Chris Marker, the tirelessly inventive and influential Gallic filmmaker and multimedia artist known for his philosophical ruminations on time and memory, including the 1962 sci-fi classic “La Jetee” and the 1983 experimental travelogue “Sans soleil,” died Sunday, on his 91st birthday.
Over the course of his career, which spanned six decades and a wide array of formats and technologies, Marker became perhaps the leading practitioner of the essay film, a form he made his own through often idiosyncratic use of image, sound and narration. Preferring to speak through his films, he remained a personal enigma offscreen and refused most interviews; asked for a photograph of himself, he often presented a picture of a cat, a visual/thematic fixture of many of his documentaries.
Marker was born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, most likely in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, although he encouraged the legend that he had been born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. His pseudonym is said to have derived from his admiration for the Magic Marker.
After studying philosophy in France and fighting in the French Resistance, he began his wide-ranging career as a journalist, poet, novelist, polemicist, photographer and filmmaker. His early writings included his 1949 novel “Le Coeur net” (The Forthright Spirit); political commentaries for the Marxist publication Esprit; and reviews for Cahiers du cinema, the film journal co-founded by one of his major influences, the famed French critic and theorist Andre Bazin.
In 1952 he directed his first documentary, “Olympia 52,” about that year’s Olympic Games in Helsinki. During this period he fell in with many members of the Left Bank film movement, a French New Wave offshoot that included filmmakers such as Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda and novelists such as Marguerite Duras.
After collaborating with Resnais on a number of pics, including the seminal 1955 Holocaust docu “Night and Fog,” Marker directed “Letter From Siberia,” a 1958 cine-essay on the decline of Siberian culture consisting of original footage, newsreels, stills and animation, held together by the passionate, insistent voiceover narration that would become one of his signature devices.
In 1960 he made “Description d’un combat,” a meditation on the state of Israel that won the Golden Bear for documentary at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival. This was followed by the controversial “¡Cuba Si!,” a flattering portrait of Fidel Castro that included two interviews with the Cuban dictator, as well as a Bay of Pigs epilogue whose perceived anti-American tone led the film to be banned in Gaul until 1963.
In 1962 he directed his most celebrated work, “La Jetee,” whose sci-fi concepts would later serve as a key inspiration for such films as Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” (1995) and Mamoru Oshii’s “The Red Spectacles” (1987). Set in a bombed-out, post-WWIII Paris, the 28-minute featurette used a sequence of black-and-white still photographs to tell the story of a prisoner, haunted by a memory from childhood, sent back and forth in time to save the present.
Other key works during this period were 1963’s “Le joli mai,” a 150-minute docu-essay culled from 55 hours of interviews with people on the streets of Paris, which won a prize for first work at the Venice Film Festival; and his 1965 study of a Tokyo woman, “Le Mystere Koumiko.”
In 1967 he founded the left-wing film collective Societe pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles (SLON), which that year financed “Far From Vietnam,” a Vietnam War protest film consisting of segments directed by Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Resnais, Varda and others. Other works backed by SLON included 1971’s “The Train Rolls On,” a docu portrait of Soviet director Alexander Ivanovich Medvedkin, a subject Marker revisited more than 20 years later with 1993’s “The Last Bolshevik.”
Marker returned to personal filmmaking in the ’70s with documentaries including the two-part, three-hour New Left chronicle “A Grin Without a Cat” (1977), which expressed a powerful pessimism about the promises of the socialist movement.
Marker’s widespread travels in the late 1970s provided much of the material for his seminal docu-fiction hybrid “Sans soleil.” A hypnotic, free-form essay on time, memory, technology and cats, the pic consisted primarily of footage shot in Japan, with forays to West Africa, Iceland and San Francisco for a mid-film tribute to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
In 1985 Marker directed “A.K.,” a portrait of Akira Kurosawa shot during the making of “Ran,” and “Memoires pour Simone,” a TV tribute to Signoret following her death from cancer.
Toward the end of the 20th century, Marker declared that film “won’t have a second century,” and he was known for his continual embrace of new technologies. His later works include the multimedia installation piece “Zapping Zone for the Pompidou Centre”; “Level Five,” a tribute to Resnais that employs digital video; “The Case of the Grinning Cat,” a 2004 video postscript to “Grin Without a Cat”; and “Immemory,” an interactive CD-ROM whose content runs more than 20 hours long.