All That Is The Case: On Susan Howe’s Chris Marker

By Rebecca Ariel PorteMarch 29, 2013

Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Chris Marker by Susan Howe

The small Victorian hotel where Madeleine disappeared had disappeared itself; concrete had replaced it, at the corner of Eddy and Gough. On the other hand the sequoia cut was still in Muir Woods. On it Madeleine traced the short distance between two of those concentric lines that measured the age of the tree and said, “Here I was born … and here I died.”

 Chris Marker, Sans Soleil

I. Double Elegy

WHAT'S IN A FACT? Selective histories of recursions, reticulations, versiform involutions; prognostications of inosculations; memories of the future; dreams of a master onomasticon; dendrochronologies of trees that died a thousand years ago or have not yet been born. Susan Howe’s Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Chris Marker is a self-declared experiment in “poetic documentary” (elsewhere, she calls it “factual telepathy”) that echoes and transmutes the forms favored by its ostensible subject: the late Chris Marker, director of La jetée, Sans soleil, and much else besides.

Howe’s 48-page essay is an odd beast, a memoir mixed with notes and queries on American poetry, with Marker as its presiding genius. Digressive, personal, indirect, ranging from Dickinson, Melville, and Whitman, to Vertov, Tarkovsky, and Barthes, Sorting Facts is, generically, perhaps closer to what Montaigne called an “essay” than it is to most contemporary iterations of the form. Readers looking for a more orthodox critical biography of the director will be better served by studies like Catherine Lupton’s Memories of the Future (2004) or Nora M. Alter’s Chris Marker (2006). But for those less interested in a broad, synthetic argument about Marker’s oeuvre and more interested in how writing might pay homage to the experience of watching his films and the fact of his loss, Howe’s essay will be a welcome contribution to a growing corpus of Markeriana. And yet, to say that Sorting Facts is “about” Marker is to do a disservice to the larger questions posed by the essayist and her subject. In the end, Howe’s investigation, like Marker’s, comes down to facts: what they are, how we mark them (or fail to mark them), and what it is in them that sustains or destroys.

Facts are a long-standing preoccupation for Howe, whose poetic work often weaves together material elements like photographs and archival documents with autobiographical reflection. Pierce-Arrow (1999), for example, takes the manuscript writing of the logician Charles Sanders Peirce as an occasion to explore the nature of truth. Sorting Facts is another generic hybrid in this vein. Originally commissioned for a collection called Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film (1996), the essay now appears, 17 years and one or two cosmetic changes later, as a stand-alone issue of the New Directions series of poetry pamphlets. Although the timing of the reprint is obviously keyed to Marker’s recent death, Howe’s writing on the director was always already elegy: “I was drawn to the project,” Howe writes of the essay’s composition, “because of the fact of my husband’s death and my wish to find a way to document his life and work.”  That the essay reads now, in 2013, as a posthumous tribute to Marker is at once circumstantial, symptomatic, and inevitable. The medium of all three of these — circumstance, symptom, and inevitability — is merely time. 

This elegy, now doubled by the event of Marker’s death, recalls those preemptive obituaries of living people that prominent news organinzations are rumored to keep on file, so that the demise of a person of note may be marked speedily and with the appropriate volume of verbiage. This journalistic practice might be no more than callous pragmatism, but there’s another way to look at it: as a means of bracing for an encounter with mortality, making sensible preparations for the funeral and what we will have seen and felt there, though we know that even the most sensible preparation will never have sufficed. (Who are these chroniclers of the near future, anyway, and in what tense do they write?) Marker is the nominal subject of Howe’s writing, but he is also a method, a trace, a marker. His films inspire, for Howe, a mode of documentation — a poetics — spacious enough to describe not merely the loss of her husband, the sculptor David von Schlegell, but also the way loss, more generally conceived, is inscribed within Marker’s most celebrated works.

Howe begins Sorting Facts with a factual recounting of her husband’s biographical data and opens, from there, onto readings of Dziga Vertov, Andrei Tarkovsky, and, of course, Marker. The studied dryness of the essay’s beginning suggests a kind of tonal experiment, a test of how the accretion of data might block or channel intensely emotional experience. “He was born in St. Louis in 1920,” Howe writes of her husband:

We lived together for twenty-seven years, most of them by Long Island Sound […] These are only some facts. He had a stroke and died three days later on Monday, October 5, 1992, at 5 a.m.

The directness of this flat, declarative listing seems to amplify loss, in part because it highlights the difference between what we experience and what we can preserve of what we experience: “what constitutes an official version of events as opposed to a former version in imminent danger of being lost.” Reading this incipit is a little like getting caught up in the anguished gaze of a statue and remembering, suddenly, that the sculpture must be cool to the touch.

Although both language and film may be, in various ways, insufficiently mimetic, Howe suggests that they may have something to offer us after all: “In the name of reason I need to record something because I am a survivor in this ocean.” What’s in a record? Facts. What is a fact? Or maybe it is better to ask what kinds of experience and phenomena qualify as fact. Perhaps a fact is some recalcitrant bit of matter that will not be reduced, can be no further purified by the subliming fire of observation, a hard flinty shard that does not yield and will not explain. Perhaps. Or else this is only a limited case of the factual. Or else it is merely a fantasy of a fact, the atom of uncontestable truth raised up before the jury on its small, silken pillow (cf. early Wittgenstein). Is a fact a mere linguistic abstraction or is it that which cannot, in the end, be abstracted? Is a fact what it is regardless of what we are and how we look at it — or is fact made by the act of sorting (cf. late Wittgenstein)? If a fact can be said to have a lifespan, as we have lately heard, then are Howe’s facts living, dead, or some uncanny combination of the two? Is Howe’s double elegy also an elegy for fact itself? 

Not quite. The nature of fact may be elusive in Howe’s writing, but its ontological status, its use-value as a term of art, is never in question. For Howe, there is no such thing as the postfactual or the ex-postfactual, only the metafactual, the parafactual, and, occasionally, the counterfactual. Nonetheless, Howe openly refuses to equate the factual with the representative, the true, or even the indexical. She describes her husband in his last days:

He was fully conscious, but words failed. He couldn’t speak or write. He tried to communicate by gestures. We couldn’t interpret them. He kept making the gesture of pointing. In physical space we couldn’t see what he saw.

These are facts, to be sure, but their deficiencies are obvious. 

Consider, in light of this suspicion of what facts tell, Howe’s use of images and primary documents: letters from the young David to his parents, complete with images of the envelopes, stills from the films of Vertov, Tarkovsky, and Marker. These materials are, for Howe’s purposes, “facts” of a sort, but their powers and abilities hardly grant access to some incontrovertible, objective reality. The effect of these inclusions is rather more destabilizing than not. They are less illustrations of Howe’s points than revenants, a parallel narrative of preservation and loss. Howe is concerned with not merely the “fact” of mortality but also with the mysterious permeability of fact itself — what it leaves out, what is lost when an image achieves the status of a document or a document achieves the status of fact. “Some of my earliest memories are film memories confused with facts,” Howe writes of her childhood. But how far apart are memory and fact? Her 19 “ways of looking” approximate a filmic montage, a series of stills that, taken together, give rise to a kind of narrative. (Howe, by the way, may be one of the few writers in existence who can get away with a title that nods to Wallace Stevens’s hypercanonical “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”) A tally of the facts of loss, Howe seems to say, may also tell us something about what it is to lose, if only by virtue of what they cannot divulge.

II. Time Machines

One of the signal pleasures of writing on Chris Marker must be the challenge of summarizing La jetée. There are two major conceptual puzzles to solve: 

1) In what order should one relate the events of a story premised on time-travel? Each of the film’s narrative points is, in itself, very simple. But causality crinkles and folds the relations between them so that the plot appears, in the aggregate, as complex as a quaternary protein.

2) How much does one say about the style? Marker’s ciné-roman, or “film-novel,” is relayed almost entirely in still images — photomontage — save for a few brief frames in which a woman blinks her eyes.

Howe begins (spoiler alert) at the beginning of La jetée, which is also, by virtue of the film’s unique conceit, the end: 

A boy and his parents have come to the main jetty at Orly, the Paris airport, on a Sunday before World War III, to watch the planes taking off. A little family stands together, facing away from the camera … Image track and soundtrack don’t quite connect … Did the boy at the guardrail inside the film frame become the marked man? His story will survive the madness to come because of his obsession with an image he is bound to remember. Who or what binds him? Something he was on that primal Sunday he looked the other way.

The boy at the guardrail and the “marked man” are, indeed, versions of one another: “The protagonist of La jetée has been granted to watch, as a child, his own death.” Sent back in time from the aftermath of World War III, the man who will save the future is inevitably obsessed with a prewar past to which he can never truly return and for which he will eventually reject the future’s ambiguous gifts — ensuring, in this way, his violent, certain death.

Howe describes the embodiment of this past in an “unknown woman, object of his wish, subject of his gaze, [who] sometimes calls him her ‘Ghost’ … He loses her to look for her. Escape into air from living underwater.” Summary opens onto a visual break as the prose text takes on the lineated quality we tend to associate with poems: “[S]he could be his mother glimmering into sight

             if a bird beats the air must it oh

oh must it not resound.

The essay is full of moments like this one, in which Howe’s prose suddenly fragments — a disarticulation that seems to mirror the juxtapositions of Marker’s filmic technique. She reports the commentary of the Canadian filmmaker Mike Cartmell on Marker’s work: “Sans soleil wasn’t about poetry; it was poetry.” Sorting Facts takes this judgment as injunction in the way it echoes, enacts, and ultimately refits a version of Marker’s poetic documentary for the medium of text. It’s not a mode, perhaps, that makes much room for critique, but it goes a long way toward showing, rather than telling, how Marker’s work achieves its singular effects.

Take, for example, that phrase “marked man,” which makes it almost impossible to dissociate Marker himself from the time-traveling protagonist of his most famous film. It’s a correspondence typical of the set of myths surrounding the director and his work, many of which Marker propagated himself, or at least allowed to go unchallenged. There is, as yet, very little we know of him apart from his art.

His name, at birth, was Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve. He was born in Ulaanbaatar or Neuilly-Sur-Seine. He was the son of an aristocrat, or else of a rich colonialist. He was a paratrooper or an army interpreter or a French Resistance member. He was a student of philosophy and a regular at the Café Flore along with Sartre and de Beauvoir. He helped to form the influential Travail et Culture (Work and Culture) group and was an intimate of Left Bank directors like Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda. Nora Alter’s Chris Marker cites Resnais’s description of him as “the prototype of the 19th century man.” (Curiously, Marker’s Wikipedia page, though it refers to the same observation, changes the century: there, Resnais is supposed to have called Marker “the prototype of the twenty-first-century-man.” And yet neither epithet, regardless of its citational precision, is really accurate in the larger sense, for there has never been a filmmaker more obsessed with the question of what the 20th century was.) He loved cats. La jetée has inspired, among other things, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Rian Johnson’s Looper, and the lyrics of Panda Bear’s “Last Night at the Jetty.” In an interview from 1964, Marker declared that he “detest[ed] everything symbolic.” He was “concrete and want[ed] to be understood as such.” He loved cats. He hated to be photographed. When asked for a picture of himself, he would send an image of his own cat, Guillaume-en-Égypte.

Which of these facts are true facts, time may or may not tell.

III. Sandor Krasna

Howe focuses almost exclusively on La jetée and Sans Soleil, which says a lot about which Marker matters for her purposes: not so much the overtly political Marker of Le joli mai (1963), or the multimedia artist, whimsical and guarded, of the later years, but the theorist of narrative, poised uneasily between the generic demands of essay and fiction. Howe describes a scene from Sans Soleil — titled after Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 song cycle — in which “[t]hree children are walking along a country road in Iceland. The camera plucked them out of place and bygone time shortly before a volcano buried their village under ash.”  Later on, the film imagines “a time traveler from the year 4001, ‘when the human brain has reached the era of full employment.’ … He tells us Mussorgsky’s songs are still sung in the 40th century.” Marker’s vision of the future, Howe reminds us, is inextricable from the record of historical trauma. “[S]hades of the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” she writes, “hover at the margins” of Sans soleil’s Japanese footage.

Sans soleil is a travelogue that wends its way through Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. It is also an epistolary film. A woman’s voice narrates, a refrain over the changing and changeable images:

He used to write me from Africa … He wrote me that in the Bijagós Islands it's the young girls who choose their fiancées … He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.

The credits reveal the “he” in question to be one Sandor Krasna, another of Marker’s numerous alter egos. 

Howe draws our attention to the way fictional patterns accrete across Marker’s work until they achieve the force of fact. She writes of how Sans soleil echoes Marker’s Le mystère Koumiko (1965), an attempt to counter orientalist attitudes toward postwar Japan. Le mystère is both extremely earnest and politically problematic, given Marker’s own subject position as a white European man documenting non-Western cultures and bodies, and both the earnestness and the problems carry over to the later Sans soleil. Howe’s essay doesn’t engage directly with these difficulties, though Marker’s films themselves do to some extent. “The cat is never on the side of power,” Marker says in A Grin Without a Cat, his 1977 meditation on the European Left. But do we believe him? If there is anything to wish for in this essay, it’s that Howe’s ruminations had led her to say a little more about the limitations that even a poetics as strange and generous as Marker’s must surely possess. 

Sorting Facts concentrates on the complex patterns that link Marker’s obsessions: doubling, recapitulation, premonitions of the past, memories of what is yet to come, the cut sequoia of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which appears both in La jetée and Sans soleil:

My favorite sequence in Sans Soleil weaves in and around the Hitchcock movie. Here, the person who claims to have seen Vertigo nineteen times shows by subterfuge how that film’s spiral of time reoccurs in La Jetée [. . .] [Sandor Krasna,] [t]he fictional nonfiction filmmaker [,] inserts footage from Hitchcock’s earlier fictional movie filmed during the 1950s on location in a city (San Francisco) once almost buried by volcanic ash by earthquake and fire. One sequence or mininarrative leads by indirection into another sequence. Meanwhile the unseen narrator repairs or restores psychic reality and its relation to external reality, though we are never really certain who has collected, edited, and marked each shot or short cut.

How much of a fact is in its use, or its reuse? Howe’s use of Marker’s use of Sandor Krasna’s use of Hitchcock’s dendrochronology anticipates, in a way, the artist Bartholomäus Traubeck’s Years (2011), a conceptual turntable that, in Traubeck’s own words, “plays slices of wood,” translating “[y]ear ring data” into music. Like Traubeck’s record player, Hitchcock, Howe, and Marker all attempt to show us time in cross-section, time selected, sifted, multiplied, accumulated, layered, and preserved in its patterns, time as we can never encounter it without the intervention of art. 

Howe’s essay ends with an entry from the journals of Dziga Vertov in which he describes a screening of one of his Kino-Pravda (Film-Truth) newsreels in a village near Moscow. Vertov recounts how one sequence shows a young girl “walking straight toward the camera” when, suddenly, a woman in the audience runs toward this image on the screen, stretches out her arms, calls the girl by name, faints, and must be borne away. One of the other viewers explains the cause: “It’s kino-eye. They filmed the girl while she was still alive. Not long ago she fell ill and died. The woman running toward the screen was her mother.” As commentary on this extraordinary assemblage of facts — the fact of the girl’s death, the fact of her life, which, for a moment, allows the fact of her mother’s grief to sustain and subsume both of the former — Howe offers only this: “Refused mourning or melancholia here is the camera the film the projector.” The camera that incites the act of mourning also denies it. 

The keeper of the website Chris Marker: Notes From an Era of Imperfect Memory, who posts as “blindlibrarian,” announced Marker’s death near the end of July in 2012, which was how I learned of it. Marker had lived exactly 91 years, from July 29, 1921, to July 29, 2012. (Coincidentally, I spent the day of his death, which was also the anniversary of his birth, experiencing the work of another C.M.: Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour montage film that also functions as a time-piece.) The webmaster’s tribute was brief and moving, especially its final line: “Much will be written; for now we feel.” One way of understanding Sorting Facts as it appears in this cultural moment — though surely different times and subsequent readings will fade certain colors and deepen others — is as a premonitory exegesis of this registration of the fact of Marker’s death. And so to encounter the essay now is to see in it a memory of the future: a premonition of an annotation.

Much will be felt, for now we write.


LARB Contributor

Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is at work on a book about Paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.


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