A Chris Marker double-bill – I have seen Marker’s famous photo-film La Jetée many times, but not for years. The first time I was 17, in college, recommended by my photography tutor. I’d never seen anything like it. A year or two later at I saw it at the cinema, part of the Aurora Festival, I was amazed again. It’s a few more years down the line and I’m concerned it might not be as great as I remember. That’s always the way with favourites – what if it doesn’t live up to my memories. Terrifyingly, to begin with it didn’t. I just wasn’t getting into it at first, a sinking feeling. But give it a chance and it delivers, reaching a high peak at it’s famous motion sequence that’s still powerful even when you know it’s coming. It’s not just the use of motion here but the sequence as a whole, how it slows everything down to focus on these subtle changing images of this girl in bed. From there on Chris Marker had me riveted. Even without the haunting sound design each composition is great in its own right. A film of gritty, high contrast stills – but it works. It’s dirty and ramshackle and wouldn’t work half as well if it wasn’t. Marker may use tell his story through stills but they’re not motionless – each one shudders and flows, we see the movement of film passing through the projector, we see the grain shimmer, injecting life. To put together stills digitally as we do now would feel sterile in comparison.
Then on to Sans Soleil, that big gap in my film history. I had been waiting to get my hands on this double-bill Criterion Blu Ray, at an agreeable price. Ebay paid off eventually. It certainly shows off the wonderful imagery – it may be grainy, but on blu ray you can see each grain. Well almost. Another reason I had held out this long is because I wanted to see it with the original french voice-over instead of the English, but after comparing the French and English on La Jetée I realised that the English version is actually pretty good. For this type of essay film the superiority of subtitles over dubbing is not so clear cut, and they obviously put a lot of effort in to the english voiceovers here. I’m glad I did end up watching Sans Soleil with the English voice over, it’s done extremely well. A great voice. A great film. It’s not as iconic or memorable as La Jetée but in many ways it’s smarter and more affecting. It’s an odd film. There isn’t a clear theme, other than Marker’s own travels, subjects are discussed and changed seemingly at random. A train of thought. One of the stops explores Hitchcock’s Vertigo, his inspiration for La Jetée (“Here I was born and there I died. It was only a moment for you, you took no notice.”) He also has obsessions with cats, and owls. Marker’s diaristic writing is simply amazing, and the images no less so. The African woman’s 24th of a second glance to camera joins La Jetee’s feminine glance as one of the great moments in cinema. You can see the influence Marker has had on cine-essayists since; Mark Cousins clearly owes a debt. But one very smart move differentiates Sans Soleil from his imitators, in that he doesn’t voice it himself, rather the voiceover is given by a woman who supposedly quotes letters sent from his travels. Marker’s absence as such adds poignancy and mystery. It’s as if he cannot voice the film himself because he is still out there filming in some distant land.
Something about Chris Marker’s globe-trotting and a time-spanning romance makes me think of Linklater’s Before Trilogy. I came to these fairly late, watching the first two a year or so ago and loving them despite – or maybe because of – some contrived dialogue. Maybe because it feels like the characters’ contrivances rather than the films’. Without much fanfare surrounding this release, I came into Before Midnight expecting this to be their Godfather: Part 3, but I was delighted to find that it’s just as good as ever. Like the other two it’s occasionally a little clunky and cliched, and like the other two it’s great anyway. The simplicity is impressive. To be absorbed in simple conversation – Linklater is surely the true inheritor of Eric Rohmer. The characters’ arguments may be nothing new but that’s always been Linklater’s strength – he doesn’t break new ground where subject matter is concerned, he just does it better than most other filmmakers, rendering the familiar truthful and heartbreaking. My life is nothing like Celine and Jesse’s but I still saw my life in every scene, and that’s Linklater’s genius. It’s a film of self reflection that left me blissfully melancholic, and above all, romantic. That’s pretty impressive considering that this part of the trilogy adopts a more resigned and realistic tone to reflect the characters’ middle age. The romance is gone, and yet it isn’t.
Something about Chris Marker’s cinephilia makes me think of Guy Maddin. Until recently I’d read a lot about Guy Maddin and seen a short or two, but not much else. I thought there was some pretty good stuff but couldn’t quite get past the pastiche, the thick layers of irony. The other day I watched an extra from the Journey To Italy disk, featuring Isabella Rossellini in a film about her dad called My Dad is 100 Years Old. It was surprisingly excellent. Surreal, touching and funny. One for cinephiles only perhaps, but still. It’s an oneiric film where Isabella bizarrely plays not only her father, but also his contemporaries – Fellini, Hitchcock, etc. The imagery is wonderful: her childhood memories of her father are visualised with her lying on a giant belly. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The end credits reveal that it was directed by Guy Maddin, so I thought it was probably time to watch a DVD a friend had lent to me a few months ago, The Saddest Music in the World – a film by Guy Maddin starring Isabella Rossellini. MDI100YO was odd, but I was not prepared for this. It’s a difficult film to explain – stylistically it’s certainly a pastiche, repurposing techniques from other eras of cinema. And yet it’s a pastiche of what, exactly? Even in a single scene, there is no fidelity to one era or one genre or even one tone. It’s a mismatch hodgepodge of everything, from all of cinema. It’s got a classic film noir protagonist like Walter Neff (Mark McKinney, making an excellent heel), or is he more of a 30’s screwball Clark Gable? The plot is insane yet coherent – to give you a sample, it features beer magnate Isabella Rossellini with glorious glass beer-filled prosthetic legs after losing both, one totally needlessly when the doctor (who she was seeing, but cheating on with his son) drunkenly amputates the wrong leg – after an accident that he caused. An air of frantic invention recalls the best of the late silent heyday, not only mimicking these techniques but improving on them, inventing new ones. Maddin doesn’t steal so much as embody, and he embodies everything at once. Against all odds, it works! It’s brilliant, it’s joyful, it’s exhilarating. The self-conscious and ironic techniques, the bizarre plot and dialogue, somehow none of this interferes with the drama, creating a dizzying amalgamation of everything that is great about cinema.