Internationally acclaimed French film-maker Alain Resnais (“Hiroshima mon Amour”, “Last Year at Marienbad”) once called the mystic and prophetic film-maker Chris Marker as an ‘alien’. It is not because Marker had inhuman-like physical attributes; it’s because of his elusive ruminations on memory and for the way he explored the relationship between image and movement in the cinema. “La Jetee” was one of Chris Marker’s early artistic intellectual work, which was a sci-fi short comprised entirely of still photographs attached with a narration. The short film told the story of a man sent back in time after World War III to find a solution to humanity’s dire situation. The story-line later inspired visionary film-maker to make “12 Monkeys” (Chris Marker’s influence also inspired works like “The Man who Fell to Earth, Until the End of the World”, etc).
“Sans Soleil” (translates into English as “Sunless”) is a part documentary, part travelogue and part video essay about a wandering cameraman, who sends off images and footage to an off-screen female narrator. Unlike “Qatsi Trilogy” or “Baraka”, “Sans Soleil” showcases assortment of images or visuals from which meaning is constructed rather than other way around (as the film opens with three Icelandic children, the narrator wonders where will it fit in this film) The images are meditated upon different times from different perspectives and it is an exercise that might continue in the viewer’s brain as long as their memory allows. Marker’s collage and words are so dense that makes multiple-viewings a must. For most people, cinema must be something they watch for entertainment during the weekend at a local multiplex. But, Marker’s uses the idea of cinema to ponder over the human condition, whose thought process and memory are one of the most enigmatic things on Earth.
The amalgamation of experimental cinema and video essay was used earlier in one of the most innovative works of cinema, “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929, by Dziga Vertov). In this 80 minute cinematic art, we see a man traveling around a Russian city documenting ordinary urban life in a dazzling manner. “Sans Soleil” was a highly philosophical companion to “Man with a Movie Camera”, in which Marker uses all the basic tools of cinema – juxtaposition, voice-over and stock footage – to plumb the labyrinthine part of our subconscious. Marker’s images find some link between disparate cultures – in Japan, Iceland, Guinea-Bissau and USA. He records street scenes of these cultures that range from mundane to enigmatic & exceptional. Contemporary Japan always seems to bring something new to Marker’ eyes: sleeping Japanese passengers on a ferry, on the subway; shrine for the spirit of lost cats; an animatronic JFK; exhibits of strange phallic statuary and a museum where stuffed animals copulate in vivid detail; the absurd censorship of adult content, etc.
Marker travels to the outskirts of Guinea Bissau, an African country wounded by recurring revolutions, and takes pictures of the countries’ working-class people. Later he juxtaposes those images with a commentary on the revolution that topped Portugese rule. The narration states how the revolution was one of the first victories in guerilla warfare, but also goes on to add “Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window”. The revolution had only allowed the local tyrants to feast and the memory of the earlier guerilla war has itself transformed to an eroded memory. Most of the themes in Marker’s work defy easy explanation. But, the phenomenon of abstract thoughts is never meant to be expressed in a clear-cut manner.
The most interesting aspect of the documentary is Marker’s attempt in San Francisco to visit key film locations of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. Through the Hitchcock classic, Marker observes how un-lived fantasies show in film becomes more real and obsessive for us than the real things that happen in our lives. The documentary’s subject matter may not appeal to viewers with a rigid idea about cinema, although this is deemed as one of the most accessible metaphysical works of cinema. Ultimately, the profundity or obscurity is what makes “Sans Soleil” (104 minutes) a highly rewarding (and may be a slightly frustrating) experience of cinema.