At home in the small Iowa town where I grew up, the days are gaping, empty, and hot. To pass the time, my friend Johanna and I go to the city pool, where there is a very small lazy river. We sit in inner tubes and float together for hours. We talk a lot about relationships and a lot about the past. The quiet vortex of the swimming pool has brought us places.

Seeking purpose, one morning we decided to watch Sans Soleil, a kind of fictional travelogue made by the recently deceased filmmaker Chris Marker.

It was the second time a film by Marker came to me in a strangely appropriate moment. Last November in Cairo, I saw A Grin Without a Cat. The three-hour documentary of the rise and fall of the New Left was screened at a film festival as protesters battled police in Tahrir Square, and the acrid scent of teargas hovered over the city.

As I wrote in Full Stop at the time, I had never seen anything like that film, an unceasing pastiche of rousing speeches from Castro, Che Guevara, and other politicians and philosophers, cut with images of cats and meetings and protests and raccoons. Marker traces Socialist movements across Europe, Russia, China, the United States and Latin America, drawing out and erasing the desires and ideals of those past visionaries. It is an examination of failed dreams, and it ends with a scene of wolves being shot from a helicopter.

At a time when so many people were working so hard and suffering with such big hopes for the future, it seemed like the film had something to teach, but I could never quite get to what that was.

Now I think it’s possible I understand Marker a little better. His films are experiential. They invite analysis, they are packed full of ideas, but they give the most by simply being watched and felt.

As A Grin Without a Cat was the film I needed to see last November, Sans Soleil is the film I need to see now.

Things are different. I am far away from the grinding struggle of political change in Egypt. Johanna and I are knee-deep in the listless, rootless upheaval of our lives.

In form, Sans Soleil is similar to A Grin Without a Cat: it is essayistic, assembled of disparate snippets of film, tied together by a meandering narration that slips quietly in and out of focus as it moves across images. But its content is concerned with individual experience. It is a careful, intentionally confused examination of the nature of memory.

The fictional creator of Sans Soleil, Sandor Krasna, who collected hours of footage of Japan and Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau and Iceland, says in a correspondence to a nameless female narrator, “Memories must make do with their delirium, with their drift. A moment stopped would burn like a frame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector.”

Sandor Krasna makes a pilgrimage to San Francisco to retrace the steps of James Stewart in the movie “Vertigo,” and examining the film, he pulls out images of spirals—the black spinning hole that embodies the fears of the films characters.

“So carefully coded within the spiral that you could miss it,” he says, “and not discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.”

What was, what you remember, what you want to have been—these pieces do not fit together.

Krasna explains, “Scotty [was] time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it.”

So back in the pool, Johanna and I try to make sense of things. Sometimes we invite guests. We try to get them to talk about the present or the future, but we really only ever talk about the past. The lazy river is our spiral of time, but it isn’t something that you fall into. It holds us in its perpetual circle, stuck in the present, tracing all the other times that have been and might potentially be.

Last week, a few days after we watched Sans Soleil and began to construct a mythology around our leisure activities, Chris Marker died. What I’m writing now is meant as nothing more than a love letter to a filmmaker who I never sought out, but who has emerged at unexpected moments, and whose films have woven themselves into my life in ways I could never have predicted.

As Krasna says, “I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.”

 


 

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