Jem Cohen said it well during a presentation on Chris Marker at Harvard last spring: the French auteur’s actions were not those of a recluse, a label all too frequently misapplied to the merely publicity-shy. Cohen was relaying the story of how Marker came across one of his films on late-night French television. After seeing a familiar name on the credits, Marker had his compliments passed along to a thunderstruck Cohen. These kinds of anecdotes are surprisingly common. Most famously, Marker responded to a young Patricio Guzmán’s call for help on The Battle of Chile (1976) with a parcel containing much-needed rolls of film.
Several other such encounters are recounted throughout Emiko Omori’s To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter, a quiet tribute filmed before Marker’s death in 2012. Omori actually worked with Marker on The Owl’s Legacy (1989), though we don’t learn much about that experience—a pity, since most of the other stories lining To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter do not touch upon Marker’s working habits (a good supplement is Agnès Varda’s tour of Marker’s jam-packed studio and Second Life world in From Here to There). Of course, devotees of Marker’s films will only be too glad for the minor illuminations found in Peter Scarlet’s account of a Marker’s delightful response to a signed photograph of Kim Novak; Telluride Film Festival director and nouvelle vague ambassador Tom Luddy’s story of Francis Ford Coppola making a spontaneous gift of an original Krazy Kat comic to the director; or film historian David Thomson relaying Marker’s playful correction to his Biographical History of Film.
The best of these anecdotes touch upon the collaborative nature of Marker’s seemingly autonomous cinema. In place of cinematographers and producers he had interlocutors: Luddy screening a then rare print of Vertigo (1958) for him ahead of his Hitchcock-inspired San Francisco shoots for Sans Soleil (a trip that also produced the beguiling little sci-fi oddity Junkopia) or Marina Goldovskaya introducing him to Dziga Vertov’s former camera operator Yakov Tolchan for The Last Bolshevik (1993). There surely would have been many more such stories had the filmmaker interviewed more non-Americans, and one similarly wishes that her film did more to account for the lesser known alleys and way stations of Marker’s sprawling body of work.
Then again, Omori’s tribute does not suggest itself as historical assessment of Marker’s filmography, nor a close reading akin to Marker’s own Last Bolshevik, AK (1985), or One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch (2000). It’s something much more modest than that—a gathering of friends, really, less about the films themselves than their effect on viewers. In this regard, the passing shots of elephants’ trunks, yawning subway riders and Asian women at market are every bit as significant as the talking heads. I suspect that Marker might well have preferred such indirect acts of homage, mediated by a series of preferred symbols or charms, to all the breath spent singing his praises. Omori points her camera at things Marker would have liked for the same reason Peter Scarlet sent him an autographed picture of Kim Novak; it’s a response to the intimate address of Marker’s films, in which the “I” of the author may be left obscured while the “You” of the viewer is made to feel at home.
Recent films like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Joaõ Pedro Rodrigues’ The Last Time I Saw Macao, and Lynne Sachs’ Your Day is My Night all bear Marker’s hallmarks. His impact appears ever more decisive with the increasing importance of the essay-film, and yet before getting too comfortable with the idea of Marker’s influence we should remember that he was constantly second-guessing his own work. A Grin Without a Cat (1978), to take one, contemplates the political narratives of the late 1960s and early 1970s by reviewing footage from earlier films like The Sixth Side of the Pentagon (1967), Be Seeing You (1968) and The Battle of the Ten Million (1970) with the benefits and burdens of hindsight. Accordingly, following Marker’s example means not following it—a moral to keep the cat’s grin.