I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetee (it was a program of shorts aired on public television), but I can sure remember the impact it had on me. In a little over twenty-six minutes, using a montage of black-and-white images with hushed narration, La Jetee was a science fiction film with as much visual ingenuity as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and an emotional wallop to go with it. It’s probably better known these days for inspiring Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, and while Gilliam’s expansion was a pretty decent job (once it got past the almost unendurable asylum sequence), Marker’s themes of memory, loss, and fate are something you have to experience for yourself.
Marker, who just died at the age of 91, led a storied life. He was a man of action (a member of the French Resistance during World War II), a man of ideas (a colleague of Andre Malraux and Andre Bazin), a novelist, and a documentarian with a highly idiosyncratic approach. Sans Soleil, a modest art-house hit in 1983, literally defies description — one can say it combines anthropology, philosophy, and beautiful imagery (along with an appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a memory play hidden within a thriller), but that grocery list doesn’t really do it justice. It can be bought as a two-fer with La Jetee via the estimable Criterion Collection. If this summer of corporate blockbusters has you wondering why you were ever interested in films, some quality time with Marker’s work will remind you of just how personal and mysterious (and captivating) movies can be.