Chris Marker: A Grin without a Cat, Whitechapel Gallery, London

A rare retrospective of the French filmmaker’s work reveals themes of perception and time, suggests Davina Quinlivan

April 24, 2014

Chris Marker: A Grin without a Cat
Retrospective exhibition accompanied by a series of events and talks
Whitechapel Gallery, London
Until 22 June 2014

In Chris Marker’s seminal short film La Jetée (The Pier, 1962), an elegiac meditation on memory and time consisting almost entirely of black-and-white still photographs, a young woman’s face glances back, strands of hair across her forehead, eyes averted from our gaze, silent and beautiful. In the future, a time traveller from a dystopian world is haunted by the image of this woman, inscribed as a single moment in time, an enigmatic memory he is unable to shake off. Like the time traveller, we too are caught up in this single image, like a slowly spreading ink stain.

Suddenly, the woman moves and the images are no longer photographs as she gently turns towards us. It is only at the very end of the film that the woman’s identity, or rather the meaning of her image, is revealed to viewers: she is the last thing the time traveller laid eyes on before a massive nuclear explosion altered his world for ever. Yet this final image is not a marker of death, of mortality. Rather, its presence comes to stand for another kind of life that images themselves preserve, alive in the mind of viewers.

For Marker, the cinematic medium is undoubtedly analogous to memory, illustrated beautifully by the flicker of movement suddenly inscribed within the rest of La Jetée’s still photography, like a literal reanimation. His 29-minute film is revelatory in its conception of cinema as a kind of mechanical version of human memory.

For those interested in catching La Jetée on the big screen, one version of the film will be screened on a loop at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, as the centrepiece of a major retrospective of Marker’s mixed-media work, which also includes his documentaries and installation art. The exhibition is co-curated by Christine van Assche, chief curator at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; writer and film critic Chris Darke; and the Whitechapel’s own chief curator, Magnus af Petersens. It is especially timely given the director’s death in 2012 at the age of 91 and, indeed, the recent death of his great collaborator and compatriot, Alain Resnais (1922-2014). Here, the multiple questions posed by La Jetée about film as a medium of time and memory – and, indeed, about Marker himself as a kind of media alchemist – are revisited and rediscovered as each image rigorously works to disturb the very fabric of time and space as we know it.

The plot of La Jetée (a man sent from the future to save mankind) was famously the inspiration behind Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi thriller 12 Monkeys (1995) and James Cameron’s Terminator franchise (starting in 1984). Reclusive and famously camera-shy, Marker was a prolific and prescient multimedia filmmaker, artist, writer, editor, poet and cartoonist, whose intense fascination with technology also led to innovative works such as his iconic reflection on memory, Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983).

This was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and tells the story of an anonymous woman’s correspondence with an unseen cameraman and their mysterious relationship. We hear her voice reading from letters to him accompanied by surreal shots of everywhere from Japan to Guinea-Bissau, her place in his life quietly altering everything the cameraman encounters, shaping everything he touches. Marker presents memory as an ever-shifting entity whose contours shape the world around us: it’s not what we see that creates meaning but who we are that generates perception. This point is embellished by Marker’s manipulation of the images, sometimes pixellated or dissolving into grains of sand, conjured into new textures and tones. In addition to the theme of memory, he also comments on our relationship with (cinematic) time. Most significantly, Vertigo’s magnificent sequoia trees embody elemental time, in contrast with the quickening pace of modern life.

In addition to Sans Soleil and La Jetée, the retrospective features Marker’s Paris-based documentaries Le Joli Mai (The Merry Month of May, 1963) and its digital counterpart Chats Perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat, 2004) and Ouvroir: The Movie (Workshop: The Movie, 2010), a guided tour of a virtual museum the director created in the online virtual world Second Life. It also tracks key themes in his work: the museum; travel; image and text; war and revolution. As one enters the gallery space, Ouvroir: The Movie ushers us towards a collage of screens and photographs, now not only a conjoining of the virtual and the real, but the living and the dead. We are guided by Marker’s repeated cypher, an orange-and-black cartoon cat (named Guillaume-en-Egypte to suggest its connection with ancient Egyptian mythology), whose presence takes on an even greater significance as Marker’s connection to the afterlife. Above all, the fragments of Marker’s persona, emphasised by his cinematography, his cyphers and his narration, offer a kind of material trace of the filmmaker, neither future nor past. In the words of Sarah Cooper, one of the foremost Marker scholars, “film becomes the search for this ‘other’ to life”.

In this context, the underlying message of Marker and Resnais’ rarely seen documentary Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953) seems most vital, perhaps the most obvious key to the entire body of work on display. Shot between 1950 and 1953, this remains an incendiary piece of documentary filmmaking, initially banned by the French government for its damning critique of museums as institutionalised colonialism, with their loot of “dead” cultural objects, their meaningfulness robbed and entombed for casual voyeurs.

In one of its most striking scenes, Resnais’ editing moves between a young African woman and a tribal statue, from her eyes to its hollow indentations. What is most important here is the young woman’s gaze and its embodiment of her subjectivity, an authentic gaze that brings the artefact to life again. This exchange of looks presents to the viewer an intimate moment of connection that exceeds the bounds of the museum space, radically transforming it into a living encounter. Again, as in La Jetée, there is the reiteration of the theme of film as a mediating mechanism between life and death, the manifestation of a renewed sense of life.

Retrospectives of Marker’s art are extremely rare, which (combined with the fact that he is no longer with us) makes one suspect that he was averse to the idea of any kind of assembly of his work, as if such a gesture would immediately destroy their meaningfulness, like the African mask in Statues Also Die. In order to negate such ossification, viewers need to be receptive to the textures of his films, the density of light, the patterns of shadow and colour, their dreams of love and their impassioned activism: this is what remains of Marker’s body, and our “communion” with such objects keeps their vitality intact. Marker was specifically interested in the materiality of film and its potential to leave some sort of inscription of himself in circulation – and now they are truly all that is left of this remarkable filmmaker.

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