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Chris Marker's distinctive mark

Four films by a French director known for his political commitment arrive on DVD.

August 31, 2008|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

French director Chris Marker has made fiction films, written novels, exhibited photographs and even produced labyrinthine, interactive CD-ROMs. But, for good reason, he is known primarily as a pioneer of the film essay -- an idiosyncratic form with relatively few rules and practitioners and one that, in Marker's hands, can seem remarkably dense and supple.

Marker, now 87, always has been somewhat overshadowed by the major French new wave directors who emerged at the same time. This might have something to do with the daunting erudition and political commitment of his work, which has been infrequently screened and sparsely distributed in this country. That has started to change, though.

Last year, the Criterion Collection issued an essential single-disc edition of his two best-known films: the fictional all-stills short "La Jetee" (1962), a time-travel reverie that inspired Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys," and "Sans Soleil" (1983), a globe-trotting travelogue that muses, as do many of Marker's films, on the nature of memory and the recorded image.

This week, Icarus Films releases four additional Marker DVDs that, taken together, attest to the wide range of his obsessions and the incredible fluidity of his approach.

Two of the films here deal with artistic lives and careers, though to describe them as biographical documentaries does little to convey the ruminative and richly digressive Marker style. "The Last Bolshevik" (1993) takes shape as a series of "letters" to Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin, who began his career right after the 1920s heyday of Soviet cinema but was something of a forgotten figure by the time Marker befriended him in the '60s.

Marker draws on interviews with Medvedkin, conducted in Moscow in the '80s, and also weaves in film clips and testimonials, but "The Last Bolshevik" is not as narrowly focused on its subject as its title might imply. Born in 1900, Medvedkin was 17 when the Russian Revolution took place, and he died in 1989, as the Soviet Union was in its death throes. And so Marker, as is his wont, expands outward, telling the story not just of a person but also of a century, pondering the revolutionary ideals and tragic failures of Soviet communism.

The film comes paired with Medvedkin's rambunctious 1930s comedy about peasant life, "Happiness."

A tribute to the photographer Denise Bellon, "Remembrance of Things to Come" (2001) is basically a montage of images drawn from her substantial archive, paired with Marker's trademark analytical musings (Yannick Bellon, the photographer's daughter, is credited as co-director).

Again, Marker expands the frame beyond his nominal subject to take in a larger history. Many of the photos he lingers on -- of disfigured World War I veterans, sundry Surrealists, Paris life on the eve of Nazi occupation -- were taken in the 1930s, at a time "when postwar was becoming prewar," as the narrator puts it. The DVD also includes "Colette," a 1951 short by Bellon that features the writer Colette holding court in her Paris home.

Marker's most recent film, "The Case of the Grinning Cat" (2004), is a breezy quasi-sequel to his monumental essay on the French left, "A Grin Without a Cat" (1977, updated in 1993). Here his enigmatic starting point is the cartoonish graffiti of a smiling yellow feline that began popping up all over Paris in 2001.

Witty, whimsical and packed with insights, the film takes the political temperature of post-Sept. 11 France mainly by observing its street life -- crowds that have gathered to participate in flash mobs or to rally against the ultra-right-wing presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen or to protest the looming war in Iraq.

The DVD is filled out with a selection of animal-themed shorts (animals are another Marker fixation).

The final Icarus disc pairs two of his lesser-known films, both inspired by seismic political events. "The Sixth Side of the Pentagon" (1968) chronicles the October 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon. "The Embassy" (1973) is a fictional short masquerading as a verite documentary about a group of dissidents who have taken shelter in an embassy after an unidentified revolution. It was made in response to an actual military coup: Gen. Augusto Pinochet's overthrow of Chile's democratically elected Allende government in September 1973.

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