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Why Chris Marker is the most important director you don't know

Trying to explain why Chris Marker should be a household name to the average cinephile is a harder task than you think. For starters he was as painfully private as Vivian Maier, if not more, sans the nanny duties. But he seemed to play the part of reluctant pedagogue, which comes with being resistant to the press and social grandstanding, fairly well. And like a true introvert, he didn’t leave the many clues to his personal life that our culture has come to require in order to appreciate a director’s work.

Marker, originally named Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, was born in 1921 to an aristocratic family in France and studied philosophy with no less than Jean-Paul Sartre during the 1930s. He was vague about his origins, evading details, preferring to consider himself a peripatetic journalist reporting on the ways of the world. During World War II, Marker fought on the side of the resistance, which clearly helped to shape the political views that were prevalent in his work.

He made fast and loyal friendships with other directors, like Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard (who is a household name), as they shared similar sentiments in filmmaking. In film is where we learn the most about him. Cats as leitmotif, appearing regularly in his films over 60 years, provide a clue. Maybe it was their independent nature that spoke to him; maybe the peace they have made with killing smaller animals so casually fascinated him. Dreamlike sequences and surreal settings that allowed for thematic abstraction to ebb and flow effortlessly onscreen like we’re sleep walking.

Marker’s leftist politics were apparent in CUBA SI, about Castro’s Cuba; LE JOLI MAI, culled from more than 55 hours of interviews of France’s citizens speaking on the French-Algerian War; THE LAST BOLSHEVIK, which he conceived as a series of letters to Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin; and FAR FROM VIETNAM, a 1967 documentary made in collaboration with Godard and Resnais that opposed American involvement in the country.

Still, his dark romantic and fantastic narratives — like the lauded LA JETÉE and SANS SOLEIL — have shaken audiences to their souls with a wonder and desire to exist in other worlds. He was a director’s director, influencing contemporaries and later generations, from Terry Gilliam and James Cameron to Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Adored by critics, he was quoted as being the “best-known author of unknown movies,” preferring that audiences tap into their unconscious (if possible) and ingest his films instinctually, metaphor et. al. Marker’s humanitarian, if not harsh at times, view of the world eschewed the idea of hierarchy, or the three-tiered global system we have come to identify ourselves with, and embraced the binary dynamic of brutality and beauty that life offers. Listening to the letter in SANS SOLEIL that describes a blinding bright desert is enough to humble you and keep hubris at bay, at least for the length of his film. Which is all he may have asked of us, and all anyone need know about this deliberate and enigmatic director.

Photo credit: Wexner Center for the Arts