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Watching Sans Soleil

Watching Sans Soleil

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Published by John Fitzgerald
On the essay-film by Chris Marker.
On the essay-film by Chris Marker.

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Published by: John Fitzgerald on Jul 28, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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08/29/2013

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 Watching
Sans Soleil 
 JOHN FITZGERALD
When Werner Herzog screened
Sans Soleil 
for us on that summer evening inSoHo in 2008, he selected a short documentary to complement and precedeit:
Les Maîtres Fous 
(“The Mad Masters”) by Jean Rouch. “Don’t ask me whyI paired these two films,” Herzog said at the time, intimating that he did nothave a reason. And yet, when both films had concluded, I sensed a clearconnection between them. Rouch’s film from the 1950s had documentedthe Hauka movement then prevalent in communities on Africa’s Gold Coast,which consisted of African natives coming together in a surreal ceremonyand embodying the identities of their European colonialmasters—everything from the colonial Governor down to the railroad trainthat the whites had brought with them (one of the strangest images in thefilm is that of an African hurriedly walking back and forth between twotrees, acting out the monotonous existence of a steam engine). Themovement was a bizarre pantomime of the colonial administrative state, theparticipants each seemingly in a trance—some even foaming at themouth—investing bureaucratic banalities with the importance of ritual.“These otherwise ordinary people have, in Rouch's view, found a way of dealing with the psychoses that accompany the colonial situation: a waythat westerners, according to Rouch, are far from able to understand.”
1
But replace Ghana in the Fifties with Tokyo in the Eighties—andreplace a society constrained by European colonialism with a societyconstrained by technocratic capitalism—and you have, in some degree,Chris Marker’s
Sans Soleil 
. The “masters” are different than in Rouch’s title,but the “mad”-ness is still there. Tokyo in the 1980s is a maze of luminescent signage, electronic gadgets, video games, robots, and westernpop music. A civilization once famous for its Zen tranquility had now,
 
1
Sarah Cooper,
Selfless Cinema? : Ethics and French Documentary 
(Oxford: Legenda,2006).
 
Watching Sans Soleil 
2
through its ravenous introduction into the western marketplace,transmogrified Tokyo into what seemed like a bizarre fusion of New York,Miami, and Las Vegas. Lights everywhere—flashing bulbs from everysecond-rate electronics store—but nothing to illuminate. Wim Wenders, inhis film
Tokyo-ga
(1983), interviews Werner Herzog on the observationdeck of the Tokyo Tower, and elicits this scathing judgment about the citybeneath them: “One has to search this ravaged landscape to find anythingat all . . . There’s almost nothing left here. You really have to search. I’d goto Mars or Saturn on the next rocket if I could . . . because it’s no longereasy here on this earth to find that something that gives images theirtransparency the way you could before.” As Herzog spoke high atop theTokyo Tower, Chris Marker was roaming the streets below searching forthose very images, and we find them in
Sans Soleil 
: the solemn religious riteperformed at a temple consecrated to cats by a Japanese couple whose cat,Tora, has run away; the Takenoko youth who gather outdoors wearing thefashions of western teenagers and who move their bodies in ritualisticallysynchronized motions with rock and roll songs playing in the backgroundlike sacred music; the annual ceremony for the repose of the souls of broken dolls—children and parents gathered around the bonfire as sincethe dawn of time, throwing their toys into the flames. However modern andmechanistic the world had become, there was still the primeval need toinvest it with something sacred. Like the Houka participants in British-controlled Ghana, there seemed to be an overriding impulse to come face toface with the spiritual amidst the new banality of their everyday lives.Hence the crowds around the display cases of artifacts on loan from theVatican—on the seventh floor of a Tokyo department store.When it was initially released on DVD in France in 2003,
Sans Soleil 
was paired with another short film by Marker—his famous 1963 ciné-roman
La Jetée 
. But in this pairing, as well, what was seen to connect the two filmswas what Marker called (in a rare interview at the time) “spiritism.”
If I were to speak in the name of the person who made those movies,that wouldn’t be journalism but rather spiritism. In fact, I don’tthink I either chose or accepted: somebody talked about it, and itgot done. That there was a certain relationship between these twofilms was something I was aware of, but I didn’t think I needed toexplain—until I found a small anonymous note published in aprogram in Tokyo that said, “Soon the voyage will be at an end. It’sonly then that we will know if the juxtaposition of images makes anysense. We will understand that we have prayed with film, as onemust on a pilgrimage, each time we have been in the presence of death: in the cat cemetery, standing in front of the dead giraffe,with the kamikazes at the moment of takeoff, in front of theguerillas killed in the war for independence. In
La Jetée 
, the
 
Watching Sans Soleil 
3
foolhardy experiment to look into the future ends in death. Bytreating the same subject twenty years later, Marker has overcomedeath by prayer.”
2
Indeed, Marker’s whole aesthetic about cinema veers toward the spiritual, asevident in his remarks about DVD technology. “[It’s} great, but it still isn’tcinema,” he says. “Godard nailed it once and for all: at the cinema, youraise your eyes to the screen; in front of the television, you lower them.Then there is the role of the shutter. Out of the two hours you spend in amovie theater, you spend one in the dark.”These qualities of reverence and meditation come through moststrikingly in
Sans Soleil 
than in any of his other films, though they werepresent even in the beginning—think only of the antique African masksunder museum display cases in
Les statues meurent aussi 
(1957). Though inthat film he was portraying a kind of spiritual rape. By the time of 
Sans Soleil 
he is not documenting the
absence 
of “spiritism”—instead it is a questof discovery. “I've been round the world several times and now onlybanality still interests me,” he notes. “On this trip I've tracked it with therelentlessness of a bounty hunter.” Where Herzog sought spiritual truth inimages of the extreme landscapes of African deserts, burning Kuwaiti oilfields, Amazonian jungles, or the bleak Antarctic continent, Marker focusedinstead on the spiritism of the banal. “Do we ever know where history isreally made?” he asks, recounting his interest in the writings of the 11th-century court diarist, Sei Shonagon, and her penchant for drawing up lists:“elegant things,” “distressing things,” “things not worth doing,” or “thingsthat quicken the heart.” This last list—“things that quicken theheart”—particularly animates Marker: “Not a bad criterion I realize whenI'm filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you arethe neighborhood celebrations.” Japan’s business prowess may have beenwhat was preoccupying the journalists of the day, but it was in theircountless daily rituals, their mesmerizing street festivals, that Marker trulysaw who these people were.“We will have understood that we have prayed with film,” writesMarker’s anonymous reviewer in Tokyo. This observation probably comescloser to capturing the experience of watching
Sans Soleil 
than any otherthat I have read. So much of the film is prayerful meditation—the ferry ridefrom Hokkaido that occasions thoughts of “small fragments of warenshrined in everyday life”; the almost hypnotic scenes of ritualized dancefrom street festivals in Japan and Africa interspersed among each other; atrip to the video arcade where Pac-Man is deemed “the most perfect graphic
 
2
Interview of Chris Marker by Samuel Douhaire and Annick Rivoire in
Libération
,March 5, 2003. Reprinted in 2007 by the Criterion Collection.

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