Books: Cultural Amnesia — Chris Marker |
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The name Chris Marker (b. 1921) is a fiction. His real name was Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve but he preferred to operate under a false identity. Fiction and falsity, by some alchemy never fully explained, conferred on him, according to his many admirers, a greater power to handle his raw material, which was made up of fact and truth. It was a tribute to his talent that this absurd proposition looked quite plausible when you saw his first documentaries on screen. (Some commentators prefer to call a Marker movie an “essay,” but they are perhaps too influenced by their memories of when the word “documentary” meant box office death.) Cuba Si! (1961) was especially effective. Framed closely in black and white, the Bearded Ones looked wedded to authenticity. Marker struck foreign observers as being by far the best mind of the movement that became internationally famous as the nouvelle vague. Admittedly the competition wasn’t strong. From the political angle, Jean-Luc Godard was an obvious featherbrain, and François Truffaut had more sense than to make any overt political statements beyond the usual ones about alienation: The 400 Blows incited rebellious youths to become film directors, not to revolution. Later in the decade, when the Paris événements were making world news, Marker came readily to mind as one of the serious voices that prepared the way. Even those of us who suspected that his Marxist world view was as frivolous as everybody else’s were impressed by his tone of voice, most notably rich and confident in his must-see movie Letter from Siberia (1957). His documentaries sounded great. They therefore had a big influence on some of the young writers who would later earn a crust in British television. When I was a TV critic in the 1970s I tried to point out, armed by my memories of how Marker had bewitched me, that the filmed documentary was a blunt instrument. Later on, when I was filming documentaries of my own, I took care to disclaim, by making my commentary as self-deprecating as possible, the apparent omniscience that the written voice-over automatically conferred.

Today, documentaries win red-carpet coverage. Almost always, for good reasons, the documentaries that make the biggest noise stem from the left. Usually they lack Marker’s spare, literate elegance, but what they inherit from him is his loose relationship with the truth. Even when filmed on the spot, with real people really suffering, the atmospherics tend to the specious and the arguments to the fraudulent. “Actual” hardly ever means factual. Michael Moore’s documentaries are conspicuous examples of these failings. In Bowling for Columbine there is a scene in which he inveighs against U.S. planes taking off. He brands their mission as imperialist. But the planes in the footage were taking off for Kosovo, where they saved the lives of thousands of Muslims who would otherwise have been murdered. So that particular stretch of Moore’s supposedly factual documentary is saying the opposite of what is true. The big difference between Moore and the founding father of his art-form in modern times, Chris Marker, is that Moore must know that he is telling an untruth. When Moore says that the poor of the world could have clean water overnight if the advanced nations agreed to it, he must know that he is talking nonsense. Marker really did believe that there was a collectivist answer to the troubles of the world. He was the post-war French gauchiste artist-intellectual in a pure form, with the ingenuous version of Sartre’s disingenuousness. By the time Marker became well-known, in the early 1960s, the bulk of his most vital work was already behind him. Whether or not Vietnam broke his heart, it certainly cramped his style. Later still, as his dreams retreated, he faded away into guru status. La Jetée (1962), a film composed almost exclusively of stills from which everything is absent including him, was really a premature epitaph, although the lasting strength of his influence demands that attention should be paid to his later showpiece Sans soleil (1982), a brave attempt at the synthetic work that gets everything in. Such a mind-scrambling attempt to say everything at once was a powerful hint that he was really born for the Internet, but had arrived in the world of universal information a few decades too early. Many of us who were floored by his first brilliant works, however, never really got over them.

* * *
There isn’t any God, or curses: only forces, to be overcome.

SUCH, IN FRENCH, are the closing words of Chris Marker’s 1957 masterpiece Letter from Siberia, which I saw at the National Film Theatre the year I arrived in London in the early 1960s, the decade that was to be visually embodied by the French nouvelle vague, of which Marker’s cinema was a central element, the item of intellectual prestige. But I didn’t know any of that yet. All I knew, at the time when I first heard it, was that Marker’s closing paragraph was a thing for wonder. On screen, there was a big rocket going up, and the total, complex effect of words and pictures was to make what he was saying sound simultaneously lyrical and oracular. But I didn’t quite believe what he was saying even as it overwhelmed me. It sounded like a slogan from the anti-God museum in Moscow. I could already think of several forces that were unlikely to be overcome in my lifetime, and indeed could scarcely be dealt with at all unless God and curses were kept well in mind. One of the forces was the force of disintegration still bursting out from the detonation points of contemporary history.

I was in Australia for the Tampa incident in late August and early September 2001. The Tampa was a Norwegian container ship that had picked up a cargo of asylum seekers from their sinking vessel. The asylum seekers had been heading for Australia and they naturally wanted to complete their journey. The Australian government thought otherwise. In the quality press, hundreds of thousands of words were uttered in condemnation of Prime Minister John Howard’s insistence that the rescued boat people should not be allowed to land on Australian territory. There was outrage that he had put the arithmetic of controlled immigration ahead of the moral imperative of humanitarian generosity. Some of the outrage aspired to the status of philosophy. Here is an example, from the pen of Richard Flanagan, one of the established writers whom the Australian broadsheets regularly co-opt in their quest for a profound opinion when a matter of moment swims into view—or, as in this case, heaves into sight. “In the end, politics is not about focus groups and numbers; it is about the power of stories to galvanize and forge the thinking of societies” (The Sunday Age, September 2, 2001). As a novelist, Flanagan has the right to use the language as creatively as possible. But this is a creativity that belittles the truth. Though politics is indeed concerned with more than just numbers, it can’t do without them. More important, in the light of events that have happened within living memory—my living memory, if not Mr. Flanagan’s—there is nothing reassuring about his contention that politics is concerned with “the thinking of societies” being forged, galvanized or shaped in any way by “the power of stories.”

After World War I, the right wing in Germany continued its struggle against democracy by using the power of a story. The story was that the armed forces had been the victims of a Dolchstoss—they had been stabbed in the back. Many ex-soldiers, understandably reluctant to accept that their sufferings had been for nothing, believed the story. How could it not be true, when they felt so much pain? Added to the realities of the inflation and the Depression, the fiction of the stab in the back prepared the thinking of a society for the advent of a sorcerer. Hitler expanded the Dolchstoss story by alleging that the Jews had held the dagger. Many civilians, their lives ruined by financial instability, were ready to believe that their hard-won savings had been stolen by international Jewish financiers. How could the story not be true, when there had been so much grief?

Stalin and Mao each had a similar story, about the rapacious bourgeoisie. Peasants and proletarians were keen to believe it until their turn came to be exterminated. All the tyrannies of the twentieth century were introduced by powerful stories, usually subscribed to by intellectuals before the event—and, in the case of the Communist tyrannies, long after the event. Writing as an intellectual, Mr. Flanagan ought to have been aware of that. But he was too exercised by the supposedly emblematic fate of the people on the Tampa. The power of the story was too much for him. It obliterated all sense of numbers, even though the real story was “about” numbers and nothing else. The first number to remember was the number of boat people stuck on the Tampa. There were 433 of them, and every one of them was a queue jumper with aspirations to a place reserved for a legal applicant. So if the illegals got onshore and stayed, 433 people who had already been kept waiting would be kept waiting longer. The distress of those in the queue was not seen on television. The distress of those on the ship was all over the media. Though the refugees were kept below decks, the Australian reporters were able to tap into their bewilderment by dint of telepathy, X-ray vision and other paranormal powers traditionally conferred by compassion.

Certainly the condition of the people on the Tampa was not enviable. In the course of the incident their despair, rage and uncertainty became the common property of Australia’s intelligentsia, who didn’t hesitate to place the blame squarely where they thought it belonged: on the Australian government. Since the Labor opposition seemed to share the Liberal government’s intransigence, the opportunity was taken to condemn all politicians as a class. Australian politicians are used to that, but there was a further step: since the overwhelming majority of the electorate seemed to agree with the politicians, the opportunity was taken to condemn the people too. The people had not been so roundly condemned since the referendum of 1999, in which they had declined to embrace manifest destiny and vote for a republic. This time, indeed, they were condemned even more roundly because there were more of them, in the sense that the proportion of the people who were against the illegal immigrants being allowed to land was far larger than the proportion which had been reluctant to accept the necessity for constitutional reform. Once again the intelligentsia found no discomfort in its separation from the people. The people, it was made clear, should have found discomfort in their separation from the intelligentsia. If the people didn’t, it went to show how far things had gone. Here was a country which owed so much to the contribution of asylum seekers, and it had so far forgotten its heritage that its population was refusing succour to these new asylum seekers, the ones on the Norwegian ship.

But they weren’t asylum seekers. When they were processed, if they ever were, some of them would no doubt turn out to be asylum seekers, in the sense that if they were ever forcibly returned home they would face violent punishment for having left. Most of the contingent were from Afghanistan, where the psychotic Taliban were exerting a tyranny calculated to export the already devout population by millions at a time. But all of the Afghans could have sought asylum in Pakistan, where two million of their fellows had already found safety from the Taliban’s thinking about society. Failing that, the Muslim voyagers could have sought asylum in their first main staging point, Malaysia; or in the second, Indonesia. They chose not to do so because their main object was economic advantage, in Australia. There is good reason to believe that the successful incursion of such enterprising people, who had already proved their acumen by raising the exorbitant fare demanded by the people smugglers, would, in the long run, be to Australia’s economic advantage as well as their own. (I should say here that the economic case for uncontrolled immigration, with no distinction between asylum seekers and destination shoppers, is made with daunting eloquence by Mario Vargas Llosa in his collection of essays El lenguaje de la passión.)

But none of that altered the fact of their real status: illegal immigrant. They had been illegal immigrants when they were still on their original ship, the one that got wrecked after leaving Indonesia. The Norwegian ship had picked them up in order to save their lives. There had been excellent Christian reasons for saving their lives, and at first glance the same reasons seemed to apply to bringing them ashore on Christmas Island. The first glance was all that the Australian bien pensant intellectuals needed. A second glance would have told them that the rescued illegals could have been returned to Indonesia, and that the Norwegian captain headed for Australian waters only because some of his new passengers threatened to kill themselves if he did otherwise. (It was a falsehood that some of the adults threatened to throw their own children into the water, and later the government spokesmen were much vilified for repeating the falsehood as if it had been true: but it was a quite plausible falsehood.) The first glance provided a simpler story, one of those stories that change the thinking of societies. In this story, the illegal immigrants were all instantly elevated to the status of asylum seekers: a bonus for the people smugglers, who thus became humanitarians, like those beret-wearing French Resistance heroes in British and American war movies who smuggle our downed flyers past the patrolling Germans. In reality, people smugglers are no more humanitarian than white slavers, drug dealers or standover men, but if you happen to hold that all refugees have automatic rights superseding the sovereignty of their asylum of choice, then anyone who manages the traffic must be the Scarlet Pimpernel. Such is the power of a story, and this story was Waterworld by way of A Tale of Two Cities.

The Australian government, meanwhile, had to deal with the intractable facts. If the illegal immigrants were allowed in, it would be hard to throw any of them out without attracting further opprobrium from the watching world. There was already plenty of that. The Australian press was eloquent about the obloquy which the government’s instransigence had attracted from centres of humanitarian opinion all over the world. One of the centres of humanitarian opinion was the World Anti-Racism Conference in Durban, which was unlikely, if you thought about it, to reach any other conclusion. Some of the Australian quality papers ran photographs of “youths” demonstrating in the streets of Durban against racial discrimination. The “youths” looked awfully like Robert Mugabe’s “war veterans” expressing their disapproval of white farmers in Zimbabwe. Another centre of humanitarian opinion was Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations. The normally astute Paul Kelly of The Australian cited Annan’s ringing pronouncements against John Howard’s hard-heartedness as clear proof of the damage done in the world’s eyes. This was a strong point if you thought that Annan’s disapproval of poverty and racism was ever likely to diminish either of those things. (The poverty of his son has diminished, apparently, but we are assured that Annan had no direct responsibility for that.) Yet another centre of humanitarian opinion was Mary Robinson, quondam president of Ireland and now a big noise with the U.N. Robinson asked the Australian people to look into their hearts. Howard assured her that the Australian people had already done that. He kindly forebore from adding that the last time the Australian people had looked into their hearts they had elected him. Robinson’s remarks amounted to a libel on a country, Australia, whose record of hospitality had been very good ever since World War II, in which Ireland—Howard didn’t mention this either—had declined to fight against enemies whose ideas of immigration control were rather more drastic than anything she could now find to deplore on Australia’s part.

Libel was by now the power of the story. There would be plenty more of it to come if the Tampa people were allowed in and then thrown out. If they came in, some of them would stay in, and the precedent would be set for the people smugglers to scuttle a ship anywhere near Australian territorial waters and leave the next bit to the Australian navy. There was also the consideration that Australia has a procedure for accepting prospective immigrants. The result—if it seems monotonous to hear this again, imagine what standing in line must be like—is a queue, and successful queue jumpers inevitably push legal applicants back nearer to the starting point, thereby disappointing them in their legitimate hopes. Paul Kelly published an explanation of why this was not so, but I did not undertand his explanation, although there is no quarrelling with the assumption that the illegal immigrants have more enterprise than the legal ones. In Chicago, Al Capone had more enterprise than the average Italian shopkeeper. It can even be said that he contributed more to the economy, although I understand that there was some argument about tax.

Apart from gumption, courage and determination, what the illegal immigrants have that the legal applicants haven’t is money. No doubt the illegals have made great efforts to save it. Nevertheless, they’ve got it. If you reinforce the principle that illegal immigrants can pay a people smuggler to put them in a position where the Australian government will have to either admit them or leave them to die—many dreams have been brought to your doorstep—you also reinforce the principle that the queue is merely a mechanism for reducing hope to despair, one more mockery for people who have been mocked already. When the Australian intelligentsia had this explained to them, they were ready with their answer: there ought not to be a queue. Everybody should be allowed in. Think of the misery of all the world’s injured and deprived. Think of the power of the story.

There is something to it, but only just. For those Australian commentators with an historical perspective—it has lately become fashionable to rent one of these by the hour—the Tampa sailed in the troubled wake of the St. Louis, the liner full of Jewish refugees that left Europe in 1939, was never allowed to land anywhere else, and ended up back where it started, delivering many of its desperate passengers to their untimely deaths at the hands of the Nazis. Most of the Tampa people, however, were simply in search of a better life. It was hard to blame them for that: so were my grandfathers. When you heard the journalists talk about racist Australia, however, it was just as hard to see why anyone should be thought unlucky not to be allowed in. The power of that story—the story about racist Australia—kept on growing until the Bali nightclub bomb took some of the puff out of it. Even then, some commentators managed to convince themselves that the bombers were students of history who were registering their dissatisfaction with the nearness of Australia’s foreign policy to that of the Bush administration. But what never weakened the story, strangely enough, was that most of the people who were initially turned away eventually got in. They were diverted to Nauru, they spent time in detention camps in Australia, but eventually they got in. Yet the story persisted. If it did so, it was partly because there is nothing pretty about the detention camps. But here again, the intelligentsia shows invidious haste in holding the Australian population responsible. When adult refugees sewed their lips together in silent protest, it was indeed a daunting sight. Why, however, should their children do the same, unless encouraged to by the parents? The Australian population was asking a question about culture.

The intelligentsia, ever on the lookout for signs of intolerance, regards all questions about culture as racist at the root. That the common voters should ask such questions is taken as evidence of Australia’s role as a source of the world’s problems, and not as a refuge from them. Luckily the refugees themselves do not agree. They are in flight from a different story. They might not fully understand it as yet, but they have certainly felt its power. In the late 1950s, a man as intelligent as Chris Marker could still feel that there might be such a thing as a totalitarian answer to the world’s miseries. That was the story told by his beautifully made little films. But the story wasn’t true. Gradually he realized it, and, being at heart an honest man, he steadily lost the capacity to make the same sort of films again. Art had not been enough. When it takes politics for its material, that’s the danger that it always runs.