Tag Archives: Chris Marker

Abstracting Narratives

In his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Hegel boldly says that History can be abstracted and thus summarized quickly as really the history of freedom. I’ve been thinking lately about how powerful this Hegelian method of thinking through abstraction can be.

What gives me pause in works of art are the moments where there is a stillness. It’s somewhat hard to explain, but what I mean by stillness here has to do with the idea of abstraction, or rather–in an almost naïve way–losing track of the unnecessary intricacies of a narrative. The narratives become abstracted and we go to a different perspective, where one can feel the undercurrent of humanity and life flowing. In an interview with Libération, filmmaker Chris Marker stated, “Ce qui me passionne, c’est l’Histoire, et la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent” (“What interests me is History, and the cross-section of History in the present”). The filmmakers within the movement of Le Groupe Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) such as Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda were focusing on this perspective of “la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent.”

Still from Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7

Still from Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7

A great example of the Left Bank’s approach can be seen in comparing two different approaches to the simple narrative of two people falling in love in Paris. One need only compare Jean-Luc Godard’s famous À bout de souffle (1960) to Varda’s relatively overlooked Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). Frankly, besides Godard’s technique in editing, I think À bout de souffle can be mostly discarded as a self-obsessed, narrow-minded artifact of the 60s. Varda’s Cléo, on the other hand, while telling almost the same story, is able to cut deeper to the heart of human existence. The historical consciousness of Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) wouldn’t be successfully realized in the hands of those on the the Right Bank, better known as the Nouvelle Vague.

In Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek points out the power of this naïve abstraction:

How does a notion emerge out of the confused network of impressions we have of an object? Through the power of “abstraction,” of a blinding oneself to most of the features of the object, reducing it to its constitutive key aspects. The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations—only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

The same principle of “less is more” holds for reading the body of a book: in his wonderful How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard demonstrates (taking an ironic line of reasoning which is ultimately meant quite seriously) that, in order to really formulate the fundamental insight or achievement of a book, it is generally better not to read it all—too much data only blurs our clear vision (279-280).

Still from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line

Still from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

I feel that there is a great affinity between the American filmmaker Terrence Malick and the Left Bank. One of Malick’s films gives us the chance to inspect another interesting comparison with films more contemporary than those above: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Both storylines occur over a short period of time during the second World War, although they take place in different fronts: one in Europe and one in the Pacific. Saving Private Ryan seemed to have garnered more acclaim as a war film, whereas The Thin Red Line seems like something else. In a conversation recently with a friend who angrily denounced The Thin Red Line for having no real story, I ended up exclaiming, “Yes, exactly! There is no story!” Although the film is about the taking of Guadalcanal told from the perspective of several U.S. soldiers, the film is more about life. This is not to say that Malick can’t tell a story, but rather that Malick’s story dwells so much on existence that it becomes more of a meditation–a stasis that moves, rather than a story arch, in which a main character(s) encounters an “inciting incident” that calls him to action so that he may overcome an obstacle, which is then resolved in a dénouement. What is the ending of The Thin Red Line? What is the “inciting incident”?

Appropriately, Hegel-scholar Robert Pippen has written about this abstraction in Malick’s film. In “Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” Pippin writes,

In all of Terrence Malick’s five films, various genre conventions of Hollywood movies like these are invoked and structure much of the narration. This is especially true of his 1998 film The Thin Red Line, which has many of the elements of a Hollywood World War II movie. But, as in his other films, these genre conventions create expectations and suggest explanations that are then undermined, refused, left open, made to seem irrelevant, made mysterious, or even ironized.

The implication is unavoidable that, therefore, these conventions about motivation and value are no longer available, no longer credible, and the viewer has to struggle to find some point of orientation. This sense of being lost, once these conventions are invoked and then refused, is the main effect on any viewer and seems a major point of the film itself (249).

[…] since the voice-overs are unattributed by visual cues or anything else, the thoughts seem to float in logical space, as if they could visit any character or be shared by, be thought by, anyone (252).

I really still need to see Malick’s The Tree of Life. It’ll be interesting to see if these ideas above correspond to that film too.

Theodor Adorno, “Commitment”

I just read Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Commitment,” in Aesthetics and Politics. I’m especially drawn to Adorno’s criticism of Bertolt Brecht’s technique when it comes to presentation. In other words, the balancing act of aesthetic and thought in a work of art, or even questioning that compositional formula itself.  About Brecht’s play Saint Joan, Adorno writes,

The play is set in a Chicago half-way between the Wild West fables of Mahagonny and economic facts. But the more preoccupied Brecht becomes with information, and the less he looks for images, the more he misses the essence of capitalism which the parable is supposed to present. Mere episodes in the sphere of circulation, in which competitors maul each other, are recounted instead of the appropriation of surplus-value in the sphere of production [. . .] (183).

Not having seen or read Saint Joan, I can’t comment on it directly. But the reason I quote this passage is for the second portion, in which Adorno calls Brecht’s scenes and images “Mere episodes.” I think this is a good example of the reification of daily life, in which events come to feel episodic. Georg Lukács points out something similar that begins to happen in literature with the rise of capitalism. The presentation of the world becomes a mere backdrop to small bourgeois conflicts.

The Tramp is berated on the assembly line in Modern Times

The Tramp is berated on the assembly line in Chaplin’s Modern Times

Adorno then goes on to speak of the failed critique of fascism through artistic creation in Brecht’s Arturo Ui and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator:

the deconstruction of leaders, as with all individuals in Brecht, is extended into a reconstruction of the social and economic nexus in which the dictator acts. Instead of a conspiracy of the wealthy and powerful, we are given a trivial gangster organization, the cabbage trust. The true horror of fascism is conjured away; it is no longer a slow end-product of the concentration of social power, but mere hazard, like an accident or a crime [. . .] That is why the buffoonery of fascism, evoked by Chaplin as well, was at the same time also its ultimate horror. If this is suppressed, and a few sorry exploiters of greengrocers are mocked, where key positions of economic power are actually at issue, the attack misfires. The Great Dictator loses all satirical force and becomes obscene when a Jewish girl can hit a line of storm-troopers on the head with a pan without being torn to pieces. For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialized: which then reduces the political effect (184-185).

From this passage, I’m reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times (1936). I’m fond of the film, but it’s not free of criticism. Of course, this criticism is not reduced to a rejection of the film’s comedy, but rather its scope. Just as the first passage above references the episodic quality of Brecht’s play, Modern Times also falls into the same trap. The film’s scope of capitalism sometimes reaches its limit at the angry figure of a boss. If only he were nicer, we are meant to think.

Still from Sans Soleil

Still from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil

And now, I’m reminded also of a humorous, short section in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). The narrator ponders an arcade game, the objective of which is to hit different members of your job’s hierarchy:

I saw these games born in Japan. I later met up with them again all over the world, but one detail was different. At the beginning the game was familiar: a kind of anti-ecological beating where the idea was to kill off—as soon as they showed the white of their eyes—creatures that were either prairie dogs or baby seals, I can’t be sure which. Now here’s the Japanese variation. Instead of the critters, there’s some vaguely human heads identified by a label. At the top, the chairman of the board. In front of him, the vice president and the directors. In the front row, the section heads and the personnel manager. The guy I filmed, who was smashing up the hierarchy with an enviable energy, confided in me that for him the game was not at all allegorical, that he was thinking very precisely of his superiors. No doubt that’s why the puppet representing the personnel manager has been clubbed so often and so hard, that it’s out of commission, and why it had to be replaced again by a baby seal.

My point in bringing this up is not that art should really be focused on higher members of such hierarchies, but rather that the the “game” itself represents reification by presenting to the user a set of names to be responsible for the ills of work under capitalism. A more recent example of misplaced anger might be the way in which individual bankers were thought of as the enemy during demonstrations at Occupy Wall Street. That’s for another day though.

The Last Bolshevik

still from Chris Marker's Le tombeau d'Alexandre (1993)

still from Chris Marker’s Le tombeau d’Alexandre

I just watched Chris Marker’s film Le tombeau d’Alexandre [The Last Bolshevik] (1993), which focuses on the work of Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Ivanovich Medvedkin (Александр Иванович Медведкин). Medvedkin seems especially interesting due to his “film-train”, which was specifically-stocked train that travelled through the Soviet Union during the 1930s. The film mentions the kolkhozy several times as places Medvedkin’s train visited. The film ponders the troubles of being an artist committed to a degenerating party. One need only see Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) to see the initial optimism of the U.S.S.R. At the end of the film, several people say that perhaps Medvedkin’s death in 1989 saved him from further heartbreak in the coming years. Concerning his commitment to an increasingly negative party, Marina Goldovskaia says,  “I will never never believe that Medvedkin was a liar. I cannot believe it, because he was a sincere person. I will not believe it. I think that he wanted this fairy tale—he needed it [ . . . ] people needed it.” It should be noted, too, that Marker does not completely apologize for Medvedkin’s later films that felt too much like distorted propaganda.

I gotta admit that the intermission in Le tombeau is kind of silly. It’s a couple minutes’ shots of Marker’s famous cat Guillame-en-Egypte resting on a keyboard as music plays. I guess some cute footage of his pet is not the worst way to take a break from the somber history of the Soviet Union. Which reminds me . . . About a year ago, when I was in the MAPH at UChicago, a buddy of mine in my group was writing his thesis on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Occasionally we’d read each other’s drafts, and I’d tell him something like, “It’s going well, but it darkened my day!” Perhaps my thesis on utopias leveled out the mood of our topics.

Given Chris Marker’s enthusiasm for Medvedkin’s work, I’d like to see some of it, especially his film Счастье [Happiness] 1934.

A Romanian Journal I Found Yesterday

The library at UChicago occasionally gets rid of some books by offering them up to the students. Along with some volumes on Astophysics and Electron Microscopy, I saw a few interesting looking issues of a journal called, Anale de Istorie.

After some looking around on wikipedia, it seems that it was printed by the Romanian Communist Party’s institute, Institul de Studii Istorice și Social-Politice de pe Lînga C.C. al P.C.R.

In the issue from 1988, there was a kind of advertisement for a man named Ceausescu.

Google translate seemed to think “Scritti scelti” is Italian for “selected writings,” so I’m guessing these are all the different volumes of a man named Ceausescu. An additional search help me discover that this is Nicolae Ceaușescu, who ruled over Romania for years until his government was overthrow in a revolution in 1989, in which he was executed for his apparently brutal reign. It’s odd to think that this issue was printed the year before his death. The wikipedia page mentions a cult of personality that surrounded him, which emphasized showing only the best images of the man. This would explain the full page portrait on the first page of the issue, a black-and-white photo that has been colored:

It’s so odd to have this juxtaposition of this portrait and the knowledge of how awful he was.

As a side note, I’ve now found that Chris Marker criticized French television through using footage of Ceaușescu’s trial and execution in his work Détour. Ceaușescu (1990). In her book Memories of the Future, Catherine Lupton writes:

Within this desire to reshape broadcasting according to his own whims and enthusiasms, Marker uses Zapping Zone to propose a critical interrogation of television as it currently exists, and invites the viewer to share in imagining the possibilities of what television might be instead. Nowhere is this vein of criticism more pointed than in this eight-minute video piece Détour. Ceaușescu, which re-edits taped television footage into a sardonic commentary on French television coverage of the trial and execution in December 1989 of the Romanian dictator Nicholae Ceaușescu and his wife. The TF1 newsreader makes much of the moral imperative to broadcast the videotape of the swift trial and execution of the Ceaușescus in its entirety, without commercial breaks. Marker chips in with arch indignation via an inter title, ‘What, no adverts?’, and proceeds to intersperse the grim reportage with snippets of breezy television commercials, through darkly apposite montage proposing new uses for kitchen paper and laundry detergent in dealing with the bloody aftermath of the execution. French television’s hypocrisy in attempting to deny its own complicity with advertising is undermined to devastating effect (184).