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Imaginary Current Events

Selected early writings by Chris Marker
A man faces to the right of the camera. He is wearing black sunglasses.

He is Jacopo Berenzi, Marc Dornier, Sandor and Michel Krasna, Fritz Markassin, Jacopo Nizi, T.T. Toukanov, and Hayao Yamaneko. Briefly, in 1946, he is Chris Mayor. And, in the 2000s, Sergei Murasaki and Kosinki. At birth, he is Christian-François Bouche-Villeneuve. He is Chris and Magic Marker, Chris. Marker and, most consistently, Chris Marker. This is the name that one finds in the credits to the dozens of films he directed—most famously the time-travel short La Jetée (1962) and the experimental documentary Sans Soleil (1983).

Self-described “best-known author of unknown movies,” Chris Marker (1921–2012) may be familiar to many as the filmmaker credited with inventing the essay film genre. During his long life, however, he wore as many hats as he had pseudonyms. He was also a cultural organizer, novelist, essayist, translator, critic, poet, photographer, literary editor, book designer, video game designer, and, according to some accounts, a parachutist for the U.S. Army during World War II. A lifelong self-mythologizer, Marker was known to share invented biographical details with interviewers including claims that he was born in Mongolia or Beijing and spent part of his childhood in Cuba; it is also told that, toward the end of his life, he would edit his own Wikipedia page.

Before making his first films in the 1950s, Marker was a regular contributor to the Paris-based magazine Esprit for a number of years. Reading Marker’s work for the leftist monthly—which includes short stories, poems, essays, and reviews—what one finds is less a past life before his turn toward cinema than a preamble to his celebrated body of work. Moving images did not replace Marker’s production as a writer but were added onto it. As famed film critic André Bazin wrote of Marker’s cinema, “its immediate means of expression is language,” beside which images occupy a subordinate role. The written word is so important to Marker’s filmic output that, in 1961 and 1967, the text to seven of his films was published in book format in the volumes named Commentaires 1 and 2 (each of which also included an “imaginary film” whose text has no counterpart in moving images). Marker did not just begin his career as a writer, he remained one throughout his life.

Returning to these early texts, one encounters traits that will be recognizable to fans of Marker’s films: a blurring of reality and imagination, a wry sense of humor, a sustained political engagement, and, of course, a limitless curiosity for animal life. Before the “imaginary films” there were “imaginary current events”; before the travels through time in La Jetée there was a bulletin that rethought the around-the-world trip; and before the musings on a Japanese temple consecrated to cats in Sans Soleil, there was a summary report on the 1952 Parisian Cat Fair. In these short selections, translated here into English for the first time (and featured in Eternal Current Events, forthcoming from Inpatient Press), one can glimpse the early work of an artist whose pen was as magic as his chosen surname.

—Jackson B. Smith

The Deviant Musician

Master Cortot, perched upon a family tree, held a piece of cheese in his beak: the regent of Music, a part of the Family, in Vichy. In this respect, he made a few enemies out of the musicians that were ousted under his care, that held onto a bone to pizzicato with him. Whence a temporary ban on public appearances after the Liberation. The time having come, here he is announcing concerts. But no matter: the musicians heckle him, and every city in which he announces his arrival makes him turn back and leave. An odd performance for a pianist, everyone sending him on his way, as in a game of puff billiards. Since he is legally proven innocent, and furthermore, an audience eager to see him again even contests the time that he was banned, only one observation is essential: that on both sides, we agree to regard the law as invalid, and official decisions as a joke. It is perhaps in this limited, but secure field that research on the founding principles of French Unity should be performed.

—March 1947



Because, in our minds, the “around-the-world trip” pretty much always occurred parallel to the equator, because the two tropics seemed to us like the normal boundaries of the crosswalk that allows us to traverse the Earth, because the Earth itself stays standing up like a big kid, and that in order to study it more closely our classes gave us a flat and deformed image, we didn’t imagine that one day the shortest paths could go over the North Pole, nor that in order to have a clear vision of a given geographical conjuncture, it was suitable to look at our globe from above. It was therefore necessary for American journals to disillusion us, demonstrating with excellent sketches that distances (as the bomb flies most realistically between the United States and the U.S.S.R.) are drawn from one edge of the Arctic Ocean to the other and that what they call the Musk Ox drill (whose theme, as you remember, was “an attack from the North”) unsettles the map of great invasions. Let’s dream about this for a bit: is it possible for the world to change its perspective, for future planispheres to make the great enemy nations form a whole in their true connections, while it’s our turn, here in old Europe, to be spread out in the corners just as Greenland and Siberia are right now? Is it possible that the role of the path, of the crossroads, of the crater of civilization that the old world had attributed to the Mediterranean, is now to be taken on by the North Pole? After the warm melting pot that joined the Christians and Islam, might the new era show Marxism and capitalism coming face to face over sterile and icy regions? Let’s admit that the symbolism wouldn’t go to waste.

—June 1947


Imaginary Current Events

The event of the month is of course the Soviet experiment using cosmic rays, which took place on Sakhalin Island. It is known that Russian scientists, having developed a ray that breaks down the ozone layer and sets free the destructive radiation absorbed by it, had decided to organize a demonstration of that weapon in the midst of a strong wave of popularity: “And why should I not also have my Bikiki, my Bikini” was the most requested popular song on every radio wave. There was also an avid interest for the original conditions of the initiative: the Sakhalin penal colony, where a number of enemies of the regime can be found, had been seriously purged, some of the cases having been judged too notoriously incurable to serve the cause of progressivism, even passively. Then again, volunteers had turned up, happy to find such an occasion for redemption. Out of the abundant applications, only two were successful: those from the former minister Gochistov, and the anarchist-leaning Padanlalin. “I am a lowly beast,” declared the ex-comrade Padanlalin to journalists, “a nefarious virus, a libidinous earthworm of the worst kind, absolutely unworthy of clemency from the state. May my example, at the very least, teach the younger generations about the abominations we expose ourselves to whenever we stray from the straight and narrow.” In addition to the residents of Sakhalin and the two authorized volunteers, a dozen small children had been offered to the experimenters, drawn from marshal Stalin’s personal ration.

How clever of the government, to give us our bread and our games at the same time, in the same form, and, like the dark sorcerer, make us eat our riddles . . .

While the preparations were drawing to a close, the global press was commenting on the affair with from wide variety of points of view: “The Sakhalin experiments,” wrote Pravda, “have no other goal than to serve Peace, and to show the world of fascist agitators and arms dealers that the Russian people possess the means to destroy every last hell-raiser of war.” “And what about us?” anxiously asked the Times, in which a biting editorial laid blame on the Labour government out of suspicion of idleness and carelessness, as a result of which British science had fallen behind the two other allied powers. The Pope reminded the world that whomever made use of cosmic rays would perish at the hands of cosmic rays, while the Antipope of Avignon (the layman Aragon, recently converted), more abreast of scientific affairs, maintained that it is precisely through this gap in the firmament that the heavenly legions might fall. Finally, in the United States, the unofficial journal of the Jesuits, Brain, published a long article by its editor, Emmanuel Moonlight, who concluded as follows: “It is obvious that our path is to be found in an increasingly keen awareness of our refusal of the event, where concern for a true realism is tempered, joined with support of principles, with all of the reservations of a true idealism.”

When the day comes, a carefully selected but very diverse audience that included, alongside marshal Stalin’s representatives, independent personalities such as Pierre Courtade and Monseigneur Spellmann, hurried onto rafts towed along the shore by boatmen called in for the occasion from Volga, to follow the experiment as it unfolded. Arthur Kœstler, invited, had expressed his regrets. The shadow was nuptial, majestic, and ceremonious. No one knew where the machine generating the rays was hidden. One could only make out the outline of the island off in the distance, and through a telescope lens, those condemned to death searching their Marxist-Leninist souls with the help of printed questionnaires that had been handed out to them for this purpose. On a separate raft, the scientists responsible for the operation, lying flat on their stomachs, trembled with dread. This trait has already been reported on with regard to American scientists, attributable to commendable awareness of their responsibility. This awareness was heightened here by the presence, behind each scientist, of a civil servant armed with a Sivispachem-style Luger pistol who had been ordered to fire immediately if it turned out that, as a result of carelessness or sabotage, the experiment started behind schedule.

A speaker mounted on a buoy counted the seconds as the fatal moment drew nearer. As soon as it said “poom”—which, as each of us knows, means “now” in Russian—clicking came from the skies, one could clearly hear the machine’s radiation nibbling at the ozone layer, and one saw a beam of cosmic rays loudly hurtling through this open door, making a racket and horsing around like art school students.

A moment later, the earth was burning. But, as a result of who knows what mistake (some murmured with fear that it was a maneuver that had been premeditated for a long time), the other half of Sakhalin island, a former Japanese territory, was hit. From the ashes that were found, one learned that lying in wait there, among the mountains of tinned beans and bottles of Coca-Cola, were observers of an unknown nationality.

Sans Soleil (1983). | The Baffler

Eternal Current Events

We sometimes have the calming feeling that the real defeats the imagination armed only with its own resources. Some sentences that we discover by chance while reading sound as if they were knowingly fabricated confessions.

For example, when you read, in Paul Valery’s Rhumbs: “The cause of the fall in birthrate is clear, it is presence of Mind.”

Or alternatively, on the walls of Paris, telling of three lectures by Mr. Winandy:

“The Secret of the Sepulcher.”
“Who Killed Jesus?”
“The Supreme Pontiff.”

What the surrealists quite fittingly call an “exquisite corpse.”

—April 1947


The Dog and the Bread

For some time now, I’ve noticed that Oxyde—the loving dog, pride and joy of my home—obstinately refuses to eat even the tiniest scrap of bread. Demonstrating my breed’s charming selfishness, I hardly worry at all until an inadvertent reminder taught me that Oxyde the dog lost all interest in bread the same day that bread underwent a number of modifications required by the government. It never ceases to impress me. Oxyde does not read the newspaper, he never goes out: the observation could therefore have only come from him. So then, what has been added to this bread, Lord, that disgusts a moderately sophisticated animal to such a degree? Every day, I attempt the same experiment, my heart racing. His refusal is persistent. The neighbors have taken an interest. Bets have been placed. How clever of the government, to give us our bread and our games at the same time, in the same form, and, like the dark sorcerer, make us eat our riddles . . .

—June 1947


Cats Are People Too

Not so long ago, Esprit made the same claim (though less adventurously) concerning women. We would like to return to it as it concerns cats, and on the occasion of the Cat Fair, which has just siphoned several thousands of tenderhearted Parisians onto the rue Berryer. The news media abounded, the line to get in extended beyond the front stops of the Hôtel de Rothschild, as though one big cat was housed there, and the parade through the galleries, the hushed voices, the down time, recalled viewings of dead sovereigns. Half dead they were, the poor little mousers—as much heat as there was boredom as there were compliments. He who finds you looking awful makes you sick. He who treats you as a mummy turns you into a mummy. We don’t have cats: cats have us. Cats are gods, the most widespread and accessible form of god—that’s beyond question. But might we not better understand their discreetness, their duty to remain invisible, the unremitting effort they put toward taking an interest in mice, in balls of yarn, in other kitties too, as a way of making us respect their anonymity as gods?

I’m not kidding: humanity has a duty for dialogue with creation.

This exhibition and its pretensions come out looking to us like one gigantic blunder, like the disguised servant who said “Your Royal Highness” out loud to his disguised master. And these cats—in their stalls, their identities revealed, condemned, petrified, wakeful sleepwalkers, interrupted magic spells—were giving us the dazed look of Louis XVI on the royal flight to Varennes. In fairy tales, once the identity was revealed of the prince disguised as a cat, he vanished. They were vanishing. By whatever means were still at their disposal in this prison: sleeping, hiding. One of them was sneaking away; they caught him (it was a white one; he was cutting across the dark flooring; he cursed his father). Another one scratched a distressed model (well done). Another one was hiding beneath the veil of his cage. They were, nevertheless, beautiful: Persians that were blue like cigarette smoke, which were probably smoked by their Siamese neighbors, whose noses and fingers were stained from nicotine—Abyssinians with short hair, like boy scouts—Russians with short hair, like Russians, and others still, with the mask of Fantômas, with the jabot of Robbespierre, with the nose of Cleopatra, and the Bolivian cat, of frog-cow type, in a display case.

So what, women are beautiful too, but it is relatively ill-regarded to lock them up in glass cages for three days to be admired by the masses. And even this admiration must be more carefully examined. Let’s ignore the details of this matter having to do with marketing, snobs, and idiots. But there’s still another problem, one that’s been pretty much completely spirited away by our era, that has to do with our general attitude toward animals. I would be less harsh regarding passion for cats—the massive cat King Karoun’s private bedroom and its adjacent literature—if I didn’t also see the alienation of man there. The same goes for others and more serious ones too. But the animal also comes out alienated, and when that happens it’s just not right. I’m not kidding: humanity has a duty for dialogue with creation. It works out just fine with regard to plants, elements, and the good Lord. But when it comes to animals, at every moment a deviation always lies in wait: no longer treating them as animals, but as substitutes for humans, in the name of some obligation for dialogue. The old girl and her parrot, the divorcée and her cat, Léautaud and his monkey, they all betray humanity, and they betray animality too. The unbearable slogan on our ashtrays, on our plates—“The more I see men, the more I love my dog”—contains, as a germ, this amputation of a whole piece of the created world, this contempt by which I impoverish myself without enriching others. Who could get us out of there? Between the repression-animal, the baby-talking-animal, the royal poodle, the jester monkey, the exhibition cat, and the haughty indifference to which the wild animal attests, there might be room for an intercession. Perhaps it might be the task for a new religious order. Perhaps it might be desirable that this natural tendency to speak with the planets that seems to take hold of the Church at a high-up level in the hierarch devote itself, at a more humble level, to the perpetuation of simple and pure relations with the animal world—for us to have animal orders of monks, just as we have herbalist orders and musical orders . . .

—January 1952