Au revoir Chris Marker

The incomparable French filmmaker Chris Marker died last Sunday on his 91st birthday.

Marker is most well-known for his influential post-apocalyptic short La Jetée,  but my personal favourite is Sans Soleil (Sunless), an amazing poetic meditation on time, memory, and twentieth century history, which I first saw when it came out in New York back in 1983.

Since then I’ve seen it various times and it never ceases to captivate and beguile, from the first haunting images of three Icelandic children in its opening sequence:

The film has no plot, and is structured round a series of letters describing journeys undertaken by an anonymous director written from various parts of the world, which are read aloud by a female narrator.   The  script is so rich that it easily stands alone as a poetic literary text in its own right.

But Marker was a filmmaker first of all,  and what makes Sans Soleil so compelling and so utterly original is the dazzling interplay between the narration and visual imagery, which teases out connections between the most disparate subjects and ideas.

These include the different concept of time in high-tech Japan and low-tech Africa; Japanese horror films, WW II and kamikaze pilots; Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now; the philosophical significance of the whorls in Kim Novak’s hair in Hitchcock’s Vertigo; the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss; Pac Man and video games;  Third World national liberation struggles and  the failed revolutionary utopia of the great anti-colonial independence fighter Amilcar Cabral, who led a guerrilla war to free Guinea-Bissau from Portuguese colonialism.

If all this sounds a little too dry and abstract for cinema, it really isn’t.   Marker is a less austere filmmaker than Tarkovsky, for example, to which he bears some comparison.  Alternately melancholy, playful, profound and dreamlike,  Sans Soleil is also a very humane film, which celebrates small everyday moments and pleasures even as it explores wider themes of memory and forgetting.

Even when the sight of sleeping passengers on a Japanese ferry reminds his anonymous character of  ‘ a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life’, Marker’s camera alights on their hands, prone bodies,  and sleeping faces in a poignant illustration of the essential fragility of human life in both peace and war.

Marker’s anonymous filmmaker compares his journeys to Sei Shônagon, a member of the Japanese Court in the 11th century and the author of The Pillow Book, who wrote of her desire to compile a list of ‘things that quicken the heart’.

Sans Soleil attempts to do the same thing through cinema.   ‘He wrote: I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. On this trip I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter,’ declares the female director over shots of a ferry crossing from Hokkaido to Tokyo.

But there is nothing banal about Marker’s directorial gaze, which is constantly looking to rescue and celebrate even the most poignant and inconsequential human experiences from the jaws of history.

Sans Soleil is also very witty and studded with pungent observations, whether  describing Pac Man as ‘the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate’ or its description of guerrilla warfare in Portuguese Africa in which

The socialist countries send weapons to arm the fighters. The social democracies fill the People’s Stores. May the extreme left forgive history but if the guerrillas are like fish in water it’s a bit thanks to Sweden.

Marker loved cats, so much so that he even entitled his film about the French communist party A Grin Without a Cat, and Sans Soleil is filled with them, such as this striking image of a cat shrine in Tokyo.

 

At one point Sans Soleil‘s globetrotting director writes

So, it sufficed to wait and the planet itself staged the working of time. I saw what had been my window again. I saw emerge familiar roofs and balconies, the landmarks of the walks I took through town every day, down to the cliff where I had met the children. The cat with white socks that Haroun had been considerate enough to film for me naturally found its place. And I thought, of all the prayers to time that had studded this trip the kindest was the one spoken by the woman of Gotokuji, who said simply to her cat Tora, “Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you.”

The same words could be said to Marker himself, wherever he is.   And also, thank you.

Catalonia’s human castles

A very good Catalan friend of mine has just sent me a fabulous calendar of one of my favourite Catalan folk traditions: els castellers – the castlemakers.  It’s a tradition that was first recorded in the late eighteenth century, though its roots may reach further back than that.

It sounds simple and a little crazy at the same time:  teams known as colles compete with each other to build human towers by standing on each others’ shoulders.  In accordance with tradition they wear white trousers, bandanas, coloured shirts and black sashes wrapped round their waists,  which give them added strength and stability and also provide footholds and handholds for the higher layers as they climb up or down.

The construction of these towers begins with the  solid base known as the pinya – the base of the castle, made up of stocky men chosen for their strength, which is then given additional support by a larger group that reach out their arms and push against the core like a human buttress:

 

Once the base is formed and stabilised,  another group climbs on top of them, approaching from different directions at exactly the same moment to avoid any risk of overbalancing and lopsidedness, forming another tier and then another, with the top formed by a single child known as the enxaneta (the rider), who raises his or arm to signal that the maximum height has been achieved.  You can see one preparing to go up here, in the red helmet:

 

And here at the top:

 

Even then the process isn’t fully complete, since a tower is only considered successful when it has been descarregat – successfully dismantled,  as opposed to carregat (collapsed in dismantling).  These towers can go up eight storeys in the popular quatre de vuit – eight by four:

And even on very rare occasions to nine in the quatre de nou amb folre–four people on each storey and 9 storeys high, which I’ve never seen, performed here by the legendary Castellers de Vilafranca:

  

Watching them go up is an incredibly exciting and moving experience.  There are many different possible variations and their construction is a highly technical and intricate process that has been refined and developed over decades, which depends on the exact distribution of weight, height, build, and meticulous coordination between all the members of the team.

The pinya is critical.  The group chief or organizer known as the cap de colla and his or her assistants will spend some time calling out names and numbers and instructions until the base is considered sufficiently compact and level to support the next layer.

At this moment musicians begin to play the Catalan flute called the gralla and the drum known as the timbal, which accompany each phase of their construction and also informs the members on the lower levels what is happening above them.

The next layer is lighter and then lighter still, and the speed and agility as they climb onto each others shoulders and get into position, linking arms with their legs trembling is just astounding to watch.   At times it looks as if the whole structure will come crashing down at any minute, and sometimes it does.

But then, almost impossibly, a child who might be as young as six will make the last lonely climb all the way from the bottom to stand on the shoulders of the last two or three people,  and raise their hand to signal that the tower has reached its maximum point.

This element of danger and tension is part of what makes the castellers such a compelling dramatic spectacle.  But the drama also stems from their setting.  They are usually performed on festival days in front of the town hall, in public squares that are filled with people, who are themselves part of the performance.

For Catalans, the castellers are a powerful symbol of Catalan national identity.    But they also symbolise more universal ideals that most human societies aspire toward: solidarity and community, trust, cooperation, mutual collaboration and support, and the human desire to defy boundaries and climb higher.

It’s impossible to watch the castles without sensing this, and it wasn’t for nothing that  UNESCO inscribed the castellers amongst the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ in 2010, because they really are a kind of masterpiece.

Today Catalonia, like the rest of Spain is under the austerity lash.  Unemployment in Spain has just reached an astounding five million and the shambolic performance of Zapatero’s socialists has paved the way for the political comeback of one of the worst right wing parties in Europe, the Partido Popular, whose political lineage reaches back to the Franco dictatorship.

My friend says that ‘to overcome this difficult 2012 we’ll need a lot of the values of Castellers’: “Força, Equilibri, Valor i Seny” (Strength, Balance, Courage, and Common Sense).

Couldn’t agree more – and not only in Catalonia.  But I’d one more thing.   In Chris Marker’s classic film Sans Soleil, the anonymous narrator quotes from the Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon, the sixteenth century author of The Pillow Book, who wrote of her desire to compile arbitrary lists of ‘ things that quicken the heart.’

A beautiful expression.   In these dismal years of meaningless wars, of waste, greed, corruption, incompetence and monumental  folly, when so many towers are crashing down all around us, we also need to compile our own lists of ‘things that quicken the heart’, and the castellers will always be on mine.

And today, recovering from flu and looking out onto the ice and snow, I can see a crowded square in Barcelona, the city where I spent nine great years, with the brilliant blue sky overhead, and the shrill sound of the gralla and timbal playing the toc de castells: the ‘castles reveille’, and I leave you with this fantastic video from the 2010 castellers festival in Tarragona, which captures something of their magic: