It is just too easy to categorise Chris Marker as a photographer, film director, multimedia artist and documentary maker, definitions which, while accurate, fail to capture the essence of the remarkable body of work that he has created. His films defy conventional narrative or documentary form – in a world where there is apparently nothing new under the sun, perhaps it is the work of this cinematic poet, essayist and artist that can challenge this. Three of Marker’s films have just been released on DVD.

La jetée (1962)

As David Thompson suggests about the work of Chris Marker, ‘All films are documentaries except for La jetée’. La jetée is like a documentary but it is not, its narrative is revealed in a manner that helps place it as a work of serious science fiction cinema but it also reflects the attitudes of the time when it was created. So, although La jetée is not a documentary, like Marker’s other films, it has a way of perceiving a visual ‘reality’ that instantly engages and draws the viewer under its subtle spell.

Some time in the future, after the third world war, the narrator views his life both as a medical subject and prisoner in relation to a strong memory of his childhood – his captivity interspersed with memories of an airport encounter as a youth with an enigmatic female that he now needs to seek and engage with. He is coerced into time travel by the totalitarian authorities ‘to call past and future to the rescue of the present’.

The strength of La jetée still lies with its approach to storytelling (or lack thereof) and the immediacy and reality of its construction. La jetée is mainly a work composed of stills photography and not the generally accepted medium of cinematography with all the movement, action and dynamics that that should entail. This stylistic choice sets the film as both a product of a different existence and something that is – in some ways – devoid of time. This is a world where past, present and future are time periods that we, the audience, cannot ever be a part of. Thus the elements of an apparently fascistic future defined by human dominance, authority and removal from any known form of society is both believable and alarming. We have to see the world from the perspective of the narrator to place us into the film’s context of understanding both situation and revelation.

La jetée was re-interpreted in Terry Gilliam’s wonderful Twelve Monkeys (1995), a film which helps make some of this story’s juxtaposition of past incidences connected with futuristic extremities a little more coherent while perhaps leaving the interpretation a little less ambiguous. La jetée remains a rarity in science fiction filmmaking in that it engages with its modernity, its originality and its narrative while being timeless in its execution. A fascinating and alluring work that demands repeat viewings.

Sans Soleil (1983)

What is narrative cinema? What is documentary? Is there any definitive recognition of what is perceived as documentary or storyline concept? Sans Soleil is not a documentary nor is it a conventional story, and yet somehow it is both.

Sans Soleil is a film experience that reveals its locations – be they Africa or modern Japan – to be the main character through a series of letters sent to a woman by a travelling cameraman. She reads these letters to us as we view the images captured by the cinematographer. By modern we refer to a contemporary society, in this instance a Japan that is approaching the economic bubble of the 1980’s so that, despite the film deliberately engaging with the country’s strongly defined historic culture and group ethic, this is also a reflection of the time the film was constructed, a conceptual contrast between Japan and Africa, via Iceland and San Francisco, that is at once undeniably contemporary but also reflects a time past.

The Japan depicted is that of the time when financial and economic supremacy began to take hold and this is clear within the visual revelations of the film – the Idoru (idol) culture which is perceived as normality is just as relevant as the neko (cat) symbolism that dominates the film. Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies are examined and contrasted with city culture, ‘where electronics glitter like jewellery.’ The film explores group and societal traditions – of peoples present and past, acknowledging their history and their customs. This is something also reflected within the African sections of the film where aspects of modernity and independent societies are shown beside an actuality of political and cultural conflicts.

In many respects Marker is showing us the commonality of humanity – despite a huge variance in cultural mores and traditions across the globe, we are all – ultimately – the same. This is particularly pertinent when considering death rituals depicted. Within this film Marker shows the serenity and composure of death ceremonies, but also the actuality of violence, the savage reduction of life and the immediacy of slaughter as part of the visualisation of the film, by showing us the killing of a giraffe. He never flinches from these depictions which are not gratuitous in execution, but can be quite shocking. ‘Death is no veil but a path to be followed.’

Like much of Marker’s work this is a poetic deconstruction of both locations, examining a multitude of cultures that define perception and insight within a modern and understandable context. It contains abstract allusions and beautiful imagery as well as stories within stories, all bound together with delicious metaphor. Surely the whole human condition is captured, albeit obliquely, here, through the exploration of such completely different societies which both contrast with and complement each other. Particularly recommended for documentary lovers seeking a different perspective, Sans Soleil is utterly compelling. It neither patronises nor denies its viewers a conscious ability to interpret and comprehend.

Level Five (1997)

We live in an age of broad cultural understanding, of exposure to more images and information than we can possibly absorb and, of course, the world of computers, games and all that they represent – from individual characters to multi-player engagement. In many respects your viewing of this review on the internet reflects this concept. Level Five seeks to explore the computing environment both in cultural and inspirational terms, specifically by relating the World War 2 invasion of the Japanese island of Okinawa to the development of a video game. It’s an odd premise, that takes a certain amount of getting used to, but Marker’s skill at drawing his viewer into his absorbing, if strange, world results in a fascinating whole.

Marker filmed Level 5 nearly 15 years ago. Our narrator is Laura, a programmer who researches the battle of Okinawa from the perspectives of both the American and Japanese participants, using the analogy of videogame characters to explore this most horrific of battles. But can this still have any cultural significance to a modern audience? In many respects it can, although the technology of the backdrop is very much a product of its time. As with much of Marker’s work, his films are there to inform as well as entertain or meditate upon, but you don’t feel as though you are receiving information per se, but rather you are absorbing a story through the use of metaphor and often conceptual imagery.

An interesting and pertinent addition to the film is that of Nagisa Ôshima, who is relevant on so many levels in regards to appreciating and understanding the film. The examination of censorship and cultural mores cannot be ignored within the context of interviewing an art film director known for his opposition to censorship. His comments add additional poignancy recalling the events regarding the Battle of Okinawa, Hiroshima and his position within the understanding of cultural and environmental concerns.

Level Five makes for compulsive viewing as a contextual docu-poem which also provides an alternative perspective of a horrific story within history. It is clever, witty and occasionally very moving. Despite its age it still relates well to modern interpretations of video, gaming and broadcasting, as well as seeking to explore history from an altogether more reflective outlook.