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This is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at a symposium devoted to Chris Marker in the late 1990s. Many people’s memories of and reveries about Chris Marker start (and some end) with La jetee (1963).
If I had to choose one moment from Sunless it would be a fragment, a kitsch image glimpsed and only really readable when one stills or slows the film down. It is important to recognise that this attraction to cats and other animals is not the sign of an antipathy towards humanity (by myself or Marker). On another level, the eternal return of cats in Marker’s work might speak of little else than a deep sympathy towards these animals, and, I assume, an attraction to their individuality, their multiple personalities, the impossibility of collapsing them into our (or his) way of looking. We wait, for these cats – some of us at least – like we might wait for the appearance of Hitchcock in one of his films.
This fascination with cats, and the knowledge of it that travels with Marker, marks Marker, and even seems to infect the filmmakers that Marker has collaborated with – we return to a cat tied to a Gypsy caravan in Paul Paviot’s Django Reinhardt (1957), glimpse cats on the streets in Joris Ivens’ … a Valparaiso (1963), see a cat with white socks gingerly walking across ash in footage sent by vulcanologist Haroun Tazieff to Marker that he eventually uses in Sunless – tells us much about his work and sensibility. All of this is connected to an oblique statement about the memory of a city called Paris made by the narrator towards the beginning of 1963’s Le joli mai (co-directed by Pierre Lhomme), where she ponders “whether there is still a cat that lives on an island” (a quote I only re-encountered after starting work on this essay).
What finally emerges in Marker’s quite disparate work is a welcoming sense of paradox, a feeling that radical incoherence somehow has an inner lining of coherence. Founded in 1999, Senses of Cinema is one of the first online film journals of its kind and has set the standard for professional, high quality film-related content on the Internet. Thus, every self-portrait (unlike autobiography which even when it resorts to a myth such as that of the four ages, is limited to an individual’s memory and to the places where he lived) ceases to be essentially individual except, of course, in a purely anecdotal sense. We keep one cheshire eye open on the blogosphere and notice lots of people in the first flush of their discovery of the New World of Chris Marker.
While there are gems to be found in the wild, there is also much unedited thought thrown out willy-nilly on the web. Given the era of the monopoly of electronic noise, it’s nice (inevitable, really, given some patience) to come across a well-rounded, useful piece of writing on a subject of interest. He quotes Lupton extensively, but also summarizes well, and manages to cover the arc of Marker’s career without too much effort and with no pretense. I was also reminded how Marker’s early film criticism and work on the Petite Planete book series serve as inaugural forays into the essay mode that would become over time a whole new genre of filmmaking, ever more influential on those expressing thought through visual means (Marker would no doubt defer the origins to Vertov, Eisenstein and Medvedkin). From this combination, we see how Marker involves himself all the more fully in his work as he sets up mediating personas and distancing effects. Long controlled and entertained by the caves of cinema and television, enmeshed now seemingly irrevocably within the digital screen, how do we forgo outright exit from the cave and find its internal exits, as it were? Humor and transmutation (a concept familiar to neo-Platonists, as transmigration was familiar to Plato) rather than solipsism or hypnotic stasis seem more viable and life-affirming tactical options in response to the new sets of caves we have come to inhabit. The archipelago, as thought-form, experience and poem, visualizes the concept of both the ancient art of memory and the bricolage of Second Life itself, a string of geographies with traversable passages between them: a hyper-natural arcade within which the poet-flaneur is guided by his avatar. Throughout, there is a pacing that is clearly remniscent of La Jetee and, further in the background, of the essay film, with its dense meaning yet light touch that transforms documentary into veiled self-portrait. As throughout Marker’s expeditionary career set to celluloid, the theme of traveling and its inter-spaces appears—architectures, visions seen and experienced in the process of moving from one place to another, fleetingly recorded then receding into the past of travel, space moving back into time. As in Sans Soleil and the book Staring Back, we brush up against the theme of the regard of and from the other.
Neither these stories nor my quotations serve always simply for example, authority, or ornament. You may have already concluded that DVD is a perfect medium for Chris Marker, since his cunning, calculated work requires and repays multiple viewings….
My constant comings and goings are not a search for contrasts; they are a journey to the two extreme poles of survival. The picaresque might be seen as a gathering of impressions by wandering, an itinerant or even nomadic mode of assembling images and sounds, experiences and ideas. Panoptism is the apparatus of centralized control, where the Eye of Mordor looks out along all vectors for transgressions in the cells of circular prisons. That against the panoply of vision, this barrage of watching he will be able to extract something not there, something that is concealed with futurity.
People have wondered in recent weeks about the source of the runaway box office success of the new Batman movie Dark Knight. I found a poetic evocation of Chris Marker and his trans-temporal take on earth history, memory and compassion in Sans Soleil on a blog today called simply politics. Time Travel"We do not move in one direction, rather do we wander back and forth, turning now this way and now that. Each of the speakers was asked to identify and talk about a particular “Marker moment” in an experimental, expository fashion. These memories are often fixated by a moment of movement within what is often problematically described as a stilled film, or a film composed of stills (though I’ve always preferred the stillness of the film to its wonderful but perhaps too “pregnant” moving moment). Marker’s work illuminates a deep sympathy towards humans (particularly the human face) but not at the expense of other possibilities and fascinations. In general, an over-determined structure or self-conscious striving is not in the nature of Marker’s practice (in his work all images are “equal”, but some images, particularly if they are of cats or other favoured animals, are more equal than others). In this regard, the cat also becomes a symbol of the profound process of collaboration that defines and guides our understanding of Marker’s work. The floating images of cats from film to film, creating new contexts and networks, is indicative or illustrative of broader patterns of intertextuality that are at play in his work. Shots of cats, even clusters of them, sit within Marker’s films like islands, floating separate but in concert with other images and sounds.
Thus, the unconventional combination of phenomena in a film like Sunless is still a combination; a combination that is structured around the conventions of various kinds of documentary, voiceover, a familiar correspondence of letters and a recognisable image repertoire (which is perhaps where the cats come in). He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinematheque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. Usually they are trying to get across some very impressed first impression of either La Jetee or Sans Soleil. Owning a DV camera does not magically confer talent on someone who doesn’t have any or who is too lazy to ask himself if he has any. It is interesting how the two vectors of these films—Le Joli mai being in some ways the most non-fictional film Marker ever made and La Jetee the most fictional—create in a sense two poles between which the essay film can find its path of synthesis and signature. He does not speak in the I, but in transposed voices, the voice of the object, the empathic voice, the alias of the cameraman, the cat or the owl.
Recently unearthed from obscurity as part of the Otolith Group’s room at Tate Britain for the Turner Prize. Of course the Zone of the same film, already making its presence known in the earlier Le fond de l’air est rouge, serves to de-realize the visible.
Er ist betroffen von seiner Sichtbarkeit durch die Auffalligkeit des aufrechten Ganges und durch die Wehrlosigkeit seiner unspezifischen-organischen Ausstattung.
It is along these lines (lignes de fuite?) that we perceive the ever-elusive Marker stepping lightly. The quest is less that of Marker’s photography, to capture as in a hunt, than to live within the indecisiveness of these states of image and perception.
Here the commentary of the essay film has migrated into poetry and so further condenses, like a white dwarf star. It also slyly refers to the over-abundance of words in the spaces of social networking, and how silences and listening can be as important as constantly informing an interlocutor, a stranger-friend, of every last detail. Throughout there are images of the markerian past, including floating cubes holding images of Le Joli mai, Le Fond de l’air est rouge, Le Mystere Koumiko, and the recurrent image of Guillaume. All these texts are premature products: they give the public raw or barely processed materials.


When the solitary writer had within arm’s reach a reference library complete enough to form, virtually at least, an encyclopedia.
Memory becomes less important when texts, not being designed to praise or blame, to persuade, exhort, or preach, no longer has to obey rhetorical codes of composition and style, one of whose functions in scribal culture was to make it easier for the listener-reader to understand and remember data by introducing a coded redundance, or copia, which was moreover the object of an aesthetic appreciation. Marker’s great talent as a filmmaker is giving us the impression that any digression is welcome, any accident is providence and anything can happen, even as he is firmly in control. It is an architecture and a technology of control, the institutional and strategic mode of over-sight. Strange how this Knight uses a panopticon-inspired technology to find a needle in a haystack, rather than gather data on all civilians per se, and uses it only to destroy it.
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. With these writers, prophets and mystics we again encounter the themes of time travel, co-existing time patterns, non-linear time and the role of suffering, personal and historical, as experience redeemed through cataclysmic change. My own first Marker epiphany was actually watching the filmmaker’s great 1982 essay film, Sans soleil (Sunless, 1982), as a first-year undergraduate.
This momentary image of two fluffy white cats with red hats, included within a montage of images and sounds from Japanese TV, is the one I would like to nominate. What do I see in this less than consistent pattern or network that stretches across Marker’s career, and which helps me notice correspondences of sympathy, affection and even practice between the filmmaker and myself?
His is a political, open and quite explicitly “even” cinema; a cinema in which almost anything, through a variety of different, often associative means and approaches, can work itself in. For example, it is often very difficult to predict, even after repeated viewings, when the image of a cat, or a reference on the soundtrack to a cat, is going to enter a film. The inconsistency, variety and intangibility, but underlying continuity of this signature mirrors a more general circulation of Marker’s image and legend. This is even true within the more radical terrain of the deterritorialised, deconstructed and distorted synthetic images of Sunless’ the Zone. In this as in much else, Marker was prophetic; the noise monopoly has spread, replicated, mutated.
You can miniaturize as much as you want, but a film will always require a great deal of work – and a reason to do it. In fact, the essay film is in full flower already in Les Statues meurent aussi: this is the 1953 river that divides in 1962 to test the extremes of the mode, before flowing back together, renewed.
It was in the editing that the pieces of the puzzle came together, and it wasn’t me who designed the puzzle. As the Otolith Group write in their accompanying artist book, this is exactly the sort of TV programme that simply wouldn’t stand a chance of being made today. For it seems that in becoming-animal there is somehow an additional process in motion, that of becoming-imperceptible.
Though veiled with  elegant self-effacement, this reverie bears the signature, to our senses, of the master’s hand, mind and spirit (though it is not his own, as we have learned post-post).
The voice seeks to find the phantom angel girl, not wishing to exhaust the images (or the angel) with words, only grace them with the touch of another medium, as if the image and the word were old friends, each aware of its particular powers, its valences and its limits. The gaze of the other shifts from an object of capture to a shared moment of being-together, inscribed emotionally rather than technologically.
Restraint of voice becomes a respect for the miracle of the encounter, and for the unknowable palimpsest of identity. Objects share this fluidity, and their world a sense of animism, as if all creations within this world were in some manner alive, negotiable in their being, ephemeral and evolving.
And how many stories have I spread around which say nothing of themselves, but from which anyone who troubles to pluck them with a little ingenuity will produce numberless Essays. They often bear, outside of my subject, the seeds of a richer and bolder material, and sound obliquely a subtler note, both for myself, who do not wish to express anything more, and for those who get my drift. Montaigne’s library combines the metaphorical circularity of the encyclopedia with the circular bookshelves along the walls of his round tower.
When too many come to light, nothing is seen at all anymore; a kind of post-optical blindness ensues. It may be a weak critique of the Bush-era stripping of civil rights (mired, as many Hollywood productions that take on the evil eschatology of technology by using those same means of technology, in a spiraling contradiction) through surveillance, and it may not be in any way related to the fascination this movie has produced, but it remains interesting to reflect on the fact that millions upon millions of viewers have seen the panopticon in its 21st century incarnation, and seen it destroyed ensuite, for all the right reasons. Marker has never been explicit about our future, but he provided, well before the new century and its eschatologist-prophets of Earth Apotheosis, a diverse set of audio-visual documents about history and memory, and a few poetic clues about where the Earth Experiment might be heading. Transfixed as I was, I didn’t really understand it; though I knew immediately that I needed to go back, recount, remember, both in relation to the film and more deeply within myself. I do not really want to justify this choice other than to suggest it always surprises me, that I like cats, that it connects to so many other moments in Marker’s work, and that it helps me to anchor this flighty film.
Marker’s work represents a problem for some who are suspicious of or unable to incorporate such fascinations (though such acts of incorporation are seldom inappropriate when thinking about his work). This project of working in, of finding a space for an image, a word, an idea, an emotion, a sound, a favourite cat, is a significant aspect of Marker’s work.
There is an openness, a kaleidoscopic quality that makes the inclusion of these cats “inevitable”, “feasible”, but not predictable; though the range and regularity of their appearance speaks of obsession.
Of course, these are unanswerable questions, unknowable spaces and inaccessible subjectivities that Marker’s films explicitly celebrate.
Marker’s fascination with islands enriches the visual and associational texture of a film like Sunless and creates a context within which to read certain phenomena in the film. Coming to the end of this fragmentary essay, I feel that, like Sunless’ narrator, I may have achieved no more, though no less, than “a piece of chalk to follow the contours of what is not.
At times, it is as if some mesmeric force had stopped people from thinking for themselves but at the same time glued their hands to the keyboard.
The author, Brian Rajski, gives quite a useful summary of Lupton’s book and in doing so one of the better short introductions to Marker, one that certainly goes beyond the usual repetition of repetitions we have become so used to seeing. Just as Marker was more than ready to give up Gutenberg for McLuhan, he is also seemingly always willing to say farewell to a medium, an apparatus if another suits his current purpose. Sie ist die einzige Erfullung seines tief in dieser Gattungslage verwurzelten Wunsches nach Unsichtbarkeit. Could this be what Blumenberg had in mind in his evocation of the desire to return to the cave? This is the feel of the encounter with the girl angel, black-haired with a hint of dreadlocks, pale, freckled and clothed in black. The world is presented as a puzzle, or rebus, something to be put together to form a whole, itself part of some greater whole … in fractal succession. One need only be adept at looking up data, but as every user of he dictionary, encyclopedia, compilation, index, bibliography, and library knows (as opposed to the user of much more specifically programmed electronic memories), there occurs a dispersion, whether because his attention is deflected by something for which he is not looking, or because he finds, next to what he was searching for, more pertinent data. Let the subliminal rise to the surface of consciousness by grazing again through the text, the stream, the grain, and then again against the grain to feel the furrows of the patterns not picked up the first time. A philosopher of passionate ideals, Marker makes films that are, at their essence, generous invitations to join him in an inquiry into the mysteries of human society.
The camera-stylo represents, among other things, a tactical move to take the picaresque recording series through the personal panopticon, transforming it in the process into an anti-prison, the reverse of the Jeremy Benthem’s ahrimanic invention.
It was only later, and with time, that I realised this lack of understanding, or more correctly, of graspability, was neither a fault in myself nor with the film. In general, the image of the cat in Marker’s work (as an object of fascination, as readable or unreadable) is something that I think is worth exploring.
If any one object or image recurs, or is found space for in Marker’s cinema then it is that of the cat; they are privileged figures within a generally incorporative domain. But, for me, to look at and think about the cats and how they appear is illustrative of what is great about Marker.


Marker’s more expansive, globetrotting and “finished” works (which may seem more finished because they mirror familiar forms like the travelogue, speculative science fiction, the essay film, rather than something like the sketchiness of home video) project an extraordinary expansiveness – a lack of borders, frontiers, exclusivity – while also essaying projects, points, meanings, qualities and moments that are difficult to grasp onto and identify. Marker’s peculiar attraction to cats is not something I can second guess or fully account for but perhaps it lies in the animal’s powers of observation (alertness), their idiosyncrasy, variation and appropriateness for portraiture, their unreadable intelligence, their ability to gaze back or to offer a gaze that is not regulated by our own, and their dual status as both animals that we train and which train us (and perhaps train us to gaze upon them, film them, and graft them into our films). In the process, the edges between islands – and images – are distorted, making complex their potentially self-contained homogeneity.
Marker’s concern at the time was both a cultural landscape over-supplied with mediocrity and the concomitant overlooking of the gems—the diamonds in the rough—by a media sphere on auto-pilot.
And these farewells are always provisional, for writing returns in film, photography in the CD-ROM, film in the installation.
To become, in an era of surveillance and omnipresent visibility, still present but in another guise? What do we really know, in an encounter, of the past, the duree, the origins and trajectory of this being? These works, though not designed to persuuade, praise, or blame, still serve to instruct and also to please and surprise by the variety and strangeness of the examples they assemble. From the end of the sixteenth century on, the writer becomes accustomed to leafing through printed books, to consulting indexes and tables of contents; even if Montaigne does not use a card index, at least he is already in the position of a modern researcher prior to the introduction of electronic memories. Nel mezzo del camin, di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita. 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.
Like any good essay film, and all the great works of Marker, it tests you, dances around in relation to the knowledge and fascinations you bring to it.
The image of the cat has been generally overlooked in most accounts of Marker’s work (though it is an area that is ripe for analysis, perhaps, in a world of ubiquitous YouTube cat videos). Thus, in relation to a film like Sunless one might ask which obsession came first: the cats that are often found in Japan or a Japan that just happens to be infested with cats. Take, for example, the intangibility of the project of seeing “happiness” in the image of the children at the beginning of Sunless, the possibility of presenting the history of the Left, post-1968, in Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977; unsurprisingly retitled The Grin without a Cat when updated and re-edited in 1993), or the reason why those darn cats keep turning up. The Marker cat is ubiquitous and becomes a key guide in much of the later work through the figure of Guillaume-en-Egypte, a cartoon version of the director’s own beloved cat who acts as an escort through Immemory (1998).
Thus shots of cats, in Sunless, are connected to images of Japan (a natural archipelago of islands), an aircraft carrier (an artificial floating island), or the image of a flightless Australian bird on the Ile de France (a representative object from one island placed on another island).
Or is not yet.” In the end, these few lines may best articulate, though never sum up or stand in for, the complex play of space, place, memory and temporality to be found in Marker’s work (and which the images of cats are situated within).
To mutate into something that can’t be recorded, or, if recorded, leaves traces that are on the side of disinformation rather than that of the archive, the state, the systematic digital privacy-stripping machine? They are not intended for aesthetic, hedonistic, or consecutive reading, since they are readymade commonplace books whose function is transitive and instrumental. With this exception however: Montaigne claims to find what he needs without looking for it.
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. These sorts of questions – of what comes first, of where to start – are central to our encounter with Marker’s work. But cats are also a preoccupation – or shared, elective affinity – of other directors identified with the Parisian Left Bank such as Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and Alain Resnais. Ultimately, what the cats mean, what they are doing here, are not questions I can or even wish to answer. Marker is a figure who continually shifted and masked his identity (using various pseudonyms), moving across forms and modes of address including film, photography, video, CD-ROM, hypertext, installation work, travel writing, literature, Second Life, and various forms of documentary, and who never identified himself with any one period (and the modes of practice and media that might be indicative of it). I started with the idea of tracing the image of the cat across some of Marker’s work and had little idea of where it would lead me – or whether it would lead anywhere in particular. Constituting a pseudomemory, or an exomemory, like a reference library, they furnish the raw material for a second-degree intervention, for a secondary elaboration aimed at producing literary works of art, which, in principle, would usually be subject to rhetorical, stylistic, and generic imperatives, as well as to criteria such as the verisimilitude of mimesis.
For the Kabbalists, opening the Book a second time one will find the language has changed, mutated, grown in the meantime. It is also an affinity or emblem shared with less bonded filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Rouben Mamoulian – Melville’s own cats feature in 1970’s Le cercle rouge, for instance.
Yet, the variety and idiosyncrasy of the ways these cats appear, wandering past the camera, gazing over a roof, in a red hat, the subject of reverie, prayed to by a Japanese couple, a gift sent by another filmmaker, a name shouted three times, the ostensible subject of a film, is, if anything is, a kind of emblem of the Marker “universe”. This fascination links places that, in other ways, are geographically disparate, by their shared presence in the paradigm of islands. Just as for them the written word was still alive, a type of living, breathing and regenerating organism, certain films change in their dormancy.
He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Che Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. Each of her chapters is named for a talismanic Marker animal – the cat, the elephant, the wolf, the owl – and she proceeds from a perspective that starts to probe the relationship between popularly accepted feline attributes and aspects of Marker’s own, somewhat cloaked identity.
But no other filmmaker has offered the space, time, place or formal means to allow these cats to enter. Kurosawa’s obsession with horses, or is it Kurosawa’s perceived obsession with horses filtered through the animal obsession of Marker, establishes interesting relations with and connections to the plethora of animals, and the legends of animals, that stretch across Marker’s other work. In Marker’s work the conceptualisation of the individual or the objective as an island, a rigidly defined subject, is also broken down.
As we visit them again, they reveal different facets, catch the light at a changed hour – at the cusp of a new constellation. My analysis builds on some of Atler’s brief observations and originally preceded the publication of her book.
Thus cats appear due to the manner of Marker’s cinema without needing to be the subject of the work itself.
Each instance or appearance is specific, works its way in in different ways, and illustrates an ever-expanding realm of what we might call catdom (and sits as one cat-egory beside others).
One can even imagine that much of Marker’s fascination with the artist Matta in the 1985 video of the same name is his charmingly surreal stories of catfish and horses.
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 cats (incorporating sounds, synthesised images, abstract cat-like shapes, and the places Marker might inventively find the word – for example, on a crane in Berlin 1990) connect to the broader field of animals (I wont speak here of the owls, dogs, monkeys, camels, cartoon mammoths, or mechanised parrots named Coco Loco), images of death, volcanos and islands, and so many others in Marker’s work. It is only in Chats perches (The Case of the Grinning Cat, 2004) and some of the short video work, such as 2007’s Leila Attacks, that the cat (or its image) takes centre stage.
This creates a contrast between how we might want to incorporate the cat as an emblem of human activity, agency and understanding – where the cat in Chat ecoutant la musique (Cat Listening to Music, 1990) seems to be listening to the music, at times playing along, in control of the console – and how the cat exists outside of any such system.
Thus, this trajectory through the spectre of cats in Marker’s cinema (in all their variety and endless subgroupings) might help us to navigate the bracingly mercurial and database nature of his work more generally. Cats, as islands in themselves, offer almost limitless variations but also create a kind of archipelago of meaning and structure across Marker’s work nonetheless. These islands are varied and mutable, static and moving, discrete and somewhat less than distinct. Chris Marker seems to have had from early on a camera-stylo that writes such a living language, not to manuscript or movable type but to celluloid. In Marker’s universe, though I’m not sure about Paris, there is still a cat that lives on an island.



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