Film as the Human Experience: An Appreciation of Sans Soleil

Written for my writing class’s final paper on a topic of our choosing.

Ever since the birth of film, there has been a far greater range of views on the legitimacy of it as art compared to any other art form. A large part of the general public views it as pure entertainment, a venue made for consumption and escapism, and it is true that the cinema offers wonders heretofore unimaginable, with its ability to create spectacle visually and aurally unlike any other form of media to date. However, a vocal minority of cinephiles and critics argue for the status of film as art, extending past the popular canonical classics of films like The Godfather and Lord of the Rings to validate films as diverse as Heat and Hiroshima Mon Amour. The ways in which these movies are considered art cover the gamut of film techniques and themes, but without fail, the films that are considered the greatest center around that most universal of themes: what it means to be human.

The film that, for me best represents this spirit of the exploration of the human soul is the 1983 documentary film Sans Soleil, by Chris Marker. Of course, narrative films have a power that is just as potent in many regards, and movies like Seven Samurai and Pather Panchali are absolutely stunning in their representation of human life, but Sans Soleil, in its kaleidoscopic and fundamentally mixed view of humanity, accomplishes something that is nigh impossible in any other kind of film, or indeed in any other kind of human endeavor, by virtue of its freewheeling structure and its extensive and astonishing use of film techniques.

Fundamentally, Sans Soleil feels as if it is unclassifiable in any sort of genre. It is a beautiful blend of documentary, travelogue, and film essay that, more than anything, seeks to embody a meditative state of mind upon the journey of Chris Marker, represented in the film by Sandor Krasna. Lupton describes it as “Marker’s tour de force as a cinematic essayist, all playful musings and meandering digressions, in which passing observations on such apparently banal subjects as pet cats and video games yield profound insights into the big issues of twentieth-century civilization: history, memory, political power, the function of representation, ritual and time” (Lupton). There is an unmistakably personal bent in the perspective of the film that makes it even more difficult to pin the film in any one category, and it even has a strong affinity with the avant-garde in its coherent yet mystifying style. Complicating the documentary classification further is the approach of Marker in portraying the world and its inhabitants. It strikes a strange balance between reality and impressionism in its utilization of sound, cinematography, writing, and especially editing, but this deliberate ambiguity only enhances the engaging nature of the film and the acknowledgment of the subjectivity of the nature of human perception.

The opening of Sans Soleil is a perfect summation of all of the themes that Marker is working towards. It is one of the simplest scenes in the film, considering how close the film can come to sensory overload at times, but it is one of the most striking. The scene simultaneously acknowledges the nature of film in the narrator’s explanation of Krasna’s mindset regarding the creative decision that is made in the scene and offers a metatextual comment upon the film as a whole via the juxtaposition of the letter’s citation of “one day” even while the movie is playing out in front of the viewer’s eyes. It also comments upon both the subjectivity of every person (especially in terms of art) in the intention of the black leader film strip, yet announces itself as a universal work, as the title is shown three times, once in Russian, once in English, and once in French. The innovation is sustained as, in the very next scene, “Marker takes us from rural Iceland in 1965 to Japan in the early 1980s, with fleeting references to Africa, Ile-de-France, and the Bijagos Islands” (Rosenbaum). Through this, and every scene, Marker never overplays his hand, his musings never coming off as entirely speculative or unmotivated, and always strives in every scene to reveal at least one more thing about humanity, and succeeds without exception.

One of the key parts of Sans Soleil is the narration, both in terms of the writing and the actress giving the narration. In the letters that forms virtually all of the spoken words, Marker adopts a tone that feels both speculative and concrete, mixing both neutral, objective observations with Krasna’s (his own) subjective thoughts upon the proceedings. It is the connective tissue between the otherwise unrelated locales and visual pseudo-narratives; though the numerous letters purposely do not settle into a discernible narrative, they reframe the camera footage into another documentation of Krasna’s journey and provide thematic linkages and insights into the images onscreen, making some points clearer and some even more mysterious. Rosenbaum describes Marker’s decision as a measure designed so that he may develop “a relationship with his audience that is at once confessional and secretive, so that we’re made to feel simultaneously that we know him well and we don’t know him at all” (Rosenbaum). Just as vital is the fact that the letters are read not by Krasna, but by an actress posing as a confidante of his. It is the closest the film comes to actual dialogue, as the woman sometimes interjects her own thoughts upon Krasna’s writings, and the line between whose thoughts are being expressed blurs frequently. Stewart’s delivery is also immensely intriguing in the way that it seems to be simultaneously neutral and opinionated, reflecting ever more subtle nuances that reflect upon the endless depths of the human voice.

Though pre-existing footage is frequently used, the vast majority of the film is seen through the roving eyes of Marker’s camera. It is utterly remarkable in the way it renders Tokyo (and other cities), restless and usually mobile, yet always clear in its rendering of reality. It moves fluidly through long shots and close-ups, always feeling absolutely perfect to the subject at hand. Most importantly, it always finds a way to ultimately settle upon the human face, sometimes unobscured, sometimes in motion, but always distinctive and faithful to that person’s individuality.

Perhaps the most impressionistic part of Sans Soleil, though it is just as faithful to reality as the other elements, is the use of sound and the original score. The sound, recorded separately from the footage, is hazy and feels at a remove from the images, as if it was being heard through an invisible barrier and echoing through time and space. It makes some parts of the film feel almost hallucinatory in the way it is mixed so that it appears to fold over itself, yet it reflects reality in the way that sound flows together and no one person can hear all, or even most of the sounds going on even in his or her immediate surroundings. This quality of somewhat unsettling strangeness is compounded by the largely electronic score that weaves in and out of the recorded sound, used in a way that feels spare even though it is present for the majority of the film. It is both haunting and shimmering in the way it modulates up and down, never falling into a recognizable groove or melody but instead remaining endlessly engaging and mysterious.

More than any other element, Sans Soleil is sustained by the most cinematic of techniques, editing. It allows Marker to make grand leaps, both spatially and thematically; moving in one cut from Tokyo to Guinea-Bissau, from adult films to a picture of the pope, and perhaps most stunningly, from people sleeping on a train to media as a representation of their dreams. The choices of when exactly to cut feel astonishingly organic, no matter how far the distance between the two points is, and it is sudden without feeling at all erratic.

Marker’s choice of structure and setting is vital to his overall themes of the universality and the human experience. Though the time frame, and indeed, whether the film takes place at all in any chronological sense is highly unclear, it only further serves to simulate and emulate the nature of human memory. It blends together dates and times, jumbling events together and confusing a human being as to the who, what, when, where, why and how for virtually every event until it all becomes one singular experience, a timestream that retains life only in the general feeling, as some events stick out while others are subsumed in the depths of memory. The settings, too, run the gamut of the human experience, from the out of control modernization of Tokyo to the solidly middle class life of Iceland to the developing society of Guinea-Bissau. Yet none are as strange and as lovely as San Francisco, presented as a dream world in which another masterpiece of cinema, Vertigo, which is described as “the ultimate story of ‘impossible memory’” (Lupton) is sent and is inextricably linked to. These places all have so many things in common, and so many things that set each of them apart, but paramount is the sense of tradition, the sense of a fragmented memory, and the sense of humanity shining through.

Marker sees his subjects with, first and foremost, a sense of equality. No matter what the person’s lot in life is or their age or gender, he focuses in on them with the same intentness and attitude, leaving it up to the subject how to respond. Through this mass accumulation of so many faces, he assembles a universal view of humanity that is feels both fearful and hopeful. In a world that is rapidly changing, the human spirit is threatened by the march of time, as it forgets more and more of its memories and ways of living, a fact displayed most by the use of The Zone. It is a beautiful and terrifying place that represents reality just as clearly as the human memory, but it, as an extension of technology as a whole threatens to supplant what it means to truly be human Marker’s act is thus to capture these, in all of their glory, in all their beauty and gracelessness. It is ultimately optimistic in its belief in the persistence of the human spirit, but it is only more mysterious and lovely in its ambiguity. A towering film that is both overpowering and devastatingly personal, a profoundly universal work of art that affirms everything about humanity, both for the worse and for the better.

Only a film, done in such a manner, could reflect reality in this way; only film has such a blend of sight, sound, and especially tangibility to captivate the viewer and enlighten them. Sans Soleil is only one of many films, and of even more works of art, that represents the human experience so profoundly, but, thanks to the creative vision of Marker, only Sans Soleil can show it in such a uniquely revelatory fashion.



Two Tales of a Relationship

This is a close comparison of various aspects of Lost in Translation and Her, and as such, spoilers will likely result, so read at your own discretion. Credits for more than a few thoughts and for sparking my new way of thinking on these two films to Cameron Morewood.

After seeing Her a second time, it felt clear to me that Lost in Translation was better in ever conceivable way. Sure, the aspirations of Her might be greater, but in execution, it seems as if Sofia Coppola is more risky and more successful at everything both auteurs attempt.

It is difficult, in a way, to compare the two films note for note, as I view Lost in Translation as fundamentally not a romance movie. It does have, ultimately a kiss between the two (which I did feel was more platonic than romantic), but it is ultimately a film about connection and friendship, about the need to cling onto someone in the troubles of modern life. Her, by comparison, is a more standard romantic film with a twist, but they are more comparable than most films because of the through-line connecting the two: the relationship and the divorce between the two writers. There is no doubt that this has infused both films, informing both the subject and each director’s approach to it. While Coppola takes a more oblique and clever approach that makes the film much more satisfying and enchanting, Jonze constructs his film in a box. It is true that he does quite well in this space, but he seems almost obsessed with making his film absolutely polished and perfect that he fails to think outside of the box, making the emotions of the film seem hollow and more than a little predictable.

The scene that crystallizes Jonze’s approach in confronting his divorce is the very final scene, in which Theodore dictates his letter to Catherine. Throughout the film, the various flashbacks to his relationship feel unmotivated; the emotional effect can be accomplished in one montage, while the film uses at least 3 or 4 (the effect is accomplished in the film proper by the montage that takes place while Catherine is signing the divorce papers). I was left to wonder just what purpose the repetition served, and then realized during the final scene that the ultimate point of the film was for Jonze to work out his feelings over what had happened between him and Coppola. Essentially, the letter can be seen as an apology to her, and while that might be all well and good in the real world, it detracts from the thematic ideas of the film as a whole. By focusing the attention on Theodore’s relationship with Catherine, Jonze devalues the potential complexity and intensity of the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, and ultimately makes the film all about Theodore’s character, with Samantha present simply to support him.

Samantha’s character is, admittedly, not exclusively a crutch for Theodore, but she is nowhere near as fleshed out as Charlotte. Charlotte is without a doubt an independent character, someone who actually has scenes that take place apart from Bob, and focuses a lot of attention on her difficulties in her relationship with her husband and her relative insecurity and doubts. Samantha, by contrast, has very few desires of her own, and while the idea of her being an AI is quite interesting, almost all of her development is directly related to her status as an AI and thus fulfills the science-fiction aspect of the film while developing the emotional aspect only on the part of Theodore’s character, as Samantha is left to simply leave without much development besides the rote statement of her eternal love for him.

The setting of both films is crucial to their identity and outlook on their subject matter. Lost in Translation could not have been set anywhere besides 2000s Japan; Tokyo (as portrayed in the film) is a strange hybrid between the traditional rituals and the hypermodern aesthetic and worldview. It is never portrayed as menacing or mean, but it always feels alien, not just in the language barrier but in the way the electronic overload dwarfs the characters. By contrast, the Los Angeles of Her, despite being in a “20 minutes in the future” setting, feels more familiar than the real-life setting of Lost. It is a world that never feels anything but friendly and inviting, a mood enhanced by the lavish set design and cinematography which, while visually impressive, only serves to dispel any feelings of isolation or alienation, two feelings that permeate Lost. It is counter to the emotional connection that I feel towards Theodore’s and Samantha’s relationship; it feels like it has less vitality because it feels less necessary for Theodore. Though he may be going through an extremely tough time in his life emotionally, the event that leads to his acquiring of an OS, the strange encounter with the phone sex cat lady, is fundamentally linked with the world and with technology, so there is no drive for connection that Bob and Charlotte feel, either in a romantic or nonromantic sense.

This feeling is compounded by the presence of Amy. She provides a character with little characterization of her own and is present almost solely to provide Theodore a shoulder to lean on. This idea further dilutes the importance of Samantha to Theodore, as he can confide in someone else at many points in the film rather than relying on just himself and Samantha to work things out. By contrast, Bob and Charlotte have no one at all to help them. Both characters have uncaring spouses and are isolated by the aforementioned setting, and thus must rely on each other in order to survive. This approach has the added benefit of making scenes like the club scene and the karaoke scene seem almost magical, where people come together in communion, in a celebration of life, a depth of feeling that Her never comes that close to.

The endings of the respective films, too, take entirely different approaches. Lost in Translation goes for a certain type of ambiguity that is both an affirmation of the friendship and special connection the two have shared and a gesture of defeat; both must ultimately go their separate ways, and the expression on Bob’s face when he gets back into his limousine is one of weariness; he is happy and better for the experience, but it is tempered, and the song that plays is one that feels both triumphant and yearning. By contrast, Her‘s ending is almost excessively enclosed and neat, fitting and accentuating Jonze’s approach. Theodore gets over absolutely all of his problems and it seems all but guaranteed that he will get back together with Amy, especially with that final cute, heartwarming, yet superfluous gesture, and the song is as transparently emotional and surface-level as the scene it occupies.

This is not to say that Her is a bad film. It approaches its subject with warmth and sensitivity, does a lovely job of portraying its world and its inhabitants, and the screenplay is quite lovely indeed. Unfortunately, it feels too concerned with its own neatness, and pales immensely in the face of something as inexplicably mysterious and beautiful as Lost in Translation. Coppola understood that the real world is messy and complicated, and made a movie that accurately depicted that, reflecting her feelings on the divorce through mood and setting, while Jonze was too enraptured by his affection towards Coppola and towards his ideas and thus he tinged them with an excessive amount of warmth and sentimentality, making his feelings on the divorce transparent by constructing the plot entirely upon that idea. Her is ultimately not about the romance between Theodore and Samantha; it is about the romance between Theodore and Catherine, and thus, the romance between Jonze and Coppola.

Mise en scene and Dreams in Dancer in the Dark

A sequence analysis I wrote for my Introduction to Film Studies class (all except half of the first paragraph was written in a single day).

Dancer in the Dark is a film that is indebted to certain traditions. The most readily apparent manifestation of this influence is from the Dogme 95 movement, of which Lars von Trier was a founder. The stipulations of handheld camera movement, no post-synchronized sound, and lack of genre are followed during most of the film, which only enhances the strange, fantastical quality of the music sequences, particularly the musical sequence present in this clip. Though sound and music are of course a key part of this separation, the use of mise en scene is just as vital. Mise en scene is, fundamentally, the way in which the elements in front of the camera are assembled, including composition, cinematography, acting, and sets. Therefore, virtually all of the visual information that is conveyed in the film can be traced back to the concept of mise en scene. The question I will be exploring in this analysis is: Why is mise en scene, in all of its various components, used to depict the dreams and fantasies of Selma in Dancer in the Dark?

Within the first few seconds of the sequence, a break between Selma’s reality and fantasy is established by a sudden and noticeable change in cinematography. As can be seen in the first three seconds, the majority of the film is filmed in a handheld style with a limited and grayish color palate. This is intended to immerse the viewer into the grim reality which Selma faces, and could be interpreted as representing her worsening eyesight. But during the musical sequences, these techniques are discarded for a style that is more befitting a conventional film. The colors are considerably brighter (it is unclear whether this was done through lighting and cinematography or in post-production editing) and over a hundred static cameras are placed around the space in which the musical numbers occur replacing the handheld camera. Even for shots that are close-ups or extreme close-ups, the static nature of the camerawork makes the film less visually immersive compared to the rest of the film. It constitutes a clear shift from the troubled real world in which Selma faces nothing but suffering and struggle to a world of her own dreams. In a way, it bears a strong resemblance to the musicals that Selma enjoys and envisions herself being in, such as The Sound of Music or the musical films that she watches with Kathy, not just in terms of the music but in the exuberant spirit of filmmaking and stylization that both the musicals and these dream sequences share.

Another readily apparent element of this change is depicted through the sequence’s heavy use of camera placements and angles that would be impossible if they were filmed from a handheld perspective. Indeed, the very first dream sequence shot is a very high angle shot that appears to be filmed from the ceiling, a shot that would be routine in a more conventional film but is out of character with the real-world scenes in the film. The next shot is from outside of the window of a two-story house, which is again another conventional but realistically impossible shot. These two shots are utilized more than a few times throughout the sequence, tying the film to the lineage of the film musicals before it. There are even cameras affixed to the Gene’s bicycle, one to the axis of his bicycle and one to what appears to be his handlebar in an approximation of the handheld close-up in its movement, though the camera is clearly placed statically. The shots are also combined with the strong, stylized use of Dutch angles in the camera placements, which is also apparent in many of the closer shots. This use of camera angles is at odd with both musical films and with the preceding musical sequences in the film, which are filmed from relatively straight on angles that render the film in, if not realistic, then aesthetically conventional points of view. Instead, ceiling shots, shots from close to the floor, and even shots from outside the windows are placed at a skewed angle. This could be interpreted as Selma losing control of her fantasy to the violence that has just occurred in the real world.

The composition of the characters and objects is another key element in both the hopeful nature of the dream and the intrusion of reality into Selma’s previously undisturbed fantasy. For the most part, the actors seem to glide through the frame, with very few shots of the actors remaining static. Instead, the actors seem to engage in some sort of strange dance, as they twirl and seem to pose in various positions, only to move again. This can be seen as a clear extension of the musical influence on the film and the nature of the musical number, which is often strongly choreographed. In this film however, the emphasis is less on technical and physical (and musical) prowess and more on the expressive nature of these somewhat clumsy movements. The first indication of the composition contributing to the dreamlike nature of the sequence is the appearance of Bill’s wife, who is filmed through a window at a Dutch angle from a room Selma is not in. The rest of the film sticks for the most part to Selma’s perspective and point of view, or at least that of her immediate environment, but this shot is one of the few that takes place in a setting that takes place where Selma is absent. This is also perhaps the first fantastical image that occurs in this sequence, as she was last seen leaving the house to call the police to have them arrest Selma. Her passivity and body posture instead indicates a certain manner of acceptance of Selma’s actions. Though she does not verbally reassure Selma or even approach her in this clip, her simple inaction is a deliberately unrealistic event that belongs to Selma’s dreams. This is made dramatically clear in Selma’s resurrection of Bill, who holds no ill will towards Selma and even shows remorse for his own actions. They embrace and move as close friends, even closer than they ever were when he was still alive, yet another expression of the fantasy that this sequence takes place in. This is capped off by the appearance of Gene, riding his bicycle in circles while reassuring Selma of her actions, a fact which he should not have any knowledge of in the real world. This action can also be seen as representative of Selma’s ultimate hope throughout the film, which is that Gene would be able to see. He would not be able to ride the bicycle so well if his eyesight was failing, and thus this action is the ultimate representative of Selma’s dreams, of her ultimate goal in life.

It must be said that this sequence is still grounded somewhat in reality, and reminders of the violence that has just occurred are spread throughout the scene. The death of Bill is still acknowledged as a real event through the singing and through the blood on his face, which is made deliberately clear through his cleansing of his face. There are also many red and pink-hued objects throughout the sequence, which serve as a symbolic reminder of the blood that permeates and tinges the fantasy. Finally, there is an extreme close-up of the gun near the beginning of the sequence, presented in a cold and objective perspective, though the fact that Selma and Bill leave the room of the murder could indicate her attempts to reject the murder.

All of these elements are used in the overall mise en scene in order to differentiate this and other sequences like it from the other sequences of the film that take place in reality. It is a representation of the way that Selma sees the world through her escapist fantasies, through her ability to find rhythms in her surroundings, her ability to slip into her dreams of her musical aspirations, and her struggle to celebrate life rather than be consumed by it. It is a world in which she can give in to her hopes and dreams and ignore the grim reality that she is forced to confront in her own passive way. In this particular sequence, her dreams become even more fantastical and important to her, as she is unwilling to accept reality and thus finds solace in the words and arms of the people she has personally affected through her well-intentioned but catastrophic actions. The mise en scene is necessary in this regard, as the sequence is more fantastical to Selma than any other scene up to this point, and as such the stylized aspects of the musical sequences are the most dreamlike and unrealistic of the entire film. Selma has only one place, her dreams, in which to escape, and in the moment when she most needs to escape, her fantasies act as reassurance and relief from reality.