There will be emus in the Zone

Searching the Lovefilm catalogue the other day, I was delighted (and slightly amazed) to find that you can rent Chris Marker’s La Jetée from them – not only that, but that Sunless comes on the same disc. I don’t really want to say anything at all about La Jetée, except that everything you’ve heard about it is true: it’s half an hour long, it’s in black and white, it’s told almost entirely in stills with voiceover, and it’s the greatest film ever made. Well, one of. Top ten, definitely. The title, incidentally, is much less romantic than it sounds – for a long time, before I saw it, I thought it meant something like “the leap” or “the throw”, très kierkegaardien. It actually refers to part of a 1950s airport – “the pier”, I guess it would be if you translated it.

Sunless is a bit more conventional, inasmuch as it’s 90+ minutes long, shot on film and in colour. Unlike La Jetée, though, it’s not narrative; it’s more of an essay or a long poem in the medium of film. And it’s also the greatest… well, one of the greatest films ever made. (Top ten, no question.) It’s shot mostly in Guinea-Bissau and Japan, and to begin with you could take it for a travelogue. But Marker’s not interested in places so much as people: people in streets, in bars, in markets, in boats and on quaysides, caught by the frank, intelligent, appraising gaze of the man behind the camera and returning it in kind. His eye is extraordinary: the film stock he’s using frankly isn’t great (in purely visual terms it’s more like watching a news report than a feature film) but he creates, or finds, some truly beautiful compositions. The composition of the film as a whole is remarkable, too: just as it seems it’s starting to sag, around the 80th minute, he pulls the whole thing together and makes you realise what it’s about. It’s about revolutionary politics, in part, and about how the struggle to turn an unjust world upside down is always continuing. But at a deeper level it’s about time: how time destroys everything and defeats everyone, and how we need to live within that situation and do justice to it, and about art as a way of bearing witness to it and resisting it.

Fantastic, beautiful film. (And quoted on a recent waxing by a popular singing group called the Kasabians, apparently.)

I wrote about Sunless once before, in the February 2000 issue of Red Pepper; it was my contribution to a “lost classics” feature called Memory Hole. Here’s what I said then:

Chris Marker is best known here for La Jetée, a thirty-minute science-fiction film composed almost entirely of still pictures and the avowed inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. In fact Marker is a prolific film-maker, working mainly in the documentary idiom; he is also a deeply political artist whose films attest to his passionate engagement with the left. However, while many of Marker’s works have been distributed in English versions, their uncommercial nature has consigned most of them to oblivion. One which richly deserves to be retrieved is Sans Soleil (Sunless).

The film opens uncompromisingly, with several seconds of black screen followed by a snatch of film showing three children in Iceland in 1964; this represents a moment of happiness, the narrator explains. The film is a meditation on the loss of time and the particularity of place. Marker watches the people of Tokyo honour their dead; in Guinea-Bissau he performs an act of commemoration himself, evoking the long forgotten revolution of Amilcar Cabral and its wider effects, in Portugal and elsewhere. In Japan, he juxtaposes traditional street festivals with department-store imitations of American style, rituals to commemorate broken dolls with the struggle over the building of Narita Airport. The film is also extremely beautiful, with frequent freeze-frames to pick out a single face, a single glance.

Marker’s leftism is rooted in a deep interest in people and how they live their lives; perhaps his nearest parallel outside cinema is John Berger. Sunless conveys this political passion with heart and style.

Yeah, that still holds up. Not so sure about this one, though (reviewing another film I’ve recently found on Lovefilm).

Nanni Moretti has a lot on his mind. He’s working on a musical, his wife is pregnant and elections are looming. On top of all that, he’s making a film: this film. Aprile takes Moretti’s film-making to a new level of autobiographical intimacy. A disenchanted left-winger, who follows current events so attentively that he wraps himself up in newspapers, Moretti is an appealing everyman. His story ends hopefully – little Pietro is born, the left wins the elections – but without any real conclusion. Aprile celebrates personal and political achievements, but reminds us that everything is still to play for.
– Michael Travis

That’s from the film review slot in the May 1999 Red Pepper. Having finally seen Aprile, all I can say is, Up to a point, Mr Travis. I can forgive the reviewer for missing what’s now the most famous sequence of the film – Moretti shouting at the TV during a debate between Berlusconi and Massimo d’Alema: “D’Alema, say something left-wing! Not even left-wing, say something civilised! Reply! React! Say something!”. That sequence has hung round d’Alema’s neck ever since (as well it might) but it wasn’t that well-known in Britain at the time. But there are so many small errors – Moretti gives up on the musical to make a radical documentary about the elections, which isn’t “this film” (and never gets made); he’s not an “appealing everyman”, unless your idea of Everyman is an Italian Woody Allen, a middle-aged man who’s so anxious about everything in his life that he never shuts up about any of it; and he doesn’t so much “[wrap] himself up in newspapers” as buy every paper he can find, cut out all the political stories and stick them all together to make one giant newspaper with pages ten feet wide, only to give up trying to make sense of it and wrap himself up in it (although admittedly that would take a lot of words). And there’s one really big error, regarding the ending of the film. It’s not inconclusive in the slightest: Moretti (or ‘Moretti’) has completely turned his life around by the end of the film. He’s stopped worrying about the baby (who is beautiful, incidentally); he’s given up the political film and thrown away his collection of press cuttings (“why should I keep a collection of things that make me angry?”); he’s started work on the musical again; and he’s made a general-purpose resolution to be bold and not to hold himself back, symbolised by a voluminous cape that he wears for the last five minutes of the film (which makes him look ridiculous, but that’s part of the point). It’s not a brilliant film, but it does have a brilliant ending – not least its closing scene, an extended sequence from the shooting of the musical – and Michael Travis missed it completely.

Mind you, he did have an excuse, what with being non-existent (or fictional (another Top Ten nominee behind that link, incidentally)). I was editing the Red Pepper culture pages at the time, and I’d had an offer of a review of Aprile; unfortunately it fell through, leaving me with a space to fill and no time to fill it in. So I read a couple of other people’s reviews of Aprile and I did the best I could. And I have to say that, judged as a review written by someone who hasn’t seen the film, it’s not all that bad.

I’ll do a proper writeup of my time on Red Pepper some day; for now, I’m afraid, it’s a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

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