Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Chris Marker's Camera-Stylo / "Notes On Filmmaking"

To return to Astruc,  tonight's film Sans Soleil is an example of "La Camera-Stylo" par excellence. An entire book could be dedicated to Marker's editing in the film, so I will not focus on it in particular at the moment; suffice to say the montage would not have been as effective if the footage itself was not shot with such patient and active framing and movement, by a true camera-writer. I am also choosing not to mention the text, which is of course essential to the film – my focus is solely on the creative independence offered by the small camera, which Astruc so presciently predicted.  

The majority of the footage was shot by Marker himself, using a silent 16mm Beaulieu film camera to capture his own compendium of "things that quicken the heart." Although notes on the production are scare if existent at all due to Marker's public reclusiveness, we can assume a number of basic qualities that tie back to Astruc's ideas. Marker's footage seems to have been shot as the events and subjects were discovered and unfolding, and the lightweight Beaulieu provided the discreet ability to write with motion anywhere at any time during Marker's travels. Here we can note the uncanny clarity and purpose with which Marker investigates and focuses on his subjects. Early in the film at the cat cemetery in Tokyo, we have reason to suspect the man behind the camera is not an amateur but truly an auteur cameraman, as Marker moves to reframe the woman praying to the cat shrine. 

Some of my other favorite stills from the film – needless to say a pretty difficult task to choose. Note the care in framing and composition:

Serving as the film's editor as well as the fictional narrator and fictional cameraman Sandor Krashna (Krashna's friend Hayao Yamaneko is also Marker, the name translating to "Mountain Cat" or "Wild Cat," cats being of course a favorite animal [of the filmmaker]) Marker creates a work that the term "essay film" only begins to describe. Indeed, this type of filmmaking seems a direct extension of Astruc's idea of the roles of screenwriter and director losing their distinction as new technology permits the evasion of the industrial mode of filmmaking that had so far codified into the classical Hollywood system and its worldwide exponents. 

Marker's process is not unlike writing a novel or essay, wherein the author is alone with his stylus, writing an excess of ideas and musings which will ultimately be edited into its final form. Except with Marker, the writer is out engaging with the events of the world. Watching the film I feel as I am discovering cinema's potential for the first time – Sans Soleil gives lie to the notion that a fledgling filmmaker must be follow some arbitrary industrial production procedure in order to produce a work that is personal, affective, complex and sincere. As Abbas Kiarostami notes on his masterclass 10 on Ten, in regards to the small DV camera he used on Ten, small cameras "allow the artist to work alone again." Here the distinction between documentary and fiction loses its relevance in the same way it did for Godard in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. As Sam mentioned following the screening, it's simply because Marker and Godard choose to simply make a film and do not worry about the categories and genres which are ascribed after the fact. 

Below is an excerpt from Marker's text I transcribed from the Criterion box set for Sans Soleil/La Jetee. I cannot help but take Marker's point that technology today could allow for anyone to create something extremely personal and exploratory, free from the restraints of capital. Although his reference to Vertov is certainly appropriate, Astruc could have been evoked just as easily. The real question is: with the advent of incredibly cheap HD video cameras (this generation's Beaulieu), why aren't there more films produced in kindred spirit with Sans Soleil? Why are there virtually no other camera-writers and most importantly:

"Will there be a last letter?"

- Ian

Notes On Filmmaking
by Chris Marker

Working on a shoestring, which in my case is more often a matter of circumstance than of choice, never appeared to me as a cornerstone for aesthetics, and Dogme-type stuff just bores me. So it's rather in order to bring some comfort to young filmmakers in need that I mention these few technical details: The material for La Jetee was created with a Pentax 24x36, and the only "cinema" part (the blinking of the eyes) with an Arriflex 35mm film camera, borrowed for one hour. Sans Soleil was entirely shot with a 16mm Beaulieu silent film camera (not one sync take within the whole film), with 100-foot reels – 2'44" autonomy! –and a small cassette recorder (not even a Walkman; they didn't exist yet). The only "sophisticated" device – given the time – was the spectre image synthesizer, also borrowed for a few days. This is to say that the basic tools for these two films were literally available to anyone. No silly boasting here, just the conviction that today, with the advent of computer and small DV cameras (unintentional homage to Dziga Vertov), would-be directors need no longer submit their fate to the unpredictability of producers or the arthritis of televisions, and that by following their whims or passions, they perhaps see on day their tinkering elevated to DVD status by honorable men.


  1. I love the richness and complexity of Marker's film essay, expanding his ideas and the form simultaneously...and have always been struck that the word text derives from a word meaning "to weave." I've been reading this book, The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the essay film and wanted to share a portion here. Author Laura Rascaroli quotes Andre Bazin:

    " 'Marker brings to his films an absolutely new notion of montage that I will call 'horizontal,' as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot. Here, a given image doesn't refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.'"

    Rascaroli continues, "This lateral or horizontal montage (which recalls Adorno's already mentioned idea of the carpet, in which 'thought does not advance in a single direction,' and which the 'aspects of the argument interweave'), allows the beauty and intelligence of words to transfer also to the visual component: 'The montage has been forged from ear to eye.' "

  2. Thanks for sharing this excerpt! The notions of horizontality also remind me of the application to jazz music, which I alluded to in my post about Miles Davis and "Kind Of Blue," although it seems she is using them in a slightly different way here. None the less, the idea of forward-feeling (horizontal) progression in harmony forward versus a sustained space or atmosphere (vertical) also seems relevant to the film and discussions of montage.

    What I think is doubly amazing about "Sans Soleil" is that it seems as though Marker is concerned with multiple elements of montage. We are given both traditional (perhaps we can call them "Eisensteinian") cuts which explicitly compare and contrast subjects through collision while there simultaneously coexists a much larger continuum of images and text at work, constantly in dialogue with one and other while simultaneously moving forward and folding backward. In this respect, Marker's allusion to spirals of time found in the opening credits of Hitchcock's "Vertigo" seem also to double for Marker's aesthetic in "San Soleil." With all due respect to Marker, I think there are two films that are "capable of portraying impossible memory—insane memory."

    The point Rascaroli makes though is a very interesting one. What Marker is exploring in sound-image relation seems almost unparalleled in cinema. As Michel Chion points out in his book "Audio-Vision," there is no such thing as a soundtrack-a film is a place with images and sound intermingle, with a true work of cinema ceasing to exist as an entity without either element. Sans Soleil seems like a perfect example of this: it's tempting to read through the text-it is surely enjoyable-but the total work is only accessible cinematically with the sound-image continuum.

  3. Ian, I just wrote you a significant response and my safari quit on me and erased it, so this is abbreviated in short hand: still image idea= how much longer? Soon holograms and no film frames, hopefully when we are old. DV= use it! Use anything and film everyday if you can. I am trying to shoot snippets on my super 8 everyday...haven't succeeded in this endeavor thus far. It was so nice to see Sans Soleil again...I thought no, I just want to see Godard and then I was captivated once again. -courtney