Chris Marker's essay films are unique in the history of cinema. Combining documentary filmmaking with the filmmaker's (he does not bill himself as director) observations on the footage, they provide a first-person look at the nature of civilization in the late 20th century. For this film, often hailed as his masterpiece, Marker assembled film and video recorded over the course of two decades, some of it stock footage, some that he created himself. The main focuses are two impoverished African nations, Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, and rarely seen areas of Tokyo, including the studio of video artist Hayao Yamaneko. Add to this side trips to Iceland, where the images of children at play become a touchstone for the idea of happiness, and San Francisco, where the film follows the steps of James Stewart's character in Vertigo
(1959), and you get a fascinating kaleidoscope on the subject of time, space and human enterprise. Rather than make the film a philosophy lesson, however, Marker fictionalizes the content, following an unnamed woman who visits these places and reads from letters sent by cameraman Sandor Krasna, a character created to serve as Marker's alter-ego. And he cuts the picture musically, bringing back images like themes in a symphony.
By Frank Miller
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