"He wrote me..."
This is the mantra of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil(Sunless). A woman reads in voiceover what a friend has written her, as footage he has shot plays out underneath in rapid, random succession. The film is a sort of travelogue, mostly of Japan and Africa, and the words are a travelogue of his mind. His thoughts, always related somehow to the clip at hand, are a dizzying torrent of intellectual musings, switching gears at breakneck pace.
As you struggle to keep pace, the challenge is twofold: to absorb what is being said, and to assess the value of what is being said. Whether you cotton to this film will depend on whether you nodded in agreement or rolled your eyes through most of Richard Linkletter'sWaking Life, a film with a similar ambition.
Is this film pretentious or profound? To be sure, that is a Rorschach test for the viewer, but the film often wobbles back and forth between these two points so quickly as to make the point moot. The stream of images and thoughts is gulped in heedlessly as it flows past. A stopped clock is right (or, in this case, interesting) twice a day, and this clock spins around like mad.
Sans Soleilhopscotches through locales as quickly as it does ideas, and the sense of tourism that pervades the film is a strength and a weakness. It becomes a bit patronizing as the travails of the masses are used as an occasion to wax intellectual, the letter-writer pulling in all manner of philosophers and such to limn his thoughts about these little lives.
The film works best when it serves up straightforward, wry reportage on the cultures. A Japanese man plays whack-a-mole in an arcade, but the moles have been replaced with little human heads, all labeled with the titles of office workers. The head for the immediate supervisor has been so viciously pounded over time that it has been replaced again with the original mole. A black-haired, Japanese-looking JFK animatronic robot sells suits in a department store as the PA system swells with a syrupy female chorus singing "Ask not what your country can do for you..."
Marker wisely does not pontificate what a 13th-century painter once said as these moments are shown, as he is wont to do elsewhere. Some of this sort of thing comes off and some of it doesn't when you are given a chance to reflect on what is being said. We are shown Japanese children prodded into the ritual of tossing flowers onto the memorial for a dead panda, and they look about like what you would expect them to: vaguely confused, amused, distracted. But we are told that they are staring intently through the thin membrane separating life and death, curious to understand.
And it almost seems like a Saturday Night Live skit when a discourse on Vertigo leads the narrator to not once but twice mention something about the film, pause significantly, and then ask (picture Jon Lovitz widening his eyes as he says this) "...or is it the other way around...?" (So true.Shivers.)
All this aside, the most interesting part of Sans Soleil came for me at a moment when the narration blissfully fell away, and the images could just be absorbed. I was relieved, and then I realized that I was seeing them through Marker's eyes.
All of Marker's work is a web of connections, and Vertigo also appears as a reference in La Jetée, Marker's best-known work, and perhaps his best as well. A series of beautiful, grainy black-and-white photographs tell the story of a man from an apocalyptic future being trained to travel through time.
Marker's preoccupation with memory finds an artful foothold in narrative, and the film has endured as a classic for over 40 years, even becoming the basis of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. It is, especially for Marker, a model of restrained simplicity and elegant perfection, and remains entrancing no matter how many times I see it. Most reviews spoil one aspect of it, however, so I'll just say this --- don't take your eyes off the screen.
Sans Solieland La Jetée screen on Tuesday, April 20, in the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. $6. 271-3361, www.eastman.org.