Chantal Akerman was commissioned by Visions to make this short film for £20,000. It was first shown on 21 November 1984, on Channel 4. Akerman herself plays the role of a director visiting Hollywood to find financing from an uncle she hardly knows. Very little goes to plan… Also stars Aurore Clement and Colleen Camp.
Thanks to Large Door
Sharing the ‘documentary masters’ catagory at this year’s États généraux du film documentaire, Lussas, with Marc Karlin, was the experimental filmmaker, Michael Snow. Lussas curator, Federico Rossin, here introduces Snow.
Michael Snow (Toronto, 1929) is a major figure in contemporary art. His production is characterised by the close links binding works created using different types of media (film, photo, installation, painting, sculpture, music, writing). The modernity of Snow’s cinema pertains to his perception of the essential cinematic gesture, the camera movement, and the relations he explores between sound and image. His works have both a psychic and physical impact on the audience; they shake up the visible and plunge us into a profound experience of the perceptible. His films tend to be focussed on a cinematic strategy, on a process of film construction: yet they are never “minimalist”, making always sure that their forms can be apprehended by the spectator. They are rites of passage between pure perception and its representation, conceptual and extatic games playing with time and space, games that sometimes break the rules in order to put them in the spotlight.
Federico Rossin via États généraux du film documentaire – Lussas
For further viewing, here is an interview and profile of Michael Snow from 1983. It includes extracts from his films, ‘Back and Forth’, ‘Wavelength’, ‘La Region Central’, ‘So Is This’ and gallery piece ‘Two Sides To Every Story’.
The film was made for Channel 4 ‘Visions’ and broadcast 19 January 1983.
Interview: Simon Field; Director: Keith Griffiths
Thanks to Large Door.
Promotional Material from Cinema Action’s Rocinante – found in the archive.
Last week in the BFI’s Essential Experiments slot, William Fowler presented the work of the filmmaking collective, Cinema Action. Two films were screen from the collective’s vast filmography – Squatters (1970), an attack on the Greater London Council regarding their lack of investment in housing . The film provided important – if controversial – information about the use of bailiffs in illegal eviction. And So That You Can Live (1981) which is widely recognised as one of Cinema Action’s finest works. The film follows the story of inspiring union convenor Shirley and the impact global economic changes have on her and her family’s life in rural South Wales. The landscape of the area, with all its complex history, is cross-cut with images of London, and original music from Robert Wyatt and Scritti Politti further reinforces the deeply searching, reflective tone. It was also broadcast on Channel 4’s opening night in November 1982.
Here is a history of Cinema Action via the BFI’s Screenonline
Cinema Action was among several left-wing film collectives formed in the late sixties. The group started in 1968 by exhibiting in factories a film about the French student riots of that year. These screenings attracted people interested in making film a part of political activism. With a handful of core members – Ann Guedes, Gustav (Schlacke) Lamche and Eduardo Guedes – the group pursued its collective methods of production and exhibition for nearly twenty-five years.
Cinema Action‘s work stands out from its contemporaries’ in its makers’ desire to co-operate closely with their working-class subjects. The early films campaigned in support of various protests close to Cinema Action‘s London base. Not a Penny on the Rent (1969), attacking proposed council rent increases, is an example of the group’s early style.
By the beginning of the seventies, Cinema Action began to receive grants from trades unions and the British Film Institute. This allowed it to produce, in particular, two longer films analysing key political and union actions of the time. People of Ireland! (1971) portrayed the establishment of Free Derry in Northern Ireland as a step towards a workers’ republic. UCS1 (1971) records the work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyard; it is a unique document, as all other press and television were excluded.
Both these films typify Cinema Action‘s approach of letting those directly involved express themselves without commentary. They were designed to provide an analysis of struggles, which could encourage future action by other unions or political groups.
The establishment of Channel Four provided an important source of funding and a new outlet for Cinema Action. Films such as So That You Can Live (1981) and Rocking the Boat (1983) were consciously made for a wider national audience. In 1986, Cinema Action made its first fiction feature, Rocinante, starring John Hurt.
Marc Karlin joined Cinema Action in 1969. He had just returned to London after being caught up in the events of May ’68 in Paris while filming a US deserter. It was there where Karlin met Chris Marker, who was editing Cine-Tracts (1968) with Jean-Luc Godard at the time. Marker had just formed his film group SLON and had since released Far from Vietnam (1967), a collective cinematic protest with offerings from Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, inspired by the film-making practices of the Soviet film-maker, Alexander Medvedkin. The idea of taking this model of collective filmmaking back to the UK appealed greatly to Karlin, and was shared by many of his contemporaries. He details this enthusiasm in an interview with Sheila Rowbotham from 1998…
…when Marker started SLON, ideas about agitprop films were going around. Cinema Action had already started in England by 1969 when I joined. There was a relationship to the Russians: Vertov, the man with a movie camera, Medvedkin and his Russian agitprop train; the idea of celebrating life and revolution in 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 is what we did…
…when I joined there was no question of making documentaries for television. We showed our films at left meetings, where we would set up a screen, do leaflets and so on. It is often hilarious. I remember showing a film on housing in a big hall in the Bull Ring area of Birmingham. It started with machine gun noises, and Horace Cutler, the hated Tory head of the Greater London Council, being mowed down. The whole place just stopped and looked, but, of course, as soon as you got talking heads, people arguing or living their ordinary lives, doing their washing or whatever, we lost the audience. I learnt something through seeing that.
Evidently, Karlin was frustrated about the political and aesthetic approach of Cinema Action. In fact, salvaged in the archive is two thirds of a letter written by Karlin to Humphry Trevelyan that goes into some detail over the reasons for why Karlin intended to leave Cinema Action. For now, here is Karlin giving a somewhat exaggerated reason for leaving in the interview with Rowbotham…
…Schlacke (Cinema Action co-founder) had a thing about the materialist dialectic of film. Somehow or other – and I can’t tell you how are why – this meant in every eight frames that you had to have a cut. Schlaker justified this was some theoretical construct, but it made his films totally invisible. After a time I just got fed up. James Scott, Humphry Trevelyan and I started The Berwick Street Film Collective and later went on to join Lusia Films.
The Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975)
Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
Nicaragua Part 1: Voyages is available to download and stream.
Broadcast 14 October 1985 Channel 4 (ELEVENTH HOUR) (42 mins)
In 1978–79 American photographer Susan Meiselas documented the two insurrections that led to the overthrow of fifty years of dictatorship by the Somoza family in Nicaragua. Through an epistolary exchange over five unedited tracking shots across Meiselas’ photographs, the film articulates her relationship to the history she witnessed.
Sally Potter writes a beautiful, heartfelt foreword in Marc Karlin – Look Again, describing Marc Karlin as a cinematic pioneer, thinker and activist. She also goes on to recall her first meeting with Karlin, after a screening of Nightcleaners, and how he kindly shared the Berwick Film Street Collective’s facilities while she was making her film, Thriller in 1979.
Here is an interview between Sally Potter and Wendy Toye, broadcast on Channel 4 on 9th May 1984. It was commissioned for the film programme, Visions (1983-1986). John Ellis, who co-produced the programme via his company Large Door, has very recently uploaded a collection of complete episodes from the series. ‘So there is now a Large Door channel for our moribund independent production company, with a selection from the hundred or so programmes we produced’.
Two women directors of different generations – both trained as dancers – meet for the first time. Sally Potter’s first feature ‘Gold Diggers’ had just been released. Wendy Toye’s career began in theatre and she directed her first short ‘The Stranger left No Card’ in 1952. She worked for Korda and Rank, making both comedies and uncanny tales. Directed by Gina Newson for Channel 4’s Visions series, 1984.
Large Door was set up in 1982 to produce Visions, a magazine series for the new Channel 4. Initially there were three producers, Simon Hartog and Keith Griffiths and John Ellis. Visions continued until 1986, producing 36 programmes in a variety of formats. Hartog and Ellis continued producing through the company, broadening out from cinema programmes to cover many aspects of popular culture from food to television.
Visions was a constantly innovative series, and John Ellis’ article in Screen Nov-Dec 1983 about the first series gives a flavour of its range:
Especially during the earlier months of production, we vacillated between two distinct conceptions of the programme: one, the more conventional, to use TV to look at cinema; the other, more avant-gardist, to treat the programmes as the irruption of cinema into TV. […]
We found that virtually all of our programme items could be categorised into four headings:
1) The Report, a journalistic piece reflecting a particular recent event: a film festival like Nantes or Cannes, the trade convention of the Cannon Classics group.
2) The Survey of a particular context of film-making, like the reports from Shanghai and Hong Kong, and the critical profile of Bombay popular cinema.
3) The Auteur Profile, like the interviews with Michael Snow and Paul Schrader, Chris Petit’s hommage to Wim Wenders, or Ian Christie’s interviews with various people about their impressions of Godard’s work.
4) The Review, usually of a single film, sometimes by a literary intellectual, ranging from Farrukh Dhondy on Gandhi to Angela Carter on The Draughtsman’s Contract. About half the reviews were by established film writers, like Colin McArthur on Local Hero or Jane Clarke on A Question of Silence.
The third series of Visions, a monthly magazine from October 1984 added further elements. Clips was a review of the month’s releases made by a filmmaker or journalist (eg. Peter Wollen, Neil Jordan, Sally Potter) consisting entirely of a montage of extracts with voice-over. We introduced the idea of the filmmaker’s essay, borrowed from the French series Cinema, Cinemas, commissioning Chantal Akerman and Marc Karlin to do what they wanted within a limited budget and length. The plan to commission Jean-Luc Godard fell in the face of his insistence on 100% cash in advance with no agreed delivery date. And then there was no further commission.
Further Reading and Viewing
Charlotte Crofts (2003) Anagrams of Desire: Angela Carter’s Writings for Radio, Film and Television(London: Chatto & Windus), pp. 168–193
John Ellis Channel 4: Working Notes, Screen, November-December 1983 pp.37-51
John Ellis Censorship at the Edges of TV – Visions, Screen, March-April 1986 pp.70-74
John Ellis Broadcasting and the State: Britain and the Experience of Channel 4, Screen, May-August 1986 pp.6-23
John Ellis Visions: a Channel 4 Experiment 1982-5 in Experimental British Television, ed Laura Mulvey, Jamie Sexton, University of Manchester Press 2007 pp.136-145
John Ellis What Did Channel 4 Do For Us? Reassessing the Early Years in Screen vol.49 n.3 2008 pp.331-342
In the lead-up to the release of Marc Karlin-Look Again here are a collection of portraits focusing on the people Karlin documented in his films. Up first is Marsha Marshall, secretary of the Women Against Pit Closures (Barnsley Group) during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.
Marsha Marshall circa 1986 ©The Marc Karlin Archive
Marsha Marshall, who died in April 2009, lived with her miner husband, Stuart ‘Spud’ Marshall, in Wombwell, near Barnsley at the time of the 1984/84 Miners Strike. Spud was one of the first to be arrested during the dispute on a picket line in Nottinghamshire. This event politicised Marsha, and soon with others she founded the Women’s Against Pit Closures. Having never been abroad before, her duties as secretary of the WAPC, took her to France, Italy, Bulgaria, and the USSR – and in Rome she spoke at a rally to over 4,000 Italian trade unionists.
Marsha is featured in Michael Kerstgens’ photographic collection, Coal Not Dole, The Miner’s Strike 1984/85 published by Peperoni Books. In 1984, Michael Kerstgens was a young German photography student who decided to travel to Britain and document the dispute. People were wary of him, as an outsider, and so he was limited to photographing events on the periphery.
However, things changed when he met the activist Stuart “Spud” Marshall. Spud trusted him immediately and opened the door for Kerstgens to photograph not only the heat of the action but also more intimate moments beyond the picketing, violent clashes with the police, and public discussions on the political stage. Kerstgens photographed soup kitchens, meetings behind closed doors, and the wives of striking miners, including Marsha.
Marsha Marshall supports picketing miners with a donation of cigarettes. © Michael Kerstgens
Marsha Marshall on the telephone to Vanessa Redgrave, Wombwell, 1985, © Michael Kerstgens
Around 1986, Karlin interviewed Marsha Marshall for his film ‘Utopias’ – a film about socialism in Britain, broadcast on Channel 4 in 1989. Marsha would be one of the socialist voices in his film. Karlin, here, recalls his creative intentions,
I was filming Utopias in 1986, around the time Margaret Thatcher said she aimed to destroy socialism once and for all. I was determined to say otherwise, obviously. I wanted to do portraits of different socialism, take ideas about it and so on, but to put them all on one boat. Utopias was like a banquet table. I liked the idea of having somewhere all these people could be together, where David Widgery, Sheila Rowbotham and Jack Jones, Sivanandan, Bob Rowthorn, and the miner’s wife, Marsha Marshall, were all going to be there. All these visions of socialism were great. I am totally naïve, but I shall remain to the end, so I just wanted them all at the table. Can you imagine? No: But the film did.
Marc Karlin and Marsha Marshall, circa 1986, ©The Marc Karlin Archive
This is an edited extract of Marsha’s chapter from ‘Utopias’. In this section she recalls the miners’ strike and speaks about her fears for the future of her community.
‘Spud’ Marshall at home in Kendray Barnsley, September 2012 © Michael Kerstgens
Further Reading –
Coal Not Dole, The Miners’ Strike 1984/1985, by Michael Kerstgens, is published by Peperoni Books
Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press: 2001)
Marc Karlin Archive with Open City Docs, supported by University College London’s Institute of the Americas, presents:
RETURN TO NICARAGUA
The process of revolution through Marc Karlin’s remarkable documentary series
Free screenings, panels and dialogues
Fri 21 – Sun 23 November 2014
UCL, Darwin Building, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT
Nearest tube: Euston Square/Russell Square
35 years on from the Sandinista revolution, a very rare opportunity to view one of the most committed documentary projects of the late twentieth century in its entirety – Marc Karlin’s Nicaragua series (1985/1991).
International guests, including world-renowned photographer Susan Meiselas, and Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, offer first hand testimony together with Karlin’s film-making team:cinematographer Jonathan Bloom, former Channel 4 Commissioning Editor, Alan Fountain, researcher Hermione Harris and editor Monica
19.00 Welcome – Hermione Harris
Nicaragua Part 1: Voyages (1985)
20.15- 21.00 Q&A with Susan Meiselas
09.30 Tea and Coffee
10.00 Introduction by Andy Robson
10.15 Nicaragua Part 2: The Making of a Nation (1985) (80mins)
11.45 Q&A with Jonathan Bloom.
13.30 Nicaragua Part 3: In Their Time (1985) (70mins)
14.40 Nicaragua Part 4: Changes (1985) (89mins)
17.00-18.30 Platform 1: Revolution and Memory. Chaired by Holly Aylett,
with Jonathan Bloom, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Alan Fountain, Hermione
Harris, Monica Henriquez and Susan Meiselas.
10.00 Scenes For A Revolution (1991) (110mins)
12.00–13.30 Platform 2: Open discussion. Chaired by Holly Aylett
with guest speakers.
Marc Karlin (1943-1999)
On his death in 1999, Marc Karlin was described as Britain’s most significant, unknown film-maker. For three decades, he had been a key figure within Britain’s independent film community; he was a founding member of the influential seventies collective, the Berwick Street Film Collective; a leading player in the Independent Filmmakers Association, which played a critical role in opening up television through Channel 4, and a founding member of the group that published the independent film journal, Vertigo, (1993 – 2010).
Marc Karlin: Look Again, focusing on Karlin’s twelve essay documentaries between 1980 –1999, will be published by Liverpool University Press in Spring 2015. This is one of the outputs of The Marc Karlin Archive, set up by Holly Aylett, fellow documentarist and founder member of Vertigo; anthropologist, Hermione Harris, partner of Marc Karlin, and film archivist, Andy Robson. Since 2011, the Archive has organised and preserved Marc Karlin’s film and paper archive, and introduced new audiences to his work through events and screenings.
Please contact Andy Robson, Film Archivist at the Marc Karlin Archive
for more details.
Utopias’ Treatment ©The Marc Karlin Archive
(Music) Edward Elgar-Cello Concerto in E minor
V/O (Archive) Socialism is a very attractive idea and could remain a very attractive idea so long as there were not many,at best none, socialist governments.
V/O (Archive) If you begin to tamper with economic freedom, you find it doesn’t work very well, therefore you have to go further and impose further controls on the economic activities in order to get the result you want. And in doing that you run up against increasing resistance from ordinary people and in order to beat down that resistance you have to limit their political freedoms too.
V/O (Archive) It is hard to access the damage the welfare state has done in Britain to the spirit of independence and social conventions that impel people to overcome their own poverty.
V/O (Marc Karlin) The one crisis Socialists were not able to predict was their own. Socialism once thought of being inevitable is now replaced as a socialism that is remote, at best half remembered. Unable to state confidently a vision of the future, yet in the name of renewal and adaptation, impatient to shed its past.
V/O (Marc Karlin) Everyone speaks about socialism as if we all know what it is – for it or against it. When people are saying farewell to socialism, this is a film about what it is they are saying farewell to, a series of portraits of individuals and their ideas one might encounter on a journey through the life of socialism in Britain today.
V/O (Marc Karlin) The film is not about definitions it is more an invitation to see whether there is still a place for the word us in the current political vocabulary.
Channel 4 broadcast ‘Utopias’ on Monday 1st May 1989 at 10.45pm.
Voyages (1985), the first part in Marc Karlin’s extraordinary Nicaraguan series, comprises of stills by the American photographer Susan Meiselas. Between 1978 and 1979, Meiselas captured the two revolutionary insurrections which brought the FSLN to power in Nicaragua, overthrowing the fifty year dictatorship of the Somoza family. The film is in the form of a letter, written by Meiselas to Karlin. Through her own words, the film interrogates the responsibility of the war photographer, the line between observer and participant, and the political significance of the photographic image.
The film is composed of five tracking shots, each approximately ten minutes in length. Shot in a studio by Karlin’s cinematographer, Jonathan Bloom, the camera glides slowly over Meiselas’ blown up stills, shifting focus between images in the background and foreground, allowing the editing to be achieved in camera. The mediative camera movement accompanying Meiselas’ words, creates a distance for the audience, reflecting the photographer’s own separation from the events she witnessed. The studio space was a form Karlin used repeatedly, layering his films with structured, contemplative intervals in between segments of exterior, vérité investigation. Inside the ‘dark chamber’ objects, figures and monitors bearing images are caught in a single shot, gradually revealed by the meandering camera movement. The studio acts as a immersive space of thought and pre-empts the installations and large scale multi-screen projections within the gallery space today.
A new cut of Voyages is now being shown at Iniva in a film programme curated by The Otolith Collective. When broadcast by Channel 4 in October 1985, the film drew criticism due to the fact that Meiselas’ words were narrated by a British actress, whose RP delivery lends the film an unwanted class distinction. A letter from the archive explains Karlin’s decision. Originally, Karlin wanted to narrate the film. This was strongly objected to by Alan Fountain, the commissioning editor of Channel 4’s The Eleventh Hour, on the grounds of feminist politics – it was a women’s experience therefore a woman should read it. Karlin disagreed, feeling that after the popular revolution, men and women should be able to work together, and not be seen as appropriating a women’s experience. Already having reservations about the possibility of sustaining a British audience’s attention at 10pm with 45 minutes of stills, Karlin’s own doubt unfortunately kicked in – would his voice bore the audience?
Karlin went back to the drawing board and produced three choices, 1. to get Meiselas to read the letter out herself. 2. To get an American to play Meiselas. 3. To get an English woman to read the letter. Karlin adamantly stated the original intention of the film was that the letter would be read out by the receiver, rather than the writer. If he used Meiselas’ voice, it would be the sender’s voice addressing the images rendering the film one-dimensional. If he used an American voice, the same objections regarding the sender/receiver objections would come into play. So, Karlin opted for a female, English voice; albeit one that connoted privilege, running contrary to progressive politics at the time and the new found pluralism of Channel 4.
Recently in the archive, a recorded voiceover by Marc Karlin was discovered on a umatic, and after a discussion between Susan Meiselas and Hermione Harris, Karlin’s partner, it was decided Karlin’s voice would narrate the film. Voyages is being screened at Iniva until the 18 May.
Just before Marc Karlin’s death, film-maker Isaac Julien remarked, ‘The reason why his (Karlin’s) work is still screened, is because he is seen as like the Chris Marker or Jean Luc Godard of the British independent scene. He was more or less the only person representing that sort of voice, that sort of perspective’.
Indeed Marker’s reflection on images, the media and their relationship with memory and with human subjectivity are themes shared by Karlin. And in terms of form, both film-makers are key to deploy alternating commentaries on history and society, with private musings and recollections. It is a voice that constantly shifts in linguistic registers, adopting poetic and prosaic tones in order to shake an amnesia strikened history.
Marc called Marker ‘The Monk’, on account of his reclusive nature and mythical standing with his contemporaries. Up until his death last month, Marker rarely granted interviews, opting to leave calling cards such as pictures of cats or owls. It is clear that Marker was a key influence on Marc, but what has been forgotten is Marc Karlin and Chris Marker were actually long-standing-collaborators. He met Marker during May ’68 while Marker was working on Cine-Tracts (1968) with Jean-Luc Godard. Marker had just formed his film group SLON and had since released Far from Vietnam (1967),a collective cinematic protest with offerings from Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, inspired by the film-making practices of the Soviet film-maker, Alexander Medvedkin.
Born in 1900, Medvedkin was little known outside of his homeland unlike his contemporaries, Sergei Eisentstein and Dziga Vertov. Marker was drawn to Medvedkin after viewing his film Happiness (1934) in 1961, a satirical fantasy that promoted the benefits of collectivisation. The American writer Jay Leyda, who wrote Kino: A History Of The Russian And Soviet Film, introduced Marker to Medvedkin at the Leizig Film Festival in November 1967. This meeting resulted in Marker’s next film, Le Train en marche (1971) an attempt to explain the myth of Medvedkin’s kino-poezd/cine train, the impact it had on cinema and the practices it could inspire in democratic film-making.
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 political film-making. In London, Karlin and other kindred spirits 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”.
Marc recalls being asked to shoot the English version of Marker’s The Train Rolls On in the mid-1970s. “If Chris asked you to do something you did it: There was no question”. Marker instructed Marc to film at Peugeot car factory, where Marker wanted to make a film on car workers. He couldn’t go in person as he was known to the officials as an agitator. Working under the pretense he was making a film for the Common Market, Peugeot responsed by putting Marc and his crew in a luxury hotel in Paris.
Choosing not to approach filming the monotonous labour of the workers in a Godardian way, Marc found inspiration in how the workers for a few seconds would cease work,
“all they did was boom, boom, boom. Then I noticed that the workers on the assembly line would come up like fish for air. They would not touch, and they would open their mouths. The Peugeot people were so canny, because they would put together a Moroccan, Portuguese, French and an Italian, so no one could actually speak to each other because on one knew each other’s lanuguage. That was why an excessive amount of touching was going on. I said to the cameraman, ‘Look, that’s how we film. We don’t film the work, because we can show that in twenty or thirty seconds. But we can film these people gasping for air. Or touching, whatever’. That is what we filmed. And then the audience had to imagine. What does it take for somebody to come up for air like that? Or touch? Those are the questions; when you talk about images of labour, how do you film labour?”
In the mid 1970s, Marker contacted left-wing filmmakers and groups to send him their offcuts. As Marker was ‘le maitre’, Marc agreed. Here Marc describes Marker’s studio upon a visit, “Chris had a garage, a huge studio with drainpipes all across it. It was vast, and he put these little rolls of films all along the drainpipes, and then divided it onto countries, so you had Columbia, Peru, Cuba, Africa and so on. I entered this garage to find all these films from all these countries: the whole world was there. Right at the end there was Chris Marker on a platform with his editing table, and he looked like God. You had to walk past these films to reach him and sit down”.
The film became Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977). It focused on the doomed optimism of left-wing activism from the second half of the 20th century. The ‘red in the air’ implying the socialist project only existed in the air, communicated only by a dream language. Again, Marc did the English version, A Grin without a Cat (1988) for Channel 4. Running shorter than Marker’s film and adding a new voice cast including Jim Broadbent and Cyril Cusack.
A Grin Without A Cat Channel 4 Contract. © The Marc Karlin Archive
Around this time, Marc, in need of political inspiration, wanted to make a film about Chris Marker that would use Marker’s images, entitled, I Am Writing To You From A Distant Country… In keeping with Marker’s style, it begins with a letter followed by a montage of stills and sequences from Letters From Siberia (1957), Le joli mai (1963), La jetée (1962) and Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) . From the treatment, we see the intention – to locate a time-travelling Marker. Marc asks, who is this letter writer and traveller? How do we recognise him?.. What does he declare at customs? There are no photographs of him, no evidence other than his letters. He is a Martian, an astronaut, an 18th century time-traveller, a descendant of Vikings, a Marxist, a subversive, an old man of letters… There are traces but no apparition, we have the grin but no cat. But we know where he lives: in a house in Neuilly, painted outside with owls whose eyes glint in the dark…
Here is a rather faded, time travelling letter from Marc to the Monk, informing him of the project. It comes at a time where Marc is creatively and politically jaded – in ‘Thatcher’s trough’.
Letter to Chris Marker. © The Marc Karlin Archive
The film never materialised, undoubtedly sucked into a black hole. Undettered, Marc ploughed into his next project, Between Times (1993). Possessing dialectic discsussive voice-overs, Between Times is a clear nod to Marker. The film’s main focus is on the Thurcroft miners failed attempt to buy their colliery from British Coal and the search for fresh alternatives after the devisive general election defeat for the left in 1992. This new perspective draws optimism from the educational ethos at Northern College, a residential college dedicated to the education and training of men and women who are without formal qualifications. The film observes a key moment in the shifting attitudes and aspirations among the working class in Britain at the time and recalls a May ’68 slogan,
le pain pour tous mais aussi / bread for all but
The slogan is actually taken from a strike in March 1967 at the Rhodiaceta textile factory in Bresancon, France. The workers were not merely demanding higher wages but challenging the core oppression within capitalist society; wages yes, but what about education and cultural life? Chris Marker entered the strike on March 8 1967, resulting in the documentary À bientôt, j’espère (1967) (see below, sorry no Eng Subs) filmed by Marker between March 1967 and January 1968 with the Communist filmmaker Mario Marret and the SLON team.
As Trevor Stark points out in his excellent essay, “Cinema in the Hands of the people”; Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant film, the film À bientôt, j’espère emphasises the liberating experience of laying claim to sectors of life inaccessible to the worker: to creativity, to culture, to communication. Forty-two minutes into the documentary we see Pol Cébé, a factory worker from the working class district of Palente-les-Orchamps who had established a cultural programme for the local community and had regenerated the factory’s library with classic Marxist and Communist texts, in close-up state,
For us culture is a struggle, a claim. Just as with the right to have bread and lodgings, we claim the right to culture – it’s the same fight for culture as for union or in the political field.
À bientôt, j’espère is left purposley open-ended with little resolution, marked tellingly by Pol Cébé reciting the documentary’s title À bientôt, j’espère – ‘Hope To See You Soon’. The strike at Rhodiaceta achieved nothing but the broadening of class concsiousness that consequently lit the test paper for the events in Paris the following May. These concerns are resuscitated in Between Times. The miners are halted in their plan to buy their colliery and are pointed to the development of technology for optimism. Sadly, Marc Karlin observes the irony that before, a dream language could still be spoken, now the dreams are possible we no longer know how to speak it. Like À bientôt, j’espère, Between Times ends without a dialectical antithesis, leaving all but tension.
So he decided to keep his voices, make them argue, merge, split again. Be on high and on the ground. Anything to keep that sleepy logic at bay. But then there were those who were doing this all along…
These words are spoken over a slow tracking shot of a wildlife garden revealing in the foreground, a golden egg – Marker’s owl.
Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film, L, Rascaroli, (Columbia University Press:2009)
Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, C, Lupton, (Reaktion Books:2004)
Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, J, Leyda (Princeton University Press:1983)
“Cinema in the Hands of the people”; Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant film, T, Stark, (mitpressjournals:2012)