Sans Soleil (1983)
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But 'Sans Soleil' couldn't soar further from the prosaic ambitions of the documentary. Like the film it most resembles, Marker's own 'La Jetee', it is in fact a work of science fiction, as much about time travel as literal travel. Each place Marker visits is stripped of its familiarity, and made eerie, alien. Concrete images become springboards for dizzy philosophical speculations. The film moves with ease from the court of 11th century Imperial Japan to the revolutionary struggles in 1960s Africa to emus on the Ile de France to an interpretation of Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' to astrological rumination on a desert beach, and still remains thematically coherent and full of the most startling connections.
It is this structure that creates the feel of science fiction, the linking of seemingly disparate images, symbols, stories, experiences, places to create a strange pattern which emanates something spiritual, that seems to make sense of increasing chaos, dislocation, displacement. But we are constantly reminded that these are secular, man-made, ad-hoc, arbitrary constructions, as phantom as the relationship in 'La Jetee', but, similarly, a necessary construction to cover the abyss.
The distortion of the soundtrack, the mixture of silence and mooged classics; the computer visuals of Marker's friend, known as The Zone, which seep conventional, representational images and turn them into ghosts, traces, stripped of history, recognisability, humanity; the film's fictional framework (the narrative comprises letters to the narrator by the filmmaker, Sandor Krasna) all add to this unsettling science fiction appropriation of the documentary genre.
When the history of cinema comes to be written in centuries to come, there will really only be two films that will survive from its first century, films dense, supple, playful, renewable enough, and full of enough possibilities for future direction, to transcend the local, the generic, the pretentious, the narrative. One is that final gasp of modernist cinema, 'Vertigo'; the other is this epitome of post-modernity. in many ways, 'Sans Soleil' is a stunning exegisis on Hitchcock's masterpiece (which had only just been re-released after two-decades withdrawel), echoing its circular structure, its concern with time, memory, the elusiveness of history.
'Soleil' locates the crisis of post-modernity in Japan, that most modern of modern capitalist societies. With the curiosity of an anthropologist, the good humour of an essayist, and the eye for the unusual of a rare filmmaker, Marker gives us a Japan we rarely see, even in the country's own cinema; on the one hand a culture of startling modernity, leading the way in computers, technology, department stores etc., on the other full of residual traditions, rituals, superstitions, ceremonies, going back centuries. The co-existence of these two time-scales has resulted in a kind of blur, a temporal vacuum, whereby all sense of time and perspective is lost, where religious ceremonies for the souls of stray pets co-exist with state-of-the-art video games.
Japan is like a ship that has lost its anchor, where all time is the same, and therefore irrelevant, just as Scottie Ferguson wanders around dazed, in a loop of fantasy and distorted memory. Without history, memory, a culture ceases to be a culture and lays itself open to all sorts of vulnerability. But this lack of foundation ironically leads to a greater freedom, particularly of the mind, and the film, as it reaches its conclusion, becomes visionary and hallucinatory.
'Soleil' is anything but bleak - its stories, myths, cultural tidbits, observations are unfailingly entertaining and full of good humour. Krasna compares the overcultured, saturated Japan to the timeless emptiness of Africa, to the spooky otherworldliness of Iceland, as his 'objective' narrative becomes increasingly a personal odyssey that must be teased out from hints and ellipses. In its focusing on the minutae, the forgotten, the arcane, the ephemeral, the back alleys, the garbage, but suggesting that 'Soleil' is ultimately only one film out of a possible multitude made possible by new technologies, Marker's film is at once profoundly democratic yet exhilaratingly idiosyncratic; an apocalyptic vision teeming with life.
It's a crime that this film is not available on VHS or DVD in the U.S. Fans of this film should also seek out "The Koumiko Mystery", another transcendant film by Chris Marker.
I had a few ideological problems with the movie as well. Chris Marker (a Frenchman, I assume?) darted about in non-Western societies, viewing foreign people through a camera lens. He then mashed all the footage together, drawing inferences from the images which he then communicated to us, the (primarily Western) viewers through a voice-over. He never interviews anyone he films. His voice is the only one we hear, he is the sole authority who controls the information we receive, and as a result he can construct other cultures to fit a message of his choosing.
What to the people living in the jungle have to say about life? That's what I'd like to know. But instead we hear through Marker that they are noble savages, free in their own way despite being so primitive, practicing mystical rituals the narrator doesn't actually comprehend, etc. Even Japanese TV somehow serves to illuminate Japanese culture for Marker, despite the fact that he admits he doesn't speak Japanese and can't understand a word of what's going on! Edmund Said explores this form of representation in his book "Orientalism," but basically I see Chris Marker as the Rudyard Kipling or Marco Polo of our day. He travels abroad, reports back to us with a romanticized description of other cultures (which the cultures themselves do not contribute to directly), we accept it, and the discourse ends. We never learn anything tangible, besides the fact that Marker found this experience to be personally significant in some vague way.
Also, I had to close my ears while the narrator discusses Hitchcock's VERTIGO... I haven't seen that one yet and had a feeling Marker wouldn't include any spoiler warnings.
Probably one of the greatest 'avant-garde' films of all time, don't let its classification dissuade you. This is a very simple film with a very simple message: though time changes, what nourishes humanity remains constant, namely love, memory, hope, understanding, recognition and belonging.
The only frustrating thing about this film is that one viewing is not enough. This is a work you will cherish re-watching for years to come.
Direct cinema science-fiction set on Planet Earth.
i lost count of the amount of times i rolled my eyes at the extremely poor use of sound in this piece. in particular the part where 80's spectrum game audio plays to a swinging owl shop sign/advert
the only good bit in this is the section that analyses Japanese media (around 19mins 30 to 24mins 30). finally Marker looks at something about Japanese society that he can truly comment on in a constructive way, and its a pity the doc didn't entirely stick to this area
unfortunately it veers off again into the clouds and looks at social/religious issues among other things, and overall its the type of thing that a pretentious media ma student might hand in for their final paper
'trippy' twaddle from a person in a creative trough, and not a patch on la jetee
there is no better way in communication. ...and all this films should be released on DVD. let's start with Chris.Marker's "Sans Soleil".
[who ever got the rights on this one, start digitizing and polishing sound and picture and afterwards release it on DVD, everyone should get the chance to see it]
"Sans Soleil" can be generalized as an almost two-hour visual essay on memory, poetry, and imagery, based around Chris Marker's travels around the world, focusing mostly on Japan and Africa. It lacks the visceral and unsettling effects of his short "La Jetee", but it isn't like it's meant to be... though both films can be considered "contemplative", this one is much more meditative and philosophical, continually reworking it's ideas even to various points of self-awareness made ironic through the narrator's "He wrote... He said..." misdirection.
For some reason, it may be impossible to describe just how such a film can be considered so striking and yet still sound so simple (read any review that likes it, they will be awed but there'll be doubt in the minds of any that have seen it that it couldn't possibly be all that). What's interesting about it is that it is, in fact, a very simple work, especially structurally. It is even in a way dated since it uses computer effects of the time that, though they still are used experimentally today, still feel older in a this-was-new-back-then-but-we're-past-it-now way. But still... somehow it works, gets under the skin, says things in ways that you think you understand and then snap too and realize that you've been so lost in what's been going on that you've not paid attention--or was it too much attention? It is, indeed, like it's own memory of itself.
The film plays like a travelogue done by someone with a severe head injury. You see lots of lengthy and seemingly random footage from around the world (with an emphasis on Japan) and a narrator drones on and on about nothing in particular. As for the footage, despite being in color it's rather grainy and generally uninteresting. It's also accompanied by electronic music that generally is annoying and I think it was honestly meant to be annoying. And, this goes one for over 100 minutes.
I'll be honest. I stopped watching this one after a while--and that's saying a lot considering I almost never bail on a film. Additionally, I've probably reviewed at least a couple thousand films and rarely have I felt like I wasted my time more than with this one.
I like documentaries -- you learn about interesting new facts and ideas in documentaries -- but this is definitely not a documentary. It's a bad B movie masquerading as art. The only way this movie could be enjoyable would be with a MST3K soundtrack.
One example: Marker shows sleeping Japanese passengers on a ferry, then a subway framed by Tokyo's skyline, then a bird walking serenely on water, then an African woman smiling, then a cat temple in Japan where families pray for felines. "We do not remember -- we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten," says the film's erudite narrator as she reads a letter supposedly written by Sandor Krasna. In truth, Krasna is actually Marker, who invented the person of Krasna to ... well, it's anyone's guess because Marker doesn't give interviews and prefers to let his work speak for itself. Here's one guess:
Marker, who's never seen in "Sans Soleil," doesn't want to take full credit for a film that draws from so many displays of public rituals.
Like Edward Steichen's "The Family of Man" photography project, "Sans Soleil" captured lives and moments that were ordinarily overlooked -- though instead of a team of photojournalists, it was just Marker who roamed various continents for the material in this unforgettable movie. Few other filmmakers but Marker would travel to the outskirts of Guinea-Bissau, take pictures of working-class people, then juxtapose the footage with a rolling commentary about the country's revolution that toppled Portuguese rule. That revolution inspired revolutionaries in Europe, but as Marker dryly notes, "Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window." In reading Marker's lines, actress Alexandra Stewart ("Exodus," "Day for Night") cites everyone from the Japanese poet Basho to Marlon Brando. (Marker's footage of San Francisco was inspired by Hitchcock's "Vertigo.")
It was without dialogue (only narration) and had a gruelling running time of 100 minutes.
Shot in colour, this film's imagery was live-action, showing endlessly repetitive activity in urban Japan.
It's too bad that there is nothing memorable to say about any of this film.
For me, the only way to watch this dreary picture from hell was in fast-forward mode.
Between this 1983 film and 1962's La Jetee, movie-director Chris Marker has shown absolutely no improvement in his craft.
The problem of capturing reality is a problem central to film theory, most do it by creating the 'reality effect' via the familiar codes of continuity editing etc, but it is just that, an illusion. Marker, like Godard, purposely confounds these codes and explores the limits of film/the image/art in order to examine what Benjamin called 'erfahrung' - a formulation for experience aligned to memory as apposed to immediacy. True experience is the recollection of events, a retracing of the path of memory. Only when experience is assimilated in this way can meaning be derived from it.
Sans Soleil plays with the idea of grand historicising themes, focusing on the narratives left untold in the history books, the story of the defeated, strange cultural idiosyncrasies, the easy, lazy way emotions are manipulated by the camera, so a man's tears of gratitude are revealed by context to be tears of rage. Marker takes canonical historical signposts and challenges their ability to tell us anything of worth about the world and humanity within it. He jolts (and it is a jolt) our attention away from the official processes of historification, that goes on beneath our noses in cinema, towards the banal and the everyday detail that comes the stuff of life itself.
On first viewing, especially if you are unfamiliar with the codes of progressive, experimental or 'counter' cinema, you may well be confused. But you will also be intrigued and on second viewing its secrets begin to reveal themselves. This is released with Marker's short la Jetee, another treat.
This is a truly remarkable film, the only piece of cinema that has, for me, chimed on a similar level of complexity and profundity with the works of Shakespeare and one that similarly continues to resonate.
The movie explains a lot about the reverence of the land in Japanese society. We see people praying with their heads bowed to the Earth and the narrator provides commentary about it. We also learn the importance of the dog to the Japanese people. Also, the film discusses the importance of the train to the Japanese. Something intriguing about the film is how the narrator discusses the artistic possibilities of video games. Since the film was released in 1983, video games were in crisis due to the crash that happened earlier that year (in North America and Europe). Now looking at games like Metroid Prime and Shadow of the Colossus, I understand what she meant. For Guinea-Bissau, the narrator discusses the political history of the country and the risks of being a revolutionary. I'd like to write more about it, but I cannot recall anything to say.
Those who choose to watch Sans soleil, would be best served to read the script before and after the viewing. Then, they should talk about what they just watched. I will do that when I watch it again, as I have for many philosophical texts. This film is not intended for a large audience, and those wishing to watch it should be knowledgeable of that. Also, if you enjoy Hitchcock, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the homage Marker plays to him.
Dealing with everything from the primary theme of memory and the existential nightmare of time's passage (or, as the narration at one point puts in (more poetically): "the moss of time") to oddly humorous (yet still often thought provoking) encounters with phallic statues and an animatronic designed to bear the appearance of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, "Sans Soleil" reaches a point of pure unpredictability. While mildly slow in bits, the overall product is uniquely entertaining in its ability to portray and provoke a wide and diverse palate of human emotion. With its grainy yet pleasantly colorful cinematography and semi surrealist atmosphere, "Sans Soleil" successfully entertains the eyes and the mind of any viewer that can appreciates its wildly experimentalist and almost structureless style. This is a film likely to divide viewers, but big enough fans of art house and avant garde cinema can all agree that it is among the finest documentary/experimental/drama/essay films ever made; a truly fresh and original project that is playful and profound like no other masterpiece before or after] it.
I knew this was going to be a hard ride, but I tried to shrug off any preconceptions and prejudices to give this another try. After only three minutes I had to hit the pause button. Later I tried again, a non-believer reading the Bible.
Bland images. This kind of thing needs-pictures like Baraka to at least provide some justification. Five minutes are spent watching a Japanese street carnival. Marker takes a fascination in people that comes across as simply naïve. He waxes philosophical about a man frying food on a hotplate, presumably because it's the first time he has seen it happening. A Japanese cameraman of equal naivety might well point his camera at a little old woman frying chips in a British chippie and call it meaningful. Thankfully, nobody ever did.
His camera craves little oddities, such as the temple of the beckoning cats, but it's no more than touristic innocence.
The observation that people ought to look in the camera is typical of the 'aren't I being meaningful by seeing something that no-one else can?' attitude. But by doing so they are not revealing themselves with curiosity, only hiding themselves with insecurity.
There are two ways of looking at every human emotion. A blithe side and a cynical side. Marker is full of the tourist's childish fascination in things he little understands, and which he photographs for precisely that reason. Every image is the gawping of an idiot - at the beginning we stare at people asleep on a ferry as if there is something unique and profound about this particular ferry this particular day.
Drawing filigree connections is his main past-time: Marker thinks it clever to move from formal stylised movements of a Japanese traditional dance to awkwardness.
He sets himself a challenge at the very beginning - how to follow an idyllic image of three Icelandic girls? Nothing works - certainly not the fighter plane he suggests. He gives us a long black pause instead. So, there's a game of meaning going on, couched in a game of imagery. Absolutely every piece of film here is the same.
The woman's deadpan voice-over constantly riles. She has the tone of Virginia Woolf reading her suicide note. She is narrating the traveller's letters. It's earnest, adulatory - and you never forget it is Marker talking about himself, massaging his own ego through a fantasy girlfriend because it conveniently avoids the too-blatant first person. There's something unpleasantly adolescent, almost JD Salingerish, about this trick, and I instinctively resist.
I felt like I was supposed to be impressed by the fact that Marker had travelled, had had reflections, that he was alive. It was not just self-congratulatory, but self-ratifying, self-aggrandizing; the immodesty of the adolescent that hasn't yet learned sophistication.
At the end of it he had shown me nothing about the world or about people. He had made mountains out of philosophical molehills and was dining off the tale.