The legacy of Chris Marker is a difficult one to capture, as journalists and filmmakers have been discovering in the months since his death in July 2012. Marker would never allow himself to be photographed, never give interviews, and most of the creative work he produced in his lifetime was not distributed. He left no heirs and was an effusive liar, fabricating multiple stories for his life—his name was casually lifted from the magic marker and he claimed to have been born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Such an enigma is the filmmaker who feared being photographed—afraid he would lose his soul—yet whose directorial presence is felt so keenly in all of his work. Sans Soleil (1983) particularly feels like a voyage into the inner workings of his mind, following conceptual channels and images that have stuck around in his memory. Yet Sans Soleil refuses to include images of his face, only those of his totemic stand-ins, the cat and the owl. Of the directors of the French New Wave, Marker is undoubtedly the hardest one to put a finger on, which makes this film’s goal a lofty one, as it tries to send a letter to an unknown man.
Director: Emiko Omori
Producers: Emiko Omori, Jed Riffe
Cinematographer: Emiko Omori
Editor: Emiko Omori
Music: Chris R. Brown, Rena C. Kosersky
Cast: Margaret Collins, Marina Goldovskaya, Tim Greenberg, Dirk Kuhlman, Tom Luddy, David Thomson
Runtime: 78 minutes
Premiere: October 6, 2012 – Mill Valley Film Festival
US Distributor: Icarus Films
But Emiko Omori’s attempt at this is impressively successful. Operating primarily as a conventional documentary, To Chris Marker: An Unsent Letter consists mainly of talking head interviews with a variety of people who were touched by Chris Marker in some way. From filmmakers and programmers to computer scientists and x-ray technicians, Omori has found a very wide, if slightly shallow, range of the people who loved Chris Marker. Some of them knew him so tangentially it seems as if Omori is really scraping the bottom of the barrel (one man describes his interaction with Marker as meeting him once for only a few minutes in a coffee shop) but a genuine affection for the man and his work is strong and uniform. Those who knew Marker only briefly were shaped and changed by that moment.
More interesting than the interviews themselves, which generally range from gushing to saccharine, is the supplemental documentary footage shot by Omori. Unrelated to the verbal content, but remarkably humanistic and narrative, Omori’s unattached documentary images are much like those shot by Marker himself. From the fleeting smile of a passing flower seller to the anguish of a naked baby sitting on a dock, this imagery (footage that would ordinarily be filler in most conventional documentaries) becomes visual storytelling that validates and realizes the lives of these strangers. Though truly unaccounted for in the film’s structure, this is what makes To Chris Marker a success, since it so strongly demonstrates that Marker’s spirit lives on.
The film is organized around Marker’s filmography, working from La Jetée (1962) and Le Joli Mai (1963) through to Grin Without a Cat (1977), Sans Soleil (1983), The Last Bolshevik (1994), The Case of the Grinning Cat (2006), and even Marker’s CD-ROM-based Immemory (1997). Each film has its cast of interviewees who expound on its glory. The effect is slightly cloying (even though I am a big enough Marker fan to have a small shrine to him in a quiet corner of my apartment) but the excerpts from his films alleviate that tension because they are just so good that they deserve all of the accolades they receive. Omori’s choice to show these excerpts on a laptop in a coffee shop, an iPhone in a hand, and a theater screen bordered by curtains is unusual and a little distracting. But in the end no ill treatment could weaken the power of these excerpts, and they do a good job illustrating why such a wide range of people could be sucked into Marker’s particular style of filmmaking.
Toward the end of the film, To Chris Marker pulls away from its straight documentary style into a personal exploration of how to remember a friend, and in that it becomes all the more Marker-like. Quoting Sans Soleil, the narrator reads “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?” And in the end, that is the purpose of this film: to rewrite Chris Marker as a memory. That is the reason for the seemingly disjointed structure and the humanistic documentary inserts. From Marker, Omori has learned the unreliability of memory and she is constructing a blurred memory in his image.
In her filmmaker’s statement, Omori writes, “For ten years thinking about and creating this homage to him, it is hard for me to accept his recent return to the planet from whence he came, the stranger from the future that appears, observes, listens, creates, then vanishes.” This is, of course, a reference to what is likely Marker’s most famous film, La Jetée, an 18-minute photo roman which focuses on a character like Marker himself, a time-traveller from a dreary dystopic future whose serendipitous visits to the present revolve around love and whimsy. And perhaps that is this films final thesis, that an artist so strange and beautiful as Marker could only truly come from another time, another world.
And all this is to say that the image above, which comes at the very end of the film, is even more touching because of Omori’s clear adoration for Marker. What we see is one of the rare photographs taken of Marker, this one seemingly taken by Marker himself, and beside him his beloved cat Guillaume. This rare photo was given to Omori as Marker's symbolic blessing for this project and she ends the film with a shot of herself and her camera hiding behind Marker and his own.