Friday, March 28, 2014

San Soleil (1983) - a belated tribute to Chris Marker (1921 - 2012)

A list of things that quicken our heart

A belated tribute to Chris Marker (1921 - 2012)

Watching Chris Marker's San Soleil leap from place to place, subject to subject, time to time, one can't help but think this is a familiar experience; and then one realizes what experience that might be--the film is very much like a streaming multiscreen webpage, with the cursor clicking on one hyperlink after another to dive deeper and deeper into the page, past text and images and video clips, in an endless discursive spiral. 

The film may be thirty years old and counting, its references outdated (the prominently mentioned House of Hidden Treasures in Hokkaido--a once popular sex museum--has since closed, alas), but its form and feel and look are very much up-to-the-minute--will, I suspect, feel very much up-to-the minute for years to come.

One takes away several things from the film: first, that there is more here than meets the eye; second that there's less here than is meant to intimidate--this is a playful work, not without its moments of sadness or substance or horror, but is essentially Marker juggling  several diverse elements, and having not a little fun with them. It's not a final exam on nuclear physics, folks--Nathan Lee of the Village Voice approves of watching it on DVD, complete with pause and rewind button; Marker himself is said to recommend that you see it in whatever language you're most comfortable listening; and--if you feel in danger of misunderstanding or missing out on the narrative commentary that runs throughout the film--a web page provides an excellent copy of the English translation

There's little else to the site, save English texts to his other films and links to other sites; that, and an invitation to comment or contribute directed to an email address: sandor (at) Very mysterious (Why use the term '(at)'? And why not an actual hyperlink?)--not to mention 'sandor' happens to be the first name of the man who sends letters to the unnamed woman narrating San Soleil, and is widely presumed to be Marker's pseudonym, alias, nome-de-plume, whatever.

I figure any number of articles have discussed the film, regarded by Jonathan Rosenbaum among other authorities as his masterpiece. Not sure if any of them have adequately conveyed just how actually enjoyable the film is, or is meant to be (Can you imagine audiences in festival screenings watching this with complete and utter solemnity--taking down notes, even? I imagine Marker calling out: "Relax! There's a DVD, and a website for the text!").

I mean--a movie full of cat statues and stuffed animals fucking can't be all that stuffy, can it? 

Key to the film (well, one key anyway) is one Sei Shonagon, writer of The Pillow Book, a compulsive listmaker who drew up (among many) a list of things 'that quicken the heart.' Her delight in the minutiae of life (Okashi in Japanese culture) instead of the big issues helped shaped Japanese culture; Marker's focus on ostensibly little matters is shaped by the same philosophy.

Some people like to ask: "what's it about?" Difficult question to ask of a film about a lot of things. It's about three children in Iceland, a picture of perfect happiness, and Marker's inability to insert the image anywhere save the film's beginning. It's about travel between 'two extreme poles of survival'--the arid Sahel region in Africa and overcrowded Tokyo--and all the locations in between (among others: Fogo in Cape Verde; Bijago in Guinea-Bissau; Heimay in Iceland; San Francisco). It's about tiny eccentricities like the takenoko (girl dance groups) captured in a brief sketch, and broad urban movements breathtakingly observed ("At nightfall the megalopolis breaks down into villages...(e)ach district of Tokyo once again becomes a tidy ingenuous little town, nestling amongst the skyscrapers").

It's about forgetting and loss (Heimay undergoes an eruption) and remembering (which as Marker puts it is "not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining"). It's about imagination as a way of transcending time, and video games as a "first stage in a plan for machines to help the human race." It's about Rosseau's delight (again that word!) in nature, which was both intimate (him and nature and no one else) and Romantic (intensely felt him and nature) and about side pockets of international history (Amilcar Cabral, who tried to liberate Guinea-Bisseau and Cape Verde; Miguel Torga, who struggled against the Portugese dictatorship). It's about goofy humor (the takenokos' alien choreography) and all-out horror (mutilated limbs and corpses while we hear quotes from Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz ("You must make a friend of horror...").

It's about touching on all these topics lightly but not superficially, turning each over and over with that close-knit okashi sort of regard (Marker notes the suggestion of melancholy in that regard). 
It is of course about Hitchcock's Vertigo, a film Marker has referenced before in La Jetee, which more than any other film is described by the spiral, which in turn describes the irreversible, entropic course of time, both circular and descending--a doomed yet unending shape the course of this film also follows.

Marker posits ways out of that spiral--the aforementioned videogames; a sympathetic man from the year 4001 who has perfect recall (who, in effect, has forgotten how to forget); a friend's 'synthesizer' that electronically distorts images. "Pins them down," Marker tells us, like insects that his friend could "contemplate from a point outside of time"--a kind of everlasting vantage.

And like his friend's synthesizer Marker towards film's end strips away boundaries and categories, demonstrates with breathtaking ease how all the disparate elements--the three children that began the film, for example--come together and connect in a grand collage, in a vision that suggests how we might best view and deal with our steadily accelerating multimedia future. Suddenly the value of okashi seems less like a determined effort to focus on the trivial and more a determined effort to apprehend any and all things from an indirect angle; from the corner of one's eye or from some achronic vantage; to approach perhaps not in a spiral but from some radically new, hopefully productive trajectory.

Not 'great' as in large-scale but an intricate film, an exhilarating film, full of ideas of surprising beauty; an indispensable film for the twentieth and all succeeding centuries. 

First published in Businessworld, 3.13.14

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