Adam Bartos and Colin MacCabe, Studio: Remembering Chris Marker
"Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you."
Known intermittently as Stalker Sandor, Hayao Yamaneko, or Sergei Murasaki, filmmaker Chris Marker (1921–2012) was an elusive, shy, and decidedly feline individual. “Born to be an avatar,” as one critic found him, Marker declined interviews—and even having his photograph taken—for the better part of a century. When Marker did interact publically it was through Guillaume-en-Égypte, an orange cartoon cat.
In the introduction to Studio: Remembering Chris Marker, Ben Lerner asks: “How do you memorialize an artist who refuses to remain identical to himself? How do you remember one of the great philosopher-artists of memory?” I had these very words in mind a few weeks ago while visiting Marker’s final resting place in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery. I downloaded a map to find his gravesite and, just as in Marker’s virtual world, followed Guillaume-en-Égypte to my destination: an unmarked, white columbarium. I found Marker less by his given name—Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve—than by the maneki-neko that marks his plot, beckoning. A harried little owl figurine sat at the cat’s side, guarding an iridescent stone: an offering some fan had plucked from a nearby grave (I had the same idea). In death, as in life it seems, Marker moves through avatars, aliases, and admirers.
The same is true of Studio—a rare glimpse into the last decade of Chris Marker’s long and prolific life. The homage pairs Adam Bartos’s photographs of Marker’s former Paris atelier with an essay by Colin MacCabe, whose many conversations with the auteur—like the piles of books, tapes, and trinkets photographed—zap across the decades, traversing the centuries, wars, and countries that framed Marker’s art. Hand in hand, the little photo-essay meanders from the Left to the Right Bank, through the 20th arrondissement to the dusty Rue Courat, straight through Marker’s unmarked door.
An accomplished scholar and producer in his own right, MacCabe proudly served as “Chris Marker’s representative on earth,” accompanying his monumental video installation Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men (2005) around the world. As MacCabe transitions from nervous devotee to collaborator and friend, he is delighted to find Marker quite unguarded—a man of “complete integrity … instinctive generosity [and] self-deprecating wit.” Physically striking at 6-foot-3, the “huge and agile monkey” habitually welcomed (or beckoned) visitors with a thimbleful of vodka—a gesture toward his Russian ancestry. Throughout their conversations, Marker seems an artful balance of playful and erudite, and his anecdotes equally so: It was a thirst for adventure, he claims—amplified by the beauty of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade—that led him into the Resistance army, then the U.S. military. The good advice of a “grizzled sergeant” ended Marker’s soldier days, and he in turn helped hide a sockless young Truffaut on the run from the army (“I remember him telling me that [this] was at least one reason that he should figure in any history of French cinema,” MacCabe writes).
Such a mixture of discretion and coy grandiosity are characteristic of Marker. Alongside Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais, he was a founding figure of the Left Bank Group—an avant-garde collective that produced literary, socially progressive films that now stand in stark contrast to the highly stylized male angst of the Right Bank’s early New Wave. MacCabe concludes that “the real intellectual epicenter of those years” fell along the Left’s Rue Monsieur-le-Prince where Marker spent his immediate postwar days. Marker readily opens up to MacCabe in their discussion about his work with André Bazin, Travail et Culture, Esprit magazine, and the revolutionary travel series Petite Planète which jumpstarted his peripatetic film career. (These often-overlooked early years remind us how Marker became cinema’s finest film-essayist.) As accomplished a writer as an editor, he also contributed to the renowned Ecrivains de toujours series alongside Roland Barthes, and published a novel in 1949, Le coeur net (thirteen years later, its story of elegiac young aviators would color his science-fiction film La Jetée). More than fifty years later, Marker even offered to copy-edit MacCabe’s biography of Jean-Luc Godard—as much an extension of friendship, MacCabe reckons, as a continuation of the Left Banker’s instinct to collaborate.
Bartos’s photographs pepper the essay throughout, but only fully unfold on their own in the latter half of Studio, revealing the atelier’s labyrinthine innards. Punctuated by the lambent, wide-set eyes of cats, owls, and Simone Signoret, the space is an organized clutter of VHS, keyboards, talismanic trinkets and editing equipment. The names line up along his bookshelves in four or five languages, speaking volumes: RESNAIS, NOVAK, TAKEMITSU, CUBA, TARKOVSKY.
Introduced to Marker through MacCabe, Bartos has an affection for outdated media—“memento mori for [his] camera,” as Lerner calls it—of the sort that elbow for room in Marker’s studio, spilling their guts into every corner. Marker was already in his 60s when the digital age arrived, yet he quickly moved to the forefront of its new media: from Dialector, the interactive AI owl built with Applesoft Basic in the 1980s, to Immemory (1997) and later L’Ouvroir (2008)—the virtual reincarnation of his oeuvre in Second Life, where your avatar can catch a screening of La Jetée (1962) (or get a drink in a recreation of the Tokyo bar named after it). L’Ouvroir is one of Marker’s last shots at immortality, a final retreat where Guillaume dozes in the permanent sunshine, even today.
Bartos’s books are often beautifully arranged, and Studio is no exception. The execution is quite Markerian: doubled concertina pages seem to invoke an “unfolding” of time, while many of the images play with full-bleed edges—a technique pulled from Marker’s little-known history as a book designer (his Commentaires (1961) volumes are said to have influenced both John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) and Robert Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic (1967)). Bartos’s images, shot in the dull light of late afternoon, are measured and soft, right down to the tactility of their matte printing. In texture and tempo, Bartos allows the atmosphere to consistently sustain the feeling that “Marker will forever be almost right back.” And one wonders.
I return to Lerner’s original question: How can we remember Marker? MacCabe and Bartos answer this well, using the terms employed by Marker, an artist who remembered, and traveled, through images. Studio reminds us—as Marker had illustrated so many years before in Sans Soleil—that remembering, as a function, “is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.” I felt this on the last page of Studio as much as at the edge of Montparnasse Cemetery—both tombs seemingly absent their pharaoh, yet somehow laced with an agential force. Could Marker have given us the slip? For a man whose material was time itself, it seems implausible that he could run out of it. Kneeling at Marker’s grave, I thought of the Japanese couple in Sans Soleil, praying for a lost cat that “wasn’t dead, only run away.” I took out my camera, to remember.