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Filmo Sapiens

Sometime in the early 1960s, between the death of the poet Boris Pasternak and the start of his own career as a poet in the medium of film, young Andrei Tarkovsky attended a séance, at which he playfully attempted to contact Pasternak’s ghost. What transpired marked Tarkovsky so deeply that he noted it in his diary years later, not long before his own death:

You will make seven films, the late poet told him.

“Only seven?” Tarkovsky stammered, horrified.

Yes, came the answer. But they will be really good ones.

The story is recounted near the heart of Chris Marker’s One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (2000), showing this week at the American Cinematheque. Rendered into English with a voice-over supervised by Marker himself, it’s a film that defies categorization as a documentary, or even as a “film essay,” the phrase that best fits most of his brilliant nonfiction films. A love letter is more like it — personal, passionate, unguarded. Marker and Tarkovsky were friends, such that the Russian comfortably allowed the Frenchman to tape him in some amazingly intimate moments, including on his deathbed. (The film is framed by the last months of Tarkovsky’s life, in 1986.) We see Tarkovsky energetically directing his last film, The Sacrifice, in Sweden, several months before he even knew he was sick. We’re at his bedside in Paris the following January, when cinematographer Sven Nykvist shows him the near-final cut of the result, whose edit Tarkovsky had been forced, by sudden illness, to direct by phone, sight unseen. Marker sneaks layered glimpses of his 54-year-old friend, whose spectacles gleam in the dark, their lenses refracting the film he has surely recognized will be his last.

The love expressed here is above all platonic, a pure meeting of the minds. Tarkovsky lets Marker film him not out of egotism, but as an act of sympathy and trust. They’re men of the same species, after all — Filmo sapiens. The meat of the film is a dazzling montage, drawn mostly from Tarkovsky’s work, but reorganized by Marker’s intellect into illuminating new patterns. The result is film criticism at its highest level, for the critic here is free to “quote directly,” to show us the original work in its own fiber, yet so juxtaposed as to make his analysis come independently alive. Marker has a clear viewpoint — he does a wonderful digression on what he calls Tarkovsky’s “perpendicular stare” — but overall he aims to inspire us to make our own observations and connections.

Marker is a pioneer whose work veers (like Mars in its current orbit) close to us only rarely. This week brings with it an excellent opportunity to enjoy the many well-remarked treasures in his canon — particularly La Jetée (1962), The Grin Without a Cat (1977) and The Last Bolshevik (1992). But the signature event here, receiving its L.A. premiere alongside his song to Tarkovsky, is his latest film, Remembrance of Things To Come (2001).

As with so many Marker films, Remembrance meditates on memory and lost worlds through the ingenious use of stills, in this case a wealth of photographs taken in the late 1930s by a partisan of the Surrealist movement, Denise Bellon. Marker braids these images together in partnership with Yannick Bellon, Denise’s daughter and his co-director. Taken in bulk, they fuse into a ticklishly disturbing point: that amid these otherwise peaceful nudes, energetic acrobats and smiling Sunday parachutists, one can discern countless dreamy, déjà vu shapes of the horror that we know is about to explode in Europe. The nudes uncannily suggest dead bodies; the parachutists, paratroopers. In 44 taut minutes, Marker and Bellon not only prompt us to re-imagine the past, but to rethink what the past means, and grasp that our futures are always with us, in embryo. After seeing Remembrance, one can’t help looking at one’s own present differently. As Marker says in praise of Tarkovsky, “Some deliver sermons. The greats leave us with our freedom.”

 

Elio Petri (1929–1982) is yet another enormously gifted director, unjustly buried amid the volcanic output of other and younger filmmakers in this Age of Distractions. He won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1970, for his dazzling Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which the Nuart will show for a week at the end of September. This week, however, the L.A. County Museum of Art is commencing a tribute to his varied, highly conscientious body of work, and he is very much worth discovering.

At first blush, one might mistake Petri for a conventional spinner of suspense yarns. We Still Kill the Old Way (1967) opens with a swooping aerial shot of Sicily, one that could fit seamlessly with Hitchcock’s views of the Riviera in To Catch a Thief, then descends, with an eagle eye, upon a single postman carrying the death-threat letter that will trigger the film’s first homicide — a short sequence done with expert shock and simplicity. Yet what follows is not a “murder mystery” but a withering satire, played with a poker face. A shy professor played by Gian-Maria Volonté naively insists there is more to these killings than meets the eye — failing to realize that if he’s right, those truly guilty are the powers-that-be, and that he’s cooking his own goose. Petri thus hoists both a wicked society and a brave but flawed hero on the same skewer. He works a similarly weird alchemy in The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971), taking documentarylike pains to show what a factory worker must endure day in and day out. (Again, the hero is played by Volonté, Petri’s most frequent star, a smoldering chameleon with unfailingly magnetic eyes.) Yet much as the underlying stance of this film is leftist, Petri never preaches to the choir. He and Volonté instead give us a worker whose politics, however contrary and (occasionally) informed by courage, are ultimately prey to every human weakness — not only his own, but the petty self-betrayals of those who so righteously claim to be one with him in the struggle.

Society itself was often the protagonist in Petri’s work. Even The Tenth Victim (1965) — arguably Petri’s most popular film — is bitingly astute under its bright surface, a delightful feast of high-style sci-fi in which Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress are, in the early 21st century, licensed to hunt each other to the death as part of a contest for cash prizes. Their world (imported intact from Robert Sheckley’s classic story) abounds in prescient details: lightweight phones, wall-sized TVs, New Age religions. There’s even a lap dance, performed by Andress, albeit with a pair of midget cannons in the nipple tips of her brassiere.

However, there is also one chilling touch of clairvoyance of which Petri could not have been conscious, haunting enough even for Tarkovsky’s Ouija board, and that is: The opening chase capers through that area of Manhattan we now, in the actual 21st century, call Ground Zero. Demolished buildings spin by in an eyeblink, as busy cranes clear the wide spaces around Andress to make room for the real future’s World Trade Center. Can there be deep meaning in such a coincidence? Need there be? No, but — however inadvertently — here Petri powerfully advances the thesis Chris Marker advanced in Remembrance of Things To Come: that the true test of an artist’s honesty and vision comes long after the work is done, when the “here and now” under scrutiny has become someone else’s here and now, and a ghostly continuity can still be felt, even at a glance.

“Remembrance of Things To Come: New and Classic Work From Chris Marker” screens Friday, September 5, through Sunday, September 7, at the Egyptian Theater. “The Films of Elio Petri” screens in the Leo Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Friday, September 5, through Saturday, September 13. See Film and Video Events for schedule.