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Our Curious Man in Japan: Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, and the Films that Stand for Us

Name your favorite film. Now define favorite. Is it the one you admire the most? The one you watch most often? The one that keeps surfacing in your thoughts with the least prompting? Or simply the one you name when asked, hoping to project an affiliated identity in so doing? Your definition of the term, and even your answer to the prompt, may shift with the circumstances. Mine certainly do, though most of the time I find myself well-served in these discussions, for all those purposes, by Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. Object of my cinematic genuflection, ruminative touchstone, go-to piece of viewing material, cultural signifier: an unsurprising range, I suppose, for what Clive James calls a “brave attempt at the synthetic work that gets everything in.” But despite what the movie tells me about Japan—and ultimately, that doesn’t amount to much—it tells me more about myself.

My latest viewing of Sans Soleil found me on the eve of my own first trip to Japan. Glimpsing the country once more through Chris Marker’s eyes seemed like essential preparation. Had I the time for a double feature, I’d have also re-watched Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga, which documents the German filmmaker’s search for traces of the essence of Yasujiro Ozu. But Tokyo-Ga fits comfortably in the documentary section; Sans Soleil has simply occupied a place of its own. An assembly of material Marker shot, found, and gathered from collaborators, the film offers a globe-spanning epistolary travelogue as told to an apparently fictional narrator by, we suspect, a practically nonfictional protagonist. The movie’s fans usually treat this peripatetic letter-writer, a certain Sandor Krasna, as Marker’s barely altered ego. (See also Peter Greenaway’s avatar Tulse Luper, who stands at the center of Greenaway’s international, intertemporal, and nearly indecipherable early-2000s multimedia project The Tulse Luper Suitcases.) Krasna, no less impulsive a wanderer than Luper, reports from points around the world. He frequents Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, but draws his most frequent and most striking observations from Japan.

Read the whole thing at The Quarterly Conversation.

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