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PRIMITIVE PROJECTIONS Chris Marker's Silent Movie

Joe McElhaney

Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Installation

Silent Movie (1995) is Chris Marker's second video installation, following the monumental Zapping Zone of five years ago. Commissioned by Bill Horrigan of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in relation to the cinema's centenary, it was initially exhibited there from January to April of 1995, before moving on to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City from June to September of the same year. In 1996 and on into early 1997, it will be shown at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California and the Walker Center for the Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota. So much for its itinerary. What exactly is Silent Movie?

Marker's conception for this installation consists of five 25" Sony monitors, stacked on top of one another in a Constructivist-style modular tower of Tennsco slotted angle steel post, modeled on the Pravda building by the Vesnin Brothers. On the monitors are numerous film excerpts primarily from the silent period, all running simultaneously, but intercut with video images shot by Marker of the "star" of Silent Movie, Catherine Belkodhja. Each monitor is devoted to a theme, with the images gathered accordingly: the top two monitors are "The Journey" and "The Face," the bottom "The Gesture" and "The Waltz." On these monitors, intertitles in English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish announcing these themes will periodically interrupt the flow of the images. The middle monitor is devoted primarily to images of eyes intercut with intertitles and what Horrigan describes as "abstracted archival imagery."1 The titles were all written by Marker but are intended to evoke the intertitles of silent cinema: "And when they had crossed the bridge. . .." or "That night, in a silent house . . .." All of these images are edited, as Horrigan puts it, "in the key of Dziga Vertov,"2 and divorced from whatever context they may originally have had, narrative or otherwise. All images are transferred from videotape onto laserdiscs, each approximately twenty minutes in length. A computer interface box is then programmed to randomly intercut all of these images continuously. Accompanying the images is a soundtrack entitled "The Perfect Tapeur," a DAT tape of piano music.

Surrounding the monitors are ten framed film posters, all for non-existent films, films of the imaginary: Greta Garbo and Sessue Hayakawa in Hiroshima, Mon Amour; Louise Brooks starring in Owl People; Wallace Beery and Bebe Daniels in Raoul Walsh's Breathless; and an Ernst Lubitsch film of Remembrance of Things Past, with Gloria Swanson as the Duchess of Guermantes, John Barrymore as Swann, Ramon Novarro as Morel and Edna Purviance as Albertine. Alongside the posters run eighteen framed images, blown up from video, of Belkhodja. Finally, just beyond the viewing space is a reading room with a table and chairs and several books chosen by Marker to be read in relation to the exhibit: Simone Signoret's autobiography; a biography of Yves Montand; The Film Factory, Ian Christie's edited anthology of Soviet film writings; William Shatner's Star Trek memoir; a collection of Laurie Anderson's writings; the first volume of Proust; Richard Abel's French Cinema, The First Wave: 1915-1929; Jay Leyda's classic history of Soviet cinema, Kino; and a couple of cat books, Why Cats Paint and The Cat Alphabet.

As with much of Marker's work, Silent Movie offers multiple entrances into and exits out of the complex set of issues it raises. In the past, the Marker's complexity was embedded in his seductive organization of sounds and images and our relationship to them as committed viewers in front of a theater screen or a single video monitor. But with Silent Movie, contemplation of the work has become physical as well as perceptual; one may observe the images on the monitors for an extended period of time, then move about the gallery space and look at the framed images, read the accompanying texts, and then return to the monitors again. It is as though Marker has here created an ideal physical extension for the richly vertiginous nature of his best work. From Lettre de Sib╚rie (1958) to Le tombeau d'Alexandre (1994), Marker's films and video projects-their wit and playfulness borne of the utmost seriousness, their discursive and elliptical quality an outgrowth of their extreme rigor of thought and structure-have consistently refused to offer themselves as self-contained, homogeneous experiences. Instead, they raise issues central to cinema's role in the shaping of history, culture, and thought. In Marker, these issues become living objects of use, suggestive and dialectical rather than fixed and empirical.

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When Silent Movie was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, it was part of a much larger video installation exhibit entitled Video Spaces: Eight Installations and shown alongside more recent works by artists whose reputations are, unlike Marker's, almost exclusively connected with the medium of video: Bill Douglas, Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Judith Barry and Brad Miskell, Teiji Furuhashi, Tony Oursler, and Marcel Odenbach. Marker is now in his seventies, making him at least thirty years older than either Viola or Hill (both born in 1951), the other artists in the exhibit closest in age to him. Of these artists only Marker did not grow up in the age of television and videotape. The first screenings of La jet╦e (1962) took place when Douglas and Furuhashi were two. Much of the more recent literature on Marker stresses the continually evolving and restless nature of his work of which the sheer variety of medium Marker has employed over the years, from film to video to, more recently, CD-ROM, has frequently been taken to be indicative of his continuing relevance-the eternally youthful, ever-inquisitive Chris Marker. And there is probably some truth to this image. But to be confronted with Silent Movie within the context of the MoMA exhibit was to be confronted with the work of an artist fundamentally different from those surrounding him, a difference not simply of talent or sensibility, but a difference strongly determined by culture and history. While Marker has expressed the desire to work almost exclusively now in the realm of video and electronic media, he essentially remains a product of cinema prior to the introduction of television and video, unlike his fellow video artists at MoMA, whose works, derived from of moving in an electronic "world of appearances," seem marked by varying degrees of nihilism, ideological explicitness, and grandiose mysticism, all modes of thinking and perception alien to Marker's dialectical methods. This electronic world plainly continues to fascinate Marker (and its portability allows for the solitary, Romantic nature of his inquiries to flourish) but it also remains alien to him in many ways, a tension which has become a structuring element in some of his works, especially Sans soleil (1982).

MoMA's placement of Silent Movie at the entrance of the Video Spaces exhibit rather than within the main space itself already suggests the degree to which Marker's work does not fit in with everything else there. Furthermore, the Marker installation was truncated-bungled. As the photographs which accompany this essay clearly document, the space inhabited by Silent Movie at Wexner was extensive, giving the exhibit physical and perceptual breadth. That installation remained true to Marker's conception. At MoMA, in contrast, the reading room was nowhere to be found and no seating was provided (as Marker had wished) for looking at the video monitors. You had to stand there with your arms folded as people continually passed in front of you, blocking the view, for an installation which clearly required some sort of commitment. The message implied by MoMA's installation of Silent Movie (whether intentional or not) is that this is something one passes through-a diversion-in order to get to the good stuff in the other rooms. When read in tandem with the catalogue essay on Marker by curator Barbara London, the effect was complete.

For London, Marker's project is one that involves the use of computer technology and Kuleshov editing theories as a way of transforming the "charmingly anachronistic" techniques of silent cinema and bringing them "up-to-date."3 It would be difficult to imagine a more misguided way of approaching Silent Movie than this. The interest of Marker's project scarcely has anything to do with him performing some sort high technology cosmetic job on a lot of old movies, transforming them into fashionably postmodern objects of consumption. On the contrary, as with much of Marker's best work, Silent Movie seems suffused with a sense of lost history, an attempt to recapture a way of organizing vision and phenomena now lost to us (here, that of silent cinema), and the awareness of this impossibility determines the work's meaning at all levels.

Even before one takes in the content of the monitors in Silent Movie, it is obvious simply by looking at the framed images surrounding the monitors that this history which Marker presents is not coming to us as an official document, but as a kind of dream memory of silent cinema. Some of the posters seem like sly jokes or, in some cases, possibly in-jokes or coded messages from which a number of us are being denied access. Others have an obvious thematic relationship to the installation as a whole, if sometimes played out ironically: a film of Proust, for instance, in a work so concerned with issues of time and memory, but here directed by the economical Lubitsch, that great condenser of time and space. Some sort of Hegelian conception of film history is probably being attempted with Raoul Walsh's Breathless. (Is Marker thinking of Walsh's 1915 gangster film Regeneration, with its pre-Godard shooting on actual city streets and use of non-professionals in minor roles? Or is Walsh being used merely as a signpost for the gangster film which Godard revises?) But the function of some of the other imaginary films is less apparent and ultimately seems to lie in their irrational symbolist function: a Frank Borzage film with Marion Davies called Bow to the Rain sounds lovely, but what exactly does it mean? Aside from Marker's well-known love of cats and owls, what is he thinking of with Louise Brooks in Owl People?4

Likewise, the reading room material presents us with concrete historical information on the film excerpts that Marker is using (Abel and Leyda), theoretical conceptions of cinema and the role of editing strongly rooted in the historical moment which the installation is attempting to capture (the Soviet writings), and, once again, Proust. But the cat books are inexplicable on any level outside of Marker's own personal idiosyncrasies. And what is Shatner's silly book doing here alongside the biographies of Marker's friends Montand and Signoret? (How depressing to imagine that Marker has become a Trekkie.) Given the degree to which Shatner's memories of working on Star Trek have been disputed by his colleagues on the show, is Marker placing this book here as a faulty memoir, autobiography as science fiction in comparison with the Montand and Signoret books, the Montand a carefully researched biography and the Signoret a personal and moving account of her own life? Whatever these last two books may personally mean to Marker, he could hardly resist using their titles as signposts in this memory exhibit: You See I Haven't Forgotten and Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be.

Accompanying all of this written material is an essay written by Marker entitled "The Rest is Silent." It is not easy to adequately summarize this allusive and cryptic little piece. As with a number of Marker's works, it raises as many questions about the nature of its subject as it supposedly answers. Marker was born sometime in the early 1920s (1921 is most often given as his year of birth). In "The Rest is Silent," he cites Wings (1927) as the first film which he can remember seeing as a child, followed by Gastyne's Le Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d'Arc (1929) with Simone Genevois. He had (falsely) remembered Gary Cooper as the male star of Wings, and not until he saw the film again fifty years later did he realize his error: "I suppose this is what makes a star: one gesture, one smile, and it's him you remember . . .."5 With Jeanne d'Arc, it is the close-ups of Genevois which remain in his memory. Never before, he claims, had he seen a woman's face looming over him in such proportions, "but which I identified clearly, later on, as the true symptoms of Romance."6 The close-up, the gesture. For Marker, the silent cinema, the cinema of his childhood represents, "The idea of a state of perception anterior to understanding, anterior to conscience, anterior by millenniums to film critics and analysis. A kind of Ur-Kino, the cinema of origins, closer to Aphrodite than to Garbo."7

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In spite of the emphasis Marker places in this essay on the cinema of origins, the bulk of the images which he has chosen are not culled from the site of cinema's literal origins, early cinema, but from the post-World War I filmmaking practices of France, Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union, the silent cinema's "heyday." This is also the cinema of Marker's childhood, so that the cinema's origins for Marker are not its origins in any objective historical sense, but his personal reading of them in relation to his own existence. But if that was all there was, historically speaking, to Silent Movie, the installation would demonstrate little more than Marker's narcissism. What is significant about this period, at least within the context of the French and Soviet cinemas so strongly represented here, is that we see the emergence of an extraordinary body of alternative filmmaking practices, all intimately bound up with a body of theoretical writings. Whatever debates ensued within France or the Soviet Union at this time, there was little doubt as to the general belief that the rapidly developing language of cinema was the art form most closely tied to the shifting collective states of perception of the twentieth century, and that the role of editing was central in the formulation of this modernity (in opposition to the narrative-based continuity style editing of Hollywood). The presence of the Leyda, Christie, and Abel books in the reading room are reminders of this period when cinema was unquestionably regarded as a vital instrument for engendering and representing changes in the social order, to create and become history. Marker's interest in Russian culture and Soviet cinema has been apparent from his first film. Horrigan even identifies Marker's authorial voice as being "'Russian' in its passionate depths and 'French' in its intellectual playfulness."8 But regardless of all this, and regardless of the Soviet material present, I would prefer to emphasize here the degree to which Silent Movie draws upon and has been shaped by a French theoretical and filmmaking tradition. The sensibility at work in Silent Movie is no doubt larger and more comprehensive than this tradition, but it is still central to any account of it.

For instance, this notion of the cinema's Ur-Kino impulses, the inherent primitivism which Marker writes of in his essay, is one which Jean Epstein was addressing in the 1920s.9 In "On Certain Characteristics of Photog╦nie," he writes: "There is no need to stress the extent to which the language of cinema remains primitive in its terms and ideas; so it is hardly surprising that it should endow the objects it is called upon to depict with such intense life."10 Likewise, the emphasis Marker places in the essay (and which finds its way into the choice of images on the monitors) on the close-up and the gesture as privileged moments within the cinema, rupturing the flow of time, are derived from notions of photog╦nie traceable to this period and to Louis Delluc and Epstein in particular. Epstein calls for a cinema in which "not so much nothing as nothing very much happens,"11 a cinema in which narrative becomes a ritualized abstraction bound up with the cadenced, photogenic quality of movement.

Before proceeding any further, it is important to be a bit cautious. Silent Movie is not an ahistorical transposition of the concerns of French avant-garde cinema of the 1920s into a contemporary video installation. The discontinuity at work here is not that of Un Chien andalou or La Glace ř trois faces (although shots of the first film are used on the monitors, and I think I spotted some images from the second film as well. Or did I dream them?) Rather, the self-confidence and euphoria of that earlier cinema infects this particular installation, haunting it, reminding the viewer of the ideals embedded in those images, ideals at once vital and lost to history. Whatever else one might say about them, the films being made by Epstein, Gance, BuĎuel, Clair, L'Herbier (or, for that matter, virtually any other films cited by Marker in the installation, from Griffith to Garbo to Vertov) are borne of an absolute certainty of the nature of their missions. Marker, growing up in the midst of this production, but whose own filmmaking practice begins after World War II, like almost every important filmmaker of his generation, does not engage with the cinema in this way. As he says in Le tombeau d'Alexandre, "My goal is to question images."12

Some of the images which Marker makes available to us in Silent Movie are immediately recognizable (Fant┘mas, The Man with a Movie Camera, Sunrise, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler) but many of them are not. We continually move in and out of recognizing and remembering the images, and being puzzled or, at any rate, being unsure as to what the source is, which is central to our perception of the work as a whole. The editing method that Marker employs only reinforces the hallucinatory quality of these images. Certainly, even the most complex montage structures throughout film history, no matter how dense or inexplicable they may appear initially, do begin to open themselves up to us on repeated viewings so that a structure becomes apparent. This sort of approach is impossible with Silent Movie. No matter how many times it is viewed, it always seems to be a slightly different work; the spontaneous juxtapositions of images occurring through the random sequencing of the computer begin to seem deliriously infinite, an affront to conventional, close analysis. Furthermore, while each of the discs is twenty minutes in length, they run on a continuous loop so that even if one were to sit there for hours watching the monitors, there would be no sense of the work beginning or ending. Marker's intertitles, breaking our concentration on the other monitors and pulling our eyes towards the texts, sometimes acknowledge the degree to which they are challenging the spectator's expectations about the structure and duration of the piece: "Seems your soul is restless . . .," "There is still an untold episode . . .," "Apocalypse soon . . .," "Good night, sweet ladies . . .," "Haven't I been here before . . .," "And the train rolls on, toward an uncertain future . . .."

Within the realm of video installations, such an approach, in and of itself, may not be so remarkable; but as a method of conceptualizing film history, it is. Marker has described the random sequencing of intertitles and images as "the Kuleshov experiment extended to writing." But what we are looking at in Silent Movie are not just random images acquiring different sets of meaning when juxtaposed in different ways, but images from history, of history. As these images in Silent Movie multiply, this history takes on a fluid dialectical character, a living text and not a charming anachronism.

On the one hand, this movement which spectators must perform across the five monitors suggests a rethinking of photog╦nie, an attempt to literalize, externalize a process which, as Richard Abel phrases it, "countered the classical aesthetic of coherence and unity in an artistic work . . . by privileging the play of discontinuity at all levels of the text."13 In the impressionist French films of the 1920s (including Epstein's) this investment in discontinuity as a heightened state of perception manifested itself in such techniques as slow-motion, the freeze-frame, and the use of superimpositions, all of which Marker dutifully extracts out of the films themselves and presents to us here. But Marker also multiplies these tendencies several times over, adding his own superimpositions, slow motion, and freeze-frame techniques, both to the "found" footage and to his own video images. Here, these techniques serve their immediate perceptual function but they also allow Marker to move across time, across history, speaking a language at once connected with that period and infinitely larger than it alone. Marker's video footage freely steps in and out of the film footage of the past, almost as though it were surveying and contemplating these older images in a museum, one of both the historical and the imaginary.

But on the other hand, this movement across the monitors suggests an extension of the Surrealist investment in "synthetic criticism," in the fetishistic isolation of the fragment over the whole. Even the way in which Silent Movie assumes the space it is installed in, in which viewers watch the images, move about and then return to viewing the (by now) somewhat altered organization of images on the monitors, evokes the Surrealist program for filmgoing which involved, as Albert Valentin wrote, "a scorn for timetables. One comes and goes, one enters and exits when it suits."14 These two approaches, not utterly removed from one another to begin with in their Romantic privileging of subjective responses, meet in their belief in the cinema's inherent primitivism. Cinema becomes a totem rather than a temple, a subconscious repository of thoughts and ideas that escape any precise articulation in the viewer's mind. There is a sequence in Sans soleil in which Marker intercuts shots of Japanese commuters sleeping on a train with stylized video images of sex and violence from Japanese television. These extreme images, while seemingly far removed from the concerns of the dozing middle-class riders, nevertheless speak of and to their larger collective unconscious desires. With the cross-cutting organization of Silent Movie, (horizontally within the monitors, vertically down them) these images from film history isolated by Marker, now freed from the classroom and the textbook, freed from their original holding context (narrative or otherwise) are being given the opportunity to assert their archetypal, primitive power.

Of all the texts surrounding Silent Movie, the credit sheet listing the music sources for the piano accompaniment is one of the more fascinating. Eighteen diverse pieces are listed. Here's a sample: Scott Joplin's "Bethuna," Scarlatti's "Sonata in B Minor," Scriabin's "Mazurka op. 3 no. 2," Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom," from Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons" we hear "June," and Bill Evans supplies us with a jazz version of Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky to Be Me." While Marker begins "The Rest is Silent" by writing on musical accompaniment in so-called silent film (which he persuasively argues never existed, there was always music or some sort of accompaniment, such as a benshi, wherever the films were screened), situates himself as one of the last living relics capable of remembering which music originally accompanied Wings and Ben-Hur, the music that accompanies Silent Movie is edited by Marker in such a way that it barely seems to have any autonomous musical presence. On paper, the eclecticism of the choices suggests possibilities for reading structural parallels between the musical choices and the organization of the images, but this does not emerge in the final work. There is little differentiation between the piano pieces, so that rather than dynamically accompany the images, the music seems to unobtrusively emerge out of the images themselves, to be willed into existence by the rhythmic organization of the shots. Once again, Epstein: "Let [music] supply a rhythm, preferably a monotonous one. One cannot listen and look at the same time . . .. Music which attracts attention . . . is simply disturbing."15 In this sense, Marker playfully maintains the investment in the hypnotic effect rather than disturbing and awakening the spectator.

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But he continues to interrupt this dream of silent cinema in several other ways. One is by inserting recognizable images from sound films, minus their original soundtracks, and primarily of the horror genre: Frankenstein, King Kong, Cat People, Creature from the Black Lagoon. The degree to which these are ruptures is, of course, relative to one's knowledge of this particular film history. In some cases, one would have to be intimately familiar with the original film to know that Marker is violating his own historical parameters, that, for instance, one of the images of Garbo is from the sound film Mata Hari and not from one of her silent films. But the fluidity with which Marker cuts from a silent film image to a sound, showing the Creature from the Black Lagoon terrorizing the screaming blonde heroine of a silent film, allows him to situate the Ur-Kino impulses of silent cinema as those which can still manifest themselves in the sound period, showing up as unexpectedly as Elizabeth Russell at the wedding party in Cat People (Marker uses a close-up of her in that sequence here) and addressing the terrified heroine as her sister, a reminder to that heroine of her own monstrous history which she is attempting to suppress. These moments in Silent Movie have a way of levelling film history, of reaching across time and space, reminding us of cinema's primal and archetypal power.

Another more definite rupture occurs through the video images shot by Marker of Belkodja which are repeatedly intercut with the film images. In these shots, Belkhodja is shown engaging in various activities of relevance to the themes of the monitors: e.g., playing with toy cars in The Journey, or applying make-up or smoking cigarettes in close-up in The Face. The break occurring here is more decisive for two major reasons. First, the choice of video rather than film texturally pulls this material out of its relation to the film footage. The immediacy of videotape has the effect of awakening the spectator from the dream of cinema otherwise being offered. Even when viewed on a television monitor in a brightly lit open space, film images still have an oneiric lure to them, unlike video, which even (or is it especially?) when projected and viewed collectively in a darkened theater seem to exist, in Serge Daney's words, "in the future perfect tense."16

Second, while Marker frequently films Belkhodja in such a way that she is intended to evoke the archetypal modes of silent film behavior, what we are most frequently reminded of as we watch these video images is the inability to achieve this symbiosis. In contrast to the multiplicity of film images of women in Silent Movie, most of them extremely animated and eye-popping, Belkhodja seems quite deliberately placid, expressionless. While exhilarating images of machines and mechanical movements abound throughout the monitors, Belkhodja's movements seem small and tentative, following a string on the sidewalk or waving at empty railroad tracks. While the close-ups of eyes, or faces covered in veils and masks from the silent footage still conjure up their original mystery and power, Belkhodja's face swathed in bandages is suggestive of very little. The shots of her lethargic movements as she looks into the camera surrounded by the more idealized images from cinemas past at times suggest that she is dreaming this entire enterprise into existence.17 But these images (like the blurred video blow-ups of her on the wall, not quite "working" as either fetishistic frame enlargements or glamorous movie stills) suggest a failed dream, expressing a desire to enter into this silent past, but an inability to do so, blocked by the literalness of video and by history.

Earlier in this essay I noted the degree to which Marker's work allows for multiple entrances into and exits out of the complexity of the issues it raises. In this essay, I have only attempted to make one entrance into Silent Movie, its investment in the cinema's Ur-Kino, primitive impulses. Doubtless, there are many other possible approaches to this evocative work. Marker's own description of the effect he is attempting to create with Silent Movie is modest. In the last paragraph of the "The Rest is Silent," he calls the installation an "altar" for "the sheer exposure to film magic, free from anecdote or direct emotions, where the viewer may hang around, pick something of the perpetual flame, brood over these adventures of black-and-white, change perhaps my images against his or hers, replace Catherine Belkhodja's beautiful face by a closer and dearer face, and go away with an imaginary picture unrolling within his/her deep inner screening room . . .."18 Or is this modest at all? In a way, it probably is. How many filmmakers of Marker's generation, for instance, would be willing to create a work like this in which much of the effect of the editing is a question of relinquishing "the final cut" to the random sequencing and juxtaposition of images? But few things in Marker are so simple, and certainly not here. His original intentions may very well have been modest, but the final result is not.

I would like to thank Bill Horrigan and Dave Filipi of the Wexner Center for the Arts for their help, especially for providing information about (and photographic evidence of) the original installation of Silent Movie.

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Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Installation

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Last revised on 10-16-96 by Dayoan Daumont



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