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To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter cover photo

To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter 2013


Distributed by Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Produced by Emiko Omori
Directed by Directed by Emiko Omori
DVD, color, 88 min.

General Adult
Japan, Popular Culture, Music Trade, Singers

Date Entered: 04/08/2014

ALA Notable:
Reviewed by: Reviewed by Brian Falato, University of South Florida Tampa Campus Library

Chris Marker was a French filmmaker who mostly made what could be called documentaries. But Marker’s documentaries were not the dry investigations filled with talking heads that we often associate with the genre. Rather, they‘re more free-from excursions that could be better termed film essays. When narration is used, the text is more poetic in tone than journalistic, and often is not commenting directly on what the viewer is seeing. Computer scientist Dirk Kuhlman, a great fan of Marker’s work, describes the technique as “clustering materials around interrelated nodes” and says it anticipates the structure of the World Wide Web, many years before the Web was invented.

Marker’s one film that is not considered a documentary is the 28-minute La Jetee, and it is no more conventional than the rest of his work. This “motion picture” uses motion at only one moment in the film. It is otherwise composed entirely of still photographs. Labeled a “photomontage,” it is set in the aftermath of World War III, when survivors are living underground. One survivor is able to go back in time and meet a woman he remembered seeing at the Paris Airport when he was a child. The same kind of poetic narration from the documentaries is used here to complement the photographs. La Jetee was included in Sight and Sound magazine’s most recent poll of the greatest films of all time. Film critic David Thomson says in To Chris Marker that La Jetee “may be the one essential movie ever made.” Screenwriters David and Janet Peoples took the idea of the story and turned it into the screenplay for the Hollywood feature film 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.

Marker closely guarded his private life. He didn’t like to be photographed and was rarely seen in public. But he wasn’t a recluse. He would attend film festivals, and several of the people interviewed in To Chris Marker talk about time they spent with him. But even with people he knew, he still exuded an air of mystery. Marker told David Thomson, author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, that he was actually born in Mongolia rather than France, which Thomson put into the revised edition of his book. A woman enlisted as a Russian translator to work on Marker’s The Last Bolshevik says she wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Marker actually understood Russian himself. Chris Marker isn’t even his real name. A quote from Marker at the end of this video says he chose the pseudonym because it could be pronounced in most languages and Marker was interested in traveling.

To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter doesn’t even attempt to unravel the mystery of the man. Filmmaker Emiko Omori, who worked on Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy, rather emulates Marker’s documentary style. The images we see often don’t seem to match up with what we hear. The style can be puzzling at first, but as Omori shows clips from Marker’s work, you catch on to what she is doing.

Although it is not mentioned in the video, Marker died in 2012, on his 91st birthday, if his birthdate is accurate. He left behind a 60-year span of work, including a 1998 CD-ROM titled Immemory that is considered one of the early masterpieces of digital art. Omori’s video provides a gateway for new audiences to see the Marker style. Libraries with good collections in cinema studies should acquire this, along with several instances of Marker’s work if they haven‘t already done so.