There are only a handful of films that one could argue certifiably changed the language, idea or very nature of film both in its cultural and theoretical context. The obvious examples rarely receive anything but glowing praise and are, as I have noted on many occasions, works like Breathless, Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In other instances, it is far more likely to be works that are so very deconstructionist or philosophical as to be more artistic manifesto than necessarily a piece of film, some would indeed label these entirely as works of art, often removing their filmic element in some bizarre act of shaming, think of the discussions that center around works like Un Chien Andalou or Dog Star Man...the canine connection being something I only now noticed. What is even less prevalent is the work that manages to navigate between these two stratospheres, as though to be perfectly pulled by both sides in a gravitational free floating space, where everything is predicated on the understanding that the perfect serenity evoked by its presence, could just as easily shatter into the chaotic with the faintest of alterations. I can only think of three works to which this applies, the first being Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, and the other two being by jack-of-all artistic trades Chris Marker. La Jetee is a film I have frequently viewed and could catch myself waxing poetic about at a moments notice, whereas the other is his lesser known, but profoundly more prolific Sans Soleil. From the onset of this visionary movie, viewers are informed about it being a quest for the idea of memory in every sensorial possibility, but Marker does not simply allow words to speak to his curiosity, but, necessarily, demands that the work have a visual element as well, one that always relates to the subject matter being discussed, even if the images are purposefully a point of juxtaposition, or exact simulacra of the memory being recollected. Marker is, of course, no fool and realizes that even a filmic notion of memory has a fleeting temporality and extends his film into the otherworldly, often blowing the images into contrast or freezing the frame to suggest that like personal reflection all is up for fabrication, or mechanical failure, yet, as the opening shot of the film suggest, perhaps there is something as real, or dare I say reel, as the perfect moment of beauty.
Sans Soleil could be called a documentary of sorts, in that it is very much in the vein of a travelogue focusing on the writings of a man named Sandor Krasna about his travels between Japan and Africa. The letters are then read by a female narrator, voiced by Alexandra Stewart in the English version, as they are overlaid upon this experiences between the two spaces specifically, whether it be the recollection of talking with an elderly Japanese couple as they say a prayer for their lost cat at a local shrine, or with a group of rebels in Africa as they reflect upon a past ousted rebel fighter turned leader. Yet, even as the film clearly sets up the space of the narrative between the experiences in both rural and urban Japan, as well as multiple locations within Africa, it is not the only point of reference heavily considered. In fact, images are shown from multiple Scandinavian countries, as well as an extended scene in San Francisco as Krasna speaks of his fondness for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which he argues shares similarities with what he hopes these images will express as well as a fourth wall tip-of-the-hat to this previous work in La Jetee, where he denotes the similarities to it and Vertigo involving a sequoia tree and location in space and time. These images all intersect together, rarely taking anything remotely close to a cohesive linear narrative, but even with that considered, Krasna's letters begin to focus on found images he has encountered during his travels, making for particularly interesting moments when the screen is filled with meta-cinematic images, including slides from Japanese horror films, as well as colonial era newsreel footage. Yet even this is extended to its most logical plausibilities when Krasna makes deep considerations about the nature of video game imagery and video alteration, or the creation of what he refers to, in an open homage to Tarkovsky as "the zone." In a quest that takes the disembodied narrator through multiple spaces it is, ultimately, suggested that he/she cannot say for certain the tangibility of all memories shown, but seems to suggest that when all collide together in perfect harmony a person can capture a moment of perfected transcendence in 1/24th of a frame, and to do so is to possess all understanding of past, present and future.
Tangibility and ephemerality are central to the idea of Sans Soleil, much as they are to all discussions of the metaphysical and in many senses Marker seems to argue that at once both are achievable, while it is also quite possible that neither can ever coexist. Nonetheless, he endeavors to find out the answer, by employing a reconsideration of montage, taking the rapid juxtaposition of the Soviet style and playing into the serenity and paced American style, the resulting often breaking into, as noted earlier, moments of cinematic distress, whether it be contrasting or freeze frames. To the untrained eye, and even to many season cinephiles, this might seem like bad filmmaking, but Marker, who proved with La Jetee that an image need not necessarily move to prove poignant, nor must it exist within the positive to prove captivating or within the same cinematic space, other examples of this occurring in film, include Godard's use of the negative image in Alphaville, or the freeze frame that iconically closes Truffaut's The 400 Blows. These moments, like all of Sans Soleil consider temporality as something that only cinema could hope to discuss, but not entirely make certain. The other element to Marker's vision involves the elements of imagery that require completely emotional responses, indeed as Krasna argues in one narration movie images have power to make visceral responses, just as Japanese horror films, to Krasna, evoke the sense of seeing a "corpse." The images can be serene as is the case with Icelandic children walking in a field, or absolutely sickening as when the camera rests unapologetically an the gunning down of a giraffe by a hunter, which is immediately followed by its being taken out of its misery by a shot to the head. Even in this quest for emotive highs, Marker seems to suggest that these feelings can switch instantly, the absolute point of joy can only be followed by an immediate moment that leads back to despair, but it is worth considering that the opposite remains true. Yet, the question still remains as to whether or not an absolute memory of despair or joy can, ultimately, exist beyond its initial encounter. Marker seems to say yes in the closing moments of the film, but to encounter it necessarily requires the viewer to step outside of not only their understanding of experience, but a reconsideration of how one is physically affected, or to borrow a term from the film "wounded" by memory.
Key Scene: Um....it is one sweeping scene, every bit of it is perfect.
Criterion has a bluray, I am upgrading within the next few weeks. You are more than welcome to buy my DVD copy when I post it on Amazon.