Opening February 9 as part of the exhibition Event Horizon, Chris Marker’s 1962 film
is the latest piece from the Walker Art Center’s Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection to be screened in the exhibition’s designated space for moving-image works. One of the most thrilling short films of all time, La Jetée —set in post–World War III Paris—follows a survivor who is forced underground by the devastation and radioactivity and becomes part of a disturbing time-travel experiment that transports him to the peaceful past as well as to an imagined future. Hundreds of still photographs create suspense and a sense of movement in this fantastical meditation on the paradoxes of memory and the nature of cinema and the image itself. The 1963 Prix Jean Vigo winner for best short film will be on view through May 2. (1962, 35mm transferred to video, in French with English subtitles, 28 minutes.)
A cinematic essayist and audio-visual poet, Chris Marker was one of the most innovative filmmakers to emerge during the postwar era. Working primarily in the arena of nonfiction, Marker rejected conventional narrative techniques, instead staking out a deeply political terrain defined by the use of still images, atmospheric soundtracks, and literate commentary. Adopting a perspective akin to that of a stranger in a strange land, his films—haunting meditations on the paradox of memory and the manipulation of time—investigated the philosophical implications of understanding the world through media and, by extension, explored the definition of cinema.
Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on July 29, 1921, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, the intensely private and enigmatic Marker shrouded the personal details of his life in mystery. He rarely agreed to interviews, and during his rare tête-à-têtes with the media he was known to provide deliberate misinformation (as a result, some biographies even list him as a native of Outer Mongolia). It is known that during World War II, Marker joined the French Resistance forces (and also, according to myth, the U.S. Army). He later mounted a career as a writer and critic, publishing the novel Veillée de l’homme et de sa liberté in 1949. He also wrote Giraudoux par Lui-Même (1952)—an acclaimed study of the existential dramatist Jean Giraudoux, whose use of abstract narrative tools proved highly influential on Marker’s subsequent film work—and appeared in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema.
At the outset of the 1950s, Marker’s radical politics found a forum in documentary filmmaking, and by 1952 he had completed his first short feature, the 16 mm Olympia 52, a study of the Helsinki Winter Olympics. His first widely acclaimed effort was Les Statues Meurent Aussi (1953), filmed with the assistance of frequent collaborator Alain Resnais. Banned by the French government for over a decade, the film explored the rapid demise of African culture by taking aim at the exploitation of artisans by Western colonialists who encouraged the manufacture and sale of sacred folk art. Ironically, Marker’s most famed film was not a documentary, but his 1962 science fiction masterpiece La Jetée, which later served as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 feature 12 Monkeys.
Marker continued his work throughout the 1970s with Le Train en Marche (1971), La Solitude du Chanteur du Fond (1974), Le Fond de L’air est Rouge (1977), and the multimedia video project Quand le Siécle a Pris Formes (1978). As the 1980s progressed, Marker’s work became more and more dominated by developing technology. Instead of film, he worked increasingly on video, also experimenting with television, computers, and other multimedia outlets. In the fall of 1996, Marker’s video installation Silent Movie was included in the Walker exhibition Chris Marker and William Klein: Silent Movie/Moving Pictures. A retrospective of his films, including La Jetée, accompanied the show. In 1997, he returned to feature filmmaking with Level Five.
Unfolding over a nearly three-year period, Event Horizon showcases the Walker’s holdings of postwar art in the context of the events that produced them, uniting painting, sculpture, and photography with film, performance, and video. Changing selections of moving images from the Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection are screened in an “active zone.” Event Horizon runs through August 26, 2012.