“Who remembers all that?” asks the narrator of Chris Marker’s 1983 filmic essay Sans Soleil; “History throws its empty bottles out the window”. A gesture as playful as it is immediately concerning, it is a statement that is abstract and indefinite in its interpretive status, and points to not only the thematic concerns of the film, but also its larger philosophical and sociological concerns. Even in this single sentence, one is exposed to complex notions of filmmaking, memory (both remembering and forgetting) and most importantly (at least for the sake of this paper), the politics of representing reality and history. In Kia Lindroos’ article Aesthetic Political Thought: Benjamin and Marker Revisited (2003), she explores the notion of how history (and reality) is constructed through representation and how these operations work in Chris Marker’s seminal film. It is from this distinction between a mimetic and an aesthetic political thought that Lindroos outlines in her article that a further analysis into the implications of Marker’s film, especially in its depiction of an artificial synthesiser dubbed ‘The Zone’, can be undertaken.
Before attempting to understand the complications of Marker’s film in this respect, it is necessary to understand the basics of Lindroos’ argument in order to understand how Sans Soleil is working within its parameters. Essentially, Lindroos outlines what is labelled as a ‘mimetic political thought’ in which she recognises its “identificatory representation[al]” (2003, 235) properties. The notion stands that a representation (through art, imagery, etc.) and that which is being represented share a definitive bond in which one can be identified and understood through the other, or that one can stand for the other. This is a traditional or classical concept of understanding our representations of reality, but also of history. In this sense, history is understood to function in a universal capacity, occupying a grand narrative whereby dates, people and events can be traced back through their representations and constructed in a linear fashion. What can (and does) result through this explicit relationship between history and its representation is a homogenous and simplified understanding of history that can easily become exploited by corrupting representations to align with a particular policy or ideology. Here, images come to represent a false reality and tend to re-appropriate history for the means of established political institutions.
In opposition to this construct, Lindroos discusses Walter Benjamin’s attitudes towards history and its representations through the denoting of an aesthetic political thought. “Aesthetic representation points to difference, highlighting the difference between a political representative and the person represented. In aesthetic representation, the difference between the object and subject, which disrupts the identifying techniques of any representation, is the essential point of departure” (2003, 235). This process is evoked through understanding the temporality of the image, that in which the interpretation of an image by an individual becomes inherent in the process of understanding and constructing history. In this sense, the individual and subjective interpretation of an image leads to a plurality of historical narratives through the disrupting of the mimetic bond between a representation and reality. Rather than one fixed linear comprehension of history, it comes to be understood as a vast scope of historical potentialities in which the unique perspectives of all people construct a hypertextual landscape.
Chris Marker’s film occupies this aesthetic political thought in many ways, and overtly privileges a democratic and shared history based around the interpretation of representations by the individual. It is telling that Marker himself eventually moved to the realm of CD-ROM and the Internet to express these sentiments, a territory that suits his particular sensibilities, but never were these ideals so evocatively and poetically communicated as they are in Sans Soleil. Marker’s film exposes the contradictions in a mimetic political history and attempts to uncover the fracture and difference between reality and its representation. Through multiple narrative layers (there is no fixed temporal or spatial continuity to the films 20 year global spanning) and multiple modes of representation (captured images, animations, images of images, computer generated images), Sans Soleil expands the understanding of the politics of history “from an institutional or administrative concept toward the inclusion of people’s individual experiences and existence” (Lindroos 2003, 247-248). Each person approaching the film focuses on different aspects of the films presentation and representation and finds their own understanding or perspective in the myriad of connections and juxtapositions the film offers. In Edward Branigan’s analysis of the black leader that begins the film (along with the Icelandic children), he uncovers a wealth of interpretations regarding this seemingly simple absence of light. Here, Marker opens up of the dialogue of representations of history through the cinematic form, which is evoked simultaneously in a deceptively simple portrayal of absence. It is in the blackness’ spatial positioning within the film narrative itself (its juxtaposition with the images that surround it) and the attention drawn to its presence (through voice over narration), which points to the way in which Sans Soleil begins to “explore[s] the limits of understanding the image as a document” (1992, 211).
This notion of the image or representation standing as a documentation of reality is probably most explicitly expressed in the film with regards to the ‘Zone’. Named after Tarkovsky’s Zone in the film Stalker (1979), the ‘Zone’ is an electronic machine created by Hayao Yamaneko that maintains a distinct portion of screen time in Marker’s film. Essentially the machine is an artificial synthesiser that can be fed images and then distorts them beyond their initial recognition through a display of shifting colours and patterns. In Sans Soleil, Marker utilises the machine at least five times, with the first four being re-appropriations or distortions of past events. In one example, images of public protests at the building of Narita airport in 1968 are filtered through the ‘Zone’. In this act, the film alludes to the impermanence of images, which according to Nora M. Alter “merely mirrors the impermanence of history. They are constantly shifting, fleeting, being re-written and re-remembered” (2006, 109). Marker points to our inability to use images to access a fixed moment in time, and highlights the notion that moments in time that pass are completely inaccessible to us. Even though we attempt to do so through images and representations, this practice is by nature, elusive and illusionary. By distorting images entered into Hayao’s ‘Zone’, Marker denies us any locus for identification in time or space through the images and disallows our placing of said images into any linear historical recognition. David Montero describes it as a “temporal collapse that […] obliges viewers to confront their own temporal perspective on the images they have just seen, as the illusion of capturing the past is graphically denied” (2006, 113).
This fracture between reality and representation that is made clear to us through the ‘Zone’ forces us to adopt an alternative viewpoint for interpreting and understanding the images and the reality they claim to represent, that is much more in line with an aesthetic political thought. The only way in which the images that are output by the ‘Zone’ can be comprehended is on an individual and purely subjective level. Here, the process of understanding the temporality of the image and its being affected by interpretation and critique of the individual perception become paramount in constructing a history of many voices. Instead of a linear historical narrative, what results is a plurality of narratives that result from a vast matrix of perspectives and subjective interpretations as to achieve a new historical discourse. This is the ultimate understanding inherent in the construction of Sans Soleil that is exemplified in the ‘Zone’. A way to capture and construct images that reflect all perspectives and are affected by the interpretations and contributions of all rather than a select few.
Of course, in the final moments of the film, Marker runs images already portrayed in Sans Soleil through Yamaneko’s ‘Zone’ in an effort to align its own images with that of a constructed and linear fashioning of history. By placing its own images in the same trajectory as the earlier historical images run through the ‘Zone’, Marker acknowledges Sans Soleil’s own inevitable constructing of history through its images and its privileging of a certain vision of the past, even as it struggles against such a thing. David Montero addresses this action and attributes it to a “healthy uselessness” (2006, 114); an acknowledgement of the dominant modes of representation stalling any attempt to operate outside of its boundaries. It is only in Yamaneko’s ‘Zone’ that we may find a brand new dialogue and format in which to comprehend reality and history through images that is solely subjective and democratic. In the film’s final words, the narrator asks: “Will there be another letter?” In this also deceptively simple statement we understand Marker to be calling for a full realisation of the modes of representation inherent in the ‘Zone’. Whether we will ever reach this destination seems, according to Marker, unlikely, but the open nature of further letters being sent remains hopeful at least. Perhaps one day, there will be emus in the ‘Zone’.
Alter, Nora M. Contemporary Film Directors: Chris Marker. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
Branigan, Edward. “Post-Modernism and Documentary in Sans Soleil.” In Narrative Comprehension and Film. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Lindroos, Kia. “Aesthetic Political Thought: Benjamin and Marker Revisited.” Alternatives 28 (2003): 233-52.
Marker, Chris. “Sans Soleil.” The Criterion Collection, 1983.
Maver, Carol. “Happiness with a Long Piece of Black Leader: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.” Art History 30, no. 5 (2007): 738-56.
Montero, David. “Film Also Ages: Time and Images in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.” Studies in French Cinema 6, no. 2 (2006): 107-15.
Rosenstone, Robert A. “Sans Soleil: The Documentary as (Visionary) Truth.” In Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Tarkovsky, Andrei. “Stalker.” Kino Video, 1979.