Saturday, January 26, 2008

Unseen Sun (or, Ten Notes on Chris Marker's Sans Soleil)

Digitized Footage from Sans Soleil (1983) (Source: DVD Beaver)

1. During the opening moments of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), three Icelandic children are walking along an ashen road. There is a moment of pause as they slow down and stare intently at the camera. The viewer only has a moment to look at their elfin features and white hair before everything turns to black. While all this is happening, a female narrator (whose name is Alexandra Stewart) begins reading a fictional letter from a mysterious Eastern European cinematographer named Sandor Krasna:

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I'll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don't see happiness in the picture, at least they'll see the black.

From the footage of the ethereal children, the film moves deftly to show an A4 Skyhawk descending into the inner sanctum of an aircraft carrier, and finally to passengers sleeping on a ferry returning from the Japanese island of Hokkaido. One critic remarks that the whole world of the film resides in this juxtaposition of images. From light, to dark, and back to light.

2. Marker’s film consists of footage from Japan, Iceland, and Africa. The images match Krasnor’s letters. One gets the sense that they are watching footage taking by Krasnor. This mysterious cinematographer is Chris Marker’s alter ego. Some of the footage is from San Francisco.

3. The two chief frames of reference are Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. The former is especially poignant. At one point, Sandor Krasna goes to those very same places that Jimmy Stewart's character visits in Vertigo. It is a pilgrimage of sorts. Strange how many of the sites from 1958 San Francisco (the year Hitchcock made Vertigo) still exist in 1982 San Francisco. The latter film becomes more important towards the end of Sans Soleil.

4. Most of the footage is unmistakably urban. Some of it is familiar. We see a high-traffic street crossing bearing a distinct similarity to Shibuya, for example. In others, the rusty spans of the Golden Gate bridge rise from a bank of mist. In another image, an Icelandic village is buried under meters of volcanic soot.

5. A note on sound. Modest Mussorgorsky's Sans Soleil is played on different instruments. Sometimes it is a Moog. On others, it is a theremin. One can also hear curious, bubbly, reverb-saturated synth effects in the background. They give the film a science-fiction feel.

6. The name Unseen Sun may immediately recall the similarly-titled track, "Invisible Sun", from the Police's 1982 album The Ghost in the Machine. It is also the translated German title for Chris Marker's 1983 film, Sans Soleil (Sunless). That these two works -- an album and a film -- were released within a year of each other is coincidental. And to add to the coincidences, I only remind the reader that only three years later, in 1986, German media theorist Friedrich Kittler published his influential Grammophon, Film, Typewriter (Brinkmann & Bose Verlag, 1986). The introduction to this book, translated into English for the summer 1987 issue of October was one of the first English crossovers of Kittler's writings. It also features Kittler's famous "derivation" of the Lacanian real, imaginary, and symbolic "from the data channels of phonograph, cinema, and typewriter."

7. This is heady stuff, to be sure, but consider Kittler's invocation of one of Sans Soleil's many poignant moments. It is a scene where two dogs are seen playing in the sand. Kittler quotes the narrator:

Lost at the end of the world, on my island Sal, in the company of my dogs strutting around, I remember January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images that I filmed in January in Tokyo. They have put themselves in the place of my memory, they are my memory. I ask myself how people remember if they do not make movies, or photographs, or tapes, how mankind used to go about remembering.
8. Sans Soleil features many images of television and urban screens. In a series of stills, celluloid images of television screens are depicted as lantern slides. These images feature ghostly circles of light radiating from within. The juxtaposition of media technologies is striking.

Lantern-Slide Deer, from Sans Soleil (source: DVD Beaver)

9. More on Kittler. What if Sans Soleil can be thought of in terms of data storage? Film footage becomes a repository of Sandor Krasna's memories about the various cities he visited (see #7 above). In another part, Krasna's letter reads:
I've spent the day in front of my TV set—that memory box. I was in Nara with the sacred deers. I was taking a picture without knowing that in the 15th century Basho had written: “The willow sees the heron's image... upside down.”
10. Why Sans Soleil? Think of the last couple of moments. Think of when Krasna's friend Hayao, a video game designer, begins digitizing the footage from Sans Soleil, and when that last digital footage becomes the film's coda (see above). Within the space of a 103-minute film, Krasna's memories suddenly become code. Stalker becomes the frame of reference:
He showed me the clashes of the sixties treated by his synthesizer: pictures that are less deceptive he says—with the conviction of a fanatic—than those you see on television. At least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality. Hayao calls his machine's world the 'zone,' an homage to Tarkovsky.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Kittler's media theory (not just in GFT but in Discourse Networks, its predecessor) is the most advanced I have encountered, as Marker ranks among the most sophisticated of filmmakers. Kittler's most important predecessor is perhaps McLuhan, his most direct influence Foucault. For Marker, Tarkovsky is "le maître", but there is little precedent for the full-blown essay form that emerges in Sans Soliel, expcept perhaps Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, Resnais/Marker's Toute la mémoire du monde and Les Statues meurent aussi. Thank you for putting these thoughts down - I had forgotten that Kittler evokes Sans Soleil and you restored this evocation to my memeory. Stop by sometime... Peace out.