Chris Marker and Level Five

This is an introductory text written for the Masterclass booklet of the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2009. Three critic-scholars were invited to present a film and speak about their analytical method; the others were Richard Porton on WR: Mysteries of the Organism (see his essay in LOLA and Adrian Martin on La gueule ouverte (see his essay accompanying the Masters of Cinema DVD).

Why, in order to speak today of Chris Marker in the course of a Film Festival, and within the privileged framework of a Masterclass, do I choose to present Level Five (1996)?

Because this film, the last of his ‘cinema films’ strictly speaking, is for that very reason the one in which we see the best way to inscribe the mutations which cinema has undergone – in a career that is singular out of all others, and within which cinema has always been submitted to paradoxical pressures.

One year previously, in Silent Movie, his third installation destined for a museum space, conceived for the anniversary of the centenary of cinema, Marker saluted the medium’s birth, its mock-silence and its magnificent black-and-white (“All that this awful twentieth century will have brought us, between genocides, AIDS and sitcoms, will have been one century of fine grain, high-contrast, panchromatic B&W personal dreams”.) [1] One year later, in his interactive CD-ROM Immemory, the spectator-reader curious to follow one of its three sections all the way, the section titled Wings (this William Wellman film is the first that Marker remembers having seen), inside the ‘Cinema’ zone (one of the seven zones comprising the work), will come upon a strange image. On a black background, three white lines compose an open rectangle, like a cage of a goalkeeper whose goalposts lean in opposing directions as they reach the ground. Beyond the cross-bar, we read the following lines:

From Wings to Star Wars, I will have seen many things fly over the world’s screens. Perhaps cinema has given all it can give, perhaps it must leave room to something else. Jean Prevost writes somewhere that death is not so grave, that it consists only in rejoining all that one has loved and lost. The death of cinema would be only that of an immense memory. It is an honourable destiny. [2]

The time it takes to read this has allowed the sudden appearance, unfolding at the centre of the open screen, of a synthesised, coloured creature, an emblem of the new images. It is the same creature who serves, in reduced form, as the icon within the ‘Cinema’ zone in Immemory’s menu.

Which is to say that the work of Marker’s appears, above all, as a dynamic reflection on the reality and destiny of cinema, in strict proportion to the fundamental impurity which has been its own since its very origin. We know that Marker was a writer before becoming a filmmaker: he published his first and only novel, The Forthright Heart, in 1949; and his first and only essay of literary criticism, devoted to Jean Giraudoux, in 1952. That same year, he made his first feature documentary, Olympia 52 (about the Olympic Games in Helsinki). In 1954, he created the ‘Small Planet’ series for the publisher Seuil, books of essays and travels which contributed, in the tradition of ‘Microcosm’ paperbacks, to the complete overturning of French publishing via the introduction of a new relation of complementarity between words and images. And it is a relation of the same type that Marker develops subsequently in his first travel-narrative-essay-films, Sunday in Peking (1956), Letter from Siberia (1958), Description of a Struggle (1960, on Israel) and Cuba Si! (1961).

In a now famous text, in which he hailed the (to his eyes fundamental) novelty of Letter from Siberia, André Bazin, taking up the formula Jean Vigo had previously used to describe À propos de Nice (“a documentary point-of-view”), hailed this “essay documented by film”. He clarified the inversion which Marker had introduced in relation to the tradition of documentary film, determined by the priority accorded to the editing of the image-track: “In Chris Marker […], the primary material is intelligence, and language is its direct expression, with the image intervening only in a third position in reference to this verbal intelligence”. Bazin described this new art of montage as horizontal montage, in which an image relates “not to the one that precedes or follows it, but laterally, in some way, to what is being said”. [3] He emphasises also the heterogeneity of materials yoked, in the film, to the newly filmed footage: engravings, photographs, cartoons, etc. Which is to say that Marker situates himself, from the outset, at the intersection of the two great tendencies which Serge Daney loved to oppose in the destiny of cinema: the recording tendency and the drawing tendency. [4]

We also know that one year after Cuba Si!, and in the same year (1962) that his ethnographic essayism tackled French reality for the first time in Le Joli Mai (1963) Marker made his short La Jetée (1964), which will forever remain his essential film. This ‘film-novel’ (as he called it) is without doubt the first film to be made almost exclusively with still photographs. Their use, for the sake of a post-concentration camp sci-fi narrative, linking the survival of the human race to the conquest of new modes of production of mental imagery, makes La Jetée the purest emblem of a cinema of the time-image (even though this was not Gilles Deleuze’s own opinion). It is the very defilement of the cinematic projection which is subject to the strange pressure of a fixed image animated only by a voice-over, music and fades.

Now, thirty-four years later, Level Five again takes up two gesture proper to La Jetée, gestures which appear in only these two films within Marker’s oeuvre: firstly, the presence of an actress playing a character, but this time as a creature ‘in the flesh’ whose speech guides the entire film; then, the science-fiction dimension, explicit in La Jetée, and borrowing from it for Level Five the type of role-play and new vertigo of identity produced by the Internet. For, this time, it is the computer with its digital imagery, not merely the photograph (like in La Jetée and so often in Marker’s work), or the electronic image (as in Sunless [1982]), which becomes the internal technological reference of the work, its very condition of possibility. Level Five is not the first film to take the computer as both subject and ‘means’ (just think of Tron from 1982); but it is the first to arrange, via the continuous face-to-face of its heroine with a computer, a unique filmic dispositif which gives rise to all its images, and thereby the conditions of a reflection on the mutating relations between the present and the past, subjectivity and memory, at once personal, technological and historical.

Laura (Catherine Belkhodja), Level Five’s heroine, is connected to the O.W.L, ‘Optional World Link’, the network of networks, this terminal which “connects to any available network. Be it radio, television, computer, existing or not existing, already here or still to come”. [5] Level Five thus constantly mixes, through this manipulation of the computer, two levels of story/history: the personal story of a lost love, which the heroine mourns until her own, enigmatic disappearance within the virtual space of the machine; and the historical story constituted by the most repressed and yet perhaps most decisive episode of World War II: the battle of Okinawa and the collective suicide of its civil population, which opened the way to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Without Okinawa’s resistance”, says Marker’s voice, entering like a character into his own documentary-fiction, “there would have been no Hiroshima, and the whole pattern of our century would have been different”.

In Marker’s career, Level Five thus becomes the sequel to and relay of Sunless. Almost fifteen years earlier, this essay-documentary largely inspired by Japan introduced for the first time the historical theme of Okinawa. It is equally striking that the latter film begins, in a sense, exactly where the former leaves off, transforming it. At the end of Sunless, the most beautiful freeze-frame, on the face of a woman caught in a Cap Vert market, is transformed by video treatment; a hand in close-up carries this operation out on an electronic console before, in the film’s final shot, the hand, withdrawing a pin from the console, ends it. At the start of Level Five it is Marker’s hand in close-up, alternating with Laura’s hand working the mouse, that inaugurates its fiction-reflection. From one hand movement to another, cinema is driven towards a certain ending of its own history, in such a way that, at the very heart of Marker’s work, it both tests and renews itself. An end which is, at the same time, projected towards one of cinema’s possible futures.

Marker was able to say of this film – in the fictive interview conducted in November 1996 for the Berkeley Lantern by one ‘Dolores Walfisch’ – that it opened the path towards:

one of several possible kinds of cinema, that’s all […] You could never make Lawrence of Arabia like this. Nor Andrei Rublev. Nor Vertigo. But we possess the wherewithal – and this is something new – for intimate, solitary filmmaking. The process of making films in communion with oneself, the way a painter works or a writer, need not now be solely experimental. My comrade Astruc’s notion of the camera as a pen was only a metaphor. In his day, the humblest cinematographic product required a lab, a cutting room and plenty of money … Nowadays, a young filmmaker needs only an idea and a small amount of equipment to prove himself. He needn’t kowtow to producers, TV stations, or committees. [6]

But we can also be struck by the fact that, from one film to the other, cinema – the real cinema of spectacle and the full seductive illusion – is affirmed as a focal point, beginning from which the desire of these two Marker films is oriented, and where it folds in on itself. In Sunless, there is the lengthy reference made to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, this film which is a presence since La Jetée, and of which the scripted narrator says: “Only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In the spiral of the titles he saw time covering a field ever wider as it moved away, a cyclone whose present moment contains motionless the eye”. In Level Five – to risk some lousy wordplay – we have the aura of Laura, the heroine of Otto Preminger’s 1944 film, one of great cinephile cult-films – which ends up conferring on Marker’s heroine a nostalgic identity supplement. Marker chose thus to tell the birth of the film’s mythic theme song, which his heroine Laura performs anew, faced towards us, in extreme close-up, according to a metamorphosed intimacy.

At the same time, in Marker’s work itself, as we have seen, it is in the form of the CD-ROM Immemory that, once Level Five has been completed, he makes the decision to go beyond his own memory in order to seize once more a large part of the century of which he has been the conscious, engaged witness. Cinema appears in Immemory as merely one zone among others, alongside photography, the museum, war, poetry, travel, and memory itself -that zone of zones which crosses them all. And it is, today, towards a final transformation of this “immense memory” of cinema that crosses Immemory that Marker is oriented. His most recent major work has been an installation, The Hollow Men, premiered in New York on eight screens on the occasion of the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art. Inspired by the famous homonymous poem by T.S. Eliot, this piece presents itself as the Prologue to a vast, interrelated project, Owls at Noon (we can recognise, in Marker’s animal fetish, the name of the network-of-networks in Level Five).

In his written introduction, Marker declared that, this time, he was taking as his object neither World War II, nor the World War III which is mythically inscribed at the beginning of La Jetée, but World War I, considered as the “founding moment of last century” and thus the possible matrix of what he calls “a subjective journey through the twentieth century”. Today, at the very moment I speak to you, this project is no longer conceived either as a film or an installation. Rather, it will take the form of a gigantic Internet site, a transformed double of the ‘Optional World Link’. Including everything in Immemory, and developing from this basis everything that the CD-ROM format, weak in memory, was unable to allow twelve or so years ago, this website project will thus be oriented as much towards the possibility of such a memory, as towards a generalised interactivity. [7]


[1] Chris Marker, ‘The Rest is Silent’, in the catalogue for Silent Movie (Wexner Center of the Arts, 1995), p. 17.
[2] In Raymond Bellour, ‘The Book, Back and Forth’, in the catalogue for Immemory (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1997), p. 149.
[3] André Bazin, ‘Letter from Siberia’, in Le cinéma française de la Libération à la Nouvelle Vague (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1983), p. 180. Translator’s note: my rendering draws upon citations in Alter (see below) and Dave Kehr’s version, published as ‘Bazin on Marker’, Film Comment (July-August 2003), pp. 44-45.
[4] Serge Daney, L’exercice a été profitable, monsieur (Paris: P.O.L., 1993), p. 40.
[5] Text of the film (unpublished).
[6] Text reprinted in Nora M. Alter, Chris Marker (University of Illinois Press, 2006), pp. 146-147, and quoted here in its original English-language version.
[7] Translator’s note: Bellour alludes here to the ‘Second Life’ project that Marker continued to build right up to his death on 29 July 2012. A presentation and discussion of this work has been recently offered at the Planète Marker exhibition at Centre Pompidou in Paris (16 October-16 December 2013). Bellour’s introductory text for this exhibition, both in French and English, can be found here:

© Raymond Bellour March 2009. Translation © Adrian Martin March 2009.

About the Author

Raymond Bellour

About the Author

Raymond Bellour

Raymond Bellour is a Director of Research at the CNRS (Paris). He is the author of many books on cinema and literature, and is the co-editor of Trafic.View all posts by Raymond Bellour →