B.C.'s Film Studies: Sans Soleil

The Deleuzian Memory of Sans Soleil

In the first few minutes of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, the narrator recounts how "in the nineteenth century, mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the twentieth was the coexistence of different notions of time." This moment in the film echoes the writings of Gilles Deleuze, whose books on cinema are titled Cinema 1: The Movement Image and Cinema 2: The Time Image. Deleuze advocated a departure from cinema where space and movement dominated the content, toward a cinema centred on notions of time.

This essay considers the meditation on images of time and memory in the film Sans Soleil (a.k.a. Sunless). The thesis of this paper is that Marker's film exemplifies Deleuze's notions of time, memory and image. Marker recognizes fundamental inadequacies of the image as a substitute for memory, although much of Sans Soleil is an experiment in both compensating for and exposing those inadequacies.

Deleuze's theories drew heavily from the work of Marker's friend and mentor, Alain Resnais, and it only stands to reason that Deleuze's theories are equally applicable to Marker's work.

Deleuze's notion of time-image cinema describes a revolutionary and political cinema. To understand time-image cinema, we must contrast it with movement-image cinema, "in which frame follows frame according to necessities of action, subordinating time to movement."1 Clearly, Sans Soleil is nothing like movement-image cinema. The film has no action or plot that could subordinate time; instead, Marker claims that the only qualification these images have for being included in the film is that they quicken the heart. These images span many different time periods from World War II to the present, and a scene is just as likely to cut to West Africa or San Francisco as it is to cut to a different angle within the same room. In the film, an unnamed and unseen narrator reads the fictitious letters of Sandor Krasna, a traveling cameraman (a thinly-veiled alter-ego for Marker).

Adrian Miles argues that much of Marker's work "is about what could be described as the technologies of memory, of record, of the processes and activities combining memory with the quotidian to find how the individual is lost within the general."2 The principal technology of record under consideration in Sans Soleil is the photographic image.

But as the film explores the relationship between memory and record, Marker highlights an image of time put forth by Deleuze. Drawing from the philosopher, Henri Bergson,

Deleuze proffers an image of time as always splitting, like a hair, into two parts: the time that moves smoothly forward, or the 'present that passes'; and the time that is seized and represented (if only mentally), or the 'past that is preserved'. What Deleuze, following Bergson, refers to as the actual image and the virtual image are the two aspects of time as it splits, the actual corresponding to the present that passes, the virtual to the past that is preserved.3

A central theme in Sans Soleil is the inadequacy of memory. Consider, for example, the scene in which the narrator describes how tourists have their picture taken in front of a ditch in which thirty girls killed themselves with grenades, and also describes the concession stand across the street where visitors could purchase souvenir lighters shaped like hand grenades. These profane juxtapositions expose the fact that although the event is remembered, the tragedy of that moment has been lost. That present has passed, and we no longer have access to its essence. Alain Resnais expresses the same concern in Night and Fog: "An incinerator can be made to look like a picture postcard. Later -- today -- tourists have themselves photographed in front of them." We need to remember better than that.

Marker poses the question, "How did humans remember before they taped, filmed, photographed?" And yet, he denies that images are the solution to our memory problem; Marker shows us that the past that is preserved is also problematic.

Like Deleuze proposed, Marker demonstrates how our virtual (filmic and photographic) images compete with our "recollection images" — our memories of events that are not captured in film and video.

Through a series of juxtapositions of different images, and of images and spoken words, Marker exposes six related inadequacies of the visual image.

The first inadequacy has to do with the fact that the past that is preserved is only half of time — the present that passes is not really captured along with those images. The sense of time in classical cinema is only indirectly implied by the montage of images. Deleuze writes that traditional cinema (movement image):

has two sides, one in relation to objects whose relative position it varies, the other in relation to a whole — of which it expresses an absolute change. The positions are in space, but the whole that changes is in time. If the movement-image is assimilated to the shot, we call framing the first facet of the shot turned towards objects, and montage the other facet turned towards the whole... [It] is montage itself which constitutes the whole, and thus gives us the image of time... [But] time is necessarily an indirect representation because it flows from the montage which links one movement-image to another.4

The break between images are easily ignored, and the images in movement-image cinema supplant one another. When Marker shows us images of Iceland before and after a volcano, he tells us that it is as if the entire year 1965 is covered in ash. But Marker moves backward, from the ash-covered town, to an earlier image of a cat on the road of that same town. The break he introduces cannot be ignored; it is irreducible, and we are forced to look at the two moments and recognize the present that passes.

But this leads us to the second inadequacy: some content is too ethereal to be captured on film. For example, when filming at the temple consecrated to cats, Marker says "I wish I could convey you the simplicity, the lack of affectation" when a couple comes there on behalf of their missing cat, Toro; the lack of affectation can't be captured on the film. At times, Marker questions whether or not this "uncapturability" of the ethereal is a failing of the image, or if it is a failing of memory itself. Marker asks, "how can one remember thirst?"

A third, related failing involves the imperfect interpretation of images of the past. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the medal ceremony of Luis Cabral, where the narration interprets for us the tears of Major Nino. These are not tears of happiness, but of "wounded pride", for the major felt slighted by the decoration — the recognition was less than he felt he deserved. The narrator also informs us that, to outsiders, these ceremonies of promotion appeared to reinforce the brotherhood of the soldiers. Just how accessible are these images of the past to us? Can we ever really see the "real" past in these images? How often do we run the risk of misinterpreting an officer's tears?

Deleuze, like Foucault, "disputes the ability to ever find the truth of a historical event"5; similarly, Marker concedes, "we do not remember; we rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten."

It would be foolish of us to try to find only those images that are true; instead, Marker tries to show us how certain images have "a more tenacious representation"6 — he wants us to understand that "television, cinema and other 'public' images comprise a sort of official history, which the unpreserved present that passes is more like unofficial history or private memory."7

And this leads us to the fourth failing of the image: official histories don't just inform a culture, but also shape that culture's collective identity. While pondering Tokyo television and comic books, Marker invokes Nietzsche's dilemma of gazing into the abyss: "the more you watch Japanese television, the more you feel that it's watching you".

Marker shows how the daily, recurring images in Japan affect the outlook of the people who live there. These images are the "quotidian" that Adrian Miles implicates in the loss of the individual perspective. The narrator recites: "More and more my dreams find their settings in the department stores of Tokyo. [...] I begin to wonder if those dreams are really mine, or if they're part of a totality -- of a gigantic collective dream." Marker shows us the sleeping passengers on a train participating in this collective dream. Although he shows us unknown individuals, he attaches to each a dream from Japanese television. And near the end of this sequence, we once again see one of the comic-image billboards "voyeurizing the voyeurs."

Because of this collective dream, an individual letter of a World War II pilot is lost in the official history of the Kamikaze. As Marker tells us, few people realize that not all Kamikaze were volunteers.

The fifth issue is that the totality of this collective dream is such that it forces out other, non-compliant, images. Marker talks about the "castrating censorship" that pervades Japanese media. Interestingly, this censorship is "not only restrictive, but enabling."8 Only because of the veneer of censorship can sex be allowed on Japanese television. Only when an image is further stripped of its ability to represent truth, can some truths be represented. Only in the Zone, Marker tells us, can Tokyo's unacknowledged homeless be depicted because in the Zone, images never claim to be anything more than images.

And the ability to empty an image or change an image leads us the sixth issue, that of the falsifiability of the image. An extreme example of falsifiability can be seen in the 1990 photograph that Linda Williams describes: "a rather arresting photograph of Franklin Roosevelt flanked by Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx. Standing behind them was a taut-faced Sylvester Stallone in his Rambo garb."9 Perhaps the best example within the film of false images can be found in the cameraman's pilgrimage to San Francisco, to retrace the steps of the movie Vertigo. Vertigo is a deception inside of a fiction, filmed in real places. Marker travels to the various locations where Vertigo was filmed, contrasting a present-day image with the fictional past that is preserved. Aside from a tower added to a building, Marker tells us that Hitchcock had invented nothing, and yet, none of it is true. Marker also claims that it is the only film that adequately depicts crazy memory.

It is during this sequence that Sans Soleil makes cryptic references to another Chris Marker film, La Jetée. The latter film is

directly referred to in the section on Hitchcock's Vertigo and San(s) Francisco. Kim Novak points to the tree calendar, [...] Marker says: this scene occurs in Hitchcock's film "and in another film." The reference to La Jetée is quickly executed.10

Chris Marker's fascination with the inadequacy of image is also apparent in La Jetée, a film that is

composed of hundreds of still images dissolving in and out of one another in a way that constantly edges toward the illusion of 'real' filmic movement. [...] Using still images to make a film is also a perfect way to tell a time-travel story because it offers the possibility of mixing two different temporalities: the "pastness" of the photographic image and the "here-nowness" of the illusionistic (filmic) movement. 11

Although the photographic image can only represent "pastness" or the past that is preserved, Marker continually tries to develop technologies to compensate for the missing present that passes. The illusion of movement is an attempt to put the missing half of time back into the image.

The memory of La Jetée is also invoked when the narrator describes a film that the fictional cameraman conceived of. Like La Jetée, this unmade film is the story of a time traveler — in this case, a visitor from the year 4001. In this future time, humans have full employment of memory. This time traveler is at first curious about our present, and our imperfect memory, and then becomes distraught at all the suffering in our time. It is a story that serves as a counterpoint to all the stories of men who have lost their memories — instead, this traveler is "a man who has lost forgetting."

The narrator reveals that the title of this non-existent film is Sunless. What are we to make of this moment of self-reference? Perhaps the answer can be found in a comment cited by Deleuze in The Time Image: Carmelo Bene observed that "the people are missing."12 That is to say:

For Bene, a popular theatre does not "represent" the people; rather it anticipates a people who may not yet exist and which the theatre must help to bring into existence. That "the people are missing" means they require an enabling image that can summon them into existence as identity becoming other.
Time as series is the expression of how the "not yet" existence of thought summons the "not yet" existence of a people.13

Sans Soleil is a political film about the need for an individual memory. As the audience of this film, we are the "not yet" people — the people who need to be brought about by this film's message. In a sense, we are also the film's subject. At some point in the future — perhaps the year 4001 — we will have become the type of people that Marker imagined: people who have not lost memory, but have lost forgetting.

D.N. Rodowick asks:

What would it mean, then to define modern political cinema by the idea that "the people are missing"? The cinematic movement-image undoubtedly has its own political cinemas and its own image of the collective: the great films of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, [...] and even the Nazi propaganda of Leni Reifenstahl. Classical cinema is for the most part social democratic regardless of its nation of origin or its political ideology. Its goal is to represent the masses or "the people." They may be oppressed or in the process of liberation, alienated or awakened, but representation is nonetheless their right. That they are representable as a collective image, and that their political self-consciousness is also renderable in images, are both givens.14

This definitional treatment of the people, this "belief in a preexisting collective identity, which unifies a people"15 is anathema to Marker; he never gives in to the "seduction of language, constantly urging you to name the constituency you represent rather than the oppressions you contest."16

In the few instances in which it considers collective identities, Sans Soleil is critical of them. This isn't a film about identity, but rather about profiles — "a piece of chalk to draw the contours of what is not, or is no longer, or is not yet."

Let us attempt to draw some conclusions. Gilles Deleuze, inspired by Henri Bergson, Alain Resnais and Dziga Vertov, distinguished classical movement-image cinema from time-image cinema. The latter, he argues, is a revolutionary form of cinema that allows a collective political goal without necessitating a collective subject.

Further, Chris Marker, who worked alongside of Alain Resnais, exemplifies these qualities in more than one of his films; this essay has considered Marker's informed use of filmic images as the past that is preserved, and has offered a textual reading of Sans Soleil in that light. We have concluded that Marker imagines a future populated by poets who each create their own "lists of things that quicken the heart."

"In short," Deleuze argues, "if there were a modern political cinema, it would be on this basis: the people no longer exist, or not yet... the people are missing." 17

1 Laura Marks. "A Deleuzian Politics of Hybrid Cinema", in Screen 35.3 (Autumn 1994). p.245.

2 Adrian Miles. "Technologies of Memory"

3 "A Deleuzian Politics of Hybrid Cinema". p.251.

4 Gilles Deleuze. Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

5 ibid. p.246.

6 ibid. p.251.

7 ibid. p.251.

8 ibid. p.246.

9 Linda Williams. "Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary", Film Quarterly. 1993.

10 DLP. "Wounded Time: Viewing Notes on Chris Marker's Sans Soleil."

11 Constance Penley. "Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia (on The Terminator and La Jetée)", The Future of an Illusion: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. pp.138-139. Penley points out that the "pastness" and "here-nowness" are distinctions made by Roland Barthes in "Rhetoric of the Image".

12 The Time-Image. As cited in D.N. Rodnick's, "Fabulation: Towards a Minor Cinema."

13 D.N. Rodnick. "Fabulation: Towards a Minor Cinema".

14 ibid.

15 ibid.

16 Rike Anne Wilchins. Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Itheca: Firebrand Books, 1997.

17 The Time-Image. p. 216.

Copyright © 2000 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated May 25th, 2000..

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