malcolm, Camille, Dixie, Julien, George, Carlos and Pierre, who all died for the cause. In another extract, Fidel Castro reads a quote from Che Guevara just after his death: «Looking back on my life, I worked faithfully to assemble the revolution. In a revolution you either win or die. » Through this lengthy historical review, we meet a number of political people and are introduced to optimism, hindsight, naivety, despair and visions.
Through Cuba, Market shows how the revolution is not necessarily unambiguous. In an extract, Castro distances himself from the Soviet communism by criticising the Marxist-Leninist manual for being full of clichés, stereotypical descriptions and obvious lies. Marker has no longer the same faith in Castro as he displayed in the 1961 Si Cuba where he hailed Castro and criticised the USA. Disappointed in Castro’s utopia, in Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge Marker is unable to restrain himself and makes fun of him. Castro has a tendency to adjust the microphone during his speeches. One time in Moscow we witness Castro struggle with the microphones which, hilariously, remain immovable, no matter how much he tries to twist and turn them.
Conflicting information. Marker points out that a number of revolutionary leaders said that the greatest challenges happened once they seized power. Contrary to Mao and Castro, there is evident admiration for Salvador Allende. The manner in which Marker edits and portrays him in the film On vous parle du Chili: Ce que disait Allende (1973), speaks volumes about the faith he had in the Chilean dictator’s political agenda. In it, Allende is interviewed by the philosopher Regis Debray on economy and nationalising, his assassination thoughts, and the anti-capitalist project.
In Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge, the «red» Allende is an example of a leader who knows how to govern a country. During a panel discussion at a labour conference in Santiago in the early-1970s, Market portrays Allende as the voice of reason. The president enjoys the presence of the foreign press, and says «let them stay and witness a true democracy, something others can only pretend to be. » Allende wants direct political involvement from the workers, that they know the basic political values and partake in discussions. As all factories now belong to the people and the workers, he states that a lazy worker cannot expect a regular salary. There is no dividend for laziness. He adds: «The incompetent will not be able to expect protection from a party membership! A party membership card does not issue titles and honours. Every man must earn the right to be respected! » He warns against salary increase, and when someone boos, he replies: «I am not here to be booed or praised, but to talk sense to you. » He believes that increased salaries will lead to a racing inflation. However, Allende states that he will never coerce or use violence against striking workers. He will not use the police in an opinion exchange. No, his only tool is reason. If this does not work, «I will have no other option than to step down, for what else can I do? » In retrospect, we know fully well what Pinochet did in 1973 to seize power.
But most people are not revolutionaries. The daily grind is about concessions, about making money last, and to be left alone. Towards the end of the film, Market appears at his gloomiest. Disappointed in failed revolutions and lost elections for the communists, he mourns «what could have been». The film’s final allegorical moment is wolves being shot at from helicopters: the livestock needs to be controlled. Marker comments: «some wolves will always survive».
In a 2008 essay, Marker writes that Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge was about what happened when the French Communist party and the Soviet Union no longer represented the revolutionary hope. He writes: «The irony is that, some thirty years later, this question is irrelevant. Both have ceased to exist and remaining chronicle is the repeated rehearsal of a play that never premiered. » In Paris and elsewhere, the Left wing revolutionaries were never able to play on the main stage, they never had the future that was to change the world.
Marker collaborated with film makers such as Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard and Joris Ivens. In the 1960s, they all contributed on a film which was credited to 150(!) individuals, called Loin du Vietnam (1967) – a protest against the USA’s intervention in Vietnam. This collective interspersed fiction, documentary, analysis and news reports. From this collaboration was the activist film collective SLON formed, which was active for more than a decade. The Norwegian producer Inger Servolin was also part of this, and produced several of Marker’s films. Today, she remains in control of the archives and preservation of his films in Paris. As part of the collective, Market directed the fictional Embassy (1973). The film is a kind of documentary detailing the escape to an embassy during a military coup. The setting is similar to that of Chile. Young left-wing artists, authors and activists were afraid they would be arrested, after their friends were detained at a football stadium.
With obvious reference to real life, Marker this way created an early «mockumentary».
The collective also made «Cinetracts», little political pamphlets, 16mm films in black and white. The idea was to offer conflicting information as a counterbalance to the superficial mass media. They were also behind the series «On vous parle», which enabled people in vulnerable situations to speak; among them tortured prisoners, a persecuted publisher, a revolutionary leader and President Allende.
The tracks of the film artist. The exhibition also features Sans Soleil (1982). This is probably Marker’s most renowned film alongside La Jetée, and was this year awarded the third best documentary ever, by the magazine Sight and Sound. Marker is trying to convey that we no longer can see the sun. The opening image is of three happy Icelandic children, before it momentarily breaks into pitch dark. Only towards the end we see that the children’s homestead is covered in black lava. The children met the dark side of life, here in the raw nature. Sans Soleil also shows all of Tokyo’s TV-screens and makes a comment on how this flickering light is a substitute for reality. Marker’s melancholy topic – lack of sun light – is a testament to the human shortcomings on earth, but he is also fascinated by how they find something to fight for.
The film is mainly about remembrance and the significance of memories. The main character, travelling camera man Sandor Krasna, is Marker’s alter ego. He travels to Japan, Ireland, Iceland, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. A female voice read excerpts from Krasna’s letters and travel diary which feature his thoughts about the images he records. Incidentally, this is a trade mark of the essay film; to document with personal reflection. Occasionally, the film becomes so intense to listen to that the images blend into the background.
Krasna asks whether the images we devour substitute our memories. Marker also take the stand of adding too many colour contrasts to some of the images – making them akin to memory – and dream pictures. This way the film problematizes the importance of the memory. But what happens when something in reality disappears entirely? On the Japanese island of Okinawa, we witness two so-called Noro-priestesses. They perform a traditional cleansing ritual and are able to speak to the dead through the gods. These Noro-customs will disappear with them as they are the last priestesses. Once upon a time, there existed a matriarchal society on Okinawa, but as American soldiers entered the island at the end of the Second World War, some 200 women chose to blow themselves up with grenades rather than be captured. Today they sell tourist lighters in the shape of grenades. All traces are gone. «The occasion has become a commercial commodity», Krasna comments.
Krasna explains that he is mostly interested in the close things he observes – little events that can make the heart beat a little faster. We see a long line of rites of passage and –places; cat temples, fertility temples, burning of effigies, and girls showing up for a Japanese «confirmation». Afterwards, Krasna edits in images from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Apparently, Krasna has seen this film 19 times, and records the film locations himself. Marker wants to convey something about the impossibility of the memory. Past becomes future and the reverse, as when Krasna wants to recreate the dramatic scenes without the action.
Marker’s Meta commentary poses questions regarding cultural rites of passage or political struggle can keep us up, of give us enough meaning to withhold the frequently changing life situations given us by modern life. At the same time, Marker attempts, with Sans Soleil, tries to stop important paths from disappearing completely from our own self-awareness. The film artists gathers some trails we are able to read in fragments.
Eleven rich guys and a ball. A film which is not part of the exhibition is the 2004 Chats perches. The film maker is now over 80 years old, and increasingly uses humour and irony. Rather than humans, he trusts his little four-legged friends, the cats: «Have you left us? We sorely need you now». He used cats as symbols throughout his career. Marker loved cats’ independence and exclaimed «Cats are not interested in power! »
This film shows Marker’s reflected look at our changeable time, and at those who protest against power abuse. The director kept the old revolutionary atmosphere. But this time, he shows scenes from a demonstration to help people with Aids. The protestors are laying down in the streets. Marker allows the camera move into monochrome as it zooms out. After a while, they look like the dead on a battlefield. There is still some protest left in old Marker, as the following scene shows people gathered in the streets in front of a large TV-screen showing a football match.
«Everyone is just standing around watching eleven rich guys kick a ball. »