Forget Stanley Kubrick. Forget Terrence Malick. Chris Marker is the most elusive filmmaker of them all, and while not the most prolific, his films are equally as important (if not moreso) than many other filmmakers of his type, nationality and style.
Born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, Marker took his adopted surname from a Magic Marker pen and set out to make more than 50 films, including shorts, documentaries and features, that would establish him as one of cinema’s most creative, inventive, and intelligent minds. Marker has never granted an interview, and there are still disputes over his place and date of birth. Born in 1921, his early life remains mysterious, and we know nothing for certain about the first thirty years of his life until finally he became a filmmaker, at first working with famous New Wave director Alain Resnais (who still speaks fondly of him) as an assistant director on films like the famous 1955 documentary Night and Fog, before branching out into shorts of his own.
With early films such as Olympia 52, Sunday in Peking, Letter from Siberia, Description d’un Combat, and the widely banned Cuba Si. All these films and others show various different parts of the world in historical, economical and political turmoil, their fights and revolutions, successes and failures, and other notable details. They also established Marker as a collector of archive footage, newsreels and footage shot firsthand by himself in various countries and continents. Marker continued to travel all over the world throughout his life, gaining inspiration from Asia, Europe, Africa, and America.
In 1962, Marker became known across the world for his short film La Jetée, a narrative film consisting almost entirely of still photographs, later remade by Terry Gilliam for his film Twelve Monkeys. Many fans of Marker denounced Gilliam’s stretched out and pointless Americanized version, and prefer the purity of Marker’s 28-minute collage of images. At the same time as making this, Marker was also working on the long feature-length documentary Le Joli Mai, one of his most interesting works.
After taking a lot of interest in the political strife and tension of southwestern Europe in the 60s and 70s (particularly the May 1968 strikes), Marker began work on assembling archive footage for perhaps his most ambitious project yet, the fantastic and absorbing documentary Grin Without a Cat, released in 1977 and then re-released in 1993 with a surprisingly haunting coda.
When this was finished, Marker began work assembling video footage he himself had taken in the US, Africa and Japan that would be edited together into the 100-minute masterwork Sans Soleil, which would consist of his footage and a series of “letters,” written by Marker under a pseudonym, that discuss at length the video images that accompany them. This work, in my opinion, is Marker’s greatest film, though the title of greatest cinematic achievement by Marker surely belongs to Grin Without a Cat.
Before descending into a series of video projects that today get less attention than his earlier works, Marker made the documentary AK, which shows Akira Kurosawa filming his legendary magnum opus Ran in the early 80s. Because of the openness and relation to cinema of this documentary, it is one of Marker’s more popular works, and accompanies the DVD release of Ran.
Today Marker lives a secluded life with his cat. Cats are Marker’s favourite animal, and he features them often in many of his films, even if their presence is completely irrelevant to the purpose of the movie. Marker’s last documentary, Chats perchés, was released in 2004, and now, aged 90, he lives alone, presumably retired.