Marker Studio Front Door, 2008 © Adam Bartos
It was early 2002 and people still used answering machines rather than mobile phones. The recording clicked in and an extraordinary voice that sounded as if it had been mechanically produced asked the caller to leave a message “if you have something interesting or amusing to say”. I was already nervous that I was cold calling Chris Marker, legendary recluse and indeed general artistic legend. My anxiety intensified and I started to stutter out my message. “I am in Paris and I have a VHS copy of a film called The Magic Face and…” The receiver was picked up (I learned later that Chris screened all his calls) and a very human voice said, “You are the Messiah”. I have never been more startled by any single sentence addressed to me.
If I was the Messiah then John the Baptist was Tom Luddy. It was a few days earlier that I had seen Tom in Berkeley and asked him if he could get me an introduction to Marker. “I have the perfect calling card”, he said. “Chris has been looking for a copy of a film called The Magic Face for 50 years and I have just found a poor VHS copy. Here – deliver it.” And deliver it I now did. Marker said that he would be in the Latin Quarter, where I was living, the next Tuesday but his enthusiasm for the film was so overpowering that I insisted that I would bring it immediately to him. His instructions were both precise and disorienting. I had to go to a Metro station I had never heard of, cross under a disused railway I had never seen, walk down a narrow street, the rue Courat, find a huge house with an array of bells and names. Then I was to choose the bell without any name and ring three times.
The Metro was Maraichers and over the next decade I was to come to know it and that part of the 20th arrondissement well. No tourist has ever set foot there and it corresponds to none of the conventional pictures of Paris but with its completely mixed and relatively poor population it is as good an image of contemporary France profonde as you can find. But that first day it was terra incognita. As I stood at the door of the house I wondered if I had wandered into a parallel universe.
Of course I had and in time I would feel at home there. But, for now, I felt extremely uncomfortable and slightly terrified as I waited for the door to open. Everybody knew Marker’s name (although Marker wasn’t his real name) but unlike almost any other twentieth century name there was no accompanying image. I had no idea what to expect. Suddenly, bounding down the steps came what at very first impression was a huge and agile monkey. Indeed I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been a long and bushy tail to go with the completely bald head. Certainly he bounded back up the stairs with long agile leaps leaving me, thirty years his junior, toiling in his wake.
And then we were in his studio …
Colin MacCabe, http://www.orbooks.com
While the video essay form, in regards to its practice of exploring the visual themes in cinematic discourse, has seen a recent surge in popularity with viewers (thanks to invaluable online resources like indieWIRE’s Press Play, Fandor’s Keyframe and the academic peer-reviewed journal [in]Transition), its historical role as a significant filmmaking genre has long been prominent among film scholars and cinephiles.
From the start, the essay film—more affectionately referred to as the “cine-essay”—was a fusion of documentary filmmaking and avant-garde filmmaking by way of appropriation art; it also tended to employ fluid, experimental editing schemes. The first cine-essays were shot and edited on physical film. Significant works like Agnès Varda’s “Salut les Cubains” (1963) and Marc Karlin’s “The Nightcleaners” (1975), which he made in collaboration with the Berwick Street Film Collective, function like normal documentaries: original footage coupled with a voiceover of the filmmaker and an agenda at hand. But if you look closer and begin to study the aesthetics of the work (e.g. the prolific use of still photos in “Cubains,” the transparency of the “filmmaking” at hand in “Nightcleaners”), these films transcend the singular genre that is the documentary form; they became about the process of filmmaking and they aspired to speak to both a past and future state of mind. What the cine-essay began to stand for was our understanding of memory and how we process the images we see everyday. And in a modern technological age of over-content-creation, by way of democratized filmmaking tools (i.e. the video you take on your cell phone), the revitalization of the cine-essayists is ever so crucial and instrumental to the continued curation of the moving images that we manifest.
The leading figure of the cine-essay form, the iconic Chris Marker, really put the politico-stamp of vitality into the cine-essay film with his magnum-opus “Grin Without A Cat” (1977). Running at three hours in length, Marker’s “Grin” took the appropriation art form to the next level, culling countless hours of newsreel and documentary footage that he himself did not shoot, into a seamless, haunting global cross-section of war, social upheaval and political revolution. Yet, what’s miraculous about Marker’s work is that his cine-essays never fell victim to a dependency on the persuasive argument—that was something traditional documentaries hung their hats on. Instead, Marker was much more interested in the reflexive nature of the moving image. If we see newsreel footage of a street riot spliced together with footage from a fictional war film, does that lessen our reaction to the horrific reality of the riot? How do we associate the moving image once it is juxtaposed against something that we once thought to be safe or familiar? At the start of Marker’s “Sans Soleil” (1983), the narrator says, “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 and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” It’s essentially the perfect script for deciphering the cine-essay form in general. It demands that we search and create our own new realities, even if we’re forced to stare at a black screen to conjure up a feeling or memory.
Flash forward to 1995: Harun Farocki creates “Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik,” a video essay that foils the Lumière brothers’ “Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory” (1895) with countless other film clips of workers in the workplace throughout the century. It’s a significant work: exactly 100 years later, a cine-essayist is speaking to the ideas of filmmakers from 1895 and then those ideas are repurposed to show a historical evolution of employer-employee relations throughout time. What’s also significant about Farocki’s film is the technological aspect. Note how his title at this point in time is a “video essayist.” The advent of video, along with the streamlined workflow to acquiring digital assets of moving images, gave essayist filmmakers like Farocki the opportunity for creating innovative works with faster turnaround times. Not only was it less cumbersome to edit footage digitally, the ways for the works to be presented were altered; Farocki would later repurpose his own video essay into a 12-monitor video installation for exhibition.
Consider Thom Andersen’s epic 2003 video essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” In it, Andersen appropriates clips from films set in Los Angeles from over the decades and then criticizes the cinema’s depiction of his beloved city. It’s the most meta of essay films because by the end, Andersen himself has constructed the latest Los Angeles-based film. And although Andersen has more of an obvious thesis at hand than, say something as equally lyrical and dense as Marker’s “Sans Soleil,” both films exist in the same train of thought: the exploration of the way we as viewers embrace the moving image and then how we communicate that feeling to each other. Andersen may be frustrated with the way Hollywood conveys his city but he even he has moments of inspired introspection towards those films. The same could be said of Marker’s work; just as Marker can remain a perplexed and often inquisitive spectator of the moving images of poverty and genocide that surround him, he functions as a gracious, patient guide for the viewer, since it is his essay text that the narrator reads from.
Watching an essay film requires you to fire on all cylinders, even if you watch one with an audience. It’s a different kind of collective viewing because the images and ideas spring from an artifact that is real; that artifact can be newsreel footage or a completed, a released motion picture that is up for deeper examination or anything else that exists as a completed work. In that sense, the cine-essay (or video essay), remains the most potent form of cinematic storytelling because it invites you to challenge its ideas and images and then in turn, it challenges your own ideas by daring you to reevaluate your own memory of those same moving images. It aims for a deeper truth and it dares to repurpose the cinema less as escapist entertainment and more as an instrument to confront our own truths and how we create them.
via Balder & Dash
“The Dockworker’s Dream” a film by Bill Morrison featuring “The Hustle” music by Lambchop co-written by Ryan Norris and Kurt Wagner.
“The Dockworker’s Dream developed from the idea that the archive is a port of call, a place where goods are loaded and unloaded and held until a dockworker carries them off. In some ways, the imagery is a metaphor for our process. As a film researcher and editor, I find myself seeking out hidden or elusive film material. In the film, there is the voyage, the expedition—and the hunt: we hunt these rare films in order to bring them back alive so that they can live, for awhile longer, on the screen.” – Bill Morrison.
History of filmmaking in China from its beginnings in the 1920s to 1982, featuring Shanghai cinema of 1930s; the progressive filmmakers; the organisation of filmmaking under the post-war communist government; the impact of the Cultural Revolution; the work of Xie Jin. Presenter: Tony Rayns. Director: Ron Orders. Producers: John Ellis Simon Hartog, Keith Griffiths. Channel 4 Visions series. Total length 57 mins
Largely relegated to broadcast television, the British filmmaker’s highly visual work explored memory and social history, and pushed for stylistic innovations.
Read Wanda Bershen’s full article at The Independent.
First the eye, then the cinema, which prints the look….
“If Chris asked you to do something you did it: There was no question”, recalls Marc Karlin in one of his last interviews before his death in 1999. ‘Chris’, needless to say, was Chris Marker, Karlin’s friend who he called ‘le maitre’. The task was to provide an English version of Marker’s recent film Le train en marche (1971) – a celebration of the Soviet era filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin and his mythical ‘kino-poezd’ – a ‘cine train’ re-fitted with cameras, editing tables and processing labs, that travelled the breadth of Russia to make films for and with the workers. Films made on the spot, in collaboration with the local people, (workers in factories, peasants in kolhozs), shot in one, day, processed during the night, edited the following day and screened in front of the very people who had participated to its making… Contrarily to the agit-prop trains which carried official propaganda from the studios to the people, here the people was his own studio. And at the very moment bureaucracy was spreading all over, a film unit could go and produce uncensored material around the country. And it lasted one year (1932)!
This train that pulled out of Moscow January 25th 1932…
Medvedkin saw his kino-poezd (294 days on the rails, 24,565m of film projected, 1000km covered) as a means of revolutionising the consciousness of the Soviet Union’s rural dwellers. Marker hoped his recent unearthing would incite similar democratic film-making. In tribute, Karlin and other kindred spirits in London joined Cinema Action.” There was a relationship to the Russians. Vertoz, the man and the movie camera, Medvedkin, and his agitprop Russian train; the idea of celebrating life and revolution on film, and communicating that. Medvedkin had done that by train. SLON and Cinema Action both did it by car. Getting a projector, putting films in the boot, and off you went and showed films – which we did”.
The people were brought the filmmaker’s cinema, in the same way they were brought the artist’s art and the expert’s science. But in the case of this train the cinema was to become something created with contact through the people and was to stimulate them to make their own intervention.
…the train of revolution, the train of history has not lacked reverse signals and switched points but the biggest mistake one could make was to believe that it had come to a halt.
A big thanks you to Espaço Sétima Arte for posting this great find.