Level Five (1997)
La Jetee is often called Chris Marker’s only fictional film, but others have fictional frameworks or false narrators. This one is the prime example, casting actress Catherine Belkhodja (weirdly – thanks, IMDB – her daughter played the Diva in Fifth Element this same year) to play a fictional narrator before the cameras, not just in voiceover. She writes a book on a computer which is shared with her man, who is writing a video game based on the battle of Okinawa. They both research on an internet-like computer system called (what else?) OWL. Sometimes Chris speaks in his own voice, which seems unusual – is he supposed to be the never-seen game programmer?
Some philosophy about the nature of communication and computers – she feeds her antique Mac nouns as commands to see its response (“I don’t know how to sardine”) – and about the permanence of the past. No matter what variables you change in the Okinawa simulator, the results are the same. She says computers have become her memory, which obviously strikes a chord with me, sitting here typing about movies I’ve seen so I don’t forget them. Besides Catherine and her OWL, most of the movie is devoted to exploring the story of Okinawa, a Japanese island where a large portion of the rural locals committed suicide for fear they’d fall into the hands of barbarian Americans during a brutal WWII battle.
Okinawa memorial footage shot by Nagisa Oshima:
My favorite bit, about a man filmed falling to the ground engulfed in flames:
I know where Gustave is from. You told me his name was Gustave. I’d seen him a hundred times. Nobody had ever filmed a man burning alive so close, a lulu for war documentaries. The unknown soldier, in full kit, holding his own flame. He was carted around battlefields, like a war-artist on tour with a unique act. Gustave in the Philippines, Gustave in Okinawa. I even saw him in a Vietnam movie, still burning 20 years later. I viewed so much newsreel I knew Gustave at birth. Filmed in Borneo, by Australians. The interesting thing is that, at the end of the original shot, you can tell he doesn’t die. He gets up again. You feel he’ll get over it like the napalm girl in Saigon. That ending has always been cut in all documentaries. A born symbol doesn’t get out of it so easily! He testifies against war, you cannot weaken his testimony for the sake of a few frames. Truth? What is truth? The truth is, most didn’t get up.
Catherine dancing with an emu:
I watched a nice transfer of Level Five on my laptop, and there are few movies that would seem more appropriate to view as a computer file rather than in cinemas or on television. But Immemory isn’t a movie at all – a CD-Rom with photos and collages, writings, articles and film clips, meant to be navigated instinctually, like a memory. There’s an index in case you want to cheat and view it exhaustively. I tried to read it like a book, going to each section in turn and reading forward through them all, taking side trips when I felt like it, but then returning where I left off. Really wonderful and fun, with more straight autobiography than you usually get from a Marker film – I enjoyed it more than Level Five.
Some choice pages: