Description of a Struggle

an older piece from my blog: kinodrome.blogspot.com/2016/07/description-of-struggle-chris-marker.html

How does Marker work? That is the question I keep coming back to, and stalling. I have good reason to be wary of diagraming Marker’s essay films, but I also want to study his technique like an apprentice. I’m wary of close scrutiny because most—though not all—scholarly work on Marker fundamentally undoes the political and poetic work of the films. They tend to violently force their complexities into taxonomies of knowledge production; into grist for the academic mill, as Dave Hickey would say, which is demanded of scholars in the neoliberal academy. Or the opposite is true and the writing endlessly repeats its programmatic thesis of how mesmerizing and complex the works are, actively obscuring their direct political aims. I’m left with a dilemma not unlike Mark Twain’s reminiscences of life on the Mississippi: through careful study he gained a mastery of the river, a complex knowledge of how it works, but he mourned the loss of the majesty it once inspired. Can the devotional awe that a work like Sans Soleil inspires only be maintained through willful ignorance? Is mystery the antithesis of a practitioner’s knowledge? Perhaps this is a challenge Marker wanted to inspire in the viewer: a direct political engagement that obfuscates simplistic diagnosis and prescription.

What follows are some notes on how the “thinking image” of Marker’s film works from a recent viewing of Description of a Struggle (Description d'un combat). By what processes does he actually essay his quandary?

Description of a Struggle is almost always rooted in the present moment of its production. Its images derive almost entirely from footage shot by Marker and company on a trip to Israel in 1960 (among the assistant credits is one Alfred E. Neuman). Thus, his camera-eye (his term) is planted in the present while thinking backward and forward, back to history and toward the future. In doing this the present day images are made to reflect specific genealogies of the past while anticipating the immediate future. But what is contained within the small space of the almost? I will return to this question in a moment.

There is a sense of transient immediacy that emerges from these images. Their centrality is counterbalanced by the weight of history and the weight of possibility, placing the present moment in a continuum of time and memory. Things will change. Things will stay the same. In this film he draws special attention to the moment-ness of his images, directly asking if what we see will be there tomorrow—or even remembered by those who filmed them.

The peripatetic nature of the essay’s spoken narrative is a thematic counterbalance, adding a complexity to the images that is not readily apparent. This is the eye of Marker, the voice describing what he sees in his own images. The connections he is making. Marker’s words knit the past and future to the contemporary images. He reaches back to the Jewish experience, from Biblical stories to newspaper headlines, mostly centered on the circuitous journey toward statehood. He ponders forward to the problems of a nation state; of the nascent anti-Arab racism and capitalist ambition of the young Israel. He looks back at more than just World War II and the Holocaust, but the first Arab-Israeli war that has already taken place and the continuum of U.S. and European violence that extends beyond just the obvious horrors of the Third Reich and lay beyond the neat borders of the Holocaust.

Now to return to the question of the almost. It is with rare exception that he uses images to time-travel: newsreel footage and paintings of Sodom, photographs of European Ghettos used to illustrate how they’ve already been recreated in present day Israel and snapshots of the pedestrians they meet. Each have their own special a/effect in breaking with the present day. The echoes and parallels and repetitions are all there. Some are playful and irreverent while others gather like storm clouds on the horizon, anticipating future violence, racism, and the eradication of socialist projects in the new nation. “War is embedded in all memories”, the narration tells us. But why return to the past at all? There is an obvious answer in that it breaks up the homogeneity of the present-day footage and provides strategic variety. Sometimes this is shocking, sometimes refreshing. It also places Marker’s own footage into a continuum of images, documentation, culture, and history. It also provides a curation by Marker. It emphasizes the historical and cultural genealogies that he is tracing, but only in glimpses.

Like Marker’s oeuvre it is concerned with memory: memory as history, personal reflection, cultural memory, trauma. If there is a practice I would describe it as: Marker traces the currents of history through the prism of the present in order to ponder the future. He stops along the way to note precedents, predictions, and anticipations. But the images and reflections are often fragments. These fragments are crucial: the essence of his political praxis. He deliberately undermines the totality of knowledge production that Adorno framed as the political praxis of the essay as form.

The narrator says early on: “This is Israel. We’ve heard all about Israel. Twelve years of statehood, nearly thirteen. Two million people, soon three million.” But what is shown to correspond with “This is Israel”? What are the signs that say Israel? Description of a Struggle opens by way of Roland Barthes and a meditation on signs and meanings—Barthes’ Mythologies was published only three years prior. Marker opens with Barthes’ argument that everything is a sign; an index of meaning wherein we not only communicate, but exist. To return to my question of what signs correspond to “This is Israel”: the answer is no one thing. The larger implication of the film is to expose the porousness of the nation state—physically, culturally, temporally. And this is delicate work. Perhaps its subtlety or demand for audience participation is partly responsible for the neglect of these early Marker films too often seen as mere travelogues or products of their cultural moment with nothing left to tell us. But if it’s not the information, it’s the process which is still important. Another question might be: what can such a process tell us today? How could it be put to use in a cultural moment of social revolution and the fetish of easily digestible information? Information requires form, philosophy, a praxis, all of which the essay provides, keeping in mind that I am referring to the essay of Montaigne, Marker, Farocki, Adorno and not the empty faux cultural studies of the "think piece" and its equally worthless cousin: the video essay.

Fragmentation is part of his mode of essay. The film—the travelogue—is of Israel, but Israel is at once an idea, a collection of people, images, moments, currents. As a travelogue Marker is subverting the very function of a travelogue: to produce stable and coherent meanings of place, what it is, what it means. This is the revolutionary act of Marker’s cinema in the way that Adorno proposed the essay as a radical form to break with the totality of genre, particularly academic disciplines and their ever-narrowing corridors of knowledge. A subject, a nation, a film, one cannot propose to work toward any understanding if it separates politics from art, stories from incident, people from figures. A poor Arab girl in the Arab quarters is as crucial as the Hungarian Jew who daily feeds the Hungarian speaking cats and so are Shakespeare and the latest communication technologies and weapons of war.

Marker makes political movements toward what? Agitation? Political awareness? A skepticism of the nation state? If it is true that to understand what a person values one should examine what pictures they take, than for Marker it is the proletariat, even the lumpens, despite his sardonic dismissal of them decades later in Sans Soleil. The modern day political movements that Marker spots in his footage of pedestrians have precedents: in the Bible, in Shakespeare, in American pop culture, in the Holocaust—preceded and anticipated to use Marker’s own words. And future uncertainties are always a mixture of political awakening and danger—of future resistance and Palestinian occupation.

Marker is using travelogue as a mode of résistance. He is using the tools of the colonizer, those tools that mediate and manipulate reality into meaning, into signs: editing, text, music, voice over. Others do this to more direct effect: Rithy Pahn’s La France est Notre Patrie, which is perhaps more radical in the use of actual colonial footage, reworked by a colonial subject to do the work of de-colonization. The footage being reworked and re-seen by the critical eye of Pahn. Farocki does this too with Respite.

With the English-language narration Description of a Struggle has the feel of a colonial travelogue: a group of Englishmen traveling to the Orient and squeezing what they capture into a narrative that maintains Anglo supremacy (exoticism created through timelessness—a lack of history which is Said’s definition of Orientalism), but Marker isn’t doing that, even when in the beginning he is. He is building toward a mindset; a process that is the refusal of total narrative coherence by maintaining that which cannot be clearly articulated in language (or signs as the Barthes beginning suggests) and is beyond colonial control. Perhaps Marker's work is to expose the weaknesses in the facade and carry the revolutionary torch. A risky gambit and one that still loves to gaze at beautiful exotic women. What to make of that?