Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Marker’s IMMEMORY….

Chris Marker, the elusive Cheshire Cat of French cinema, exclaims in his seminal film Sans soleil that “electronic texture is the only one that can deal with sentiment, memory, and imagination.” He asks, “I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember?” Marker’s long standing intrigue with the evolution of image based media is fueled by the desire to archive – to collect, preserve, retrieve and question the relationship between language and image, history and memory. A writer and a poet at heart, Marker is wholly aware of the construction of recollection, and his experiments with various forms of media have been in search of one that can ultimately mimic the human experience of memory. To explore the varying mnemonic architectures of Marker’s work I will be examining his film Sans soleil (1983), and the CD-ROM Immemory (1997). I will discuss the structure of Marker’s techniques, and demonstrate how the evolution of his process can be mapped through these works. And how we can consider Marker’s work to be archival in comparison to Manovich’s Soft Cinema – while both have an interest in the ability for new media to render the mind and its capacities in objective ways, their paths are quite different. In the digital world, what is the difference between an archive and a database?
Sans soleil, explores the travels of the fictional filmmaker Sandor Krasna as he moves throughout the world in search of everyday images that “quicken the heart.” An omniscient woman interprets history, memory, and the relationship between the word and the moving image through post cards and images he sends home. What Marker creates through this essay film is an archive of images and poetic contemplations on the nature of these topics in an age of rapid technological advancement. There are multiple layers in the architecture of the film to explore – the first being the overarching structure of the musical fugue by Mussorgsky entitled Sunless (Alter, 103). The fluid shifts between subjects and themes in the film mimics the subtlety of musical movements, often revisiting several thematic images in different variations. Digressing back to particular images in various geographic locations also points to the filmic language of editing – a language of economy and temporal dualities. Cinema’s technological architecture inspired Marker to utilize it to mimic the memory for Sandor Krasna, and the omniscient woman, which in turn asks the audience to engage in forms of recollection and wandering. Chris Darke writes “with a speedy cut, and the click of a shutter, [Marker] has removed himself into another dimension, leaving the rest of us to make our own journeys, not so much following in his footsteps as traveling in a time machine of his design” (50). Images that reoccur, such as the emus of the Isles de France, or the look of the woman in the marketplace lasting only a 24th of a second (the length of a film frame), demonstrate that like the archive, associations are often tangential and fleeting – forcing an archivist to make note, reproduce, and outline where else a document may exist. The archive must digress, and rejoin sometimes oddly, sometimes with gaps, like Marker’s image-memory.
Yet, once in Marker’s archive the images are transformed again and synthesized in the computer of Hayao Yamaneko. They enter what he calls, the Zone, which is represented by computer generated synthesized images, like the videogame, but also through a large electronic board with a myriad of pegs and switches. The Zone is a technoscape or mediascape through which Krasna may step outside of time, and into a Tarkovsky-like zone which separates time from space. In the Zone, images are transformed, manipulated and become merely images, detached from meaning and history – signifiers without a signified. It is an endless digital space with the ability to archive endlessly without limits. Krasna is intrigued by Hayao’s machine, and marvels at the creations composed within it precisely for their freedom from other images. Here Marker and Yamaneko de-romanticize images of the past, highlighting the manipulation of technology. Marker severs his image of happiness once more, complicating the idea and noting the problem between “human emotions, remembering, and creative thought as they are expressed through mediating apparatuses” (107). The difficulty of translation is continuously brought up in Sans soleil, cautioning the viewer to question what they see. Olaf Möller notes that, “Krasna’s words and ideas are never totally trusted or believed: they’re constantly tempered or scrutinized by the film’s images – which again, can only be trusted for what they are, not what they seem to represent” (37). Coming back to Derrida and his ruminations on the nature of the archive, he states that the trouble of the archive always comes with translation (90). The paradox being that “the irreplaceable singularity of a document to interpret, to repeat, to reproduce, but each time in its original uniqueness, an archive ought to be idiomatic, and thus at once offered and unavailable for translation, open to and shielded from technical iteration and reproduction” (90). Sans soleil experiments with this notion of memory being technologically rendered to be recalled and problematizes this by continuously recontextualizing the images through different associative pathways.
Marker takes mapping the associative nature of memory further in his 1997 CD-ROM Immemory, taken from the word immemorial defined as “reaching beyond the limits of memory, tradition, or recorded history.” In calling the work Immemory Marker is stating that we have entered the Zone, where temporality is exchanged for the freedom to roam and wander through virtual space. The design of the project allows the user to explore diverging paths without sequential logic (121). While the language of film allowed Marker to play with temporality, it was still at the mercy of the technology’s linear running time. With Immemory, Marker allows the user to roam through simultaneous historical, (now a-historical) pathways in his personal archive (121). The main menu gives the user eight possibilities to choose from: Museums, Photography, Poésie, Voyages, Film, Memory, War, and Extras, which are a series of collages. Under the heading entitled “Memory” we are asked, “What is a Madeline?” which circles back to Sans soleil and his exploration of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. His example of the spiral of time, of “impossible memory” in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, meets Proust’s notion of the Madeline. The moving image transports us to the past through recollection- through artifice. As Mark Fisher states, “A Madeleine, as Proust discovered when he dipped his cake into his tea and found himself swept back in time, is a machine for returning us to the past — or for returning the past to us…conjoining the moment for which Proust is most remembered with the false-memory heroine of Hitchcock’s time-vortex.” Krasna in Sans soleil retraces the steps of Scottie, visiting the actual places in San Francisco as though in returning to these spaces would evoke Madeline’s aura once more, retracing her history, which steps beyond time. In contrast, while Immemory takes you back in time, the user is not asked to retrace Marker’s steps through his memory, but rather roam freely through his thoughts on memory and history, space and time. The work challenges the user to ask themselves, “Have I seen this image before? What was this connected to earlier?” The user may navigate themselves left, right, up or down from page to page (similar to those who might remember Apple’s HyperCard stacks)- and eventually get lost in a labyrinth of their own creation. Each image, or page of writing is not always forthcoming with its meaning – sometimes the user must search the landscape, brushing their mouse over and over again to unlock it– then suddenly movement, text, or images appear, and overlap in layers that shift the context again. Similarly, those who have entered an archive know that ones research intentions can get easily sidetracked as folder upon folder, box after box, tape after tape reveals other stories to follow – and suddenly you are pulled in varying directions. In Immemory, the character who beckons the user away from their path is a cat Guillame en Egypte – Marker’s most beloved animal – and he asks you, quite comically, to follow him to something more interesting. Like Alice chasing the rabbit down the hole, the cat can make you forget how to get home or where you have just come from.
Nevertheless, while Immemory does allow the user to explore Marker’s archive of memory as an artistic practice rather than the traditional unmediated archive, there is an overarching structure and classification in place through his various categories, but also in the database or glossary he provides in an additional screen. Marker admits that what he enjoys about the architecture of the CD-ROM is its ability to add structure to the happy accidents of memory – allowing the ephemera of chance he collects – postcards, posters, photographs, scribbles, to be connected to a greater whole. On the one hand Marker frames his archive to be a creative and associative act of wandering, while on the other praises its ability to store and easily retrieve. Here too history is contested and layered in playful and grim digital post-modern modes. Similar to Sans soleil, Marker is crisscrossing global socio-historical contexts in his attempt to follow in the footsteps of the eccentric philosopher Robert Hooke in representing what Catherine Lupton has called “the seat of memory” where all sense impressions of human experience gather for reflection (210). Is this seat of memory an archive or a database — or both or something more?
Marker’s attraction to digital media comes with the acceptance of film’s death – that film will not have a second century (Lupton, 178). It has been a stepping stone to other technologies in an age where the notion of the obsolete is common place. Even in running Marker’s Immemory, it lags in the movement from screen to screen, using archaic versions of Quick Time, and only able to run on certain operating systems. While things become more rapidly outdate, the ability to work more independently with the technology of AVID editing and Java Script programs on a personal home computer thrills Marker. Like his Pentax still camera and an Arriflex 35mm borrowed for one hour to make La Jetée, or the 16mm Beaulieu silent film camera used in Sans soleil, basic tools have their advantages. Marker states, “This is to say that the basic tools for these two films were literally available to anyone. No silly boasting here, just the conviction (unintentional homage to Dziga Vertov), would-be directors need no longer submit their fate to the unpredictability of producers or the arthritis of televisions, and that by following their whims or passions, they will perhaps see one day their tinkering elevated to a DVD status by honorable men. I write this in October 2002, as a new wave is rising, of which my young comrades of Kourtrajmé are a heartwarming example, and which perhaps has already found its Breathless in Isild Le Besco’s Demi-tarif” (41). Kourtrajmé is a collective of young directors, actors, musicians, dancers, graffers imposing their mark all over Paris via CDs, DVDs, and online streaming. Le Besco’s film is shot entirely in digital video, with ample use of the zoom lens and handheld camera, with strong French New Wave and cinema verité influences, while the story of three children neglected by their mother is reminiscent of Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1960). Moreover, Marker uses the tools available, and more often than not, he chooses the medium which will allow him to submerge himself personally in the process.
The few who have stepped into Marker’s home in Paris have reported back that it is an arkheion of gadgets – televisions and VCRs relentlessly taping footage off of local stations, an editing suite, books, papers, photographs; he is at home with his technology, within his ever-growing archive. Yet while the technology currently allows Marker to collect, and preserve, he is aware of its imminent decay – that it will need to be transferred from medium to medium, like a new form of oral history – a history at the mercy of the database, digitized and categorized in a linear rather than mnemonic way. Arkheion as described by Derrida is: “initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded” (Derrida, 2). As archon Marker preserves and dutifully adds to his collection – he muses in Sans soleil, that digital technology is merely an agent to use until the day when total recall arrives. He writes, “He hasn’t come from another planet, he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized.”
Here, Marker highlights the consequences of embodying the database, and as noted by Derrida, change the mode of archiving (or ways of remembering), and change the way it is lived, or experienced. Therefore, although he desires this total recall in order to have total control over memory, he would rather opt for the Zone. In the Zone, images are merely images – loose from meaning, but it is a place to get lost in, to wander – it is a place of process. The Zone encourages interaction with its user – it begs the user to find or create meaning, much like the archive does to its archivist and researcher. The database, while it leads you easily to what you are seeking, there is less of a rush or connection in the find. Someone has already been before you – it robs one of the moment of discovery and of storytelling. In closing, Marker preserves the journey – he allows the gaps to beckon you into the works and invites your own memory to play with his.

Tue, February 19 2008 » Derrida, Future Cinema 2, Manovich, database, digital cinema, digital storytelling, documentary, globalization, history, narrative