May 22, 2009
I written several times before about some of the parallels I see between the art of W.G. Sebald and Chris Marker. Recently, Afterall Books began issuing a new series of books (distributed by MIT Press), each of which is based on a single work of art, such as Hanne Darboven’s Cultural History, 1880-1983 (owned by the Dia Foundation) Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind Is a Muscle, and Marker’s La Jetée. Reading Chris Marker: La Jetée byJanet Harbord only convinced me further that their work has much in common.
As Harbord notes, La Jetée “tells the story of a man marked by an image rather than a memory.” This is a pretty good description of Sebald’s enterprise of discovering the history he did not experience through images, object, and walks; and this seems particularly true of Austerlitz, in which Jacques Austerlitz tries to uncover a family history he that had been kept from him most of his life.
The broken statues and half-demolished buildings that populate many of La Jetée‘s images suggest the very incompleteness of both experience and memory. At the same time, this sense of incompleteness “allows our own supplementation, our own interpretive creations, to take root.” Sebald, whose real topic can be said to be history, turned to narrative fiction precisely because he felt that only an act of the imagination could bring us closer to experiencing other times and other people’s lives. Not surprisingly, the characters in Marker’s film and Sebald’s books frequent museums. The museum provides each artist with a complex commentary on the tangled relationship between history and the artifice that is memory. It serves as both a starting point in one’s exploration of the past, as well as a dead end.
When Harbord writes of Marker’s work on Alain Resnais’ 1955 Holocaust film Night and Fog, she notes that “the [film's] narration articulates questions of memory as place…Place is the retainer of traumatic memory if we know how to look.”
In one of the final images of the film the camera moves across the surface of a ceiling in a chamber. The narrator says this: ‘The only sign – but you have to know – is this ceiling, dug into by fingernails.’ The sentence hangs in the air in its ambiguity, or its fullness of meaning – ‘you have to know’ inferring that you need to be told for the nail marks to become legible….you need to bear this knowledge from the past. The question of what we can bear to know of the past, and of what this means for the future, is laid before us in this moment. At the centre of this circle of questions is the place of images, their ability, or not, to retain and pass on ‘facts’, trauma and meaning – in short, to deal with the ineffable.
This, of course, was the challenge for Sebald and it remains the challenge for us who try to come to grips with the success or failure of this aspect of his work. Can evidence ever become experience? The quote from Harbord immediately above reminded me of the ending of Austerlitz, where Sebald refers to another book – Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom. Here’s what I wrote previously:
Toward the end of Heshel’s Kingdom, Jacobson comes across evidence of a totally different kind. This is evidence left by Jewish prisoners being held in the infamous Fort IX in Kaunas, originally designed to protect the country from invaders, but used by the Nazis to terrorize and eliminate Lithuanian and European Jews. It is with this event that Sebald ends his book Austerlitz. In the bowels of the fort, where many thousands of Jews from all over Europe were held, tortured, and slaughtered, Jacobson comes across names and dates scratched into the walls between 1941 and 1944. “Max Stern, Paris, 18.5.44″, one says. Another reads “Nous sommes neuf cents Francais.” We are nine hundred Frenchmen. As evidence, these stark scratchings seem minor in comparison to the visible horror of the photographs Jacobson has seen, but he suggests that these simple attempts to be remembered, to be human, have a chilling veracity and authenticity far more powerful than documents made by the killers of these same people.
February 29, 2008
Chris Marker’s 1982 Sans Soleil is a deliberately elusive film that masquerades as a documentary, much as W.G. Sebald’s digressive tales pretend to be non-fiction. Without even attempting to summarize this decidedly non-linear film, suffice it to say that it consists of a woman’s voice “reading” letters that have been sent to her by a cameraman or filmmaker (Marker’s alter-ego) who travels to Iceland, Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Okinawa, and San Francisco. But the real map of San Soleil‘s territory covers history, memory, anthropology, folklore, time… all topics that are common to Sebald’s books as well. (At markertext you can find a transcription of the full narration of Sans Soleil.)
Marker and Sebald are both pessimistic about the trajectory of civilization and the seeming inability of human nature to overcome its own destructive nature, yet neither manages to be nihilistic. What interests me is that they both gnaw away at the prospect of some kind of redemption, even if it’s against their better judgment. Sans Soleil begins somewhat optimistically with the narrator saying “The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness.” However, at the end of the film we learn that the village in the background of this photograph (on the Icelandic island of Heimaey) was buried by a volcanic eruption. Nature condemns optimism, it seems.
“How far is it from the point where we find ourselves today back to the late eighteenth century, when the hope that mankind could improve and learn was inscribed in handsomely formed letters in our philosophical firmament?” Sebald asks in his essay An Attempt at Restitution. As we know, Sebald despaired constantly only to have some chance meeting or coincidence give him a restorative burst of energy and renew his boundless sense of curiosity. When he posed the question “So what is literature good for?” he made his now often-quoted statement that “only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” I’m inclined to think there is an emphasis on the verb attempt.
Marker despairs, too. “We do not remember. We re-write memory much as history is written.” Faced with “the amnesia of the future that history distributes through mercy or calculation to those it recruits,” the in Sans Soleil is a Diogenes searching for something authentic. Marker returns several times to a film clip of a woman in Guinea-Bissau. The narrator recites “I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.” The real glance. Straightforward. This fragile one-twenty fourth of a second momentarily undermines the cynicism that otherwise permeates the film. This human connection may not be enough to save the world from destruction, it may not even offer hope, but, if nothing else, it seems to be a reason to continue.
So even as Marker and Sebald catalog the ways in which history and nature defeat every attempt to be hopeful, both cling to an ethical practice in their art as a path toward a personal act restitution. Is this just a quixotic attempt to resist the inevitable? It’s hard not to think of the final pages of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable and its unnerving ending:
I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you never know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
February 24, 2008
I was mesmerized watching Chris Marker’s two films La Jetée and Sans Soleil on DVD last night. It wasn’t long before I realized there are fascinating connections between Marker’s films and W.G. Sebald’s books. La Jetée (1962) is a photo-roman, the cinematic version of a photo-novel, constructed entirely of haunting still photographs and a single voice-over which relates the story. The circular narrative involves a young boy who, upon visiting Orly airport to see the planes with his parents, witnesses a death and becomes fixated on his memory of the event. Years later when Paris and presumably much of the world is annihilated by atomic warfare, the man’s obsessive memory link to this pre-apocalypse event makes him an ideal candidate for involuntary time travel experiments, conducted by his captors, who hope to discover a way to acquire medicines and supplies from the past or the future. (The conquerors speak in untranslated German, and its hard not to compare their pseudo-medical experiments with those conducted by the Nazis.) Over the course of repeated trips to pre-apocalypse Paris, the man ultimately discovers that it is he, the time-traveler, who is killed on the jetée of Orly airport to the everlasting horror of himself as a child.
Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.
Even though La Jetée is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film (and the basis for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys), it is, like the work of Sebald, deliberately antiquarian. The film seems longer than its brief 19 minutes length. Marker’s use of still images gives it the rhythm of a slide show (while reminding us of the early films of the Lumière brothers), but the pace also results from the fact that the film is visually rich and densely allusive. There’s just a lot to look at and multiple directions to explore before the next image appears. Although I didn’t catch this the first time through, La Jetée is an homage to Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. And this, to my mind, brings things full circle back to Sebald. Marker and Sebald are both artists whose works are structured around the ideas of history, memory, nature, ritual, apocalypse. For me, some of the most evocative scenes in La Jetée occur in a natural history museum, redolent of the narrators in Sebald’s books who wander through museums and zoos. The man (and the woman he falls in love with during his time-travels to pre-apocalypse Paris) views the melancholy beauty of the twice-dead bestiary, for he alone bears the knowledge that these dead and stuffed animals are soon to become extinct as species.
La Jetée and Sans Soleil were re-released not long ago by Criterion and are available via Netflix. At Markertext, the English-language scripts for several of Marker’s films can be found, although the translation for La Jetée found there differs somewhat from the narrative on the new Criterion DVD.
Next post: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.