Writer, photographer, editor, film essayist and multi-media poet, Chris Marker has never been an easy figure to define. In private life he was equally elusive, refusing to give interviews and never knowingly allowing his picture to be taken. Even his name was a fiction (he was born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve) and his birthplace – variously given as Belleville, Paris; the suburb of Neullly-sur-Seine; and Ulan Bator, Mongolia – was never conclusively confirmed. What did remain consistent throughout his career were the subjects that absorbed him: time, history and memory; travel and ritual; war and revolution; cinema and the natural world. Universal themes, yet Marker's take on them was always highly personal and unmistakably his own.
Since his death in 2012 at the age of 91, major retrospectives of Chris Marker's work at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Whitechapel Gallery in London have revealed the sheer extent and range of his creative work. From editing beautifully illustrated travel books in the 1950s, to designing multi-media installations for art galleries in the 1990s, Marker embraced and mastered new media as it came along, anticipating trends that others would later follow. Little wonder his friend and sometime collaborator Alain Resnais once described him as ‘the prototype of the twenty-first-century man.'
It is for his films, however, including such masterpieces as La Jetée and Sans Soleil, and for his central role in inventing the film essay genre, for which Chris Marker is best known. Below we list our picks of his best work:
A stirring eyewitness account of Cuba and its people in the early years after the revolution. Marker captures the heady optimism of the newly liberated nation and hears from Fidel Castro, its guiding inspiration.
The Sixth Side of the Pentagon
On October 21st, 1967, thousands of protestors marched on the Pentagon in opposition to the Vietnam War. Marker and his team of camera operators take us into the thick of the action as the initially peaceful protest explodes into violence.
As a way of personalizing this, his first filmic impression of Japan, Marker focuses on just one of its citizens: 24-year-old Koumiko Muraoka. As she wanders the streets of Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Olympic Games, Koumiko answers questions about Japanese culture, ideals of beauty and her own expectations of life.
Le Tombeau d’Alexandre
(The Last Bolshevik, 1993)
In a series of six video letters, Marker posthumously examines the life and career of his friend and fellow filmmaker Alexandre Medvedkin in the context of the history of the Soviet Union in the 20th Century. A poetic and witty meditation on reality and fiction, art and ideology and one man's quest to make cinema a medium for social change.
Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch
(One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, 2000)
Made for the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps, Marker’s moving homage to Andrei Tarkovsky was shot during the final year of the Russian director’s life and combines clips from his films with footage of him at work on the set of The Sacrifice and at home on his deathbed surrounded by family.
Le Joli Mai
(The Lovely Month of May, 1963)
In this superbly filmed cinema-verité classic Marker and his team of interviewers take to the streets of Paris to ask a cross-section of its inhabitants about their views on such topics as work, money, politics and the meaning of happiness. A witty and illuminating snapshot of a city experiencing its first moment of peace in over two decades.
A female narrator reads the letters of a traveller detailing his impressions of the places he has visited and what he has seen there. Elaborating on this simple premise over a free-flowing montage of extraordinary imagery, Marker, in the guise of the fictional traveller, meditates on, amongst other things, the cultural customs of different nations, the alienating effects of modern technology and the elusive nature of human memory in what is one of the defining masterworks of the personal essay-film.
Lettre de Sibérie
(Letter from Siberia, 1957)
The travelogue (travel documentary) was already an established genre when Marker redefined it in his inimitable style in this wryly-affectionate and visually stunning portrait of Siberia – its people, its landscape and wildlife – dispelling the commonly held view of the country as an inhospitable wasteland.
Le Fond de l'air est rouge
(A Grin Without A Cat, 1977)
In this epic and moving account of the collapse of a generation’s hopes and dreams, Marker surveys a decade of international political unrest and conflict that takes in Vietnam, Bolivia, May '68, Prague, Chile and elsewhere. Referencing Louis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, the film's title suggests the disparity between the promise of a utopian revolution (the grin) with its ultimate failure to materialize (the cat).
After World War III destroys Paris, a man is sent on a mission through time to discover the meaning behind a childhood memory. Told exclusively through black and white still images (with one brief exception), Marker’s enigmatic 28-minute science-fiction masterpiece is one of the most thought-provoking and influential works in the history of cinema.