Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil: Meditations on Memory

Recently, I’ve fallen in love with the films of Chris Marker. I first watched Sans Soleil, his 1983 documentary film in what must have been either March or May, and have since tacked on two additional re-watches. Along with Sans Soliel I’ve watched other films by Marker such as La Jetee and Le fond de l’air est rouge.

It is difficult to describe what Sans Soleil is, but I will make an attempt to do so here. I have seen it variously described as either a documentary film or an essay film. I find the latter more accurate, but as Marker’s films are held up as the definition of essay films, it’s hard to find a satisfying description that doesn’t end up circular.

Instead it’s easier to start from the documentary half. It is true that Sans Soleil is composed entirely of documentary footage (though frequently not shot by Marker himself), but that alone does not make it a documentary film. To me the word “documentary” summons up dingy images of PBS features meant to explain specific people, specific events, specific ideas; in other words, to be newspaper articles or textbooks in AV form. That very clearly is not Marker’s goal with Sans Soleil.

Sans Soleil is not quite interested in any singular event. It can flit from modern Japan to Guinea-Bissau to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and back at any time Marker wishes. It is belongs solely to that genre of films (stretching from Man with a Movie Camera to Koyaanisqatsi) that attempt to make the entire world of human activity in their subject, to make accessible the entire (or at least a significant portion) of the human experience (to varying degrees of success).

Marker here is not concerned quite with trying to analyze the daily mechanics of the human race, as Vertov or Reggio would. And I think even Vertov and Reggio would have disagreed that simply documenting human actions for film by themselves could be insightful. It is partly the purpose of the director to select and arrange shots in ways that are meaningful and reveal deeper patterns (as Vertov and Reggio have shown). One needs only watch something like Life in a Day to recognize the inherent limits of merely showing human life without any sense of organization or coherence – there are flashes of brilliance or empathy, but they exist amongst a greater sea of banality. If art wants to compress human life into minutes and hours, then it must be selective.

Thus, Marker takes up the two themes cinema is best positioned to address: the dual-natures of Memory and Images. Specifically, Marker is interested in how the two intersect with the human and produce the universal ideas of mankind. In teasing out the similarities and surprises that exist across time and space, there develops a slight sense of irony at the limits of human experience and knowledge.

An example: Marker shows us the outcasts of Korean society, the homeless and disenfranchised of Japan, who we are told get drunk off beer and fermented milk. We are told to them luxury would be a bottle of the kind of ceremonial sake poured over graves. Cue the next seamless shot of sake being offered at gravesites, poured over dead earth. To the nameless mourners passing by, the spirits of their deceased friends and relatives seem more real than the plights and woes of the still living impoverished, miles away and out of mind. Marker is not quite making a social message here – there is no condemnation, only the slightly humorous observation of the gaps between human memory, that two separate people can find themselves so wholly disconnected despite their similarities.

In other words, Sans Soleil is a search for the likenesses between people and events otherwise entire disjointed by differences in time and space. (the original French film opens with a quote from Jean Racine: “L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.” – or, “The distance of the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the times”).

There are, of course, other avenues to explore memory, and Marker does his best to peruse them. One of his favorite themes seems to be funerals, and Japan’s Shintoism seems to offer him excellent opportunities. One of the opening scenes is a shrine dedicated entirely to the spirits of deceased cats. Of course, in Japan funerals can extend beyond people and animals into items, as the film shows us in a closing scene of Dondo Yaki, the burning of new years decorations to finally usher in another year. Marker muses a bit on an icelandic town destroyed by a volcano – nature’s form of Dondo Yaki.

If there is Memory, then there is necessarily the Image that accompanies that Memory. Here Sans Soleil benefits from its own Self-Reflexivity: that is, it is aware of its own status as a film, of specific selected images from across space and time to prove a point, and it is acutely interested in the ways that television shapes consciousness, from Japanese browsing through the Manga section at a bookstore, or through an exhibition sacred treasures of the Vaticans.

One of his favorite devices is “The Zone”, a machine that synthesizes footage and converts it into garish, neon, pixelated visuals – into images that barely resemble their subjects. To Marker these illustrate the simple point that images are only images – in other words, that they can lie. Marker here perhaps make a small concession both to the archival footage he borrows, that perhaps he is manipulating their intent by shredding their contexts and placing them selectively into his own film, with his own narration. When he finally processes his own images through The Zone at the end, there is the sense of an admission: that perhaps, Sans Soleil also represents nothing more than a series of detached images loosely stitched together – that the boundaries of human life cannot quite be compressed into a film.

But it is an excellent effort nonetheless.

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