The filmmaker Chris Marker, who passed away Sunday on his 91st birthday, rose to cinematic respectability amid the storm of press surrounding the French New Wave and Left Bank Film Movement in the fifties and sixties. Publicity-averse and deliberately enigmatic, he always seemed to stand, untroubled, within the storm’s eye, and there found just enough space for his enduring productivity. “Marker struck foreign observers as being by far the best [political] mind of the movement,” wrote Clive James in an essay on the director in his book Cultural Amnesia. “Admittedly the competition wasn’t strong.” Having made such favorites of the international hard left as Letters from Siberia and ¡Cuba Sí!, Marker at some point lost the will to promote the notion that, in James’ words, “there might be such a thing as a totalitarian answer to the world’s miseries.” Only after rejecting the overtly political did he make the picture for which history will most readily remember him: 1962′s La jetée, a science-fiction short on the nature of memory and the fate of humanity (two career-long preoccupations) shot almost entirely with a simple still camera.
When Marker began traveling to Japan, his work deepened again. In Tokyo to shoot the 1964 Summer Olympics (a project that ultimately fell to Kon Ichikawa), he met Koumiko Muraoka, “over 20, but less than 30,” “not an example of anything, either class or race.” Marker’s investigation into this young lady’s inner life became a documentary — bearing in mind that the form turns into something considerably more elusive in this director’s hands — called Le mystère Koumiko. Through Marker’s camera, we see Koumiko stroll the streets of Tokyo, get her fortune told by phone, light incense at a temple, and stare at westernized department-store mannequins. At the same time, we hear Marker ask her about her experiences, her culture’s changing fashions, and the “mixed up” mind that comes from being a Manchuria-born, French-speaking, postwar Japanese woman. Even in the less-than-ideal condition of the video above, the film retains its stark, untroubled beauty, much like that of the classical, ukiyo-e angles of Koumiko’s face. “I ought to have been born very much earlier,” she laments.
As for Marker, cinematic colleague Alain Resnais called him “the prototype of the twenty-first-century man.” James wrote that “he was really born for the internet, but arrived in the world of universal information a few decades too early,” citing especially his “brave attempt at the synthetic work that gets everything in,” 1983′s Sans Soleil. No single medium could contain Marker’s impulse to get everything in, and going into detail about every kind of work it drove him to — from his visual-art installations to his photo book on North Korean women to his CD-ROM Immemory — would take all day. But the ten-minute profile from Short Attention Span Cinema above, featuring interviews with directors Michael Shamberg and Terry Gilliam (whose 12 Monkeys took La jetée as an inspiration), gives you an overview. It even includes a reflection from the man himself: ”The La Jetée bar in Tokyo is one of the things of which I’m proudest. To think that Japanese cinephiles came every night to drink, often more than reason demands, beneath images from this film.”
[I write on Open Culture five days a week, by the way.]