Friday, 10 August 2012

Sans Soleil

I watched Chris Marker’s 1982 film Sans Soleil the other night in honour of the French director, photographer and writer who died last month. It’s a poetic documentary with an unseen narrator framing the images within a loose narrative, a discursive letter from an unnamed correspondent (although the credits at the end identify him as Sandor Krasna). As such, it’s a predecessor of the films of Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, and in particular the three Robinson films of Patrick Keiller, London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins. Marker’s film ranges across the world, from Guinea-Bissau to the Cape Verde Islands, Iceland to San Francisco. But its principal locale, the place which is the embodiment of its ideas and speculations, is Japan, and in particular Tokyo. The film is concerned with time and memory, history and dream, all of which coalesce and intermingle in the crowded, overlapping spaces of the city. Tokyo offers a direct refutation of the credo from TS Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday which is the film’s opening epigraph: ‘Because I know that time is always time/And place is always and only place…’.

Tower at the end of the world - the island of Sal
The female narrator, relating the contents of the letters which she’s received, tells us that different concepts of time now co-exist on the planet. There is African time, European time and Asian time. This is made explicit in a sequence which intercuts a colourfully masked carnival in Guinea with film of rocket stages being jettisoned in space above the blue curve of the world, Polaris missiles being fired into the sky, and bomber planes prowling through the cloud level. The barren island of Sal in the Cape Verdes is presented as an isolated interzone, a featureless plain fringed by the ocean which looks like the backdrop to a surrealist painting. Its lighthouse rises like a tower in a de Chirico picture, the letters KGB etched in large, faded graffiti on its walls as a mark of transient history which will pass while it remains standing sentinel. The narrator tells us it’s the last lighthouse in the world whose lamp is still lit by oil. It’s an edifice, and an island, which seems to mark a point of temporal collision, incorporating the pre-human, the primitive and the post-apocalyptic. Its airport stopover is a light tarmac footprint of the technological present which operates as stepping stone towards other zones of time. But it’s provisional, and easily assimilated into the primal void of the surrounding landscape.

Neighbourhood ceremonies
The film is frozen at various times, capturing moments, gestures and glances, and fixing them in memory. The narrator reads at the start of the film the correspondent’s declaration that ‘only banality still interests me’. This leads him to seek out the marginal and neglected, and to focus in on the incidental detail. He goes to the down at heels suburb of Namida-Bashi and observes the drunks and bums who exist outside the glittering bubble of the economic miracle. One of them appoints himself as a temporary traffic warden, imposing his order on this unglamorous part of the city, claiming it for his own. The narrator likes the neighbourhood celebrations, and films a parade of women in kimonos and high-platformed wooden sandals dancing in formation to clattering and tinkling percussion. The inevitable Coca-Cola sign glimpsed behind them is there as an incidentally captured detail, its symbolism now too banally obvious to warrant closer attention (and not banal in the sense which the narrator finds interesting). The ceremonial music is given a whispering electronic shadow on the soundtrack, blending past and future into a synthesised present. Other dancers are found in Shinjuku Square in the form of the youthful and colourfully costumed Takenoko-zoku, whose highly stylised moves are directed by a leader with a marshalling whistle. The narration describes them as inhabiting a ‘parallel time sphere’, or as visitors from another world. The camera focuses in on one young woman tentatively going through her motions with studied care, with the suggestion made that she is ‘learning the customs of the planet’. In keeping with the stated interest in the banal and the incidental, the camera also zooms in on a plastic bag incongruously decorated with a caricature of a raincoated Jean Gabin.

Lord of the dance - directing the Takenoko in Shinjuku Square

Escaping from the page - Manga City
Marker draws attention to the all-pervasive presence of manga and anime, suggesting that the Japanese invented wide-screen cinema hundreds of years before the fact. He regrets the way in which comic-strip heroines have become the ‘victims of heartless story writers and castrating censorship’, but loves the way that they’ve escaped beyond the pages and the confining screen and onto the walls and billboards of the city. Tokyo has become a comic-strip, he says, planet Mongo from the Flash Gordon stories. He’s also fascinated by the traditions of Japanese supernatural horror, which long predated its resurgence with the Ringu films. We see intercut clips featuring the characteristic concealing veil of long black hair (the long hair of death), eyes glowing blood red from dark faces contorted in evil gurns, and grinning heads floating free from their bodies like sinister balloons. This demonic parade is banished by the appearance of Natsume Masako, an embodiment of ‘absolute beauty’ and goodness. She was an actress best known in the West for playing the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzoukoushi in Japan) in the 1980s series Monkey, a role for which she shaved her head and played a boy. She was a huge star in Japan, a youth idol whose tragically early death from leukaemia in 1985 at the age of 27 almost raised her fame to the level of sanctification.

The long hair of death - collective dreaming

Traintime dreaming
Japanese TV is seen by Marker as a repository for collective dreaming. Trains, which thread the city’s interstices and whose tracks, along with its criss-crossing electric power lines, expose its inner connections and workings, move through their own traintime. They inhabit an inbetween zone which, with its regular rhythms and hypnotically familiar sounds, encourages a half-waking drift into dream states. Marker observes commuters lost in trancelike inner visions or nodding off into light sleep, the sounds of the train mixed in with their ghost electronic analogues, as with the street ceremony. We enter into the dream worlds and fantasies of the passengers via scenes from horror films (floating heads, wide staring eyes, and another head peering around a screen from the end of a long, sinuously uncoiling neck), samurai films (all impossibly kinetic, leaping action, flashing blades clashing with ringing, scintillant sound), and sex films (or a specific genre known as pinku eiga in Japan). The dream traintime is given its own visualisation in a scene from an anime film in which a train races up a steeply ascendant ramp to launch itself into the stars. In this media saturated city, there is also the sense that you are always being watched, something which Marker conveys with a shifting, kaleidoscopic collage of staring eyes taken from horror films and other TV shows of a sinister and paranoid cast.

Doll conflagration
Shinjuku Square once more provides the site for a collision of cultures and time zones, with Tokyo youth gazing up at hugely projected footage of Deep Purple playing in all their 70s pomp. Tokyo is the ideal locale for Marker’s philosophical traveller to explore, a place where even the incidental and throwaway is given a ritualistic and sacramental dignity. He witnesses a ceremony staged for the blessing of broken dolls, which ends with them being cast into a fiery pit at the centre of the sacred space, and a blessing for the animals at Tokyo Zoo which have died over the previous year. Everything, whether living creature or inanimate object, is seen as being possessed of its own particular spirit, an adaptation of the Shinto religion’s reverence for natural forms and places to incorporate the new technologised world of materialism and mass-manufacture. In the face of the seismic changes of the twentieth century, the borderlands of the sacred are adjusted accordingly. Even the dispersal of rubbish accumulated by these ceremonies is disposed of with an air of sober ritual. Here, exhibitions of art and sacred objects take place in the upper floors of department stores, with no sense of disjuncture between commercial and cultural display.

Cat shrine - prayers for protection
Marker begins his exploration of Tokyo with a couple at a temple shrine consecrated to cats, watching them give blessings in the rain for their lost cat Toro to provide it with protection wherever it might be. The shrine is surrounded by the statues of beckoning cats, known as maneki-neko, the white ceramic figurines which are such a popular symbol of good fortune in Japan. Poignantly, there is also an unopened, half-size can of cat food rusting in the rain. Cats (and owls) are a favourite motif (and creature) of Marker’s, and they are scattered throughout the film. He returns to the couple at the shrine towards the end, clearly seeing them as representative of something important. There is no sense of mockery or belittlement. He is genuinely touched by their gesture, and the calm and accepting way in which it is made. Indeed, Marker is refreshingly optimistic and open throughout. He is quizzical, interrogatory and always intent on seeing beyond the surface of things, but utterly lacking in the weary cynicism which sometimes marks the efforts of the grumpier British film essayists such as Keiller, Sinclair and Petit. He addresses the failures of 60s idealism and the revolutionary movements in places such as Guinea-Bissau, as well as in Japan. But he finds reason for hope in a persistence of the spirit which the dissidence and resistance to brute or unreasoning power of that era gave birth to. Marker himself became involved in radical politics at the time, but he avoided becoming doctrinaire in the bullying and tedious manner of the likes of Jean-Luc Godard. He sees the seeds of 60s idealism blossoming in acts of kindness, compassion and generosity towards others. The couple wishing their cat a safe passage wherever it has gone are a manifestation of this in their own way in their concern for their fellow creatures – those which need their protection and help. ‘Cat, wherever you are’, they say, ‘peace be with you’. It’s a very Buddhist outlook. Marker looks at the vicissitudes of the struggle for freedom and equality around the world with a similarly Buddhist equanimity, greeting setbacks with a philosophically resigned ‘things are never simple’, knowing that at some juncture, the wheel will turn and the balance shift once more.

Vertigo - the spiralling iris of time
The themes of time and memory which suffuse Sans Soleil are also found in Vertigo, as Marker observes, and he revisits some of the San Francisco locations used in the film on his own cinematic pilgrimage. These are shown as a series of comparative then and now stills. Hitchock’s masterpiece, voted number one in the recent Sight and Sound poll for the greatest film of all time (Sans Soleil came in at a respectable 69, equal with Blade Runner, Blue Velvet and Bresson’s A Man Escaped), is described as being about ‘impossible’ and ‘insane’ memory. The titles, with their spiralling patterns spinning out of and back into the iris of a red eye, are said to represent the outward radiation of time (and presumably its retraction into an inner time). Different levels or layers of time overlap in Hitchcock’s perception of the city - the personal, the historical and the geological, or extra-human. The ‘ghost’ of Madeleine points to one of the lines dividing the rings in the vertical cross-section of the giant redwood in the forest just beyond San Francisco and indicates that she has lived and died within that tiny span of the tree’s existence. Marker shows another arboreal cross-section in another place and another film – the Jardin des Plantes and his own La Jetée (although he is too modest to directly identify it as such). Here, the protagonist, in a deliberate echo of Madeline’s gesture, points beyond the concentric circles providing a long calendar of the trees growth to indicate where he has come from; beyond past and present, from the as yet unaccumulated layers of future time.

La Jetée - pointing beyond arboreal time

La Jetée - the mysterious beauty of the dreaming face
La Jetée shares Sans Soleil’s use of science fiction to convey a distanced, alien perspective of the world, seeing it anew, as if freshly discovered. Its experimental and at the same time simple and readily comprehensible form, telling its circular story through a series of stills, presents time as a sequence of frozen moments. Memories, if they are imprinted strongly enough, allow for time travel back into the past from a bleak, post-apocalyptic bunker-dwelling future. When the protagonist, having been subjected to experiments which amount to inducing a dream-state, goes back to the past which is our present, we see ordinary scenes which are introduced as ‘a peacetime meadow’, ‘a peacetime bedroom’, ‘a peacetime cat’. The unremarkable and the everyday is given a magical, otherworldly aura, our world a lost paradise which can only be dreamed of from the grim bunkers of the future. La Jetée also shares Sans Soleil’s fascination with the beauty and mystery of the sleeping state, and of dreaming faces. The woman, whom the protagonist has remembered glimpsing in childhood, a memory which has served as the fulcrum for his return to the past as a ‘ghost’ visitant, is seen in a series of sleeping stills. Then, unexpectedly, one of the stills comes to life, her eyes flickering open. It’s a breathtaking moment, time set into motion once more, or eyes opening into dream. The time traveller also leaps, or is drawn briefly into the future, where he encounters an advanced breed of humanity, jewels embedded in their foreheads like third eyes, whose minds have gained mastery over time and memory. Sans Soleil puts forward a similar idea, inspired by the volcanic plains of Iceland, seen as an otherworldly or futuristic science fiction landscape. Marker imagines a visitor from the far future, the year 4001, a time when humanity has once more attained the full use of mind, including perfect memory, and has ‘lost forgetting’. He travels back from the future out of curiosity and compassion for the broken minds of the people of the past – a buddha returning from the state of enlightenment to help those still mired in time and confusion. Marker suggests that the images and observations which he has collected and assembled are sketches for a film about this visitor’s impressions of our world which will never be made.

Synthesiser landscape - the EMS Spectre Image Synthesiser
The music in Sans Soleil provides a suitable ambience evoking the shadows of the future cast backwards into the past. The title of the film itself is taken from a musical source: Mussorgsky’s song-cycle Sunless. We first see the titles of the film in Russian (in red), then French (pink), then English (orange). One of Mussorgsky’s songs is given an electronic arrangement by Isao Tomita, who effects a similar transformation on a Sibelius piece, a Scandinavian link to the Icelandic sequences and a recasting of the classical past which gives it a futuristic, technological sheen. Aside from the Tomita pieces, the electronic music soundtrack is produced by Michel Krasna on EMS VCS3 and Moog Source synthesisers. It burbles and drones in the background throughout, sometimes adding a sonic corona to other music – the dancing, riverine percussion of the Tokyo street ceremony, the Zen Buddhist and Shinto chanting, or the romantic strains of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. Sometimes it is metallic and mechanistic, at other times it effects an eerie, haunted pastoral, with beautiful, alien electronic birdsong, as in the passage accompanying an emu wandering about on the Ile de France in a disoriented fashion (as emus tend to do), as if it has just been teleported from its natural environment. The film also features an EMS Spectre Image Synthesiser, which the artist Hayao Yamaneko uses to create his transformative ‘Zone’, named after the mysterious area in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker which operates according to inexplicable, unearthly laws of nature, or supernature. This zone is a technological no-place which levels all difference and renders conflict and pain into edgeless blurs of semi-abstract colour and movement – an electronic nirvana. Inside it, the French singer and actress Arielle Dombasle (who was appearing in a couple of Eric Rohmer films at around this time) sings an Elizabethan lament as the camera pans slowly over the EMS synth patchboard, its pins casting long shadows as if they were standing stones on a barren plain. The synth is presented as a miniaturised, melancholy landscape of desolation. It is at once and ancient and technologically sophisticated (for the time) to the point where it is capable of creating a new synthesis of the old sacred magic. Marker talks of the way in which, in our present age, images have become a substitute for memory. ‘The new bible’, he suggests, ‘will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to re-read itself constantly just to know it existed’. The magnetic tape is an anachronism now, of course, but switch it to digital and the notion still holds true. The obsession with the recorded past, and with recasting and mixing it into different configurations, as outlined in Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania and elsewhere, is certainly an affirmation of this idea.

Heimaey - the working of time
The film draws to an end in the Icelandic town of Heimaey, which Marker’s protagonist (who has really been his own alter ego all along) tells us he had visited years ago, capturing his own image of paradisical happiness – three children walking together along a country road (the image with which the film opens). Now a friend has sent him back his own filmic postcard, depicting places he had known in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. The brightly coloured wooden buildings are almost entirely buried in black ash, roofs and sections of road emerging from the contours of a new landscape. It looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic, post-human world. As the narrator puts it, ‘the planet itself staged the working of time’. The camera operator includes a shot of a cat, knowing how much Marker loves them. It wanders across the asphalt of a road which is now an isolated bridge, with no point of origin or destination; A physical manifestation of disembodied memory. Cats always find their place, he says. Once more, we think of the couple at the shrine in Tokyo, to whom we return. Marker puts the Icelandic cat, and by extension Toro the Tokyo cat, into the electronic ‘zone’, the protective no-place situated outside of time, beyond the concentric bounds of the tree’s slow cross-section ripple in the continuum. Wherever you are, peace be with you.

Beyond time - in The Zone

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