Wednesday, April 23, 2008

sans soleil, by chris marker

So this week, we decided to follow up Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera with Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983). As with Man With A Movie Camera, you watch Sans Soleil and you're given the feeling that you've seen everything in the world at least once. Here's a random assortment from the film's opening minutes:

Of course, neither film is really about the whole world, and this is where an illuminating contrast can perhaps be made. Vertov is a Russian, making a movie about Odessa, Kiev, and Moscow: some variety there, but at the root it can be said that he is making a movie about his own homeland. (This is part of what contributes to the overall atmosphere of "boosterism" that seems to vaguely surround the film.) Marker, by contrast, is a Parisian, making a movie about Japan, Guinea-Bissau, San Francisco, and Iceland, among others: and so at the root it must be said that he is making a movie about places that very precisely aren't his homeland.

So, on one level, Sans Soleil can be said to belong to the tradition of the ethnographic documentary. Certainly the film's emphasis on festival and ritual belongs squarely within that tradition:

Documentary in general, and ethnographic documentary in particular, carries with it a variety of tricky ethical problems, ones which have been ably recounted elsewhere. For portions of its runtime, Sans Soleil risks falling into some of these traps. For instance, it's problematically interested in the most alien and exotic aspects of the cultures it looks at. For instance, here's the shrine devoted to cats:

To its credit, though, I don't think that Sans Soleil is interested in committing the other ethnographic sin, that of recasting its subject as "primitives." Tokyo in particular is one of the most hyper-modern cities in the world, and as much as Marker seems interested in the "quaint" spiritual traditions of the Japanese, he seems equally interested in the quasi-futuristic aspects of the Japanese media landscape:

Even Guinea-Bisseau, with its photogenic squalor, is a site that Marker is interested in for its postmodern aspects—the film explicitly remarks upon the challenges involved with completing, taming, or fully articulating the partial industrial infrastructure left behind by the European colonists that revolutions forced out.

But Soleil ultimately wants to subvert the ethnographic documentary even more directly, going straight to its core principles. The film remarks repeatedly on the inevitable distortions that time introduces into our perception of reality. Our memories, of course, have massive powers of distortion, but Marker seems to feel that the meaning of images, too, shift through time, that our ability to treat them as "proof" diminishes with the passage of time and the loss of context, if indeed this ability ever existed in the first place.

There's another film that famously deals with the fallibility of perception: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which manages to get shoehorned in to the final third of Sans Soleil in order to underscore this point:

So, ultimately: Our direct perceptions are incomplete, faulty, and subject to the ravages of time—and perceptions we might obtain through, say, film, are not more permanent impressions of "truth," but rather are even more dubious because of the absence of context and the introduction of the distortions inherent to mediation. "Sunless" indeed! This is not exactly the underlying message of most documentaries (although it's not, in fact, a far cry from the underlying message of American Splendor (Film Club XXII)). As messages go, this one may seem bleak, although the film seems to accept these ideas with something like hope. In the end, the unknowability of other people (including Marker himself, and the extra-enigmatic figure of this film, Sandor Krasna) seems to be a source of joy and wonder.

That, at least, appears to be a pleasure that endures.

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