Chris Marker’s most famous works, La Jetée and Sans Soleil, seem to exist outside of the political realm, but a significant chunk of his career from the late ’60s into the mid ’70s was in collaboration with SLON (Film Comment translates its initials to roughly mean “Company for Launching New Work”), a collective devoted to works of militant leftist credential. And anyway, it’s not necessarily like those two works are completely severed from political consciousness. Marker scholar Catherine Lupton sees connections between La Jetée and his 1973 short The Embassy, a grotty, claustrophobic little piece that, indeed, may as well take place in a cave deep underneath sea level.
Embassy takes, as its inspiration, the Pinochet-Allende affair. Shot in raw Super 8, refugees stream into a foreign embassy after governmental stability collapses in a coup d’etat. As the holed-up political outcasts find their refuge a less and less viable option, the outside world begins to take on some of the same qualities of the chronological leaps made by La Jetée’s time-traveling protagonist. The lost ones gathered within the embassy are haunted by the practically tactile presence of their shared past, but without actually having it, their values seem mostly incongruous. “This is not a film,” Marker’s voiceover defensively explains at the very beginning. “Just sparse notes taken day-by-day, my narration, all the notes I used to write when I was not filming.” But what begins as an approximation of documentary representation ends with a twist allegorical reveal that turns the film’s fictions into an even more potent parable.
Contrarily, his earlier collaboration with François Reichenbach, The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, documents a landmark event of antiwar activism that actually occurred in one of the last countries you’d expect to see staging a leftist uprising: the United States. (All right, maybe it’s harder to buy now in retrospect than it was at the time, but past and future coexist in the world of Marker’s films, and thus we can expect my surprise to register preemptively; before I was born, even.) I don’t mean to boil filmed evidence of the October 21, 1967 march against the Vietnam War in D.C. down to another case of “stranger than fiction,” even if it is. Marker’s narration is in rare form here, as is his detached, skeptical sense of humor. At one point he picks from the crowd of hippies, Yippies and Nazis, noting “the father preaching, the speakers teaching, the hippies screeching.” Whether Marker’s fiction looks like nonfiction or vice versa, these two shorts seemed designed to eradicate the distinction.
Based on what materials Chris Marker chose to work with for these two films, I guess I could say they look correct and leave it at that. But anyone not familiar with Marker’s fondness for rudimentary visual effects won’t likely have much patience for the dirt-in-the-aperture sheen of The Embassy, which looks like your grandparents’ home movies after having spent four decades stored in a rusty tackle box, with a muffled cassette-tape soundtrack to match. No doubt that was the effect Marker was after. The Sixth Side of the Pentagon looks and sounds a lot more palatable.
Nothing. Liner notes from Catherine Lupton would’ve been a nice touch, and Icarus Films can’t pretend they aren’t aware of her work. It’s blurbed on the back of the DVD box.
Taken together, these two films are like Chris Marker’s epistemology of fiction vs. nonfiction.