He spoke to me of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor’s court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians. Shonagon had a passion for lists: the list of ‘elegant things,’ ‘distressing things,’ or even of ‘things not worth doing.’ One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of ‘things that quicken the heart.’ Not a bad criterion I realize when I’m filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations.
He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’
I recently watched Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil for the first time and I can honestly say that it was an epiphany. Comments and insights like the above completely captivated me while watching the film. The connection to Borges’ essay-fictions or Sebald’s digressive meanders, the stream of casually remarked, precisely articulated facts and observations that co-exist with the seemingly quotidian images of everyday life make this precisely a film-essay, a Sebaldian ethnographic exercise that is predicated on a Borgesian artifice of multiple removes from the “original” creator of the letters and images, the fictional Sandor Krasna. His observations are mediated by the unnamed narrator, who manages to give them a personal slant, but they have been edited together by Marker and given additional weight by the music, created by Marker under the guise of Michel Krasna, brother of Sandor Krasna.
Krasna’s observations do not detract from the ability of the images to reveal, instead they add and elaborate; often they co-exist with such revelations: epiphanies that arise from the quotidian, from the random passing of people in front of the camera. A random cheeky look at the camera during a scene of crowds rushing past can make you aware of the individual, of the fact that these people have distinct personalities, are more than an agglomeration of faces. Eternity and perfection captured in a single gesture of absolute, unselfconscious expression of character and life, eliciting a sense of intimacy and kinship.
I experienced several such moments, feelings of loss, love, epiphany, reconciliation, humanity, regret as reactions to both words and images. Everything I experienced while watching it appears to be a response to Marker’s aesthetic, the subjects he chose to film, the way he filmed and edited the scenes together, the music he wrote to accompany them. I appreciated the way he chose to focus on a previously unnoticed background detail in the middle of shooting a street festival or a busy market. It seemed that instead of becoming more disoriented or bored, I was able to focus more deeply, become more attentive as a direct result of the way Marker chose to construct and structure the film, which mirrored some essential personal aesthetic preferences and therefore commanded my attention and engagement in a way I had heretofore deemed vanished. In the end, Sans Soleil seemed to release me from some sense of post-digital exhaustion that I suddenly became conscious of while appreciating the film’s treatment of history and memory, observation and interpretation.