Though they were made 20 years apart and are completely different in form—one a post-apocalyptic science-fiction short told through still photographs, the other a sprawling documentary travelogue—Chris Marker's "La Jetée" (1963) and Sans Soleil (1983) make an ideal pairing on DVD. Together, the two touchstones of Marker's long career in film and multimedia ruminate on the nature of memory—how it tantalizes and deceives us, with moments in time slipping through our fingers like sand, never to be recovered. To quote Sans Soleil's narrator, remembering "isn't the opposite of forgetting": "We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?" And what better medium for emphasizing this point than cinema, which is defined by its fleeting impermanence?
Revived most recently as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, "La Jetée" considers a future eradicated by war, but it's really more about holding onto the past. Through an assemblage of gorgeous black-and-white stills, Marker shows a devastated Paris in the aftermath of World War III, where the few survivors are scurrying underground due to radiation levels on the surface. A man is chosen to embark on an experimental time-travel mission to find a solution to humanity's dire situation, but temporal folds prove to be tricky. With its brilliant conceit, which tightens the narrative and offers a lesson on editing fundamentals, the film reaches a conclusion common to a lot of time-travel stories, which is that knowledge of the future doesn't necessarily empower people to change it.
At a time when technology has given rise to "vlogging" and other forms of personal expression, Marker's Sans Soleil stands as a model of the essay film, though it should be said that his expansive travelogue couldn't be further from today's YouTube narcissism. A female narrator reads from letters written by a world traveler, whose free-associative comments can leap from a minor cultural observation (like mating habits on the Bijagós Islands) to video games to the Khmer Rouge. It's an arch, difficult film, as fuzzily intellectual as "La Jetée" is precise, but worth getting lost in all the same.
Key features: Interview segments with Marker friend and fellow filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, short TV excerpts on Marker's obsession with Vertigo and influence on David Bowie's "Jump They Say" video, and substantial liner notes.