It’s the late 60’s, early 70’s, and Chris Marker has got himself a Great Cause. Inspired by Aleksandr Medvedkin (Alexandre Medvedkine) and by political and social unrest in France and elsewhere, Marker and his friends have decided to read lots of Lenin, to try to make films that change the world, and ultimately to try putting film production into the hands of the people, the workers.

Marker hadn’t been greatly involved with the French New Wave movement, but he was present at the end of it, contributing to the 1967 omnibus film Far From Vietnam, wherein Marker, Resnais, Godard, Ivens, Lelouch, Varda and Klein voiced their support for the communist north vietnamese, while Rohmer, Rivette, Truffaut and Demy stayed out of it, pursuing their own romantic ideals.

Marker, Godard and others started making purely political works and stopped putting their names on their films, using collective names. I can’t find copies of some of these films (Cinetracts, Battle of the Ten Million) and can’t find English subtitles for most others (Far From Vietnam, Sixth Face of the Pentagon, À bientôt j’espère, Les Mots ont un sens), so it’s pretty much just these two, The Train Rolls On and Embassy. I’m filling out the rest of the timeline by quoting heavily from Catherine Lupton‘s amazing book on Marker.

Marker goes “beyond the privileged status of the auteur-director into the humbler and less visible functions of producer, fund raiser, editor, facilitator and general fixer, ensuring the exposure through [production company] SLON of other people’s work while continuing to make his own (unsigned) films.”

“Under the auspices of SLON (which also happens to be the Russian word for elephant), Marker instigated, edited and wrote the commentary for Far From Vietnam, a collective portmanteau film made to protest against American military interventionism in Vietnam.”

In support of striking workers in southeast France, they started on “a film about the strikes, entitled A Bientot, j’espere (‘Hope To See You Soon’).” Workers complained that the film was pessimistic, that they came off as victims. “Marker’s response to these criticisms was that he and Marret would always be outsides to the workers’ lives, and that the logical step forward was for them to begin making their own films.” And so the Medvedkin group was born.

After the May ’68 business, “The Estates General of the Cinema sponsored a series of collective short documentaries recording the May events from the perspective of students and striking workers. Following an idea suggested by Chris Marker it also produced the Cinetracts. These were a series of anonymous, combative and often strikingly eloquent visual pamphlets, filmed on silent black and white 16mm-negative stock using easily assembled materials – still photographs, collages and texts – in order to respond quickly to unfolding events. Marker, Godard, Resnais, Jean-Pierre Gorin (who formed the Dziga Vertov Group with Godard), Philippe Garrel and Jackie Raynal were among the better-known contributors to the series alongside young militants with no prior experience of film.”

“Number 5 in the [SLON counter-information newsreels] series, On vous parle de Paris: Maspero, les mots ont un sens (‘Maspero, Words Have Meaning’), is an affectionate portrait of the left-wing publisher and bookshop owner Francois Maspero, who was a contributor to Far From Vietnam and would later publish the commentary to Le Fond de l’air est rouge. Maspero is one of the most satisfying and likeable of Marker’s films from this period, achieving an exemplary balance of quirky human warmth with a clear and inventive form of political argument.”

Marker worked as a still photographer on Costa-Gavras’s film The Confession, then made a film about the shoot called Jour de Tournage, and a film on the controversy surrounding The Confession, number 6 in the newsreel series, Le Deuxieme proces d’Artur London.

“Both [Les mots & Artur London] consider the question of how committed socialists and revolutionaries can acknowledge past mistakes, undergo productive self-criticism and still maintain their basic political beliefs, in a climate where their political opponents on the right take such criticism as proof of the total failure of communism. … This dilemma comes sharply to the fore in The Battle of the Ten Million, a clear-eyed account of the failure of Fidel Castro’s ambitious project for Cuba to achieve a 10-million-ton sugar-cane harvest in 1969-70.”

“The French version of Happiness was accompanied in cinemas by Le Train en marche, an introduction to Medvedkin, Happiness and the film-trains based around an animated interview with Medvedkin filmed in a train depot in the Paris suburd of Noisy-le-Sec. Its core motifs are the eye, the hand and the train.”


A 10-min intro about trains in the 1920’s traversing russia/asia acting as bookmobiles, then a change of narrator voice when Medvedkin is introduced, and his story takes us away. His crew watched and filmed the techniques of successful and unsuccessful farmers and showed the films to each other to help increase production, then moved on to steel plants.

Medvedkin: “We realized that the cinema could be not just a means of entertainment, a way of arousing aesthetic emotions, but also a great and forceful weapon capable of reconstructing factories, and not just factories but the world, making it a better place. Such a cinema in the hands of the people was a powerful weapon.”

In the last bit, he talks about his motivation for filming Happiness, which makes sense now that i know Le Train en marche was screened as an introduction to that film.

A pretty straightforward documentary with english voiceover rather than subtitles on my copy, using archive footage (but none from the actual cine-trains, which had all been lost). No cats or owls or tricks, though halfway through the movie, Marker reveals the camera crew filming Medvedkin.

From the sound of it, Marker’s Medvedkin Group has at least partially succeeded. In CM’s own words: “I think that it’s this fabled and long forgotten bit of history… that underlies a large part of my work – in the end, perhaps, the only coherent part. To try to give the power of speech to people who don’t have it, and, when it’s possible, to help them find their own means of expression. The workers I filmed in 1967 in Rhodesia, just like the Kosovars I filmed in 2000, had never been heard on television: everyone was speaking on their behalf, but once you no longer saw them on the road, bloody and sobbing, people lost interest in them. To my great surprise, I once found myself explaining the editing of Battleship Potemkin to a group of aspiring filmmakers in Guinea-Bissau, using an old print on rusty reels; now those filmmakers are having their films selected for competition in Venice.”

“Ecological politics are not usually mentioned as being among Chris Marker’s preoccupations, but they are at the heart of a short film he co-directed with Mario Ruspoli in 1972, Viva la baleine / Long Live The Whale… a sharply politicized re-take on Ruspoli’s anthropological study, which now sets the archaic practices of the Azores whaling communities in the context of a pointed condemnation of industrialized whaling.”

Marker traveled to Chile to make a film about the new socialist government under Salvador Allende but “discovered that the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman and his colleagues already had the job in hand” so CM instead helped bring their films to France and contributed financial assistance for Guzman’s later three-part The Battle of Chile, 1975, after the government’s 1973 takeover by a military dictatorship.

In late ’73, “Marker transposed recent events in Chile into a remarkable fictional document, L’Ambassade (Embassy). As a fictional commentary on the contemporary political world, Embassy invites comparison with La Jetee. Despite their evident differences, the films share a measured, inexorable narration, and a catastrophic transformation of Paris that leaves a small group of survivors trapped.


“Wednesday, 2 days after the coup”

Lupton’s notes: “An unexpected response to Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’etat in Chile. A Super-8 film apparently found in an embassy -as it’s written in the original title-, where political activists had taken refuge after a military coup d’état. But the events -and their setting- are not what they first appear to be.”

8mm film with no direct sound. Also English voiceover rather than subs on this one, a bored-sounding reporter voice.

“You are all motherfuckers as dumb as corpses quarrelling in the grave. The only lesson to draw is that all political directions have gone bankrupt.”

I admit I snickered at the ending. Shades of Cradle Will Rock as the “truth” behind the film is revealed: “From a window of the embassy I took my last shot, the van that was leading them into exile from that city we had known when she was free: Paris.”

La Solitude du chanteur de fond fused personal friendship and the pressing political concern of the moment by filming the rehearsals and final performance of [Yves] Montand’s one-man benefit concert for Chilean refugees, held at the Paris Olympia on 12 February 1974 and his first stage appearance for six years. … [Loneliness] was released in December 1974 with the dormant If I Had Four Camels [completed in ’66], but it was the Montand film that attracted critical accolades, as a fond and revealing homage to one of France’s best-loved film actors and popular entertainers. … Loneliness is a minor masterpiece of observational documentary…”

SPIRAL, 1975
Marker helped initiate and wrote the commentary for the film Spiral, helmed by a French sociologist expelled from Chile, Armand Mattelart, and editors Jacqueline Meppiel and Valerie Mattelart. “The title of the film, Spiral, derived from its proposed spiral structure of seven successive phases of right-wing reaction leading up to the coup of 1973, many of which also delved back in history to consider, for example, the past roles of the military and the United States in Chilean affairs.” The film was largely edited from archive footage, then matched to a 3-hour Marker-written commentary and edited to 155 minutes for final release. “Although Marker was not involved at every point of the film’s production, Spiral nonetheless stands as an instructive precursor to Le Fond de l’air est rouge. It develops the same intricate marshalling of archive resources as Marker’s later film, representing the arraignment of conflicting social forces at a given moment in history by playing off film extracts informed by different political perspectives against each other.”

Hope I’m able to see more of the above films sometime. Learning French would help. Meanwhile I’m either tackling Grin Without a Cat next, or taking a Patricio Guzman or Alexander Medvedkin sidetrack before heading boldly forth into the 1980’s.

An extremely lame waste of time. Uninteresting doc about uninteresting man who claims to be a zen chef then undermines both parts of that description. I was willing to bet that the director was one of his middle-aged female students so enamored with his personality that she simply had to make this movie to show the rest of the world how fascinating he is… but she turns out to be a professional filmmaker with more than 25 works to her name, most of them fictional. Oops. As for our chef, I think he wants to look cool on camera, but he overdoes the dorky humble shtick and ends up looking like a mixed-up hippie who has gotten where he is by faking it. Either way, Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener were much more convincing and entertaining as mixed-up hippies in “Into The Wild”.

Comedians: Patton Oswalt (with his star wars bit), Sarah Silverman (scripted as always), Blaine Capatch (then wastes half his running time on lame stephen hawking jokes), David Cross (dog jokes?), Jasper Redd, Eugene Mirman (keeps the props and charts to a minimum), Maria Bamford (voices), Brian Posehn.

“Comedy”: Dana Gould (extended blowjob joke not as good as louis ck), Zach G (had nothing to say), Steve Agee (the gay neighbor who is not posehn in sarah silverman’s show), Jon Benjamin (as usual with prepped material that overstays its welcome), Andy Kindler, Morgan Murphy, “Seth” G.

Movie is shot on batman-bad-guy angle and edited in a way that does not pretend it was a seamless show, which is kinda refreshing for being more truthful than usual, but kinda sad because we get the full-length intros of each comic but abbreviated actual comedy.

“Innocence will overcome destruction.”

More poetry (written and filmed) on death and war. Narration is about the town of Guernica destroyed by German (film says Nazi?) bombings in ’37 during the Spanish Civil War, while the visuals are of Picasso paintings, then a sculpture at the end. Mournful in tone, dark, with crossfades between paintings and segments, a few lighting and editing tricks to tell the story. Most of the screen time is not the Guernica painting – that’s just one of the ones they use. The writing by Paul Éluard is good but didn’t strike me as great as the Night and Fog narration. I enjoyed the score by Guy Bernard (Statues Also Die). The visuals are more of a Picasso showcase than a filmmaker showoff, though it’s all cut together very effectively.



Co-directed by Robert Hessens, Resnais’s Oscar-winning accomplice on the Van Gogh short.

Paul Éluard was a poet who associated with Dali, appeared in L’Age d’or, was quoted in Alphaville, and died shortly after this film was released. Same photographer as on Gauguin and Van Gogh. Resnais credited as editing himself. Narration by the princess from Cocteau’s Orpheus.



Hellraiser Prophecy
Holy crap this was bad. I’ve avoided fan films for this long, so why did I watch this one? Oh yeah – I’ll watch anything in the Hellraiser series. I’m sure this guy was proud of his fan script, trying to tie the Leviathan thing from Hellraiser 2 together with the lead character who I don’t remember from Hellraiser 4 and introducing Lucifer himself into the Hellraiser world for a collision of different hells. That’s all fine and good – the mistake was to actually shoot the thing, with dismal actors who stumble over their lines and no sense of skill or vision behind the camera, just some series-aping tribute bits with the chains and some good makeup and costumes on the cenobites. Guess I’m not sorry I watched it (only 20 minutes long) but I won’t be checking out the hour of DVD bonus features.

Flowers and Trees
First technicolor cartoon AND first oscar-winner for best animated short (probably no coincidence) is a disney “silly symphonies” musical. Two trees (a nasty gnarled one and a strong young one) compete for a beautiful girl tree, and there’s a forest fire and singing and stuff. Like a popeye episode, but with plants.

Super Mario Movie
Clever: guy hacks a super mario bros. cartridge and turns it into a “movie” installation piece. It’s over-long at 15 minutes, but cute. The “plot” is that Mario is trapped inside an old game cart in a closet somewhere while the code is starting to break down. Like Rejected, but in 8-bit.

Hyas and Stenorhynchus & Love Life of the Octopus by Jean Painlevé
These are a lot cooler looking than I thought they’d be. The Yo La Tengo music works fine – I was going to try synching up the live versions, but I don’t suppose exact timing matters much in this case. Katy is grossed out by the idea of octopus sex.

It’s a Jonathan Demme picture alright, and he’s got the crew to prove it. Demme works here with a camera operator from Silence of the Lambs, editor from Beloved, cinematographer from Cousin Bobby and Subway Stories, assistant director from Married to the Mob and Philadelphia, sound crew from Heart of Gold and Manchurian Candidate, producer from Stop Making Sense, and unfortunately, a studio (Orion Pictures) that didn’t even exist anymore at the time of the film’s release, hence its obscurity.

Robyn plays half of his most recent album Moss Elixir, some songs that won’t come out on albums for a few years, a cover song and scattered older tracks (but no “oldies”). Demme keeps the visuals interesting but never distracting, and that’s a hard line to follow. With a solo artist standing still and playing songs on acoustic guitar, it would seem tempting to make the film more “cinematic” by adding and adding and cutting and re-cutting, but the presentation is simple enough to do great service to the music, making you feel more like a concert-goer than a movie-watcher. Unlike in Stop Making Sense, with its very few audience shots, this film has no audience shots at all, at least none that we can see on the cropped “modified to fit your screen” image of the DVD, so there’s no “them” in the crowd, only “you”. We get a mirror ball, a colored gel backdrop, a few planted passers-by on the street, a line of text for Robyn’s father at the start of The Yip Song, a few moments of quick editing, and a nice four-camera split for the credits and the final song. Interestingly this movie semi-references Stop Making Sense, with Robyn shouting David Byrne’s name in the middle of “Freeze”.

I can’t remember if I’d discovered Robyn’s music before I first saw this movie, but the movie has surely made an impression. I’ve played it more than any other DVD I own, and possibly (if you include the soundtrack) I’ve played it more than I’ve listened to any other Robyn release all the way through. Was just pondering that this weekend when I put this disc on instead of a CD while painting – it’s really one of my all-time favorite films. It’s great in the same way as the Spalding Gray movies and Stop Making Sense… it’s an elegantly simple film of a great performance, a documentary of an event worth documenting. It’s not gonna be studied in film class or given a large chapter in a book on Jonathan Demme, since the performer is the auteur here, but hopefully at least it stays in print for other Robyn fans to enjoy.

Film Tracklist:
Devil’s Radio
Filthy Bird
Let’s Go Thundering
I’m Only You
Glass Hotel
I Something You
The Yip Song
I Am Not Me
You and Oblivion
Alright, Yeah
No, I Don’t Remember Guildford

The soundtrack albums have a different running order and also include:
Statue With a Walkman *
I’m Only You *
Where Do You Go When You Die? * +
The Wind Cries Mary * +
Eerie Green Storm Lantern *
Beautiful Queen * +
* double LP
+ CD

But neither soundtrack includes “Devil’s Radio” or “I Am Not Me” from the 77-minute film. So it would be something like a 105-minute show if edited all together.

Robyn says: “I’m Only You,” “Freeze” and the “The Yip! Song” are descended from my days with the Egyptians, “Glass Hotel” is much as it was on Eye. “I Something You” appeared on a K-Record 7-inch. I’ve been playing Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” for years. “1974,” “I Don’t Remember Guildford,” “Let’s Go Thundering” and “Where Do You Go?” were written with the movie in mind.

Robyn again: “It’s worth pointing out, however, that a concert movie and a soundtrack record are radically different things. A film doesn’t have to bear the repeated scrutiny that the soundtrack does. An album has to survive a degree of repetition. So I’ve reduced the number and volume of introductions to the songs and they have been cued up on the CD as separate tracks, so you can skip them. It’s also worth mentioning that a song like “Airscape” worked better visually than sonically, so it didn’t make the CD. Conversely, “Beautiful Queen,” although a great performance, didn’t make it into the movie.

Edit: can’t believe I didn’t think to put this in the “musicals” category earlier. If this isn’t a musical, what is?

Almost exclusively composed of out-of-context scenes from other movies, mostly American with some exceptions (Zabriskie Point). I was surprised to see a scene from “Shockproof” (since I just watched it and had never heard of it before it was restored earlier this year), respectful mention of “Killer of Sheep” (again, this came out before all the recent tours and restorations) and an early scene from Sam Fuller rarity “The Crimson Kimono”.

The voiceover calls attention to the use of the city of Los Angeles in all these scenes, the backgrounds and cityscapes, the falsehoods and misrepresentations, and you quickly learn to watch each clip for the city it displays, not for the intended dramatic content. He talks about the documentary moments in fiction films, the way you can chart the changes in a certain neighborhood (and the eventual demolition of the whole area) through movies that were shot on location there over a period of decades.

One of the better movies about the movie industry, that’s for sure. I never had much interest in Los Angeles, and it’s not like the movie made me a big fan, but subject matter aside, it’s a fascinating idea for a movie, and meticulously put together. Entertaining as hell (didn’t mind the 3-hour length). A few jokes here and there, but mostly a straightlaced essay film. Wouldn’t really have to see it again unless I visit L.A., but I guess I could go for an upgraded version, since I watched a bootleg AVI of a bootleg VHS.

A pretty good Richard Pryor stand-up act. This got a theatrical run in early ’79, and is on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list of his 1,000 favorite movies. I love a good stand-up act, and I guess if I had a better memory for jokes, I could fold my favorite stand-up acts in with my favorite movies… but I really consider them to be separate beasts. Comedians still get theatrical runs once in a while (Sarah Silverman “Jesus Is Magic”), but I hardly ever think of them as cinematic. Even my favorite Spalding Gray monologue films (“Monster in a Box”, “Gray’s Anatomy”) I have a hard time reconciling with my other favorite films… I prefer to think of them as illustrated audio-books (sorry, Steven Soderbergh and Jonathan Demme).

I know Pryor was a groundbreaking comic, so I cringed when he got into the “black people walk differently than white people” part of his act. Not exactly original anymore, and not nearly on the same level as an average Chappelle Show episode. The more observational stuff, crowd interaction, stories of growing up, mostly great. Still, last week I rented Louis C.K. “Shameless” (directed by Steven J. Santos, an awards-show stage manager) and laughed more. Didn’t even think to add it to my “films” list. I think I only added those Ricky Gervais stand-up specials to the list because they were directed by the guy who did the Alan Partridge series.

Jeff Margolis directed the Academy Awards show for the first half of the 90’s, then moved onto the Miss America Pagent and Country Music Awards. I guess he’s the guy in the control booth who says “camera two on my mark… and… mark.”

I still want to check out the other Pryor concert movies sometime (chronologically, from directors of playboy videos, the hanna-barbera happy hour, and pryor himself) and maybe his TV special and series (from dir. of Mr. Show!).

The long-awaited continuation of my Marker-a-thon!

Dedicated “to the happy many”

“The Lovely Month of May”, in two parts:
Part 1, “prayer from the top of the eiffel tower”
Part 2, “the return of fantomas”

“It happened in may 1962. For some it was the first springtime of peace.”

A series of interviews with Parisians at/about the end of the Algerian War. A little provocative, but more of an inquisitive survey than a personal statement.

Marker as interviewer recommends Cleo from 5 to 7 to a guy who sells suits, then tries recommending Marienbad. Guy replies “but it’s something you’ve gotta understand.” “Don’t you understand things?” “Sure, but why should I take the trouble? I pay, don’t I? Sitting in a movie to rack my brains?”

Narration: “The mayor of Paris would have a lot to do, but there is no mayor of Paris”

Someone petting the head of a baby owl, narration untranslated.

Sometimes there are whole sections that aren’t subtitled or translated. Sigh…

The interviewees are asked about money, politics, world events, their daily lives. Some prodding to get the more apolitical citizens to talk about politics, or to talk about why they don’t want to. There’s a shift to more specific issues in part two. More about racism and prejudice, poking around about the Algerian War. This is the same year Alain Resnais was making a very different film concerning the Algerian War, Muriel.

Not very cinematically interesting, I guess, but today it’s a fascinating look back at a certain time and place (May ’62, Paris) and a general survey on people’s thoughts, hopes, fears and prejudices. I wonder what Parisians thought when the film came out. Can’t imagine they raved about it. He’s asking questions that lots of people didn’t want to be asked, seems like he’s throwing social problems into the faces of the Parisian viewer. I’ll bet foreigners were more intrigued.

A long interview with an Algerian ends with spoken statistics about that particular May over time-lapse photography of the busy streets. “But for the 5,056 people in the prisons of Paris, each day of May was exactly the same.”

“As long as poverty exists, you are not rich. As long as despair exists, you are not happy. As long as prisons exist, you are not free.”

A surprisingly affecting movie… I liked it more than I thought I would. Movie ran only 1:58, forty-five minutes shorter than the IMDB runtime, so that’s further incentive to see a more complete and better translated version if/when I can find one.

Marker: “What I wanted to come out of the film is a sort of call to make contact with others, and for both the people in the film and the spectators, it’s the possibility of doing something with others that at one extreme creates a society or a civilization… but can simply provide love, friendship, sympathy.”

From Catherine Lupton’s book:
“Immersing himself in groundbreaking new developments in camera and sound equipment that allowed human encounters to be filmed with greater ease and spontaneity, Marker brought the interview centre stage in the filming of Le Joli Mai, a less-than-flattering depiction of French social attitudes at the close of the Algerian War.”

“Marker stated that one of his ground rules was to avoid selecting the participants or manipulating the interviews… in order to confirm a ready-made conclusion… Another was to refuse to regard participants as stock examples of social or character stereotypes. ‘People exist with their complexity, their own consistency, their own personal opacity and one has absolutely no right to reduce them to what you want them to be.’ Le Joli Mai does grant its participants the space to be themselves, and to speak fully on the topics and questions proposed by the interviewer, without reducing their contributions to caricatured soundbites. Even when the film makes pointedly critical montage interventions into a discourse that it evidently regards as misguided or fatuous, it still retains the texture and substance of the interviewee’s speech, so that it is possible for the spectator to measure Marker’s reaction against the statements or attitudes that have prompted it.”

Marker produced this film and Le Jetee simultaneously, a film which turned “the documentary adventure of Le Joli Mai inside-out, distilling its subterranean fears and anxieties about the future into an elegaic masterpiece of speculative fiction.” His new filmmaking identity “might be the critical conscience of contemporary France, or the cosmonaut of human memory.” “In his self-curated retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise in 1998, the earliest of his films that Marker elected to show were La Jetee and Le Joli Mai. He went on record to state that he regards his earlier films as rough and rudimentary drafts and no longer wishes to inflict them on the cinema-going public.”

“The camera operator Pierre L’homme is credited as co-director in recognition of his central role in creating the film’s mobile, responsive visual images.” Pierre later shot Army of Shadows, Mr. Freedom, a Bresson feature, a Godard short, and The Mother and the Whore before working with Marker (and Yves Montaud) again on The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Singer in 1974. Narrator Yves was in Let’s Make Love, The War Is Over, Tout va bien and Le cercle rouge, and narrator Simone Signoret I know from Army of Shadows and La Ronde. Composer Michel Legrand did a James Bond movie, F For Fake, some Jacques Demy (incl. the musicals!), some Varda and Godard.