Why, Sometimes, Do Images Begin to Tremble?
Chris Marker might have invented the internet. His film A Grin Without a Cat (Le fond de l’air est rouge), originally released in 1977, is like living through the sixties if the sixties had social media. He documents the events he focuses on not with overviews, or summarizing talking heads. Instead, he stitches together reports from eyewitnesses whose accounts are so individual they may not represent any point of view other than their own. They are implicated in the events they record - so much a part of them that their images tremble.
At the end of A Grin Without a Cat, Marker writes on the screen:
“The true authors of this film, although they have not all been informed about the use we have made of their documents, are the numerous cameramen, recordists, witnesses and activists whose work is constantly opposed to the Powers who wish we had no memory.”
Memory is the material of Marker’s work. Not his memory, necessarily – although he throws that in the mix too, along with his own footage. But collective memory, which he sees as a place to be explored – by a time traveler, as in La Jetée – or by any of us via an archive, a library, a museum, even a video game as in Level Five… a past constructed by those willing to have a memory, or fight to keep one.
That version of the past is as messy as the present. It is also therefore inconclusive. I found myself rewatching A Grin Without a Cat this week because the present reminded me so strongly of it. Here we are again, at another turning point that some sonorous narrator in a normal documentary could no doubt explain. But that would presume it is a story with an end.
It's the openness of the story – its messiness, the lack of overview – that makes it ours to determine. Notice it’s not just the cameramen, recordists, and witnesses that Marker credits for his film, it’s also the activists. Activists are shaping the story as it happens, we know. But Marker’s list doesn’t call them out as distinct from those who record events. Both are determining the present.
Images tremble because we record them with bodies that tremble. Or rather, the images that tremble are recorded by bodies that tremble, because of course there are also drones: those steady, alien views we have quickly become accustomed to for looking at real estate, sports, and war.
In this mess of a moment, I would suggest avoiding the inhuman viewpoint of drones. They may give you the perspective to write a more confident op-ed. But that view from above is suspiciously similar to the pilot’s as he drops napalm on Victor Charlie, and whom Marker chooses to show uncomfortably close – in a shaking, tight frame with distorted audio track. His face is all we see, as he exclaims over the “outstanding” sight of violence below. And his voice is all we hear, despite explosions so loud he says they are breaking the eardrums of those on the ground.
The drone is a view of war from its planners. They may think they are in charge of the moment because they look down from above, via satellite or on schematic maps in a secure room. But war is happening to people on the ground, in the present, with bodies that tremble as they film, record, witness and actively shape it. There is A Grin Without a Cat online every day. Fight to remember that, so it never gets the ending the Powers intend.
Listening to: BBC World Service
Cooking: is hard to focus on while listening to the news