Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Memory Transfixed by Images: A Cross-Cultural and Semiotic Approach to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil
Abstract: This article studies some aspects of mythmaking in the Chris Marker’s documentary Sunless. We focus mainly on cross-cultural references and semiotic features which enable us to take different angles in our analysis. Some theoretical prerequisites capture the concept of hypermodern global media as the key concept for approaches like Marker’s documentaries. As a cult author in the field, Chris Marker goes beyond the usual patterns in directing and editing documentaries and develops a personal philosophy of visual essay and travelogues. Posing social problems such as time, history, war, poverty, happiness and so on, he tries to capture a genuine intuition on personal and collective memory and its imagistic construction; hence, his peculiar mode of film editing and the social issues developed in his works. We undertake an inquiry into his prospects within a philosophical (Heidegger, Bergson), anthropological (Lipovetsky, McLuhan, Baudrillard) and semiotic (Peirce) framework, and also briefly refer to contemporary filmmakers (Tarkovsky, Godard, Fassbinder, Kubrick, Fricke, Nolan, Jarmusch, Allen, Malick) and some of their works in the field.
Kewwords: Chris Marker; documentary; visual essay; travelogue; hypermodern media, mythmaking; fiction; time; history; memory; image; signs.
1. Cinematic mythmaking in the context of hypermodern global media
Movies stand for one of the fundamental paradigms of cultural creativity. As a work of art, film is far from having established a singular place within people’s aesthetic conscience. Visual culture is, without any shadow of a doubt, a mass process, an integrative form of culture that squeezes, purifies, and reduces reality to some patterns that are further employed in the process of its intensive reinterpretation. It is most certain that a semantics of limits rules cinematic mythmaking. However, these limits are permanently projected within a conceptual abyss and necessarily put in connection with changes in mentality and technological novelty. The cartoons heroes (Batman, Superman, Ironman, X-Men, Nick Fury and so on) or mythical figures (Thor, Beowulf, Perseus, Hercules and so on) receive now a special treatment in great cinematic productions and, subsequently, their biography is constantly extended and shaped in order to respond to the actual needs or desires of the audience and to give a coherent vision of the character. At the same time, these heroes act in worlds that are built up on attempts of explaining the mysteries of science, rather than on pure science-fiction grounds. Of course, special effects make all look more real and, at the same time, more synthetic. Movies outreach reality on this side of development, as they make reality look like a mere copy or a shadow of something that underlies it, whereas fiction is made to look like the original, genuine set of things.
In Gilles Lipovetsky’s terms, we live a process of “cinématographisation du monde, vision écranique du monde faite de la combinaison du grand spectacle, des célébrités et du divertissement. “ Every single event is recorded and transposed superlatively, grandiosely. The screen supports IMAX format, 3-D format etc. Visual poems created by Ron Fricke (Chronos, Sacred Site, Baraka, Samsara) develop a thematic which exports the eternity of the world and, implicitly, the eternity of images (a quality masterfully achieved, as we may discover in the next sections of the present study, in Chris Marker’s Sunless, which was voted in 2014, at the Sight and Sound poll, the third best documentary film of all time) within the very core of the global media matrix. Stunning images cover the entire universe, filter and reconfigure it through subjective perspectives. It is the case, for instance, of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Voyage of Time (2014), a documentary which is considered for now a project in progress, which would deal with the birth and death of our known universe.
Film production grew in a period of cultural feverishness, as beginning in the 1920s-30s, it brought a fresh air, an emergent modernity into the landscape of the 20th century. While the cinema stars were becoming brands internationally acknowledged, a series of mutations shaped the way of managing cultural resources in front of the new economic and financial expectations. Modernity and post-modernity made possible the creation of a “global screen” pattern, which was intuited by Lipovetsky as a landmark for a new mentality in respect to mass cultures and to the modern myth of the moving image itself. Some technical aspects of the modern cinematic mythmaking recall: a spectacular coproduction that covers actors and technical staff from various countries, very expensive stars who are also recruited for advertising campaigns, the corporate nature of the cinematic industry, which is now symbolized by Hollywood – elements that clear the path for the emergence of the so-called “hypermodern cinema,” which is revelatory for the cultural trends of the 21st century. On this trail, Susan Hayward shows how meaning is projected, through connotation, into an iconic myth-structure: a picture of Marilyn Monroe is almost automatically associated by the audience with some specific / archetypal qualities that transform the real person Marilyn Monroe into a star. If the picture recalls the golden age of her artistic trajectory, then charm, beauty, glamour, sensuality would be on top of the list. Conversely, if the picture recalls her artistic twilight, then depression, drug abuse, death would be the signs projected by the audience. Afterwards, for the myth-structure to take its course, the symbol represented by Monroe, which is the sum of all these qualities or symptoms, is transferred to a higher level – the myth of Hollywood, the factory of dreams that produces glamour, charm, beauty and so on and, at the same time, the infernal machine that eventually ends up destroying the stars it has created, squeezing them in the run for profit or other insane goals.
The global screen is the expression or the symptom of a technological proliferation, but also the conditional reflex of a huge appetite for exposing sensations in the most straightforward way possible. Of course, the intermediate role of the screen does not alter the catharsis that emerges in cinematic experiences, as if modern cinema could repeat, in a post-historical cycle, the condition of ancient theatres, where the audience’s feelings and sensations were flowing into a torrent of cathartic emanations. Cinema is part of a new modern, rhetorical and mythical order in which the sequences of cosmic memory are nutrients for the post-modern spleen. Nowadays, cinemas in malls have great opportunities for development, despite the technologies that prove themselves to be very useful for home watching experiences (home cinema systems, projectors etc.) or any-place quick visioning experiences (mobiles, iPads, iPhones etc.). However cinematographs preserve a social dimension, within constant rituals made for the modern cathedrals that the malls are.
Subsequently, cinematic production rises exponentially. Whereas the first years of this revolutionary art production were limited to a few movies per year (which were usually short ones), when sound movies entered the scene production began to grow spectacularly. Creating the image of a star worked hand in hand with a proportional growth in the costs of production, which included prices for promoting materials like posters and so forth. Stars became leaders of opinion, with a huge influence over the masses. Thus the cinematic spectacle subsumes itself to the general spectacle of society, in the middle of which each individual sees himself as an actor. A kind of cinematic voyeurism animates the entire post-modern society. Globalization and corporate industry gradually transformed cinema into a highly reliable medium for receptivity and availability to assimilate new opinions. Christopher Nolan’s Inception is the classic example: inseminating an idea in a dream within another dream shows the way of how cinematic medium actually works. At subconscious levels in watchers’ mind, an idea is seeded in order to generate a virtually never ending cinematic mythmaking.
Without closing a certain polemic dimension in respect to the traditional arts, “le cinéma est devenu un cercle don’t le cercle est partout et la circonférence nulle part,” Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009) applies exactly the same idea at the level of the story, which is developed on amortized sequences. Along with the implicit elements of inter-text or trans-text, the discursive strategy settles simultaneous plots, exposes artistic strategies, and reconfigures them in exponential loops. Cinema becomes the perfect medium for mythmaking, or for myth-recycling. In this respect, Woody Allen’s movies reveal the phantasmatic essence of the moving image. For instance, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) develops a character specific to the movies of the thirties who literally comes out from the screen and falls in love with a “real” woman, a woman from the reality before the screen within the screen. We may conclude that the screen is seen, at an extremely symbolically refined level of interpretation, as a portal between fictional worlds, places or times. Being the highest landmark in fiction making, the screen delineates, classifies, re-orientates, and induces cultural projects. This is, in fact, the most powerful iconic expression of cinematic mythmaking in creative cores of meaning. Post-historical autism undergoes, in matter of image, supreme democratization: “Nous sommes moins à l’heure de la prolétarisation du consommateur et de la destruction des existences singulières qu’à celle de l’artialisation généralisée des goûts et des modes d’existence.” Equally, “Ce que l’univers écranique a apporté à l’homme hypermoderne, c’est moins, comme on l’affirme trop souvent, le règne de l’aliénation totale qu’une puissance nouvelle de recul critique, de détachement ironique, de jugement et des désirs esthétiques. La singularisation a plus gagné que le moutonnement grégaire.” In a proper manner, we cannot speak of an aesthetic standardization in matters of public tastes and rules, but of a process through which screens become not dividing walls, but pervasive buffers between sparks of vision. The 21st-century Zeitgeist grows on popular statistics mounted on advertising backgrounds. Hence, we are able to notice the supremacy of visual culture in the media field of myth creation, as it benefits from related industries, such as commercials, which are complementary at the least to cinematic production.
One of the necessities of filmmakers nowadays consists in filling some blanks through illusions of anti-memoirs, as Malraux did in his Le musée imaginaire. This task brings forth many cineastes. We may include here brief notations of filmmakers dealing with short movies and, at the same time, epic developments made by great cineastes such as Stanley Kubrick (2001 A Space Odyssey), Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, where the zone is a privileged place of finding oneself in the realm of pure consciousness), Raoul Ruiz (Le colloque des chiens), Wim Wenders (Alice in den Städten), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, Fata Morgana), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Welt am Draht). Other cineastes, among whom we recall Chris Marker at the top of the hierarchy, approached the essayistic documentary: Leo Hurwitz (Dialogue with a Woman Departed), Harun Farocki (Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges), Ron Fricke (Chronos, Sacred Site, Baraka, Samsara), Johan Grimonprez (Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Double Take), Ben Rivers (Slow Action), James June Schneider (Jean Epstein, la mer lyrosophe), Bill Morrison (Decasia, Spark of Being), Dustin Thompson (The Travelogues), Eve Sussman (Whiteonwhite: Algorithmicnoir aka RUFUS Corporation), Ozan Adam (Zymotic Amaurosis) – to cite only some of the resonant names in the field. They assign their visual essays several dimensions of an inter-generational dialectics and project particular mythologies within a discursive universe ruled by existentialism and post-modernity. The contemporary cinematic essays develop elder lines, which can be eventually traced in the work of Luis Buñuel, Joris Ivens, Jean Epstein, Jean Cocteau, Hans Richter, Sergei Eisenstein, G.W. Pabst, F.W. Murnau, Ingmar Bergman, Maya Deren, and so on.
In consonance with these allegations, if we were to make an in-depth analysis of the evolution of movies from the perspective of their identity, beginning with the Lumière brothers and the objective realism of the 1920s and 1930s, until the Avant-garde and experimentalist movements created in the postwar period, we will be clearly able to notice several lines of development that occurred. The zone where film would have gained its full autonomy as a result of the sensibility activated dynamically and counterfactually within the individual perspectives / visions of the world is post-modernity or, as Lipovetsky preferred to say, “Hypermodernity.” From this viewpoint, by reminding the audience what surrealism brought against traditional forms of art that were impoverished from a creative vein, Chris Marker captures, in a documentary called Le souvenir d’un avenir aka Remembrance of things to come (2003), the polemic spirit by means of which a radical creativity imposes movies in the conscience of public opinion. The sequences of criticism, which are characterized by a native talent in the field, reveal the hard work, the solid gathering of information, the discipline of thought, and a strong lucidity. The axiological allegations Marker expresses are made straightforwardly, without any hesitations what so ever. The Surrealist Avant-garde movement, transfixed in a cinematic mood, exposes a creative destiny that assumes subjacent prefigured lines, projected afterwards on the fuzzy background of paradigms shifting.
2. Chris Marker’s Sunless as a cinematic essay in cross-cultural references
Chris Marker is a filmmaker who channeled all his efforts to expand individual and collective social memory into capsules of moving images, beyond the flow of time and the abstruse and horrifying condition of history. He focused on specialized artistic genres, such as: cinematic essays (La solitude d’un chanteur de fond ; Junkopia ; Sans soleil), photographic essays (La Jetée ; Le souvenir d’un avenir), travelogues (Les statues meurent aussi ; Lettre de Sibérie ; Le train en marche ; Sans soleil ; Tokio Days), political documentaries (Description d’un combat ; Le joli mai ; Loin du Vietnam ; La sixième face du pentagone ; Classe de lutte ; La bataille des dix millions ; On vous parle du Chili : ce que disait Allende ; L’ambassade ; Sans soleil ; Le fond de l’air est rouge ; Matta ’85 ; Détour Ceausescu ; Berliner Ballade ; Le 20 heures dans les camps ; Casque Bleu ; Level Five ; Un maire au Kosovo ; Chats perchés), a rethinking of memory and the moving image for the digital age on CD-ROM (Immemory, 1998) – a sort of virtual audio-video installation governed by syncretism and which combines painting, sculpture, music, video sequences, etc. However, his documentaries could be seen globally as visual poems. They combine all sort of cinematic techniques (photography, painting, animation, cartoons, musical interlaces, digressions and cross-references to some extended fields of the global cultural heritage) and, at the same time, project the topics within a larger philosophical field in which narrative is structured by deep insights, historical viewpoints, wit, irony, passionate critical walks, and lucid analyses in speculative tone. Marker develops on intuitive routes the concepts of “lost time” (Proust) and “imaginary museum” (Malraux), following, through still or moving images and the strings of music attached, an effort of recovering a personal mythology within the mankind spiritual legacy. Such mythology would concern aspects as: the mythical image of childhood as a lost Paradise, the nostalgia of the abandoned place etc. Sunless is a powerful cinematic essay in which a modern intellectual expresses himself and the conscience of a Zeitgeist, a place and a time perceived under cultural memory via nostalgia or reproach.
In his 1983 Sunless, Chris Marker reaches a peak in his work. In the 1 hour and 45 minutes of film, he manages to build a cross-oriented essayistic documentary, in which “there is a tension between the politically committed, self-effacing, leftwing documentarist of the Thirties / Ivens tendency, and an irrepressibly Montaignesque personal tone”. Mostly all the “events” or the “characters” in this visual essay are fictive. The musical score plays an important role in the mixed texture of the footage. It is as if the entire travelogue was encompassed by a sweet and sorrow familiar soundscape, creating the perfect melancholic tone for a meditation on human condition.
By modifying / altering the perception of the external world captured in the raw footage, the confessive voice of fictitious cameraman Sandor Krasna designs its own reflexive space-time continuum, searching for generality within immediate experience, and impersonality within subjective train of thoughts. The stream of authenticity provided by Sandor Krasna’s letters to an unknown woman (the female narrator interpreted by Alexandra Stewart for the English version) explores modes of perceiving reality in its most genuine states, as well as modes of assigning meanings to a universe projected into an ideal world expanded from behind the camera and regained into a synthetic and stylized structure on screen. Life itself is lived on screen, with all its contingencies and low frequency streams filtered. From the very beginning, Sandor Krasna is exposing the way in which memory, image, and time could be related to cinematic mythmaking:
The first image he told me about was of three children on a road inIceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.
In our mind, a subtle recall is made: in the first paragraphs of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince the narrator is talking about his first sketches as a child and about him being ridiculously treated by the grown-ups, who perceive in his representations only the black shape of a hat, not the scary scene of a boa eating an elephant as the child envisioned. Marker stresses the same point in his first monologue: Happiness is rendered trivial by those who are not able to cope with themselves and their social responsibility. From this moment on, memory ceases to exist as a collective bomb timer only to become an open invitation for the aesthetic reordering of the past. Regarding time from two metaphysical perspectives, opposed to that of the Western civilization, means in fact for Krasna a process of resizing the entire knowledge about the Universe and about human beings in the cultural clash at the agitated end of a millennium:
He contrasted African time to European time, and also to Asian time. He said that in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time. (…) I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?
Time is framed by mythical visions of death. The Asian culture imagines death as a partition separating life from its counterpart. Death is a zone in which mind cannot reach, and it stays inaccessible for the livings, although they try to break through the partition in order to grasp the two worlds in collision. On the other hand, for the African culture death is a silent insular trip, involving a mythical scenario that was later on captured by Jim Jarmusch in his 1995 film Dead Man:
I’ve heard this sentence: “The partition that separates life from death does not appear so thick to us as it does to a Westerner.”What I have read most often in the eyes of people about to die is surprise. What I read right now in the eyes of Japanese children is curiosity, as if they were trying – in order to understand the death of an animal – to stare through the partition. I have returned from a country where death is not a partition to cross through but a road to follow. The great ancestor of the Bijagós archipelago has described for us the itinerary of the dead and how they move from island to island according to a rigorous protocol until they come to the last beach where they wait for the ship that will take them to the other world. If by accident one should meet them, it is above all imperative not to recognize them.
The life and death duality generates another duality, that of a world of essences and a world of shadows. Chris Marker makes his point in this respect: images substitute real things (historical facts or figures, actual happenings, all aspects of human societies) shaping a new flow of information. Individuals become subjects and, moreover, subject-matters in a collective dream, thus operating within an illusory frame of mass perception / deception. The brain in the vat argument may be recalled just to illustrate the permanent reversing cycle of the image-sound flood, into hypnotic levels of subconscious lethargy. A limitless matrix encompasses dazzled individuals and separates banality (in fact, the horror and the sufferance of their daily reality) from its pure aesthetic beauty counterpart. Images on the road appear transfixed, separated from their subjacent projectors, in the very fabric of cultural memory.
Rich and hurried Japanese take the plane, others take the ferry: waiting, immobility, snatches of sleep. Curiously all of that makes me think of a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life. He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories. He wrote: I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. On this trip I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter. (…) And beneath each of these faces a memory. And in place of what we were told had been forged into a collective memory, a thousand memories of men who parade their personal laceration in the great wound of history.
On this account, the trip Sandor Krasna makes resembles to a psychedelic dream, in which he stages his own ultimate trip to the beach of eternal bliss. The labyrinth he randomly follows gives him the opportunity to fulfill an artistic goal, the ultimate film. This film is projected by the flow of his memory, working much in the way of each artist’s time of creation works: suspension in physical / conventional time and connection / transgression in the quest for a higher sense beyond the turmoil of individual and social textures.
One day he writes to me: description of a dream. More and more my dreams find their settings in the department stores ofTokyo, the subterranean tunnels that extend them and run parallel to the city. A face appears, disappears… a trace is found, is lost. All the folklore of dreams is so much in its place that the next day when I am awake I realize that I continue to seek in the basement labyrinth the presence concealed the night before. I begin to wonder if those dreams are really mine, or if they are part of a totality, of a gigantic collective dream of which the entire city may be the projection. It might suffice to pick up any one of the telephones that are lying around to hear a familiar voice, or the beating of a heart, Sei Shonagon’s for example. (…) The train inhabited by sleeping people puts together all the fragments of dreams, makes a single film of them – the ultimate film. The tickets from the automatic dispenser grant admission to the show.
Memory assigns history value and meaning, despite the fact that “empty bottles” fill the road to happiness. Memory shifting makes possible what Baudrillard called the “reversibility”, television watching spectators and shaping all their lives. It is a concept that Marker often explores in his visual essays. For instance, when he refers to a sumo contest, Sandor Krasna feels that Japanese television restores the ancient memory boxes: “The television screens for example; all by themselves they created an itinerary that sometimes wound up in unexpected curves.” But the idea of this post-structural reversibility in visual media is connected to a mythical perspective, the spirit of Daruma and the magical function of its eye. Nowadays, even quantum physics embraces the idea that the observer, or the experiencer, plays an important role in the modulation of matter on the wave / particle duality and, moreover, in the predictable “subjective” way in which particles behave when observed by external watchers. At some degrees of electromagnetic interference, the subjective manner in which the beam of light could be molded puts the power of intentionality at stake:
But the more you watch Japanese television… the more you feel it’s watching you. Even television newscast bears witness to the fact that the magical function of the eye is at the center of all things. It’s election time: the winning candidates black out the empty eye of Daruma – the spirit of luck – while losing candidates – sad but dignified – carry off their one-eyed Daruma.
The “two extreme poles of survival”, Japanand Guinea-Bissau, are subjected to several references to Western social and political realities as counterpoints in a battle of ideas. The West would be imagined not as a mirage of social and professional equilibrium, as it usually is, but as a point of no return for personal dignity. The West becomes a space of disappointment, frustration, dissatisfaction that have been accumulated over the years. Almost instantly, the reverse of the idealistic dreams of the western civilization are slightly, although not overtly evoked: the crises of Capitalism, globalization, the utopia of liberty, the mass-concentration of the individuals, standardization, machinery, consumerism, and the great financial schemes. All these western plagues capture the problems of a never ending changing society. Japanand Guinea-Bissau, in their turn, expand two wounds in history, parallel sufferance within parallel worlds. History is seen as a source of alienation, and not only as a reaction to the horrors dealt with in wars. At some point, a reference to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now gives opportunity to define horror as an incarnation of evil (“horror has a face and a name”) perpetuated by the mad flow of History.
In Japan, “the commercial becomes a kind of haiku to the eye, used to Western atrocities in this field; not understanding obviously adds to the pleasure”. Thus a symbiosis is created between cinematic industry (an industry of collective self-induced illusions) and advertising industry (which does not necessarily promote truth but, instead, as in politics, functions in order to sell the products or the services they reflect). Mythmaking operates within this connection with full employment. The very moment in which stars exhibit their personal touches at different levels of society, the modern myth of success becomes a self-generating process, a diffuse one, in the sense that stars confound themselves with the image they project and, in the opposite manner, the social, somehow external interface becomes a legacy of the stars, hence generating loops of “simulacra”. These loops animate any project related to visual culture whatsoever. In this manner, the problem of the reference in the cinematic mythmaking industry becomes as intricate as many movies are generated by conceptual filtering.
As for the relationship between Vertigo and Sunless, many unifying factors occur. Usually, a movie which becomes a brand may influence cinematic schools. However, the influence does not limit itself to this state of affairs. James Stewart and Kim Novak’s characters impose a totally different key of interpretation for the entire scenario of Sunless. By virtue of comprehending that Hitchcock’s film is about time, memory, and signs, Chris Marker expose one of his cultural fetishes. Taking part to the set, Sandor Krasna senses that the heroes create an extension of their own archetypal image as a couple, the relationships provided by their gaze interaction and, therefore, the movie is suspended beyond time in order to capture the “motionless eye”. The vortex of time expands and smashes consciousness into split individualities, but, at some point, one of these individualities attempts to restore the primordial of happiness by trying to break through the tunnel of flesh, history, and social conventions, physical or psychic barriers. It is the case of Scotty, who creates a double for Madeleine, a zone in which his quest for love would transcend space and time altogether. Vertigo is one of the finest movies in film history. Chris Marker evokes this film as being one of the major triggers for his personal touch of memory.
All the legends he recalls, all the ceremonies and the rituals performed, all the animals introduced as symbols for the gods or for intellectual powers are subject to interpretation, pretext for meditative states of mind: Daruma the one-eyed spirit, Tora the cat, the owl, the emus, the giraffe, the moles, the burning dolls, the Kamikaze pilots, the videogames, Amilcar Cabral, Che Guevara, Vertigo – all of them form a web of culture opposed to the mad flow of history. They are the signs of the persistence of memory and at a larger extent they expand their mythical nature over historical facts, creating the impression that the entire reality is nothing but a mythical projection of the eye of the interpreter:
On Hayao’s machine war resembles letters being burned, shredded in a frame of fire. The code name for Pearl Harborwas Tora, Tora, Tora, the name of the cat the couple in Gotokuji was praying for. So all of this will have begun with the name of a cat pronounced three times. OffOkinawa kamikaze dived on the American fleet; they would become a legend. They were likelier material for it obviously than the special units who exposed their prisoners to the bitter frost ofManchuria and then to hot water so as to see how fast flesh separates from the bone.
On such an account, we can expand indefinitely the cross-cultural connections that Sunless provides. The main conclusion we can draw from this section and, implicitly, form the cross-cultural approach, is that history projects itself from something more valuable that sustains it at subjacent subconscious levels of existence: myth. In metaphorical projections, myths become the significant pillars of the world of essences, to which our world of appearances resembles only partially. Mythmaking is the reference point around which all universes of signs turn themselves. The cultural issues depicted in Sunless are shaped and underlined, at a deeper level, by semiotic traits that organize the entire process of interpretation and give the audience the analytical embodiment of ideas generally expressed.
3. Some semiotic features in Chris Marker’s Sunless
Put into a semiotic perspective, Sunless shows a clear vision of reality being cut into pieces or sequences, filtered through the retorts of camera, whereas the process of assigning meanings to this reality captured in streams of images is made through all sort of symbolic connections and, sometimes, it might even go against symbolic rules of engagement. In the same note, the essayistic dimension grasped in Sunless can be settled within the category of a “self-eroding cinema”; a black-hole effect of the filmic discourse can be reached by means of a metaphorization process in which creation absorbs within itself (aka in the process) all the imagistic substance. By launching aesthetic speculations, the cineaste wanders between loose philosophical theory and fresh fiction making, in more or less sophisticated styles. Also, by recurring to a narcissistic technique so that the process of interpretation induced puzzling states of mind, Chris Marker proves an extreme aesthetic sense, a total lack of prejudices or ideological inhibitions, and a unique openness of his opinions.
In order to grasp some inner features that Chris Marker’s documentary illustrates, we rely on some of the pretty accurate Ch. S. Peirce’s ideas about the sign development and the process of interpretation. Charles Sanders Peirce was concerned with the problem of the infinite semeiosis. Following insights from Plato’s philosophy, Peirce expands the fact that knowledge generated through simple opinions is not reliable at all, and that the primary and radical examination of any statement necessarily involves a shadow of a doubt regarding human possibilities to formulate an absolute truth. On the soil of Plato’s doctrine regarding the dichotomy between reality and illusion (essence / appearance), Peirce develops the idea that there are no infallible beliefs, and no absolute finite levels for human knowledge to reach. Peirce’s skepticism goes to a point of no return, as we may inquire that human cognition is limitless, but within the limits of perception. Rather, we can talk, by extension, of a semiotic multiverse through which human knowledge (which is fragmentary by definition so to speak) employs the subject in different degrees of reasoning and understanding. In principle, Peirce discusses three universes of knowledge, which correspond, in their turn, to the three levels of human experience crystallized in the so-called “cenopythagoreic categories”: Firstness (based on the qualities of the objects perceived in a fragmentary manner); Secondness (based on a willingness to process the experience of an effort to understand things at a deeper level), and Thirdness (based on the semiotic links processed by interpreters, which gives full options for the infinite semeiosis). In this way, the sign reveals a fractal triadic structure that involves the entire Universe as a matrix “perfused with signs”, proving itself to be a cognitive device to generate more and more complex semiotic structures.
In this respect, myths are metaphors or clusters of metaphors symbolically projected into self-generating semiotic devices that work steadily in order to expand, support or rather suppress certain meanings, values, attitudes, or beliefs of an individual, a group of individuals or an entire society. Cinematic mythmaking is obviously the most powerful device for this kind of semeiosis, as its functioning requires not only an iconic or an indexical level of relating things, but also a symbolic level for the infinite process of interpretation. The strongest mythical pattern Sunless deploys is a duality that comes from Plato’s doctrine, more precisely from a famous analogy frequently quoted as the myth of the cave. A split existence rise above the waters of time: two worlds, which are explicitly put together, stand for essentiality and phenomenality, immanence and transcendence, reality and illusion, tunefulness and timelessness, mind and matter:
I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility. Legends are born out of the need to decipher the indecipherable. Memories must make do with their delirium, with their drift. A moment stopped would burn like a frame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector. Madness protects, as fever does. I envy Hayao in his ‘zone,’ he plays with the signs of his memory. He pins them down and decorates them like insects that would have flown beyond time, and which he could contemplate from a point outside of time: the only eternity we have left. I look at his machines. I think of a world where each memory could create its own legend.
Mythmaking captures the mystery of creation, glimpses from an ocean open for our perceptiveness. Signs are mixed altogether in a recollection of memories, expanding consciousness beyond the flow of time and beyond death itself. The “point outside of time” is the critical point in which any individual enters the zone, the hyperspace or the subspace of one’s self-generating myths. Myths emerge out of the void, out of a diversity of facts and things knowledgeable via signs. In Sunless, time is transferred onto an “immutable past” and regained at the frame of an imagistic portal called “the zone”, which in its turn recalls “the impermanence of things”. It is imperative to notice that from this semiotic and semantic perspective, Sunless may be classified as a non-fictive fiction, due especially to its constant undermining of the vision of the present time: “if the images of the present don’t change, then change the images of the past”. Hayao Yamaneko’s synthesizer makes the world of appearances (which is, in fact, phenomenal reality in its entirety) less deceptive than, say, television does. Those images mixed in the magical device of the synthesizer stay images, not “the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality”. These images are progressively emptied by their previous symbolic content, in order to regain their pure iconic status and to best illustrate the nuclear duality of the visual essay. On the other hand, the synthesizer projects signals that mingle portions of alternative worlds, which are connected to computer scanners and waves generators. The external world becomes a mere projection, as Sandor Krasna suggested, and, therefore, the space / time continuum is ostensibly breakable. The referential consistency of the two separate worlds is given by the levels of experience in which Krasna was involved. To grasp the essence of these multiple realities means to grasp the consistency of a creative time. What allows all these projections to emerge in the first place is “the length of a film frame”, a central point of reference towards which all times and all loops of simulacra tend to intersect. The film frame is that point outside the spatial and temporal vortex, reached only to preserve connections to the basic transitional matrix of our consciousness.
The interface between the two cross/border worlds Krasna mentioned at some point comes to crush the smooth path of the message. A kind of distorted surrealistic picture mixes together the image of three children on a road inIcelandand the black leader Amilcar Cabral, a revolutionary hero who got expelled from the course of history just like an empty bottle thrown on the window. The throwness-into-the-world, as Heidegger put it, brings forth social responsibility and future interactions. At some basic semiotic level, all the objects (which become aesthetic objects) are foundations for a sign development.
The very idea of making a film is the pretext for all the meditative state of affairs. All the narrative and the imagery become a sketch for a great science-fiction scenario that was never meant to conclude, at least on the surface of storytelling. As we may notice, “the sets”, “the twists”, the predilection for cats and owls constitute Krasna aka Marker’s ultimate film and nothing else is affordable to be added or to be taken out:
The same hypocrisy as in the comic strips, but it’s a coded hypocrisy. Censorship is not the mutilation of the show, it is the show. The code is the message. It points to the absolute by hiding it. That’s what religions have always done.
The semiotic vision of the sign that stands for something else (the dynamic object, the object outside the sign, in Peirce’s terms) and that is meant to be somehow deciphered and interpreted in a larger construct of the mind involves another duality, that of covert (mystery) / overt (revelation), a polarity which is mediated via human language. Needless to say myths are grasped in the process of Krasna’s interpretation not like mere abstractions, but rather as a major factor in human evolution, as an object of man’s own metaphysical sequentiality towards the future. The Heideggerian existentialism may function as a matrix of interpretation applicable to the entire movie.
Chris Marker reaches different levels of fiction-making or mythmaking. However the whole documentary expresses, at the basic semiotic level, a conception explored by Bergson: there are two forms of memory, strikingly different from one another. The first one is an automatic memory, a form of continuity in which the impressions of past events or things leave a fade trace in our consciousness, as they are mingled together in habitual, pragmatic senses. The second form is pure memory, which registers past events or things as “image-remembrance”, as clear past facts recognized as such. The connection / transgression mechanism by virtue of which the past, the present and the future are related resides on the second form of memory, the pure one, which gives in fact the essence of human consciousness. Man existing in present is not a being in its entirety, as it automatically responds to external stimuli and to the factuality of things, in Heidegger’s terms. Man focusing on his past and opening towards the future is attaining his facticity and his conscious efforts to engage himself in genuine comprehension of things. Space and time are the most important things for this process of semiotic endowment.
In Peirce’s view, the concepts of space and time express, like many other abstract notions, ways of dealing with the intricacies of impressions, or, in Marker’s words, “the poignancy of things”. These concepts alone reduce phenomenal complexity by assigning continuity and mediated simplicity in the perception process. Continuity is the conceptual background that sustains memory from beneath its constant materialization. From this viewpoint, the entire film is made up by fragmented continuities, from the beginning to the end. The continuities appear transfixed in letters, but the puzzling fact is all these continuities can be reached in the frame of a second:
Now why this cut in time, this connection of memories? That’s just it, he can’t understand. He hasn’t come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who – through some peculiarity of his nature – instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet’s past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.
The usage of pure memory focuses on the reality / illusion duality manifested in respect to past and future time. The scenario in which an outcast from our distant dystopian future came to rediscover the cultural roots of his prefab condition is subject to allegorical readings. The contemporary society, being strongly influenced by mass-media, makes out of wealth a cult of the high standards of civilization. Achieving richness means enacting a dynamics of resources and capital by means of valorizing such necessities of the individuals as: group affiliation, efficiency, targets. However, these extremely schematic lines of development would ultimately produce a standardized society, a collective nightmare without any trace of feelings left. Dystopian societies are more and more tagged in film production (Lang, Fassbinder, Truffaut, Godard, Schlöndorff, Lucas, Kubrick, Scott, Gilliam, Cronenberg, Soderbergh, Wachowski, Linklater, Nolan, Andrew Niccol, Kurt Wimmer). The main reason could be the progressive big-brotherization of society, the cult for technology, the polarity between wealthy and poor individuals / regions and, at some extent, the quest for artificial intelligence, which corresponds to the transformation of humans in robots, for utilitarian purposes. While the hypermodern time illustrates most pregnant the protean nature of the human beings and their permanent changing nature, a dystopian society would concern on immediate needs to be fulfilled and would deeply alter man’s spiritual dimension that has to do with feelings, intuition, pure memory, facticity, freedom, creativity, mythical visions on the world. A dystopian society cannot access the essence of a free one, in as much as the partition between life and death in Japanese culture cannot be broken:
Naturally he’ll fail. The unhappiness he discovers is as inaccessible to him as the poverty of a poor country is unimaginable to the children of a rich one. He has chosen to give up his privileges, but he can do nothing about the privilege that has allowed him to choose. His only recourse is precisely that which threw him into this absurd quest: a song cycle by Mussorgsky. They are still sung in the fortieth century. Their meaning has been lost. But it was then that for the first time he perceived the presence of that thing he didn’t understand which had something to do with unhappiness and memory, and towards which slowly, heavily, he began to walk.
Like a Don Quixote, the traveler from our future, would be dazzled to find his ancestors living like predators, but with the seeds of liberty impregnated in their vein. Thus an important semiotic feature of the film is to project in the interpreters’ mind the idea of several dualities working at different levels of existence.
Another feature of this visual essay would be the multitude of semiotic objects involved in the expansion of signs. To reiterate the short, but not closed list mentioned in the previous section, Daruma the one-eyed spirit, Tora the cat, the owl, the emus, the giraffe, the moles, the burning dolls, the Kamikaze pilots, the videogames, Amilcar Cabral, Che Guevara, Vertigo – all form a web of semiotic objects that entangles deeper meanings of the representation of the worlds of which the cameraman is the instrument and states the role of memory he helps create, as well as the role of the images as suspended in time signs for this memory. In Peirce’s view, the Object is the foundation for the Sign and its Interpretant, and a Sign, along with parts of its interpretation might (and clearly does) become an Object for other Signs, more complex, and so on. It is a never ending process, on behalf of which humans acquire their sense of continuity and become able to relate space and time elements to their metaphysical (meta-spatial and meta-temporal) condition. In order to reach and grasp higher levels of existence, humans need to deal first with their medium of physical and physiological interaction, in other words with the biological roots of their condition. They use two mediating instruments in this process, according to Hegel: labor and language. Through language, they posit knowledge in capsules of meaning called signs, which are strikingly different from the signals animals use to communicate. Human language benefits from intuition, which subordinates intelligence (at some level, the supreme sum of possibilities animals might reach) and instinct. Intuition makes possible the ontological jump that transform man from a seemingly living animal into a thinking being.
The composite texture of the documentary provides other semiotic features. When Marker decides to make a movie out of Krasna and Yamaneko’s experience, coverts the relationships between characters, real or supposed, and puts forward the pre-production elements in the fashion of a musical composition, with recurrent themes, counterpoints and mirror-like fugues. Thus from the juxtaposition of disparate memories (the letters, the female narrator’s comments, the images gathered, the images created, together with some images borrowed) a fictional pure memory is created, but with the seemingly intention to be presented as a factual one, as a non-fictive memory.
The semiotic intricacies go further and further in the play between Objects, Signs and Interpretants. For instance, Sandor Krasna’s letters contain interpretants for signs he developed in relationship to different objects (his traveling, his predilection for Japanese and African cultures, his particular interactions and events he recalls and so on) and, at the same time, they become objects for the woman-narrator’s thoughts on the matter. Chris Marker manages to illustrate on perfection the infinite process of interpretation and the semiotic interconnections that progressively expand human knowledge.
4. Concluding remarks
Sunless mixes in its internal structure introspection and abstractionism, which are, on the one side, two creative mechanisms that establish fictional worlds with the global finality of theoretical reflection, and on the other side, means of projecting a personal mythology of the hypermodern filmmaker. In Chris Marker’s fashion, the vectors of a highly stylized alterity are depicted as emanating within the footage itself: marks of polyphonic discourse, confession, complicity, trigger effects. Viewers are constantly challenged to deal with and fight for certain ideas.
However the basic reason for this type of approach, one that interlaces essay with experimental footage editing and generates a nonlinear storytelling, does not imply the necessity of an objective depiction of fragmented or distorted realities, but the interference of analytical subjectivity and the focus on existential complexity at an intuitive personal level. The main “character” becomes a representative of his times, whereas the world on screen becomes both a subject and an object of the filmic matter and the lens through which cineastes and the public observe and perceive the external world.
As a matter of creativity, Marker proceeds to an intuitive employment of the thematic spectrum, followed by a loosely cross-cultural based analysis in which he often engages the freedom of speculation and, ultimately, invents, in certain measures, the space to be analyzed. Hence a larger theoretical perspective is adopted, which is then doubled by a semiotic dimension of the meta-story. The appetite for theorizing becomes clear within the descriptive approach through which the thematic sphere is circumscribed.
As a historical documentary, Sunless tends to capture the novelty and the paradoxes regarding some historical facts or figures, whose biography is comprehended and rewritten in terms of exchanging letters, political journalism, or brisk debates of opinion. This rather polemic dimension comes to create a kind of slalom narrative distinguishable in terms of clarity of ideas, coherence of discourse, capacity of systematization, lucid and pertinent analyses, elegant style and critical intelligence. If we were to talk about the freedom that the cineaste took in this particular line of debate, we would have thought it was primarily one of expression. By virtue of this freedom of expression the movie reveals itself as an open work of art, refusing ultimate interpretations. There is also an objectivity that re-forms in a selective manner the global field of reality and constitutes the subjective screen on which Markers’ political and ideological debates are projected.
Inclining to the larger sphere of anthropological visual essays, Marker’s documentary can be seen extremely different. As we refer strictly to some aspects regarding creativity, we may notice that Marker is able to raise hermeneutical debates with strong intellective flavor based on in-depth readings and profound intuitions. In this respect, at aesthetic level, Sunless is meant to produce a radical transformation within the perception of the viewers to such an extent that some of their prejudices could be modified or even cancelled. Being concerned with anthropological debates (visual anthropology), Sunless gives the opportunity for rethinking the purpose of man in the Cosmos, the shape of his interactions with others, the relationship with the environment and many other social current issues.
Therefore what is a matter of evidence is the fact that finding identity in other spaces and cultures, with its correlative disclose for future generations, receives an ambition of the author to return, to set free some obsessive / tormenting thoughts from the burden of anonymity. A strong feeling of necessity permeates not only the cultural infrastructure, but also the public perception related to Sunless. Beyond a politics of culture, it comes across to or beyond the privilege of authenticity exposed within its imagistic representations from the angle of the post-modern condition, Sunless assumes a counterculture movement of avant-garde at the very point of reaffirming some cultural identities. Moreover, as we stated above, a major political field, totally unstable and unpredictable, is emphasized. In exchange, these sparks of revolt are loosely orientated towards universality, to the ideal of a planetary citizenship in the sense of acquiring a global cultural conscience. In this manner, the experience of the cineaste makes part of a larger project on world’s conception and way of understanding.
The multiple forms that his documentary engages are meant to illustrate Marker’s ability to filter the essential aspects form the so-called white-noise. The cross-references to movies like Stalker, Apocalypse Now, Vertigo, Japanese horror movies show wide openness towards a process of assigning aesthetic value to film production in its entirety. The fact is visible including in the way in which brief reviews are made. All the suggestions and the lines of work that Marker makes as a film critic, the nature of the concepts brought in attention, avoiding compromises or risky generalizations, close interpretation, moderate use of irony, and so on, deploy a strong consideration for filmmaking.
There is no doubt that Chris Marker, as one of the most prominent contemporary cineastes, has a very strong aesthetic conscience. Through the eyes of his filmic alter ego, he meditates about his art, very often with a powerful critical spirit. He launches theoretical insights into cinematic constructs that are more or less extensive, bringing the intuitive experience to a reflective point of understanding and placing it under formal radicalism. Sunless is the result of some crucial issues grasped in philosophical matter and set in themes and styles of all sorts. This cinematic essay carries out major meanings corresponding to a philosophical vision of its creator in art, science, religion, politics, and social mentalities. In addition, it mingles together the need for circumscribing philosophical thinking and the artistic vision of the (post)human condition in a way that Albert Camus would have sensed as the right one.
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 On his personal blog, Notes from the era of imperfect memory, Chris Marker has an entry called A Free Replay (Notes on Vertigo), where he clearly states the huge influence that Hitchcock’s movie had on his own filmmaking.
 In Heidegger’s conception, man is not a finite entity, but a volatile one, a result of several tendencies and processes. He is a project of being, and one of the most powerful leverages he made for himself in the attempt to escape from his existential anguish, in modern times, is art. All the hesitations and the rethinking of the hypermodern project translate, in the end, the essence of human condition.