Who is Chris Marker?

Though it's very hard to see any of his works and almost impossible to discover anything about him (let alone find a photograph), he may be the most important film-maker in the world.

The goofy red cat with the white staring eyes gestures invitingly over its shoulder with its left paw and asks "En Savoir Plus?" (Roughly: "Check it out?" or "Wanna know more?") This cute little chap is the latest feline emblem adopted by Chris Marker, who, according to the press handout for his new exhibition, Silent Movie, may well be "France's most important film-maker". I'm not too crazy about the word "important", but I think I know what they mean and I don't think they're being extravagant. In fact, a small number of otherwise sane and sober people consider that Chris Marker might be the most important film-maker not just in France but in the world. En savoir plus? I'll do my best; here are 13 things I know about Chris Marker.

1 Over the last 40-odd years, Chris Marker - poet, photographer, explorer, scholar and thinker, as well as film director - has shown, or hinted at, some of the ways in which film might be shuffled neatly aside from its old storytelling role and be used, instead, to produce essays, travel diaries, political tracts, reveries, scrapbooks, letters, criticism, cultural history, anguished confession, novelties, memoirs and jokes. Not all of these works have been masterpieces or anything like, and I suspect Marker wouldn't want them to be seen that way. He's diffident about his work (see below, item six), and dismisses some of it as juvenilia, mere reportage or misfire. (At a guess, he's one of the few experimental film-makers who'd be willing to admit that experiments often fail.) But some of them - La Jetee (1962), Sans Soleil (1982), The Last Bolshevik (1993) - are, among other handy adjectives, mournful, haunting, fierce, brilliant, wordy, worldly, other-worldly... and, yes, "important".

2He's a notoriously elusive man, who never, as far as I know, gives formal interviews and has seldom been photographed. (Though those of my friends who have bumped into him report that he is one of the most charming gentlemen you could hope to meet.) Most of his films are similarly hard to track down, and one of the few praise-words you couldn't reasonably apply to them is "accessible". Apart from the two or three which are available on video, you'll mostly catch them on late-night television in foreign countries, in the few surviving cinemas with hard seats and no popcorn, or in art galleries. If you want to see Silent Movie, you'll have to make your way to a backstreet in Vauxhall, south London, across the river and west a bit from the Houses of Parliament.

3Silent Movie, which has been brought to the UK by Ingrid Swenson of the arts organisation Pier Trust ("The Pier", coincidentally, is the standard English translation of La Jetee), consists mainly of a tall Dexion Speedframe tower which five video screens showing simultaneous extracts from American and French silent movies intercut with footage specially shot by Marker.

4However, Marker is being a bit cheeky with his definition of "silent movie". Among the clips I spotted on the tower were extracts from James Whale's Frankenstein, which was a sound movie, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was not only sound and colour but also, on its first run, in 3-D.

5Downstairs from the main exhibit, you can have a good giggle at the comic posters he's drawn for imaginary films of the silent era (I won't spoil the joke by quoting them), or bring yourself up to speed with a few of the things he's been doing with moving images since 1962. The programme boasts a baker's dozen of film and video projects, including Si j'avais quatres dromadaires (1967), L'Ambassa (1973), A Grin Without a Cat (1977- 88), Junkopia (1981) and Three Video Haikus (1994).

6Why nothing earlier than 1962, the year of La Jetee? After all, Marker, who was born in the suitably distant territory of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, in 1921, made his first feature in 1952, and his first widely acclaimed film in 1958: Lettre de Siberie. Ingrid Swenson hasn't spoken to Marker on the phone, let alone met him, but she has been involved in a lively exchange of faxes and e-mails with the great man, and shows me one of the latter, which reads: "Forget about Letter from Siberia. I was doing my first steps (steppes?) in film-making, and while I keep a pleasant souvenir from the whole thing, it'd be unbearable today. Nothing political (in some respects, I was rather prophetic) but it's really too clumsy. Tell the poor souls who saw it then to stick to their memories."

7Two perhaps unduly solemn comments on this punning modesty of Marker:

(a) Memories and the nature of memory, as anyone who has seen La Jetee or Sans Soleil will confirm, are among his abiding preoccupations. In this, he has elective affinities with the Hitchcock of Vertigo (a movie Marker has dissected both in print and on screen) and with Proust.

His most recent multi-media project is a CD-Rom entitled Immemory; the book which accompanies it is entitled Qu'est-ce qu'une Madeleine?. On its back cover is a shattered portrait of Proust; on the front, a similarly treated shot of Hitchcock. And, of course, there is a fat red cat asking "En savoir plus?"

(b) He is nothing if not political. If my own memory serves me well, the first thing that I ever saw by Marker was his contribution to the multi-authored Loin du Vietnam (1967). At the Beaconsfield, you can also see La sixieme face du Pentagone (1968), a documentary account of the vast protest march on Washington.

Also showing is Prime Time in The Camps (1993), which shows how a group of young Bosnian refugees in the Roska camp in Ljubljana, produced their own nightly news broadcasts by filching and re-editing material from satellite TV.

8His real name is Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve.

9The reason I have already referred four times to La Jetee is that it is the one Marker film which just about everyone with an interest in the cinema is likely to have seen. Briefly, La Jetee is a science fiction story about a hapless chrononaut, sent backwards and forwards across time from the underground warrens inhabited by the survivors of World War Three. (1962 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.) He is a suitable case for time travel because he is haunted by images from his childhood: a woman's face, a man's death. At the end, he realises that the death he witnessed was his own. If this plot-line sounds familiar, it may be because La Jetee was the admitted inspiration for the screenwriters of Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys.

10I forgot to add one "important" point. La Jetee is made up entirely of stills. Except, that is, for one brief shot, in which there is faint and languorous movement. It is quite in order to wax rapturous about this shot as one of the most blissful and astonishing moments in cinema, although...

11Kingsley Amis thought that La Jetee was a load of pretentious froggy hogwash. Chacun a son mauvais gout.

12(a) What is it about Marker and cats? I don't know, but they're everywhere. Apart from the plump red one, there are the dozens of Japanese porcelain money-cats in Sans Soleil, the moggie carried around by a young Parisienne in From Chris to Christo (1985), and I just noticed that La Jetee's love scenes include some stuffed cats in (what looks like) Paris's Musee Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle. Chat ecoutant la musique (1985) consists of nothing more than shots of Marker's beloved puss, Guillaume-en-Egypte, lying across a piano keyboard and listening to "Pajaro triste" by Frederic Mompou, it is one of the very few films by Marker likely to draw the response "That's nice, dear", from your Auntie Mavis.

(b) He also has a thing about owls, but that's another story.

13One implication of Marker's work - and one reason why he is "important" - is its profoundly democratic suggestion: you could do this yourself. (It would help, of course, to have a mind as capacious, inquisitive, witty and engaged as Marker's.) In recent years, countless people - from those Bosnian refugees and their reworked images from CNN to the BBC's legions of video diarists - have unwittingly been following Marker's lead. Nor does he show any sign of slackening his pace.

"It's amazing," says Ingrid Swenson, "he's 78 years old now and he's busy experimenting with what you can do on CD-Rom..." The critic David Thomson once described Marker as "a man of the 22nd and of the 18th centuries". In 101 years' time, maybe we'll start to catch up with him. Check it out.

Silent Movie: till 13 June at Beaconsfield, Newport Street, London SE11: 0171-582 6465/439 1121

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing