"Everything interested him": On Chris Marker and paying attention

One of the Bissau-Guinean subjects of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983).
“You’re seduced [by Sans Soleil] because you are so much in and out of the film […] your capacity for attention or inattention is at the center of this film in a different way than any other film can have.  In other films, if you’re inattentive it’s because you’re bored; here you’re attentive or inattentive for other reasons.  It’s like the miracle of floating attention.  It has moments where you blank out, moments where you get surprised because suddenly you have looked at your shoe and you were in Japan and now you’re in Africa.  With Chris, you look at this stuff, you take the detour and you come back […] You have a sense that you haven’t finished yet with it and the film hasn’t yet finished with you.”  --Jean-Pierre Gorin
Re-watching the late Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) this week on Blu-ray I was reminded of how dense and challenging a film it is.  Even describing it poses problems: it’s a documentary, an experimental film, a piece of critical theory, a visual essay about culture and information and environments in the postmodern era.  Marker’s method is something like collage, cutting together footage of Tokyo with footage of Guinea-Bissau, with occasional detours to Iceland and San Francisco.  All the while a female narrator reads text in voice-over, supposedly extracts from letters received from a cameraman named Sandor Krasna (who is really just another one of Marker’s many alter egos).  The effect is dizzying, overwhelming, and often tiring, like trying to read a collection of essays by Walter Benjamin or Frederic Jameson in a single sitting.  (Perhaps it would be best divided up and watched in segments?)  Watching an interview with Gorin included on the Criterion edition of the film, I was amazed to hear him describe the same viewing experience that has befallen me both times I’ve sat down with Sans Soleil.  Marker’s attention span is so voracious, and his train of thought so circuitous, that it seems best to give up trying to stay on top of the film at all times.  Better to relax your attention, let your mind wander, allow for free-association and daydreaming.  Wandering, free-associating, and daydreaming are, after all, what Marker himself does in the film. 

The free-associative poetry of Marker’s cinema reminds me of that of his friend and colleague Agnes Varda, with whom he shared an aesthetic of total freedom, a willingness to follow his interests wherever they might lead, even—perhaps especially—when they produce the most unusual effects.  I still remember my surprise (and delight) when, in the middle of The Last Bolshevik (1993), his documentary about the Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin, Marker stops everything for a three-minute-long intermission consisting of footage of his beloved pet cat Guillaume-en-Égypte.  For Marker (and for simpatico filmmakers like Varda) there was no division between his academic interests and his personal life, his work and his passion and the stuff of the everyday. 

But even though all of this should make it easy to fall into Marker’s world, where daydreaming is encouraged, there are no wrong responses, and one may explore at will, the experience of leaping into Sans Soleil feels stressful.  Perhaps it’s because—as is the experience with so many experimental films—it means letting go of so much of what we expect from a movie.  To embrace Marker’s endless code-switching, and to attempt to follow the forking paths of his imagination, is to embrace a postmodernism of infinite vastness, curiosity, play, and anachronism.  Someday I hope to get there.  Maybe next time.               

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