A radical explorer of human memory

Chris Marker
January 13, 2006

Chris Marker has always been an elusive figure, refusing to give interviews or to make public appearances and avoiding all photographers. Now at the age of 83 ("or thereabouts"), Marker is still going his own way as "the grand old man of new media".

Catherine Lupton's book is the first study in English of the man whom she calls "a techno shaman", an artist who as she records "has embraced writing, photography, film-making, videography, television and digital multimedia". Lupton's account of the remarkable French polymath, whose work has overturned conventions and influenced generations of artists for more than half a century, provides comprehensive insights into the enigmatic auteur and his unpredictable career.

Acknowledging that "even Marker's name is a longstanding synonym", Lupton declares at the outset that her book will make no attempt to delve into his background. She prefers instead to explore his early involvement in Parisian intellectual life, as it revived and flourished after the Second World War.

The account of his time with Esprit magazine in the era of "bebop, bohemians and Juliette Greco" risks becoming bogged down in long-forgotten ideological tussles among fractious French Leftists. But the flavour of Marker's contributions - unpredictable and often funny - repeatedly blows away the mustiness. As Lupton observes, his articles ranged from " chanson to Cold War, cat shows to literary scandals", and she makes clear that the man's tireless curiosity about the world has always been a vital ingredient in his work, illuminating even the most uncompromising of his films.

Tracing the evolution of Marker's film work, Memories of the Future records how his career has relished every development in documentary film technology. Marker was an early enthusiast for the revolution in cinéma vérité pioneered in America and has embraced each new possibility, continuing today with digital experiments and video installations. But in a characteristic disclaimer, he has insisted that his version was always "Ciné - ma vérité", declaring his unwavering commitment to an individual voice.

Lupton tellingly identifies that commitment in the French tradition where "documentary came to be regarded as a mode of personal reflection on the world, more closely aligned to the authored literary essay than the social document". For the sturdy British inheritors of John Grierson and social observation, it is a currency as alien as the euro.

Lupton explores how Marker's voice was always strong in his films of the 1950s and 1960s, when he became "an inveterate globetrotter", making films from Siberia to China and Cuba. Always, along with the curiosity there was the mischief - a spoof commercial for reindeer products in Letter from Siberia , as well as a history of mammoths in the style of Terry Gilliam.

Cuba Sí was banned in France, accused of "posing a threat to public order", and Lupton follows the increasing radicalism of Marker's films over the 1960s and 1970s, identifying his "sympathy for the extreme Left Maoist and Trotskyite parties, and charting his decade-long immersion in militant political collectives".

But the central preoccupation of Memories of the Future is with La Jetée , Marker's most celebrated and discussed film, an inescapable ingredient of many a media studies programme. La Jetée , a post-apocalyptic fable, is hailed by Lupton as "an elegiac masterpiece of speculative fiction" that "reinvented the potential of cinema at a stroke" - lavish claims for a 29-minute film told via still photographs. Still, she makes a vigorous case for the uniqueness of the film and for its centrality in Marker's work as "a cosmonaut of human memory".

Leslie Woodhead is a freelance documentary maker.

Chris Marker: Memories of the Future

Author - Catherine Lupton
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 256
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 1 86189 223 3

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