I’m sorry, but if my choices are superheroes, Sarah Jessica Parker’s handbag materialism, Ashton Kutcher, learn-to-love-again indies and an Adam Sandler comedy that couldn’t even muster jokes enough for a two-minute trailer, then I’ll stay home and have a conversation with Chris Marker. I’ll at least be assured of having truthful contact with a real human consciousness, of having learned, of having been made aware of cultural connections no other artist would make and of bearing witness to first-hand history. An integral soldier in the French New Wave, Marker is famous here only for “La JetÃ©e” (1962), the beloved all-stills time travel mega-short that was remade by Terry Gilliam as “12 Monkeys.” Though he’s remained a prolific manufacturer of cinema into his 80s, he’s never been a meta-acrobat like Godard and Resnais and Rivette, nor a romantic ironist like Truffaut or Rohmer or Demy, and it’s been virtually impossible to see his films, old or new, in the U.S. A few fictional tangents aside, Marker’s mode was always the personal documentary a non-fictional amble between political fact and subjective, and often poetical, observation, and over the years, practically under the oblivious noses of the filmgoing world, it’s become one of the medium’s most insightful, humane and profound strategies.
Marker’s like Godard and Kiarostami in that filmmaking isn’t his career but his life, woven inextricably into his daily routines, ruminations, friendships and memories. Thus, his movies don’t have the mouth-feel of traditional entertainment or even of agenda-structured docs, but of personal correspondence, open-ended and imperative and exploratory. At long last, a slew of Marker films are available on DVD, including “The Last Bolshevik” (1993), a magisterial biopic of Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin, arranged by Marker as series of first-person “letters” to the late giant, who followed the Eisenstein-Vertov-Dovshenko-Pudovkin cataract and thereafter suffered whatever totalitarian crap was thrown his way just so he could make movies. A good deal of the celluloid Medvedkin shot was on the “film train,” a crazy, egalitarian form of movie production in which Medvedkin and a large crew drove a development-lab-equipped train around the USSR, shooting and printing films on the spot, showing them to the peasants they’d filmed, and then often discarding the celluloid thereafter. Marker was friends with Medvedkin (he had introduced the Russian’s forgotten work to the West in 1971), and saw him as a kind of last man standing of Soviet history, born at the beginning of the century and dead just a few years before the empire fell. And so amid the movie’s interviews with Russian film history luminaries and clips, there are intimate reminiscences, fond reconsiderations of the past and Marker’s distinctive detours, drawing parallels and tendril-like connections between images and occurrences that always appeared to be unrelated. While you watch “The Last Bolshevik,” it has the rhythm and vibe of an ordinary, if affectionate, documentary, but when it’s over, you take away the overwhelming sense of having lived a new history.
That accumulative awe is the feeling of having Marker’s sensibility sneakily come to bear upon you. Other Marker films also hitting the discs include “Remembrance of Things to Come” (2001), a lavish, dense and devil’s-food-rich memoriam to neglected photog Denise Bellon, who just happened to live through and record the ascent of the Surrealists, the 1937 World Fair, the birth of the CinÃ©mathÃ¨que FranÃ§aise, the Popular Front, the Nazi occupation and so on, her shots forming a fascinating, and rather Markerian, mini-history of two decades of French life. (Typical is the matter of Henri Langlois’ famed bathtub full of film prints hidden from the Germans; some have since thought it an urban legend, but Bellon was there to photograph it.) Also, unforgettably, there’s Marker’s philosophical meditation on the post-9/11 world, “The Case of the Grinning Cat” (2004), which impulsively tracks the course of culture from a moment of traumatized empathy (even Marker is stunned by the headline on Le Monde: “We’re All Americans”), to a rising struggle between opportunistic state power and the uncontrollable will of the people, personified by graffiti of a mysterious smiling feline Marker finds all over Paris. The Icarus/First Run discs, which are currently only available from Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts’s online Chris Marker Store (they’ll be widely released in the fall), include a number of extra films, by Marker and by his subjects Bellon’s short “Colette” (1950), and, happily, Medvedkin’s absurdist masterpiece, “Happiness” (1934).
As far as French filmmakers getting a sweaty grip on the post-9/11 landscape go, Olivier Assayas certainly brings his bargeload of obsessions to the table in “Boarding Gate” (2007) this modern world is a global spider web of instant travel, menacing commerce, brutal narcissism, cold-blooded sex, urban lostness and ceaseless doping and smoking and tough-talking. Assayas also sometimes indulges an unexamined proclivity toward populating his films (that includes his script for AndrÃ© TÃ©chinÃ©’s “Alice and Martin,” “demonlover” and “Clean”) with young, slim, gorgeous, fashionably disheveled characters, and the effect can be unconvincing. Luckily, here Assayas has Asia Argento starring as an ex-hooker who gets tangled up bad (in her black underwear and pumps) with ex-boyfriend/sleaze magnate Michael Madsen, and who then is sent ricocheting toward Asia (the continent) and running from spoiled drug deals, murder plots and the like. The framing material of “Boarding Gate” may seem thin, but Argento, after more than 20 years flitting around the fringes of Euro-pulp and costume epics and the occasional Hollywood action flick, emerges here as a crystallized star. Unpretty but smuttily pugnacious and given to wildly unpredictable line readings, Argento is hypnotizing movie-stuff, as much the overpowering sexual core of this otherwise nutty and forgettable movie as Dietrich was of her Sternberg films, or Monica Vitti was of “The Red Desert,” or Sandrine Bonnaire was of “Ã€ Nos Amours.” She keeps getting compared to Brando in reviews, which accounts for Brando’s instinctive animalism if not his restless intelligence. But sometimes in movies, instinctive animalism is more than enough.
[Photos: “The Last Bolshevik,” Icarus Films, 1992; “Boarding Gate,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]
“The Last Bolshevik,” “Remembrance of Things to Come,” “The Cast of the Grinning Cat” (Icarus Films) and “Boarding Gate” (Magnolia Pictures) are now available on DVD.