I watched some films centred around journeys. Two of them were by Chris Marker. This was the right preparation for seeing a more recent British film.
La Jetee (1962) is a short post-apocalyptic “photo-roman” set in France in the future. It is composed of still images and a voiceover by an unseen narrator. It begins at Orly Airport, with the sounds of jet engines blurring into a choir.
This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood. The violent scene which upset him, and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later, happened on the main pier at Orly, Paris airport, some time before the outbreak of World War Three.
The memory the child was imprinted with was of a woman’s face, distressed by a violent incident at the main pier that day.
Soon afterwards, Paris was blown up.
Many died. Some fancied themselves to be victors, others were made prisoners.
The survivors are gathered in underground galleries. The victors are trying to survive amongst the radioactive devastation, and they have a research project to put prisoners in sensory deprivation experiments. Some of them go mad as a result.
Eventually the man haunted by his childhood memories is called in for the experiment.
The purpose of the experiments is to find “a loophole in time” and some way to secure food, medicine and energy by “throwing emissaries into time” and contact past or future for aid. After some days he begins to enter the world before the war, and meets “the girl” of his memories.
They look at the trunk of a sequoia tree, covered with historical dates. She pronounces an English name he doesn’t understand. As in a dream he shows her a point beyond the tree and hears himself say: “This is where I come from”, and falls back exhausted.
After contacting the past, the experimenters send him in to the future. He finds “Paris rebuilt… 10,000 incomprehensible streets”.
The future gives him a “powerplant strong enough to put all human industry in motion again”, and presumably brought about themselves, creating a causal loop.
Some time after his return he was transferred to another part of the camp. He knew that his jailers would not spare him. He had been a tool in their hands. His childhood image had been used a bait to condition him, he had lived up to their expectations, he had played his part. Now he only waited to be executed, with somewhere inside him the memory of a twice-lived fragment of time, and deep in these limbos he got the message from the men of a world to come: they too travelled through time, and more easily. Now they were there, ready to accept him as one of their own.
Terry Gilliam took the storyline and worked it all up into Twelve Monkeys.
Sans Soleil (1982) starts with an epigraph.
Then dark, then the nameless female narrator speaks before her subject appears.
The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness, and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images…
We cut to dark again then a brief clip of US jet fighters on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
…but it never worked. He wrote me: “One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film, with a long piece of black lead-in. If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”
The title is then presented in 3 languages: Russian, but also as Sunless as well as Sans Soleil.
We first see footage of ferry passengers in Japan, but this is the start of restless switching across continents. Our narrator describes receiving this material incrementally with communications in which its creator (his name is given as Hayao in passing) describes his project of gathering it and his interpretations of the scenes and their interconnections.
As well as tourist-friendly images of Japan we also see the outcast and lowest classes in the street, details from newspapers, and stories of the Imperial court centuries ago. “Everything interested him.”
Africa is also represented in the Cape Verde islands, and the old Portuguese colonial centre of Fogo and the population created there by the movement of workers and settlers within the networks of trade and control (a “vertical people”) it was linked to. There is a long meditation on the difficulty of taking footage in the recommended Film School way – not letting the subject stare back – and there are clips of Verdeans filmed whilst clearly aware but trying not to show their awareness of the camera.
This film reuses from many other sources (acknowledged in the end credits), and there is a lot from the political struggle for Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau’s independence. We see the conflict of the early 70s, in which Amilcar Cabral was leader before his assassination, cutting with later colour footage of his brother Luiz Cabral waving in the same way at the shore 15 years later.
Footage dated to 17th April 1980 is already historical, since a year later President Cabral was overthrown and imprisoned by the officer he just decorated:
That’s the way the breakers recede, and so predictably that one has to believe in a kind of amnesia of the future, that history distributes through mercy or calculation to those that it recruits.
The soundtrack of this film shifts between distortion and electronica, to ambient noise from the places it visits. We also see the latest visual distortion, blurring and highlighting the images, and the technology that can produce it.
Memories must make do with their delirium, their drift… contemplate from a point outside time…
The one source film mentioned by name is Hitchcock’s Vertigo, cited as “the only film capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory… In the spiral of the titles he saw time covering a field ever wider as it moved away, a cyclone the present moment contains motionless as the eye.”
We take a “pilgrimage” around San Francisco to see all the locations that Hitchcock used unaltered (except for one detail), and which remained unaltered (except for one detail) in 1982, including the moment that Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak look at the sequoia tree and she picks out “this is when I was born, this is when I died”.
It is mentioned that this scene was referenced in “another film”, which was of course La Jetee. Another inexplicit connection is that the Vertigo spiral can also be seen in the costumes of the Japanese featured in the festival near the end of the film.
During the Japanese footage we see various political figures arguing for left and right wing views, and a trip to the island of Okinawa, site of one of the last battles of the Pacific Campaign in 1945. That was also the focus for Marker’s later film Level Five (1996). It is the story of a relationship somewhere in the near-future, when cybernetic networks have spread over the world forming the “Optional World Link” (O.W.L.) which seems to be how the internet was imagined at the time, though that term hadn’t taken grip. William Gibson is mentioned at the start as the guru who predicted it all, and we are told that our present understanding of the world is like that of a Neanderthal trying to comprehend a glimpse he has had of a modern city, “but none of knows what a city is”.
We don’t see much of this techno-future, as most of the film is confined in the private apartment of a female author who talks to the camera, recording her thoughts. These are messages for her male partner, who remains entirely off-screen and we only hear his voice at the end. It seems they had a relationship after connecting through OWL. The man is a software designer who was working on a strategy game about the Battle of Okinawa in June 1945. His lover became more intrigued in the background research for this topic, and they travelled to Japan together. He gave her the nickname “Laura” after a character in a 1940s US film they watched there, and that’s the only name we know her by. There isn’t much to their relationship, as she is occupied now by her obsession with the catastrophe of the war and the lives destroyed in it. This also affects her sense of time, the forgotten and unforgotten dead, and the stories we tell about them. She is clearly sliding in to depression as the film unfolds, this is a quiet film about sadness in spite of the bright techno interludes.
There is a lot of documentary material about the battle interweaved in this, with plenty of archive images and interviews with Japanese survivors. We learn that the first recorded reference to Okinawa in European history was when a traveller told the captive Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena about a distinct island in the East which had no army; the old warrior was disgusted at the thought of it. Eventually the peaceful island was converted in to an Imperial fortress, where it was intended to inflict the highest casualties to dissuade the Americans from invading the mainland. This plan succeeded inadvertently in encouraging support in the US leadership for using the atomic bombs. We see the Japanese memorials, hear criticism that they focus on the suicides of the better-off schoolchildren, and see a boy-warrior who lived on to become a Christian minister.
The limited portrayal of “cyberspace” and future computer technology is extremely crude, like something on The Adventure Game, and would look embarrassingly retrogressive even in the mid-90s. It wasn’t a slick SF thriller, it was a demonstration of the simplest devices combining together historical resources and the voice of an unhappy woman talking about things that pass away, before she passes away.
Wayfinder (2022) follows the journey of a Wanderer around Britain before and during the pandemic times. The narration starts with a child’s voice. Later hear the adult voice of Nephertiti Oboshie Schandorf, and at one point there is an overlay of the two voices reading the same text.
The beginning of every story starts at the end of another. This story starts at the end of a world we once knew. A journey that twilights the parallels of both space and time. A discovery of self in bridging the past and the present moment. This land is your land. There is an asterisk and parentheses that shrouds your voyage.
We go to “The North”. Two figures slowly come together in the landscape: the Wanderer, and the Griot.
I’ve never tramp’d Britain but lost it all the same, and wonder if I’m to blame and asked what stopped me. And what stops me now from staking some small claim. But the fear that someone that looks like they know better might say no. And the pain of rejection will harden, alchemise, in to righteous indignation, and then I’ll promise to burn you, raze it all to the ground, even while I ache inside. And say you never wanted me and say I was a fool to ever want you to wrap your arms around me.
The Griot recites Child Ballad #73 (Lord Thomas & Fair Ellinor), a folk ballad referring to a “brown girl”.
The Wanderer travels further through the country, passing by great old buildings and getting lost in the vast backdrop.
Here you don’t tread new paths, but walk assuredly on those created by the footsteps of a thousand thousand others who came along this way before you.
In the Midlands she meets Anita Neil who talks about how proud she was to stand by the Union Jack at the Olympics.
“The Land Of Smoke” section goes indoors, into the gallery, where Turner’s works are on display.
She considers The Slave Ship and remembers being sceptical about the received stories around it as Turner’s “symbolic gesture of protest” when she was at university. Here the child and adult vocals overlap, so this can be marking the break into mature consciousness after the early years of feeling uncertain about identity and status.
Ain’t no ambiguity there.
Back home in Bethnal Green we overhear a dialogue during pandemic time between an invisible couple. Russell Tovey gives the voice of the young man who is doubtful about lockdown restrictions that his Aunty accepts. Young Russell is in favour of free speech and making your own mind up.
The return to Bethnal Green recalls with having to deal with funerals and the remains of her mum’s life, and how the area has changed over her lifetime. The old shops have disappeared, gentrification is coming in. The old council flat that her mum bought in the 80s now has to be sold off to a well-off outside developer.
All of these films are concerned with representations and changing sense of place and time. Sans Soleil, with its decentred and apparently global perspective, is seeing the world with the confidence of western eyes that can review images of revolution with detachment and make the pessimistic judgement that collective action will always unwind into individual glory-seeking – an event viewed from some place outside history, or so far in the future as to be unconnected. Just like the fantasy future-Parisians, there is no such place nor could there be, since its own existence is in fact implicated in its “timeless” connection – it needs to give the magical “powerplant” to the survivors so they can start rebuilding the world and make the distant dream of unaffected life possible.
Wayfinder turns this perspective inside out. Life lived within a place and time and yet not accepted as a part of the pattern or expectations, not represented in the gallery except as a detail noted by a detached observer. Life compelled to be detached as there was no real invitation or possibility to form the same attachment as “someone that looks like they know better”, but desiring that attachment and integration into a history of a land. The minority faces and voices turning up in the widest and emptiest scenes and appearing as “intruders” even when there is nobody else around, to the notional gatekeepers and National Trustholders.