:: Article

The border is the war: Chris Marker remembered

Adam Bartos, Colin MacCabe, Studio: Remembering Chris Marker, OR Books, 2017

“It felt good just to look out the window. If only it were possible to film like that, I thought to myself, like when you open your eyes sometimes just to look without wanting to prove anything.”

Tokyo-Ga (Wim Wenders, 1985)

“When a country is split in two by an artificial border and irreconcilable propaganda is exercised on each side, it’s naïve to ask where the war comes from: the border is the war.”

Chris Marker, Coréennes (1962)

Studio, as its title suggests, is not so much an exercise in the remembrance of Chris Marker, as a remembrance, when viewed as its sole essay contributed by cineaste-critic Colin MacCabe to the volume.  As much as Marker shunned publicity of any kind during his lifetime (1921-2012, remarking pointedly “My films are enough”), for Studio an array of selected photographs of his Paris workspace by Adam Bartos does the rest.  Much continues to be made of Marker’s Pynchonesque reclusivity and refusal to discuss or engage with his past, which perhaps serves to underscore the premise behind Studio, Marker being that “obsessive agent of memory” according to writer and academic Stephen Barber.

In Wim Wenders’ blank impressionistic portrait of 1983 Tokyo, the German director digresses from his street-level survey of the city and impassioned homage to the works of Ozu, attempting to capture Marker on film, who “risk[ed] an eye” by revealing a portion of his face to the camera from behind a sheet of dot matrix cat.  This scene, filmed the same year as Marker’s fragmentary Sans Soleil, is shot in the Golden Gai quarter of Shinjuku, a battered collection of tiny themed drinking dens built up in the pre-fab style during the aftermath of World War II, one of which continues to bear the name of Marker’s 1962 calling card, La Jetée (held up by MacCabe here as “one of the greatest science fiction films”).  Studio in hand, I sought out La Jetée in Tokyo’s Kabukicho on a rain-lashed afternoon in May, only to find it closed up, though Stephen Barber was also in town that evening to activate a remembrance of Marker and his friend Donald Richie at a joint project of ours.  Down on the street afterwards, he took a disparaging view of studies of Marker which focused on the reclusiveness, travel writing and cats.

It was only in Marker’s later life that he began to address his earlier pre-filmmaking years, speaking with collaborator Agnés Varda about his activities in the French Resistance and later in the service of the US Army.  This is briefly acknowledged by MacCabe, while others contend that Marker was also involved in a Vichy literary journal prior to this, though the sources are rather opaque.  To begin, MacCabe details the scope of his engagement with Marker in Paris as belonging only to that later life period, beginning in 2002 (long after the Japan years). He does so by “cold-calling” Marker at his Maraîchers studio in the 20th arrondissement and announcing his possession of a VHS copy of The Magic Face (long sought by Marker, according to a mutual friend), after which a decade of closely followed conversations and friendship follows.  Marker, who was only too happy to tell of his involvement in the torture of German conscripts (though MacCabe concedes this and his beliefs could be self-edited), ends his days producing ‘Cats for Obama’ t-shirts.  The connection to photographer Adam Bartos is told as a similar chance meeting through a shared interest in the Soviet space programme, and a collection of images of his work in the rue Courat studio form the latter half of the book.  As ever, Marker insisted on not being present when these were taken, although this implies a certain impossibility in itself.

Andrew Stevens is an associate editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 8th, 2017.