In Iceland I laid the first stone of an imaginary film. That summer I had met three children on a road and a volcano had come out of the sea. The American astronauts came to train before flying off to the moon, in this corner of Earth that resembles it. I saw it immediately as a setting for science fiction: the landscape of another planet. Or rather no, let it be the landscape of our own planet for someone who comes from elsewhere, from very far away. I imagine him moving slowly, heavily, about the volcanic soil that sticks to the soles. All of a sudden he stumbles, and the next step it’s a year later. He’s walking on a small path near the Dutch border along a sea bird sanctuary.
That’s for a start. Now why this cut in time, this connection of memories? That’s just it, he can’t understand. He hasn’t come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized.
After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who — through some peculiarity of his nature — instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet’s past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.
Naturally he’ll fail. The unhappiness he discovers is as inaccessible to him as the poverty of a poor country is unimaginable to the children of a rich one. He has chosen to give up his privileges, but he can do nothing about the privilege that has allowed him to choose. His only recourse is precisely that which threw him into this absurd quest: a song cycle by Mussorgsky. They are still sung in the fortieth century. Their meaning has been lost. But it was then that for the first time he perceived the presence of that thing he didn’t understand which had something to do with unhappiness and memory, and towards which slowly, heavily, he began to walk.
I generally say that I have three favourite movies:
- Annie Hall;
- Casablanca; and
- Sans Soleil.
I’ve mentally debated that third one for the last year or two. It’s been a while since I’ve watched it again, and I’m not quite sure it’d still hold up. And there are a lot of movies that I really, really like and am happy to watch over and over again. The Shawshank Redemption and Cinema Paradiso and The Godfather and The Whale Rider. But it’s been part of my standard answer to “what’s your favourite movie” for probably a decade.
Anyway, all of this to say that it was a shock to my system to learn that Chris Marker — the director of Sans Soleil — passed away on the weekend. I don’t know many people who are familiar with the film. Certainly, he’s better known for his earlier film, La Jetée. But even that’s pretty obscure if you’re not a cappuccino-swirling film snob. It might help you to know that Terry Gilliam’s film, 12 Monkeys is hugely inspired by La Jetée. Gilliam added plot and context and unforgettable visuals, but the main narrative thread is lifted directly from Marker’s film.
It’s hard to talk about why Sans Soleil is so cool, without taking the time to unpack Deleuze and Bene and the notion of a political cinema. “In short, if there were a modern political cinema, it would be on this basis: the people no longer exist, or not yet… the people are missing.” How can I even start with that? (And then I’d want to go on to talk about Youcef, or the Legend of the Seventh Sleeper, and how one compares and contrasts that with The Battle of Algiers. And at that point, it’s just postmodernism all the way down.)
I have a large and rambling personal web site that talks about trans issues, role-playing games, the JFK assassination and a dozen other topics. And, strangely, one of the pages on my site that gets linked to from a variety of sources is an essay I wrote for film class about a Deleuzian reading of Sans Soleil. I don’t think of it as an important essay, but it’s been cited by other people’s articles on film analysis websites. This wiki-like Encyclopedia of Art and Culture describes me as an “American blogger and film theorist” just because I wrote that paper. I find all of this weird because, deep down, I don’t think of it as “real” — it’s just something I wrote for school. But I’m periodically amused to think that somewhere, out there, university students are plagiarizing me for their final term papers in French New Wave Cinema.
The reason I’m talking about this is that my paper merely reviews inadequacies of the filmic image; the analysis is informed by Deleuze. Marker deliberately (I think) uses his film to highlight these inadequacies, and I used the paper to catalog them. And what I most want to say will make no sense to you unless you’re a student of Deleuze. But it’s this: today, I’m reminded again that the filmic image is the past-that-is-preserved, and the present, like the film director, has passed.