“I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me.” These are some of the first words that come out of the mouth of the narrator in Chris Marker’s essay film Sans Soleil(1983), and in some respects they fittingly sum up the film. Within the confines of the film Marker is constantly recycling, reusing, and re-contextualizing images in order to create a new meaning and he is bold enough to show it to his audience. He is not afraid to give us something we might have already seen or something that appears trivial on the surface. The made up director in the film, who may be a guise for Marker himself, is actually drawn to this kind of “banality” when he records an image. Whether it is literature, world history, politics, or even other films, he often incorporates a multitude of minute and insignificant allusions, but then he is able to give them new life so that they are viewed in a different way. He also juxtaposes the worlds of Tokyo in Japan with Guinea Bissau of Africa to explore ideas of time and place. If nothing else he reinforces the idea that the image is a way to facilitate memory, and oftentimes those memories can change for different people and over time as well. For one person it could be reminiscent of a trip to Tokyo, the day JFK was shot, or even the first time they played Pac-Man. There is no right or wrong way to look at Sans Soleil per se and Chris Marker seems to encourage us to let our minds wander to whatever place they might lead us. In a way it is rather reminiscent to links on Wikipedia. They might start at Heart of Darkness or Jean-Jacques Rousseau only to end with something seemingly unrelated like Vertigo.You just have to allow it to happen.
Initially, the film focuses on a boat carrying a group of tired Japanese travelers into the depths of a place they have not been before; a new point in time so to speak. This metaphor brings to mind an allusion to Joseph Conrad’s imperialist-period novel Heart of Darkness (1902). In that work the main protagonist Marlow travels through the Congo coming face to face with African Natives, untamed terrain, and many colonial settlements. Finally, near the end of his journey into the darkness, he comes across a man named Kurtz who has set himself up as a god. Before his final breath has ceased Kurtz utters one last phrase which is “The Horror, The Horror” (Conrad, 147). In the context of the novella, the words of Kurtz reflect on the horrible thing he has turned into while in the jungle, however on a larger scale his words imply that this “Horror” is because of the colonialism of imperialist nations such as Great Britain, France, and Belgium. Interestingly enough Marker uses this allusion loosely with the two nations he focuses on. The Japanese were an imperialist powerhouse during the 20thcentury, and as a nation they are a mixture of the ultra-modern with the ancient. Guinea Bissau on the other hand correlates with the African people in Heart of Darkness. They are still relatively infants in their freedom and they have been affected by “The Horror” of this colonization, but they have yet to employ it themselves. Instead they threw off the shackles of the Portuguese so that they could live freely apart from a Mother country. Going back to the Japanese people on the boat, this is a rather mundane and dare I say banal image. It seems to be a far cry from “The Horror” that Kurtz was speaking of since all we witness are people sleeping or reading. It is more pitiful than anything because we see the
exhaustion and defenselessness of these travelers. If we take a look at the images (Frame grab 1), it becomes obvious that they are not conscious of their surroundings whatsoever. Most of the shots are close ups with very little movement aside from the rocking of the boat. The camera catches them at their most vulnerable, but we still have yet to truly understand these people or “The Horror” of society as a whole. We can only assume from what we know of our own experiences, what is in the near future, whether it is the horror of a Cambodian massacre, a presidential assassination, or something entirely different. However, through the upcoming images the director will help us make connections, with images, words, and the reconfiguring of images.
Later on in the film, there is a cut to the grave of the noteworthy French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The only thing that can be heard is a loudspeaker off in the distance, but if we know anything about this thinker, numerous things could come to mind. For instance his well-known book the Social Contract, considered the reconciliation of the freedom of the people with the power of the state. His overarching conclusion known as “the general will” assumes that the collective will of an entire group of people is taken up by all, so in other words “the general will is the source of law and is willed by each and every citizen” (plato.stanford.edu). Thus, as a people they are able to remain free, because although they subject themselves to the law, it is a law that they accept. It is interesting that instead of an actual image of Rousseau we are given images of his tomb. In place of giving us a concrete depiction of him it only gives us an essence of who he was and so opposed to getting caught up on Rousseau the man, it seems to make us concentrate on his actual ideas like the general will. Curiously enough Rousseau is followed by still images of Cambodia where men are being violently tortured and killed. Without getting too much into the politics of that nation it is safe to say that the Cambodian regime certainly does not reflect the ideals of an 18th century thinker such as Rousseau. The images are at times gory and they bring to mind the bloodshed of the French Revolution which was, in its self, probably a far cry from what Rousseau had envisioned for his homeland during his life time. In the same way that images can be altered and resituated within new context, the ideas of Rousseau were radicalized and applied by the Revolutionaries to fit their own agenda. They made Rousseau into a national hero and moved his remains, along with another mythical hero Voltaire, to Paris in 1794 (www.historyguide.org). By that point these men meant something else entirely to this new radical generation and they effectively became emblems of free will and nationalistic pride. That is the power of re-contextualization and the passage of time as well. Rousseau probably would not be buried where he is if it was not for the reframing of his ideas. It also brings into question what Rousseau would have thought of our modern generation. With the loudspeaker constantly booming would he be rolling in his grave appalled at the state of things or would he marvel at the marginal advances of representative government worldwide? Who knows?
The next allusion that needs to be acknowledged is from the film Apocalypse Now (1979). It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola but more importantly it transposes the storyline of Heart of Darkness to Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Marlon Brando is an American commander who has gone rogue in Cambodia so a young soldier (Martin Sheen) is sent in to terminate him. Along his hellish journey Captain Willard gets ambushed on the river, witnesses the killing of numerous natives, and gets ever more anxious as they enter deeper into the darkness that engulfs Kurtz. Coppola himself reframes the story of Conrad and re-contextualizes it to fit into the contemporary moment of the 1970s and American involvement in Vietnam (www.filmsite.org). In Sans Soleil, following the initial allusion to the boat in Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now can actually be heard for a brief moment. Fittingly it comes right after the still images of natives getting maimed and murdered (Frame grab 2), reflecting the words, “The Horror, The Horror.” It is one of these meta moments where the line is taken from the novella, applied to the film, and finally recycled once again in Sans Soleil. We hear the mumbling voice of Brando as the gruesome images flash upon the screen. At first he is inaudible but he finally murmurs that “Horror has a face and a name” and “you must make a friend of horror” (Sans Soleil). These are rather cryptic words but it might be surmised that by making “a friend of horror,” Kurtz accepted his rogue actions in Cambodia. In a sense he has changed the “face” and the “name” of horror and re-defined it so it is more tolerable for him. A reason not to believe Kurtz is the fact that he is an unreliable source because he has literally gone mad in the jungle. Rather ironically, his advice is in complete contrast with the images flashing across the screen. The
images of the people being impaled and slaughtered should never and can never be renamed (Frame grab 2). In my mind, there is no way to justify it as a cleansing or any other sanitized label. It is and always will be genocide no matter what way you look at it. Despite the fact that they are drawings, these images are so graphic it almost makes us want to omit them. However, they are necessary so that these memories are not disregarded or sterilized in some way. Looking more closely at this still image, a man is getting stabbed in the eye and the chest by two unknown torturers. We do not know what he did to deserve this and we may never know. Although the progression of images is almost like a slide show reframed on a TV, the effect is still disconcerting possibly because it quickly cuts to a new image after this very deliberate pace. The change in pace is thus very noticeable and uncomfortable to the eye suggesting all is not right here. Sans Soleil, as an essay film may not be making these arguments per se, but the particular images and allusions that are put together allow the audience to contrive their own opinions. In this way each viewer is able to subject themselves to these images and take away only what they deem to be important.
It is not a major part of the film but just briefly the narrator mentions how she learned about the dog Hachiko, who gained fame because he would loyally wait for his master to come home every day. Unknowingly he even waited expectantly for his master the day the man died and the faithful canine continued to wait for his master for 10 years. Hachiko died in 1935 but later on a statue was erected in his honor and he has become an icon in Japanese culture (ajw.asahi.com). The statue of Hachiko is reminiscent of the shrine to cats and it exemplifies the sacredness or at least the importance that animals have in Japanese culture. It is in complete contrast with the giraffe getting gunned down on the African savannah and being left to the vultures. As the narrator goes on to say, Tokyo is a city “full of these tiny legends and mediating animals” (Sans Soleil). This is an interesting comment because although Hachiko was in fact real, in a way he has become a “tiny legend” since films and the Japanese people have continued to relate his stories all these years. Furthermore, Hachiko is no longer seen as just a loyal dog but an actual sacred being that still has a spirit watching over and “mediating” on behalf of the Japanese population. Rather reminiscent of Rousseau’s symbolism in a way, Hachiko has a legacy that is a symbol of loyalty just as Rousseau was an icon of the French Revolution. Furthermore, just as Rousseau’s tomb holds his essence, the statue of Hachiko keeps him alive in a way, so that modern generations will not forget. Hachiko’s statue is surrounded by numerous young people in contemporary Japan, revealing that even such an old story like Hachiko’s is immersed in Japanese culture, representing the constant mixing of the old and the new. You can gather from the images that the Japanese still recognize the importance of Hachiko, because he is not simply a tourist attraction. In the same way that Marker never shows us an actual image of Rousseau we do not see the actual Hachiko either, thus creating a type of aura around them. In a way it seems ridiculous to compare a dog with a philosopher, and yet within this film they both hold about the same amount of screen time. By reusing these historical tidbits, he allows us to develop our own conclusions about them without weighting one above the other. To him the tomb of Rousseau and the statue of Hachiko are just images and the implications of those pictures are for someone else to decipher. In other words, Marker is not going to waste valuable time trying to explain himself, he is simply feeding us these images to digest and ruminate on.
A rather odd historical allusion in the film is the robotic John F. Kennedy in the department store (Frame grab 3). As bemused Japanese customers stand around, the fake JFK can be heard saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” with a sugary jingle playing in the background as if it’s a circus attraction (Sans Soleil). The camera pans around the audience twice and intercuts images of the Kennedy robot. It seems strikingly similar to the crowds milling around Hachiko and yet in this case you get the sense that JFK is more of a novelty. He is more a joke than anything because after all his lips move when he is not talking and his fingers bend awkwardly. He is little more than a marketing ploy who represents the prototypical American. However put in context, his famous words were uttered on January 20, 1961 during the inaugural address after he beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential election (www.ushistory.org). The Democrats were victorious and the Republicans stood defeated. On Kennedy’s plate were the Cold War, Civil Rights, the Space Race, and soon the Cuban Missile Crisis which would be no joking matter (www.whitehouse.gov). This was probably not going through the heads of these Japanese bystanders who are just eager to buy clothes, but to a different audience this recycled line holds significance. To some it would seem irreverent to have JFK speaking almost like he is a sideshow attraction because of another piece of history. Over two years later on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was on a tour with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Then, as they rounded the corner near the Texas School Book Depository, Kennedy was shot in the head several times before slumping in the back seat of the presidential car. They would take him to Parkland Memorial Hospital and soon the 35th president would be pronounced dead (www.jfklibrary.org). Since Kennedy was assassinated it seems disrespectful to his legacy to have a robotic version of him let loose in Japan. Of course this comes from the point of view of an American. Furthermore, to the attuned American eye the stiff figure looks nothing like the president and the only thing that truly signifies him is the recording of his prominent Boston accent. For Americans, living and dead, JFK was a promising man who reflected the idealism of the early 1960s. However, his tragic death in a way also caused the country to lose some of that naiveté and the rest of the 1960s became a period known for social unrest, rebellion, and counter-culture. Perhaps in the same way that Rousseau has meaning to the French, or Hachiko has importance to the Japanese, Kennedy has the same type of importance to Americans. Could it be that culturally boundaries make us ignorant of social significance? Also, this poses the idea that our point of view entering Sans Soleil is so important in how we go into the film. Recycled images or re-contextualized images can be lost in translation and they can also create varying degrees of meaning depending on who views them. Chris Marker puts all these various elements in front of us and the remarkable thing is that for every ethnicity, culture, and age group, there is a varying connotation given off by each one.
When you think about Japan you are bound to arrive at video games eventually and what better place to start than Pac-Man. The idea came to the Japanese creator Toru Iwatami while he was eating a pizza no less, and it led him to create a pizza pie-shaped Pac-Man. In the following years the Guinness World Record Book would name it the most successful coin operated game of all time (pacman.com). Thus, to a group of viewers in the 80s it probably seemed commonplace to them because it no doubt could be found around every corner along with pay phones, and newspaper stands. Even now in the 21st century, Pac-Man is still well known and it has gained a kind a classic status in video game lore. It is one of the archetypes when society thinks of video games. Once again the director takes something as mundane and iconic as Pac-Man and assimilates it into his film. An audience would probably never consider this but the narrator suggests that “the philosophy of our time is contained in the Pac-Man.” Is that to say that for the French their philosophy came from Rousseau and we have reached such dire straits that ours now comes from Pac-Man? Yes and no. This might seem like a rather odd statement but in a way “he is the perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate” since there constantly is a “balance of power between the individual and the environment” (Sans Soleil). The image of Pac-Man is certainly banal, and yet in some respects this metaphor is absolutely true. The character of Pac-Man is the everyman. He, like every human, enters the world trying to complete a task whether it is holding a job or raising a family. However, sometimes the environment he lives in will beat him and at a certain point, despite how successful he is in this endeavor, there comes a time when he must resign himself to defeat. Obviously, the philosophy of our time is a little more complex than that, but Pac-Man represents one general idea that still stands true to this day. No one wants lose and not very many people want to die either, no matter how successful they are. Once again Marker shows that cultural artifacts such as a tomb, a statue, a mall robot, or even a video game can speak to us. They have multiple meanings and these implications can be altered when they are reshuffled and shown to us in a new way. That is the power of this so called remixing of images.
Vertigo is one of the most talked about films of all time and yet Chris Marker still finds a new way to go about it. The psychological thriller, directed by Alfred Hitchcock was not a box office success but over the years it has been touted by critics and historians as one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements. Just this last year it toppled Citizen Kane’s reign in the Sight & Sound Magazine poll of the greatest films of all time (www.theguardian.com). It is a mystery and character study that chronicles the investigations of a former policeman with vertigo (James Stewart), who agrees to shadow the beautiful wife of an old school chum. He follows her all through San Franscisco and over time he becomes entranced by the ghost-like waif named Madeleine (Kim Novak). However, in one torturous moment Scottie loses her forever when she dies. As he spirals into depression, he cannot get himself to forget the beautiful woman who is now dead. However, he finds another girl who looks strikingly similar and obsessively transforms her into a new version of Madeleine. In the eyes of Sans Soleil’s director, Vertigois one of the only films that was able to portray “insane memory” (Sans Soleil). Chris Marker seems to have a fascination with memory since his whole film appears to contemplate time, place, and memory in some way. What makes Vertigo so unique is indeed this “insane memory” which we are never able to quite decipher completely. Scottie is supposed to be “the hunter,” and Madeleine “the prey,” then again “is it the other way around?” Scottie is not right in the head because he has an almost “insane” obsession with the memory of Madeleine. His life forever revolves around that memory and there is no way for him to get away from that time and place when Madeleine was still alive. He has a physical vertigo certainly but also a psychological vertigo that messes with his mind and constantly causes him to cycle back to thinking of Madeleine. In reality, could it be that “this vertigo of space and reality stands for the vertigo of time?” (Sans Soleil). Perhaps this is the same “vertigo of time” that Marker is experimenting with. Through the reuse and re-contextualizing of images he is creating his own type of “vertigo of time.” At times it is dizzying, disorienting, and frightening. What we assumed a certain image to be can be completely different based on the images that come before and after or the words of the narrator which overlap. Upon retracing the steps of the film it was found that “A small Victorian hotel where Madeleine disappeared had disappeared itself” (Sans
Soleil). This suggests a transience of time and place. Just like that, Madeleine was gone within the film, and again just like that, the hotel is gone in reality (Frame grabs 4 and 5). Marker mixes stills and live footage that allows us to distinguish the original film from his own retracing. If it was not for the before and after shots, as an audience we probably would not know the changes that occurred. A hotel has been
replaced by concrete, yes, but it also suggests even greater changes that have happened since 1958 or even 1983 when Sans Soleil was released. Scottie is traumatized by this passage of time that he relies so heavily on his memory and even tries to replicate it. However, if memory is not always reliable it simply extenuates this dizzying “vertigo of time.” When you begin on this path of thought it truly does become disorienting and at the same time mesmerizing. As an audience we follow the director who is in turn retracing Scottie’s footsteps within the film. This retracing creates a meta moment within Marker’s film that still further suggests this “spiral time” that constantly seems to be cycling (Sans Soleil). Just entering into this spiral of discussion makes my head spin and ache because it can just keep on going forever. That is part of the fascination with the film because there is this delusion that time and place can constantly repeat in this manner. However, when Madeleine motions at the rings on a tree stump she acknowledges that “Here I was born and here I died” (Sans Soleil). It is another rather strange comparison, but this brings up a possible connection between the film and Pac-Man. Like Pac-Man who will eventually cycle through his existence in the game and ultimately be defeated, Madeleine too will progress through her lifetime from birth until death, much in the same way. In fact, the rings of the tree stump are yet another metaphor for this constant “spiral of time” at the core of Vertigo. It can never be eluded because life in itself is a dizzying cycle.
This machine Marker has created in Sans Soleil is constantly regurgitating images and spewing out words as well. However, he does it in such a way that meets the audience and truly channels not only their memories but different times and places in their lives. It may be for only a brief moment or Marker might return to an idea several times, but his film is constantly going through progressions. This parallelism of images actually serves to create an ever growing web of connections in the mind of the viewer. An article just last month christened Marker “the Last Encylopediste” (www.bostonglobe.com). It might seem like a rather strange title, but it is so fitting for Marker and Sans Soleil as a film. Following the Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot and before the formation of Wikipedia, there was Chris Marker. His film is a database full of information on Heart of Darkness, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Apocalypse Now, Hatchiko the dog, JFK, Pac-Man, Vertigo, and much more. To put it more exactly his film is a jumping off point allowing our brains to be their own Wikipedia, creating links between what he has supplied. Sans Soleil sends our minds on a, non-drug related, trip. Just as Marker traveled the world from Japan to Guinea Bissau, we are able to take our memories any which way that we should fancy. Do yourself a favor by not dismissing this film, because it actually might pertain to you. Quiet your mind and focus your eyes and ears. Take a moment to contemplate the place and time that encompasses a little something we call life. Embrace the banal and allow the vertigo to set in. The question is are you ready? Here the cycle begins again. “The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965…”