Chris Marker’s Retro-Future Worlds

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Memories of the Future – Origins #MotF

The philosophy of computer game graphics is not something often explored by arty French filmmakers. But closer examination of Chris Marker’s brief masterpiece Sans Soleil (100 mins approx) shows how the theme ties the multi-stranded narrative together.

The film is an addictively quotable, as may be noticed here by anyone with eyes. It’s almost documentary, but a fictional element draws us through this beautiful oddity. We experience it as letters written by a fictional cameraman consumed with wanderlust. These are read aloud by the woman receiving them. This forms a neat vehicle for Marker to draw his own philosophies into an ever-changing landscape, both in time & place. Filmed mostly in the seventies & released in ’83, it is both dated & futuristic. A wormhole with a worm chasing its own tail.

I’m propping Sans Soleil (Sunless) on a pedestal here because it was heavy inspiration for the title of the big collaborative project Memories of the Future, which I’m currently plugging like there’s no tomorrow. Also, I think it’s one of the greatest films ever made. A journey through histories, times & cultures.

Filmed images, archive footage & analogue computer graphics are all spliced together in this semi-fictionalised story of memory & time. At times it even uses movie footage filmed as it shows on old TV sets. It is somehow a work of science fiction, historical documentary & cultural exploration all at once. These sort of over-ambitious things are often flawed genius, but this to me is pretty damn perfect.

The planet is travelled, from Paris to San Francisco, but time & again the fictional protagonist returns to his favourite places, Japan (mainly Tokyo) & Guinea Bissau in West Africa. A constant juxtaposition happens between the two extremes, one society ultra-modern the other a seeming hand-to-mouth existence. He examines their cultural histories without pretense.

And within this travelogue which asks potent questions about our preconceptions & prescribed story of other cultures, Marker returns repeatedly to computer graphics. Both the type existing in the arcades of seventies’ Japan & those made for him by Hayao Yamaneko, in a creation they call ‘The Zone’ (in reference to Tarkovsky). These feature footage colourised by a Spectron video synthesiser (if Wikipedia can be trusted). His idea is that the graphics render brutal realities into harmless fictions. They distance us & stop pretending to be real.

Old war footage becomes a mesmerising mass of moving patterns. Street sleepers become abstract blobs, something they become society’s subconscious anyway as we numb them out. Combined with the Japanese films shown on television at the time & strange images from natural history museums of animals having sex, Marker reflects on the oddities of society through its media, public transport & interactions. All is done so with great affection & attention to detail, yet always with an eye that both looks to the past & reflects on the future.

He films Japanese commuters nodding off on trains, then seems to implant dreams of animals, horror films & lost drama. There are people trotting up & down a musical staircase, a ceremony for broken dolls, where the dolls are burned in a pit.

The evocative soundtrack to the film is a mixture of voices (including the narrator’s), ambient recorded sound, stolen effects from films & television, & computer game music seeping in here, there & everywhere. It is like much experimental electronica around nowadays. Creating its own soundscape & sketching its own narrative.

And yet always watching San Soleil we are firmly in an analogue past. But narrative transcends time. Within this almost documentary the protagonist describes a fictional film he plans to make. About a man from the future. We even see footage he plans to include, though he knows he’ll never make the film. This seems to touch on his other short masterpiece ‘Le Jetee’ (which you can watch in full on You Tube), on which Terry Gilliam’s ‘Twelve Monkeys’ was based.

I’m of the view that every filmmaker should see this, whether they’re into fiction or documentary, or both. And if they don’t get goosebumps they’re probably dead inside & should give up filmmaking. I’m being flippant of course, it’s easy for me to say when this is so in tune with my interests & interpretations of the world. There’s even a Vertigo pilgrimage through San Francisco.

It is a film about the co-existence of different times, a film about a film never to be made, a film about the invention of video game graphics which seems to silently predict things that came after – namely the blame they take for desensitising us to violence. Yet while in this time graphics are rendered crudely & far from reality (he makes a pac-man analogy slightly more sociological than the average stoner’s), in our high-definition digital world, media has become hyper-real. More real than the real itself.

This blog is written in celebration of the forth-coming Memories of the Future project in October 2013 in Nottingham. The project will explore analogue & digital worlds coming together through narrative art forms & DIY creative culture.

In the long process of compiling this blog serendipity leant me some extra inspiration with musical timing placing Boards of Canada’s ‘Music is Math’ (in which the vocals whispered ‘the past inside the present’ while I was writing something very similar) & now as I finish 6 music has dealt me ‘Television the Drug of the Nation’ by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprosy.

Coincidence? I think not.

All quotes are from San Soleil, which was written & directed by Chris Marker. San Soleil is available to buy on DVD with La Jetee.

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