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

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin