(note: Chris Marker's 'San Soleil' was screened at Red Emma's
bookstore/coffee house in Baltimore, MD on 11/19/2004)
Chris Marker's Sans Soleil is an intoxicating form of authoritarian
indoctrination. Marker is cinema's Chairman Mao in attractive, Situationist form.
Sans Soleil is a seemingly spontaneous montage of communal, authoritarian
and intellectually violating imagery. It is beautifully narrated by a woman of
continental station. The "letters" she reads seem clearly fictional. The
communal footage, about 10%, is almost always
fluid and balanced. (People are often moving or at rest.) The purpose of the
communal footage in Sans Soleil'
becomes clear in retrospect. The most memorable example of it
is the film's opening shot of three Swedish girls in soft light
which is repeated near the film's close. (It is the only footage that I
recall is repeated.) Like a great book cover hiding an awful book,
the three Swedish girls serve to calm and
relax us. The abrupt juxtaposition from the Swedish girls to the construction site
as the film opens is the start of a journey down a sewer of world-class indoctrination.
The authoritarian imagery, almost always artistically directed to the center,
makes up about 85% of the program. This imagery is always less than perfectly
balanced, a calculated design flaw. In addition, it often comes in gentle
forms; e.g., the most memorable being a close-up of a ceramic cat which has
Marker has a political subtext to Sans Soleil that is
unquestionably militaristic and authoritarian. For about
forty-five minutes he establishes a pattern of clear
detachment of imagery, narration, identity. Then he abruptly breaks from the
pattern with a striking sequence of cinema verite. Suddenly, we're living
through the camera as guerillas in combat. An identity is established; the
first time in Marker's film (outside of the letters.) He then returns to detachment by subsequently filming
the rebels from outside their group. (He repeats: Cinema verite of a battle, rebels
filmed from just outside their group.) Finally, the narrator compares the guerillas
with the state-sponsored military they are evidently fighting. This is the most
obvious moment in Sans Soleil when the
narration matches the visual content. This is because we are being
instructed on ideology. When people interrupt our own mundane lives to instruct us
on ideology we always snap to attention. Marker has encouraged his audience
members to relive their own mundane lives in order to trick them into
the acceptance of an authoritarian idea not currently held.
About ten minutes later we see military brass escorted by combat troops moving
through an unspecified location under imprecise circumstances. (The imagery is
blurry and visually distorted so we can't see much.) The juxtaposition of the
two sequences is arguably Marker's grand purpose for
making Sans Soleil. Let's back up. After lulling us with a soporific soup of
discordant montages narrated by a modern-day Greta Garbo he creates for us an
identity to assume. We are now rebels fighting against power. Marker
then has his narrator tell you there is no ethical difference between you and the
machinations of the military state we oppose. Minutes later Marker
depicts authoritarianism symbolically, rendering it distorted, unfocused and without
clarity. So we are being frustrated us in a way that could be immediately
relieved by working on behalf of a right-wing coup d'etat. In other words, Marker has
conditioned our minds into moving in the direction of accepting
right-wing indoctrination. He wants his cinema to be a catalyst for
achieving a totalitarian state.
Chairman Marker is the Chairman Mao of cinema. Like Mao, Marker has taken a few intellectual
liberties to wield the power he has. Marker employs intellectual theft as
his method of brainwashing. Watching Sans Soleil feels similar to
having someone tap a little hammer against your temples for a couple of
hours. For example, when he displays
headshots of Japanese movie stars he has not invented anything. However, the
Situational context (i.e., his narrator as Greta Garbo narrating fictional but
deeply philosophical letters) implies that he is. Understand, it isn't that Marker
has ripped off the Japanese movie stars because Marker is not himself immensely
intelligent. He's done it rather sadistically. Marker is engaged in a game of
provoking his audience and making it believe the provocations are pleasurable.
Marker displays more theft with the Pac Man sequence. When the
game first came out many people recognized the basic working class
theater behind the marketing concept. However, Marker steals the ideas and
pushes them forward in his Situational context. He knows that
appropriating the underlying ideas behind a huge
corporate marketing success is no small provocation to a young bohemian fond of
Situationism. He does it anyway.
Another major intellectual violation is
when Marker films an adult woman sitting apparently on a curb on a busy street
(in India? Thailand?).
She's looking in the direction of the
camera. The narrator describes the sequence in world-weary terms; i.e., the
woman's gradual realization that she's on Candid Camera represents in some way the
Human Condition. Once the sequence is over we remember
how very attractive, dignified and impoverished she appeared all at once,
as if chosen from a group of women by a Casting Agent.
Then we realize she has been filmed with a telephoto lens which maximizes the distance between
subject and camera. Then her reaction to the camera seems rather perfect and in real life
people can act badly when tricked. Little clues like these make you realize that Marker
has conned us again. Contrary to how the narrator described it, this
scene was clearly contrived and indisputably selected from multiple takes.
Marker's greatest crime is the stalking and murder of Alfred Hitchcock. However,
Marker leaves a subtle and elegant coffin behind. So, intellectually only the film
buffs will be particularly aware of it. But we should all feel it.
Hitchcock, an artistic genius, remains the greatest practitioner of pure
cinema. Like a chess Grandmaster, Hitchcock calculated all of his
effects with incomprehensible precision. (In Vertigo, Hitchcock
famously reveals the plot's surprise well in advance of the protagonist's
discovery.) Hitchcock described his purpose as creating a common roller-coaster for
each audience member to experience. This is diametrically opposite to
Marker's approach. Marker encourages people to experience individual
detachment. Marker is making a film where each person
in a room of people will be drifting away to their unique mundane problems, hopes, fears.
Needless to say, the skill level required to move an audience
through Hitch's rollercoaster versus Marker's ethically challenged,
ersatz spontaneity is huge. Still, Chairman Marker has no problem
revisiting Hitch's famous settings. He finds them aged and unlike how
they appeared in Hitch's great film Vertigo. (He's also teasing us into thinking the
film has likewise become dated.) He then has the audacity to take clips and
narration from Hitchcock's famous
Sequoia scene, installing them to elevate interest with his Situational
context. For many film buffs the effect is like
Marker having finally shot Hitchcock after having stalked him at length. Marker
knows the scale of his crime but gleefully relishes in it.
Marker's use of Hitchcock's Vertigo for his political ambitions is
a high level of cinematic wickedness. That's because Hitchcock rarely focuses
his compositions in the center of the frame. When he does so (as in Madeleine's
death scene in Vertigo) it is for dramatic emphasis. Still, Chairman Marker
shamelessly steals from Vertigo some of its more spectacular center-dominated
images for his center-focused, right-wing, Situationist soup.
Marker's situational context disguises the insatiable lust behind
Sans Soleil. He's a cunning
manipulator who weaves in superbly composed, balanced communal imagery to cool the anger
he has deliberately aroused. Much of this communal imagery shows people living mundane lives; e.g.,
people hustling to work or engaged in other social traditions in groups. Chairman
Mao also understood the value of keeping his audience contemplating the infinite
dreary discomforts that comes from living an ordinary life.
When stripped away from his huge veil of lies and provocations Chris Marker will
be revealed as Cinema's Master of Indoctrination. However, is he also something else? A flip side of
the theory that Marker is the Devil with a Camera is that he is also emulating
the Machine that defines the Human Condition, as we all exist enslaved by our hard-wired
insanity. It is hard
not to recognize Marker for the scope of these achievements.