Daily | Chris Marker @ BAM

'Level Five' (1996)

‘Level Five’ (1996)

“One summer in Paris,” begins filmmaker and editor David Barker (Daylight) at Talkhouse Film, “probably about 1995, I got a call from Jean-Pierre Gorin telling me that we’d be visiting Chris Marker that afternoon. Marker was a huge and mysterious figure for me, the author of not one, but two of those films—La Jetée and Sans Soleil—which so radically redefine a terrain that it’s hard to think outside its boundaries for a while afterwards. He was also famously averse to publicity, seldom gave interviews, rarely presented his films, and never allowed himself to be photographed. So I was intrigued.”

“Those two films could be considered Marker 101, a basic introduction to the work of the rather reclusive man who was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve somewhere—accounts vary—in France in 1921, and who, reportedly, took his nom de guerre from the Magic Marker, a humble writing instrument with truly magical capabilities.” Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice on BAMcinématek‘s retrospective, opening today and running through August 28: “Also included are the early narrated travelogues Sunday in Peking (1956) and A Letter from Siberia (1958; both screening on August 18), as well as Description of a Struggle (1961; August 25), set in Israel. The Koumiko Mystery (1965; August 27) focuses on a young Japanese woman Marker met by chance during the 1964 Olympics. In The Last Bolshevik (1993; August 24), Marker offers a semi-autobiography of the Russian filmmaker Alesandr Medvedkin, which morphs into a mini history of the Soviet Union.”

“Marker headed a political filmmaking collective in the late 1960s and early 1970s but reemerged to take stock of the failure of the radical left in A Grin Without a Cat (1977), which mainly lets newsreel footage of various revolutions speak for themselves,” writes Dan Callahan for the L. “Marker teaches us to be curious about everything, even (or especially), the worst. And he could be uncannily prescient. In his short 2084 (1984), he imagines a world governed by ‘techno-totalitarians’ controlling the people through image and information machines.”

Which makes for a nice segue into the highlight of the series, the North American premiere of Level Five (1996)—which, by the way, is also screening at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles. It “should rightly take its place among the late director’s best work,” argues Robert Abele in the Los Angeles Times. “Is Level Five an essay film, a documentary, a techno-thriller or a mystery?” asks A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “The answer is yes, in an arrangement that is characteristically playful, ruminative and melancholy.”

Level Five trailer from Icarus Films.

“Shot on video and featuring a scenario in which an isolated protagonist gets intimate with a computer program, Marker’s film effortlessly anticipated the aesthetic and thematic shifts of 21st-century cinema, even as it addressed the history and legacy of the 20th,” writes Adam Nayman for the Dissolve. “Although Level Five doesn’t pre-date the invention of the Internet, it looks positively visionary next to other 1990s movies featuring characters trapped in the World Wide Web…. Level Five doesn’t achieve the poetic heights of Sans Soleil, but that might be because its project is more desultory; where the earlier work merely hints at the difficulty of looking at history without a filter, this sister film all but gives up the ghost.”

Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook: “Surrounded by screens and cables and stacks of discs, Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) faces the camera’s eye and placidly recounts [William] Gibson’s vision of cyberspace as a ‘scary hallucination’ for cavemen. Then her own story, which she describes as ‘a game that won’t work, a woman going loopy.’ The game is a strategy puzzle, left unfinished by her late beau; its goal is to reconstruct the Battle of Okinawa at the end of World War II. Endless bits of information are literally at her fingertips, as the Internet (here known as Optional World Link, or, as befits one of Marker’s recurring mascots, O.W.L.) connects her to graphics, statistics, and video testimonies. The more she learns about that most brutal of Pacific War confrontations, the more profoundly she personally identifies with the island’s historical wounds. “Let’s give it a name… Okinawa mon amour.”

Laura’s “research consists of watching footage Marker himself shot in Japan in 1985 of the various combat sites, as well as interviews with witnesses and those (like provocateur filmmaker Nagisa Oshima) who have tried to shed light on this high-casualty assault,” writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. “The deeper Laura gets into the game’s creation, the more her view of this terrible historical event is complicated, as is ours.”

Level Five is unavoidably a challenge to the war-scholarship shibboleth that ‘history is written by the victors,'” writes Steve Macfarlane in Slant. “In this case, the film makes plain as day how war’s losers can write, or erase, their own as the national unconscious demands. Marker was a leftist who used his art to challenge 20th-century power structures (without, it seems, any one compromising ideological allegiance), and the film sees his activist hands tied by the unwillingness of postwar Japanese culture to share his obsession with the war: not just the battle of Okinawa or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but its imperial past in total. This makes Level Five not just a film about WWII, about romantic love or about collective memory, but also about Occidentalism as a means of approaching other societies, and about the loss of individuality—comparing said loss in a wartime context to its modified Information Highway context.”

“All of Marker’s philosophical explorations are tinged, at the very least, by his own cinephilia (like many French filmmakers of his generation, he was active as a critic and in a sense remained so throughout his life),” writes Glenn Kenny at, “and for those who like their probings into historical trauma straight down the alley and digression-free, Level Five will be a very frustrating and arguably overly French experience.” But “if you can hook into it, Level Five is not just witty, insinuating, and penetrating; it’s also unexpectedly moving and, as deliberately threadbare as it often looks, cinematically rich.”

For more on Marker and Level Five, see Andrew Tracy‘s terrific 2006 piece for Reverse Shot.

Update, 8/16: “Marker was remarkable, if not unique among artists of his generation, in having designed a digital monument to his own body of work, an online footprint that would remain once he himself was gone,” writes Nick Pinkerton for Artforum. “This was Le Musée de Marker, an archive and gallery located on the island of Ouvroir, in the online virtual world of Second Life, which since 2003 has provided a canvas on which users can create their own domains. In the weeks and months following Marker’s death, mourners pilgrimaged to this shrine in droves, there to find Marker’s nimble mind still freely at play…. In his separation of private individual and public avatar—in his case, a cartoon cat alter-ego named Guillaume—as in his leapfrogging rhetoric, he was distinctly proto-Internet.”

Update, 8/17: For Doug Cummings, Level Five is “a fascinating and important film that never allows its substantial cleverness to replace its deep and profound empathy.”

Update, 8/23: “Few others, if any, have managed to weave together distant genres, disciplines, and themes so skillfully, rendering the seams between them so hardly noticeable, while leaving their respective forces intact,” writes Michael Blum at Hyperallergic. “In his films, agitprop fuses with poetry, documentary with fantasy, science fiction with anthropology, biography with zoology.”

Update, 8/29: Jordan Cronk for the L on The Koumiko Mystery (1965): “Shot in and around Tokyo during the 1964 Olympic Games, this medium-length feature from the pioneering cinematic essayist subtly shifts from a broad view of the festivities to an intimate examination of a twenty something Japanese woman whose emotional ennui and ethical inquisitiveness reflect a postwar national climate of reappraisal and progression.”

Update, 9/2: Howard Hampton on Level Five for Film Comment:

The most extraordinarily contemporary thing about Marker’s intricate matrix (in a William Gibson rather than a Wachowskis sense of the concept) is how beautifully it lines up with and enlarges the contexts of recent films. Of course Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer owes an obvious and acknowledged debt to the great director (there, it is history itself unfolding before our eyes that seems to be paying homage to Marker). But We Steal Secrets, Computer Chess, and especially Her are all affectingly previewed in Level Five. When we incontrovertibly arrive in the bright, flashing World of Tomorrow, I’m positive that scrawled on the walls of the New City (like the World War II “Kilroy” drawings or the graffiti that popped up all over Paris: “RIP Chris Marker, 1921-2012”) will be: “C.M. was here.”

Update, 9/26: “At one point in Level Five, Marker muses that an exploratory role-playing game might provide avenues into the past that more conventional historical narratives cannot,” writes Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader. “He might have tested this thesis with any historical episode, but it takes on special resonance when applied to the Battle of Okinawa…. Marker, a frequent visitor to Japan, says he’s found no traces of it whatsoever: ‘I’d become so Japanese, I shared in their collective amnesia—as though the war never happened.’ Level Five suggests a historical intervention, a call for people everywhere—not only in Japan—to own up to this crime against humanity. Marker presents this reclamation of lost history as a triumph of reality over nationalistic fantasy; just as Laura’s program comes to command her, so too does history have a way of writing us.”

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