Unlike Chris Marker (1921 – 2012), I am not an editor, poet, videographer, novelist, digital multimedia artist, or filmmaker. Even on a strictly personal level we are worlds apart, him having been a Salinger-like enigma who famously avoided interviews and photographs, me being a “nothing close to Salinger-like on any level” kind of guy who just last week photo-bombed his own shot of John Waters in a manner that would make even the paparazzi cringe. And yet, despite our many differences, there is something about Chris Marker that always elicits in me a feeling of deep kinship – and not just because we both love cats. The answer, I think, lies in one word: Vertigo.

Chris Marker would never do this.

Two years ago Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) toppled Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) from a perch it held for 50 years as “greatest film of all time” at the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound poll. Personally, I find the idea of naming a “best film of all time” utter nonsense, which is not the same as saying I don’t enjoy the controversies and skirmishes that ensue whenever any such awards or lists inflame public opinion. Quite the opposite, and despite the nonsense of it, I’m a happy proponent of anything that gets people talking passionately about their favorite films.

These conversations, or debates, or arguments, whatever form they may take, they keep the idea of what great cinema should be alive and well. They provide me with the seeds of hope as we enter a strange new age where plummeting theatrical attendance numbers provide one, of many, ominous signs of the possible decline for one of the most promising art forms of the 20th century. A look at the current crop of blockbusters, be it spectacle, be it sequel, be it a blatant excuse to only sell merchandise or a brand, well, it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it? It makes the Transformers byline of Age of Extinction seem a bit too apt. Will great cinema endure well into the 21st century, or will it be overtaken by video games and a rising endemic of fractured attention spans?

As an old-school analog guy who loves his truth (or lies) at 24-frames-a-second I think there’s hope. The digital revolution has even rekindled great cinema in unexpected ways. One example that comes to mind are the endless theories now populating the web thanks in part to screen-grabs easily marked, annotated and shared on the web as they relate to The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). Scoff if you must, but a crowd-sourced frame-by-frame analysis of that particular film has revealed all kinds of hidden treasures. This is tip-of-the-iceberg stuff that used to lurk in bookshelves shared amidst a select few within ivory towers or the the halls of video rental stores, but now it’s everywhere. And that’s a good thing. Young people are paying attention, they are making their own discoveries, and this means passion for a well-crafted feature film is being kept alive for a new generation.

Long before Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012) and the myriad of websites dedicated to all thinks Kubrick, there was Vertigo. Vertigo is a film with mirror-like symmetry, doublings, and Doppelgängers (like The Shining) that deals specifically with obsession, time, madness, death, and questions of free-will and predetermination (again, all issues found in The Shining). The similarities between Hitchcock and Kubrick are many, but there are also enough differences that I’m not interested in making a case for the idea that they reflect each other. They don’t. All I’m suggesting right now is that these two monstrous talents both deserve ongoing incisive analysis by creative obsessives who will joyfully go off the beaten track to make new discoveries about their films.

Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) expands on the possibilities of Vertigo in a completely different way than how Room 237 expands on The Shining, because Marker’s travelogue and video essay format is so uniquely personal, and the way he assembles his ruminations are broader meditations on what time does to us. Marker’s video essays often feel like they are looking at the human condition from the perspective of a compassionate, poetic, time-traveling border-hopper. The Criterion Collection (which released Sans Soleil on Blu-ray alongside La Jetee) sums it up elegantly:

Sans Soleil is Marker’s tour de force as a cinematic essayist, all playful musings and meandering digressions, in which passing observations on such apparently banal subjects as pet cats and video games yield profound insights into the big issues of twentieth-century civilization: history, memory, political power, the function of representation, ritual and time. The premise of Sans Soleil is a woman reading out letters from a globe-trotting cameraman, who we learn in the closing credits is named Sandor Krasna. Krasna is drawn especially to Japan and the former Portuguese West African colonies of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau; he also visits Iceland, Île-de-France, and San Francisco, being obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. (- Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memory’s Apostle)

Here’s where we get back to Chris Marker and Vertigo. Marker was a bit of an obsessive himself and Sandor Krasna is his stand-in. Vertigo consumed Marker in much the way it consumed others, such as me. A visit to San Francisco to people like us was unimaginable without a trip to the Muir Woods or other filming locations that might have been graced by Kim Novak and James Stewart. Our visits to San Francisco were a pilgrimage of sorts. Not just to honor a great film, but because it was a Mecca to one of the greatest films about memory and identity ever made. Are there other great films about memory and identity? Sure. But a trip to the Travel Inn in Tujunga, L.A., where Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) was shot just wouldn’t be the same.

Sans Soleil screens on TCM as part of its daytime theme for Classic Documentaries on July 10th.

For further reading:

Also related to the subject of memory and forgetting:

My favorite picture of Chris Marker.


Posted By Steve Martin : June 30, 2014 4:26 am

” A look at the current crop of blockbusters, be it spectacle, be it sequel, be it a blatant excuse to only sell merchandise or a brand, well, it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?”

That sir, is an understatement of the highest magnitude.

Thanks for a great post.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 30, 2014 3:55 pm

Enjoyed this post immensely, esp. remarks about “crowd” analysis of shots from The Shining.

Posted By Juana Maria : July 7, 2014 1:05 am

Is the first post written by the famous actor Steve Martin? If so, I love your movies!! ;D

Posted By Cjkeep : July 8, 2014 2:55 am

Are you really comparing San Soleil to Room 237? One is mildly interesting as a loosely anthropological study in obsession and conspiracy theory, the other is, well, Chris Marker. Would you compare Proust to the Coles Notes for a Pynchon novel?

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