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I've only seen this movie twice, both on the same day, nearly fifteen years ago; and yet its poetic-philosophical themes, its melancholy, its photos still remain with me. Viewing it was an intensely private experience; I search myself a tiny startled to search that another folks have seen it. I search myself plagiarising it constantly; I think of it at odd times (when I accidentally catch someone's eyes and instantly look away; whenever I visit San Francisco); it is a work of lingering and subtle beauty that percolates through my bloodstream, informing the hours and days, changing the things and methods I see...
'Sans Soleil' opens with a ferry trip to Japan, with the camera peering at sleeping passengers. This is a excellent encapsulation of the movie as a whole, a pretty mixture of adventure and dream. The movie is ostensibly a documentary, that holier-than-thou category convinced of its own superior truthfulness. And the movie is full of documentary images, snapshots from the faraway territories Marker visits, Japan, Africa, South America, San Francisco, Iceland, Paris. The movie is full of the observations of the filmmaker about the cultures he observes.But 'Sans Soleil' couldn't soar further from the prosaic ambitions of the documentary. Like the movie it most resembles, Marker's own 'La Jetee', it is in fact a work of science fiction, as much about time travel as literal travel. Every zone Marker visits is stripped of its familiarity, and made eerie, alien. Concrete photos become springboards for dizzy philosophical speculations. The movie moves with ease from the court of 11th century Imperial Japan to the revolutionary struggles in 1960s Africa to emus on the Ile de France to an interpretation of Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' to astrological rumination on a desert beach, and still remains thematically coherent and full of the most startling connections.It is this structure that creates the feel of science fiction, the linking of seemingly disparate images, symbols, stories, experiences, territories to make a strange pattern which emanates something spiritual, that seems to create sense of increasing chaos, dislocation, displacement. But we are constantly reminded that these are secular, man-made, ad-hoc, arbitrary constructions, as phantom as the relationship in 'La Jetee', but, similarly, a important construction to cover the abyss. The distortion of the soundtrack, the mixture of silence and mooged classics; the pc visuals of Marker's friend, known as The Zone, which seep conventional, representational photos and turn them into ghosts, traces, stripped of history, recognisability, humanity; the film's fictional framework (the narrative comprises letters to the narrator by the filmmaker, Sandor Krasna) all add to this unsettling science fiction appropriation of the documentary genre.When the history of cinema comes to be written in centuries to come, there will really only be two movies that will survive from its first century, movies dense, supple, playful, renewable enough, and full of enough chances for future direction, to transcend the local, the generic, the pretentious, the narrative. One is that final gasp of modernist cinema, 'Vertigo'; the another is this epitome of post-modernity. in many ways, 'Sans Soleil' is a stunning exegisis on Hitchcock's masterpiece (which had only just been re-released after two-decades withdrawel), echoing its circular structure, its concern with time, memory, the elusiveness of history. 'Soleil' locates the crisis of post-modernity in Japan, that most modern of modern capitalist societies. With the curiosity of an anthropologist, the nice humour of an essayist, and the eye for the unusual of a rare filmmaker, Marker gives us a Japan we rarely see, even in the country's own cinema; on the one hand a culture of startling modernity, leading the method in computers, technology, department shops etc., on the another full of residual traditions, rituals, superstitions, ceremonies, going back centuries. The co-existence of these two time-scales has resulted in a type of blur, a temporal vacuum, whereby all sense of time and perspective is lost, where religious ceremonies for the souls of stray pets co-exist with state-of-the-art video games. Japan is like a ship that has lost its anchor, where all time is the same, and therefore irrelevant, just as Scottie Ferguson wanders around dazed, in a loop of fantasy and distorted memory. Without history, memory, a culture ceases to be a culture and lays itself launch to all sorts of vulnerability. But this lack of foundation ironically leads to a greater freedom, particularly of the mind, and the film, as it reaches its conclusion, becomes visionary and hallucinatory.'Soleil' is anything but bleak - its stories, myths, cultural tidbits, observations are unfailingly entertaining and full of nice humour. Krasna compares the overcultured, saturated Japan to the timeless emptiness of Africa, to the spooky otherworldliness of Iceland, as his 'objective' narrative becomes increasingly a private odyssey that gotta be teased out from tips and ellipses. In its focusing on the minutae, the forgotten, the arcane, the ephemeral, the back alleys, the garbage, but suggesting that 'Soleil' is ultimately only one movie out of a possible multitude made possible by fresh technologies, Marker's movie is at once profoundly democratic yet exhilaratingly idiosyncratic; an apocalyptic vision teeming with life.
A response to the reviewer who named the movie pretentious claptrap: This film is not for everyone and I can easy understand the sentiments of one who finds it pretentious. But when one tells "Assumptions contain that the east is superior to the west, tv is bad, capitalism evil,etc." you are so thoroughly missing the mission of the movie that I have to wonder if you watched it out of the corner of your eye while doing a crossword puzzle. Perhaps one doesn't hear "Capitalism is good" and understands "capitalism is evil," but that all occurs within the viewer. I for one never saw any of these "assumptions" being made here.
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