La Jetée (Chris Marker) | artwork by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Markering Time: Chris Marker & Us, Amnesiacs All

In Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, an unnamed female narrator speaks of her epistolary correspondence with a cameraman named Sandor Krasna. “He used to write me from Africa,” she says. “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.”

Marker’s entire oeuvre can be seen as wrestling with this great question. In his art, he attempts not only to understand time (that most inhuman of things), but to investigate the most accessible form time takes: memory (that most human of things).

La Jetée, perhaps Marker’s most famous film, is a poetic science fiction ciné-roman in which a man in a post-apocalyptic future uses a remembered image from his youth to travel through time. Marker’s next film, Le Joli Mai, a wide-ranging view of Paris in the early 1960s co-directed with Pierre Lhomme, begins by imagining what it might be like to see Paris “for the first time…without having seen it before, without memories.” A Grin Without a Cat, Marker’s documentary exploring the political turmoil of the 1960s and ‘70s, concludes with the following credit: “The true authors of this film are the countless cameramen, technical operators, witnesses and activists whose work is constantly pitted against that of governments, who would like us to have no memory.”

Though it would be wrong to say that Marker, like those governments, would like us to have no memory, it wouldn’t be too far off to suggest that his work questions the idea that we do. “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining,” Sans Soleil’s cameraman, Krasna, writes in a letter. The line not only clues us in to the life’s work of Krasna, but also that of Marker himself. The voice continues: “We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” This could act as a kind of thesis underpinning all of Marker’s work.

Later projects, including the film Level Five, the 13-part TV docu-series The Owl’s Legacy, the short subject Remembrance of Things to Come, and the interactive CD-ROM Immemory continue this exploration, but it is Sans Soleil, that 1983 masterpiece, that acts as the lynchpin to an understanding of Marker’s relationship with memory and time.

“Who said that time heals all wounds?” that disembodied voice in Sans Soleil questions. “It would be better to say that time heals everything—except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound…disembodied.”

The wounds stay—their scars are our memories. This is Marker’s predominant metaphor for memory: the cicatrix.

“Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments,” the voiceover in La Jetée warns us. “Only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.” That film even describes itself as “the story of a man marked by an image.” (It’s a description that could, not coincidentally, also describe Sans Soleil.) Marker sees memory as the marks left upon us.

Memories, therefore, are not the actual past, but instead some potential proof of the past’s one-time presence—a “personal laceration” that reminds the body of a supposed history, happenings that, at least in theory, happened. But if memory is our “proof” of the past, what paltry “proof” it is—immaterial images, haunting spectres, mental debris, psychic wounds. This is no foundation on which to build an understanding of the world.

Despite our biological certainty that time exists—for we seem to feel time passing through our bones and our blood, as much as through our brains—there is little we can point to in a particular moment to prove this supposed temporal continuity. All we can know of our temporality is memory (the wounds that comprise our supposed past) and aspiration (the desires from which we imagine our potential future). Thus, time is entirely determined and structured by lack.

Film, as a medium, offers us a perfect illustration of our experience of time. Film—actual film—is projected with fraction-of-a-second shutter closures, darknesses before and after each image. As Marker claims, “Out of the two hours you spend in a movie theater, you spend one of them in the dark.”

Think of the image buttressed by an abyss of black. That momentary image, gone before it’s even comprehended, is the present, and the momentary blackness before it is its past and the momentary blackness after it is its future. Then, suddenly, we are in another present moment, so fast it changes that we don’t even notice it as separate from the previous present—and yet, it is. Each present moment, each frame of the film, is sandwiched between the abysses of past and future, which can’t be known, understood, or adequately expressed.

Yet can the present itself be known, understood, or adequately expressed? Like the images in a film, we don’t experience our present as a moment “suspended in time.” We experience the present not as a punctiform instant, durationless and stationary, but as an unstable interval, continuous and in motion. Stare at a clock, and you’ll see this quite clearly. Our perception of the clock’s second hand “moving” is different than our perception that the hour hand “has moved.”

We experience both film and life in something more akin to what E. Robert Kelly and William James call “the specious present.” James, in The Principles of Psychology, quotes Kelly (using the pseudonym E. R. Clay): “Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three…nonentities—the past, which does not exist, the future, which does not exist, and their conterminous, the present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

James adds:

“In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation or succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and from the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

We experience both film and life in this specious present as “moving.” We don’t actually see any images in a motion picture as images themselves, unless we pause the film or unless a particular filmmaker has chosen to pause it for us. Marker, for instance, plays with this idea, by making a “motion picture” that does not move properly—a movie of mostly still images, like La Jetée, or a movie that often jolts to a stop, like Sans Soleil.

Since the present is ungraspable, a dangling carrot constantly on the move, ever one step ahead, all we can get in terms of an approximate understanding of time is the experience of absence: the continual race of the fleeting present, the apparent loss of the departed past, and the ever-unfulfillment of the not-yet future—experienced, respectively, as disorientation, nostalgia, and fantasy.

Of course the walls between these realms are quite thin, if they exist at all, for each—the past, the present, and the future—only exists as a construction in some apparent now. Memories exist not as the past, but as the apparent now constructing a past where there is only a lack. We see this more clearly in the corresponding process of our understanding of futurity. It is obvious to us that desires exist not as the future, but as the apparent now constructing a possible future, a hoped-for future, where there is only a lack. Even consciousness—our one true solid friend, our self—disappoints. It exists not as the present, but as the apparent now constructing a specious present where there is only a lack.

One theorist who seems to understand memory and time in a similar way to Chris Marker is Geoffrey Sonnabend. In his masterwork Obliscence, Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter, Sonnabend posits that memory is an illusion, and that forgetting is the inevitable outcome of all experience.

He writes: “We, amnesiacs all, condemned to live in an eternally fleeting present, have created the most elaborate of human constructions, memory, to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrieveability of its moments and events.”

According to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Sonnabend’s work is “predicated on the idea that what we experience as memories are in fact confabulations, artificial constructions of our own design built around sterile particles of retained experience which we attempt to make live again by infusions of imagination—much as the blacks and whites of old photographs are enhanced by the addition of colors or tints in attempt to add life to a frozen moment.”

This image of old hand-colored photographs is not unlike those distorted pictures provided by Hayao Yamaneko in Sans Soleil, friend to Sandor Krasna. Krasna explains that Yamaneko “plays with the signs of his memory,” using a synthesizer to “change the images of the past.”

Our image of Geoffrey Sonnabend may actually be a perfect example of distorting the past, of Markering time, for he is himself an artificial construction. He is, in actuality, a man who never existed, a fictitious theorist created by the Museum of Jurassic Technology (which is a real museum in Los Angeles, and perhaps the closest the world has to an authentic wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, for it displays real items next to fake items, with nothing to distinguish the specious from the authentic).

In La Jetée, another of Marker’s common memory metaphors presents itself when the narrator says “the museum of his memory.” Later in the film, the woman-image and her time-travelling “ghost” visit a natural history museum, where the couple are framed as though they too might be “ageless animals” encased in dusty vitrines. (This memory-museum metaphor resurfaces and becomes literalized in Marker’s CD-ROM Immemory.)

Yet if memory is a museum of the mind, then it is a museum similar to that wunderkammer in Los Angeles, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where we read of the work of the imagined Geoffrey Sonnabend—the real sitting side-by-side with the unreal, the factual with the fictional, given equal stature in the dusty vitrines of our (re)collections. Both our confabulatory memories and the hyperreal cabinets of curiosities are the offspring of what Umberto Eco calls, in his Travels in Hyperreality, “the unhappy awareness of a presence without depth.”

Sonnabend, the fake theorist with a real theory of memory, created by museum curators at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, is thus not unlike cameraman Sandor Krasna in Sans Soleil, who, of course, is not the film’s actual cameraman, but a fictitious alter ego of Marker himself.

Marker, like the wunderkammer, never hesitates to use fiction in the service of non-fiction, untruth in the service of ecstatic truth. Sans Soleil has been called a documentary, but what it documents is the story of a fictitious cameraman. “As for Sandor Krasna,” Marker writes in a letter, explaining his intentions with Sans Soleil, “I suppose you caught the idea, which was to use some degree of fiction to add a layer of poetry to the ‘factuality’ of the so-called documentary.”

In Sans Soleil, Marker—through Krasna—conceives of “the ultimate film,” which “puts together all the fragments of dreams.” He imagines “an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.” He dreams of a man “from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment.” This being has perfect memory, “total recall.” He is a man “who has lost forgetting,” “a Third Worlder of time,”—and he is troubled by his inability to forget, just as we are by our inability to remember.

Marker knows as much would be lost in this perfect memory as would be gained. We think we want total recall, but we do not want the total recoil that would come with it. If memory is falsifiable or inherently falsified, then we experience what we remember tinged with the regret of what we’ve lost, but if memory was total and perfect, then we would experience that totality of memory not only tinged with the regret of what we cannot lose, but also with the regret of what we cannot falsify. There is a poetry in forgetting as there is a poetry in remembering, for the poetry is not actually in either, but in ourselves.

Marker, for all his admissions that memory is spurious and structured by lack, still finds something beautiful in “the moss of time.” There is pleasure that comes with the wounds of memory, but there is a measure of joy in forgetting as well, for the lack that we structure our sense of self through often comes with the hope for replenishment in futurity, as a glass that perpetually remains half-full rather than half-empty.

We, amnesiacs all, needn’t fret over our inevitable forgetfulness, needn’t lament the past’s dispossession, for the past is always already that which exists beyond recollection, the past is always already a paradise lost. Like the future, it is “an unreachable country,” “a point beyond the tree.”

Our memories never truly capture the past; they merely reveal the battles we continually seem to have lost to it, whether real or imagined. They are simultaneously the supposed last trace of the past and our inevitable re-tracing of what we imagine the past might have been.

This is how Marker marks time—his obsession with memory is not merely one of nostalgia, but of revelation. Remembering, like desiring, is a creative, generative act. The wounds are the self, as are our desires. They are determined and structured by lack, but as with all vacuums, they beg for a filling: “Emptiness, as always, is filled with dreams.” All we are exists in the chasm of that specious present, that apparent now, augmented and colored by the imagination. Marker’s films embody the lack that we are as much as the filling that we stuff into it; they are as much the blank black space between the images as they are the images themselves. “If they don’t see happiness in the picture,” Marker admits in Sans Soleil, “at least they’ll see the black.”