It’s easy to see why Chris Marker’s 1997 film Level Five, screening at the Trylon this week, was never released in the United States during its original run: unclassifiable, unpredictable, and unabashedly intellectual, it fulfills almost none of the expectations American audiences have for films. Level Five still doesn’t fulfill those expectations, but age has done something special to it: seventeen years after it’s release, it’s as deeply felt as any movie I’ve seen recently, with a scope as large as any blockbuster, and a cyberspace sensibility that’s never felt more contemporary.
Director: Chris Marker
Producers: Anatole Dauman, Françoise Widhoff
Writer: Chris Marker
Cinematographers: Yves Angelo, Gérard de Battista, Chris Marker
Music: Chris Marker (as Michel Krasna)
Cast: Catherine Belkhodja, Kenji Tokitsu, Nagisa Oshima, Junishi Ushiyama, Kinjo Shigeaki, Chris Marker
Premiere: February 19, 1997 - France
US Theatrical Release: August 15, 2014
US Distributor: Icarus Films
Perhaps this is because Marker, who died in 2012 at the age of 91, remained ahead of his time. Once called “the prototype of the twenty-first-century man” by his friend and sometime collaborator Alain Resnais, Marker’s longtime obsessions—globalization, virtual reality, the impact of technology on memory and history—are now ours. His major subject, time, sometimes lead him into the realm of science fiction: his most well-known film, La Jetee, is a twenty-eight minute short about a post-apocalyptic time-traveler’s visits to the present.
But his signature is actually what scholars have described as “the film essay,” a label that feels only occasionally apt. While his films are certainly discursive, they’re also digressive, meditative, and even lyric, always exploring more than they argue. Their dizzying exposition and surprising juxtapositions often lend his work the feel of poetry or music, and fictionalized narrators or characters sometimes add a novelistic element to material that’s otherwise documentary. This inventiveness gives Marker’s oeuvre a protean quality, and the rush of connections he makes in films like Sans Soleil continues to feel very much at home in our information-overloaded present.
In fact, Level Five predicts some of the ways the Internet reshaped our lives. Made-up characters interact with technology that was science fiction at the time, but are now totally mundane. Laura, the film’s central character, video chats on OWL (Optional World Link), a kind of proto-Skype. Her missing lover is a video game designer. Cruising the information superhighway, she adopts various avatars, or “masks,” as she calls them, a la the video game Second Life, in which Marker himself built a virtual museum in the last years of his life.
In another film, these technologies might’ve been window-dressing—cute, perhaps, for their apparent antiquity—but in Level Five, they’re in many ways the focus. The plot, if we can call it that, is a kind of cyber-noir, following Laura as she attempts to finish the video game her lover was working on when he disappeared. Her video chats serve as a kind of narration: ostensibly they address her friend Chris Marker (who occasionally narrates himself) but, because she always speaks directly to the camera, they also address us, the audience. This gives the film some of its emotional heft: her monologues, transmitted from her dim office, have a strange intimacy, and the grief she expresses over her partner's loss sometimes feels uncomfortably authentic. The film’s amateur aesthetics, with its VHS grain and lived-in sets, are an asset here, reinforcing this sense of voyeurism.
But the film also has a larger dimension: the video game Laura is working on is a strategy game about the real-life Battle of Okinawa, and much of the film focuses on this horrifying chapter of the Second World War. The battle, fought near the end of war, was the bloodiest of the Pacific campaign. It saw high casualties on both sides, and wiped out more than one-third of the island’s indigenous civilian population, with many killed in mass suicides forced by the losing Japanese army.
Using archive footage, digitized landscapes, and contemporary interviews, Marker recounts this history with all necessary spareness and brutality. But he is also careful to give it broader context, exploring the ways in which both the Japanese and American war machines primed their soldiers for atrocity and then excluded their actions from mainstream history. In one of the film’s most arresting scenes, a repentant Japanese soldier recalls how he murdered his family to save them from an uncertain (and possibly equally brutal) defeat.
In other moments, Level Five lingers on the ironies of memorialization: the film’s contemporary footage depicts contemporary tourists studying the Okinawan war memorial with more fascination than revulsion. Part of Marker’s argument here is that the devices through which we remember—everything from statues to films to games—have a major impact on the memories themselves, and, by extension, the stories we tell. It can be hard for a museum to capture the brutality of war, but it’s also true that memory (and memory-making) can afflict us. At one point, the film shows us footage of an Okinawan woman committing suicide by throwing herself off the cliffs where the museum now sits. Just before she jumps, she looks back at the camera. In voice-over, Marker wonders if she would’ve jumped if the camera wasn’t pointed at her. At times, our tools can feel like they have a mind of their own.
The film’s fixation on computers reflects this concern. The inability of Laura’s computer to understand her commands—“I don’t know how to Laura,” it responds when her name is entered—should be familiar (and funny) to anyone who’s interacted with some kind of AI. But even this moment of levity has a black lining: if basic grammar eludes computers—and Siri tells me it still does, even now—how can we trust them with our memories? Computers store more information and receive more attention than perhaps any prior technology of representation. How will their will affect our futures and our histories?
Laura’s own story offers one possibility: her complete disappearance into a cyberspace of longing suggests there are dangers to digitalization. The film’s very mise en scène posits another: dated after less than twenty years, Level Five’s visuals are tacky, alien, and sentimental all at once; if they inspire warm feelings about our bygone technologies, they also remind us how quickly yesterday’s futurism becomes tomorrow’s nostalgia. The past is brought alive in Level Five, but it remains remote, and inaccessible.
And yet I don’t think the film is, on the whole, pessimistic. It’s dark and difficult, and in some ways, imperfect. It’s less invigorating than Sans Soleil, which explores some of the same material, and Laura’s sense of loss can feel minor, even superfluous, beside the history of Okinawa. But the film ultimately never allows the darkness of it subject matter to overwhelm its sense of possibility. Like the computer game it describes, Level Five holds open the door to the future: in reconsidering the ravages of a century now fading from view, it honors what might’ve been and invites what could still be. It may look archaic by today’s standards, but Level Five still feels like an artifact from some unrealized future.