Chris Marker is essentially an audio-visual poet and essayist whose (mainly) non-fiction films are characterized by the use of static images, evocative sound tracks and strong, literate commentary. A prolific writer and still photographer as well, Marker has a directorial perspective which has always been that of the alien in foreign territory, his films travel diaries with political overtones.
Marker's early life is shrouded in some mystery, much of it perpetrated by the filmmaker himself (e.g. born in France, Marker has been known to claim himself as a native of Outer Mongolia). During WWII, he served as a resistance fighter during the occupation of France; some accounts claim he also joined the US Army. As a novelist and critic, he authored an important study of dramatist Jean Giradoux, with whom Marker shares a talent for the abstract narrative devices of existentialist theater.
In the early 1950s, Marker turned to documentary filmmaking, bringing his radical politics to bear on a variety of subjects, many shot outside of France. In 1952, he made his first film, a 16mm short, "Olympia 52", depicting the Olympic Games in Finland. He later won attention with "Sunday in Peking" (1956), "Letter from Siberia" (1957) and "Cuba Si!" (1961). Marker has also been a motivator of, and collaborator on, a number of politically inspired films such as Patricio Guzman's powerful and ambitious "The Battle of Chile" (1976, which he co-produced) and the 1967 pro-North Vietnam compilation, "Loin du Vietnam/Far From Vietnam". On this polemical documentary anthology, Marker's collaborators included the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch and Agnes Varda, among others.
Marker's best-known work, however, is the fictional "La Jetee/The Pier" (completed 1962, released 1964), a haunting time-travel parable which consists--except for one short, and very beautiful, sequence of a woman waking up--of a series of still images accompanied by voice-over narration. Considered an important milestone in the history of science-fiction cinema, "La Jetee" also self-consciously explores the philosophical implications of understanding the world through film and, indeed, the boundaries of what can be considered cinema. Marker's film quickly became a cult classic, so much so that, over three decades after its making, Hollywood produced an interesting feature-length adaptation, "12 Monkeys" (1995).
Like "La Jetee", "Le Joli Mai" (1963), Marker's memorable study of Paris during a time of political turmoil, evinces a preoccupation with the manipulation of time and the paradox of memory. Marker is attempting in these films to do away with conventional storytelling techniques, creating an almost incantatory experience of movement in space and time. It is in this sense that his work comes closest to that of his friend and sometime collaborator, Alain Resnais, with whom he has worked on films including "Loin du Vietnam"; "Night and Fog" (1955), Resnais' landmark study of the Holocaust and its aftermath; and the controversial "Les Statues meurent aussi" (1953). The latter film, exploring the decline of Black art as a result of African cultures having contact with Western civilization, was banned by French censors until 1965.
In 1966, Marker established SLON ("Societe de Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles"), a Marxist-inspired arts collective which gave increased impetus to cinema verite documentary. Originally established specifically for the production of "Loin du Vietnam", Marker revived the enterprise in the light of the nationwide upheavals attending the worker and student strikes in France in May of 1968, and SLON continued well into the 70s producing collectively authored agit-prop material. "Junkopia", a 1981 short shot at Emeryville beach near San Francisco, reflects Marker's continued use of verite techniques in its recording of a spontaneous creation of "found art" sculpture. Unlike proponents of the "direct cinema" school, however, Marker has always played the role of catalyst--some would say "agent provocateur"--in interviewing his on-camera subjects.
Among other explorations of notable subjects, Marker's 1985 film, "A.K.", is a fascinating portrait of master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa; it is typical of Marker that his film should be a behind-the-scenes look at Kurosawa while the Japanese director was filming his epic "Ran". Marker later made another film portrait with "The Last Bolshevik" (1993), his tribute to Alexander Medvedkin, the Soviet filmmaker who was behind the so-called "film trains" (mobile film studios) of the 30s. Marker's most important and accomplished film of his later years, though, has probably been "Sans Soleil/Sunless" (1982). A complexly fragmented, endlessly reflexive and often wryly witty look at life around the globe, the film's form, based on a series of letters, seems almost a portrait of Marker himself, a globe-trotting cameraman who writes constantly, both with his pen and with his camera.
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Began working on the documentary short "Les statues meurent aussi" with filmmaker Alain Resnais; film was not completed until 1953
Completed first film, the documentary short "Olympia 52," a documentary about the Helsinki Olympics; also co-photographed and provided commentary
Made his most famous film and only fictional film "La Jetée/The Pier"
Formed production company Slon, also often designated SLON, especially for the making of the episodic documentary collaboration "Loin du Vietnam/Far From Vietnam"; collaborated on the screenplay and producing responsibilities, and was also an editorial supervisor (uncredited), the film's various segments were directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, William Klein, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, Claude Lelouch, and Ruy Guerra
Revived SLON after the famous nationwide student and worker strikes in France in May in order to distribute and produce agit-prop material
Co-produced, and also collaborated on the screenplay for the ambitious two-part political film "The Battle of Chile," a Chilean-Cuban production directed by Patricio Guzman
Documented Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in "A.K."
"La Jetée" adapted for the Hollywood-made feature film "12 Monkeys," directed by Terry Gilliam; credited as co-writer
Commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University to create an installation commemorating the centenary of the motion picture; created "Silent Movie," consisting of five monitors on which random scenes played to random selections of music
Wrote and directed the war documentary "Level Five"
Helmed "The Case of the Grinning Cat" for French TV; also wrote
Wrote, directed, and produced the short "Leila Attacks"