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Marking Time: Chris Marker and The Owl's Legacy

By Dan Marks

A closeup of an owl's face from 'The Owl's Legacy.'

In his 1958 film Lettre de Siberie Chris Marker announced "I write to you from a far-off country" and in his films since then the inveterate wanderer has written from Cuba in Cuba Si (1961), from Paris in Le Joli Mai (1965) and La Jetee (1964), from America in the photo-essay L'Amerique Reve (1969) and in the remarkable film San Soleil (1982) from everywhere and nowhere in a flood of images and sounds. His films are about travelling and the traveller, and, like a relentless stream of postcards from abroad, they provoke questions about the distance between the reader and the writer, the writer and the picture, the picture and the reader. With a poet's gift for the deft turn of phrase and a sublime sense for evocative and strange combinations of images, his films ask us whether we are where we think we are, how far away is far away, and where are we when we are over there?

Part travelogue, part meditation, insistently political, Marker's films are always witty and poetic. Andre Bazin wrote that he was "a member of a new generation of writers who feel that the new era of the image has arrived, but that it is not, however, necessary to sacrifice language." His consistent intent to combine literary and visual forms produces tightly argued and perfectly crafted film essays -perhaps the most difficult and non-commercial of genres. Most viewers (if acquainted with the form at all) are used to arguments whose strength comes from their author's reputation for integrity. However sophisticated they may be, people like Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers effectively begin their argument with the sophomoric formulation "to me... " But Marker does not appear in his films at all and avoids personalizing the argument, insisting that the viewer attend to the ideas alone. While the combination of a personal position articulated by an invisible author may strike modern viewers as a paradox, it is merely old­ fashioned in the best sense of the term. Marker is an essayist-traveller in the grand tradition of Montaigne, De Tocqueville or Rousseau.

If there is a paradox, it is more in the man's ways, for Marker leaves as little trace of himself in life as he does in his art. He has been described by critics as "shrouding himself in an enigmatic obscurity" and he has never given an interview. But his personal silence in print may be less an attempt to maintain the shroud of enigma than it is the result of a commitment to the mysteries of journeying—his abiding theme. Examining the scant and unconvincing 'facts' that exist about Marker's true name or his personal history is as presumptions as it is futile; but examining his latest series of films allows an opportunity to locate the man and decide what he is up to.


The Owl's Legacy (l'Heritage de la Chouette) is a 13-part television series which considers aspects of the relationship between Western society and the ancient Greeks from whom we may or may not come. The films are like a series of postcards from ancient Greece, but in Marker's hands, rather that reassure us that the sender went and had a nice time, they raise disquieting questions about what the sender means, what sort of place they are from, and what the reader understands by them.

Each episode is crafted from a series of compelling interviews with (for the most part) intellectuals and Greek scholars. Between interviews Marker takes us to a series of banquets he convened in 1988, where we listen as the discussion ranges across various subjects. The cast of interviewees is a stellar one, including philosophers George Steiner and Balthasar Lopes, filmmakers Elia Kazan and Theo Angelopoulos, classicists Jean-Pierre Vernant and Oswyn Murray and composer lannis Xenakis. Marker has written that the talk was an exercise in which "this Greece was sniffed out from one banquet to another, from France to the USA, from Germany to Japan and modem-day Greece." In addition to the seamless flow of lucid comment, Marker weaves together news footage, theatrical performances, segments culled from television programs and his more familiar 'postcards ' from far away to illustrate the arguments.

The owl of the series' title is a ubiquitous presence whose distorted image stares at the audience from over each interviewee's shoulder. She may be Athena's owl of wisdom whose image appears on the Athenian drachma, but her presence reminds us of Minerva 's bird who in Hegel's famous line "only takes flight at dusk." Like that bird's flight through the night towards wisdom, during these televisual twilight hours Marker presents Greece as a turbulent, argumentative, sometimes violent proto-democratic society whose dynamism finds its match in our own.

The subjects of these films are as wide ranging as were the obsessions of the Greeks, as wide ranging as our own society's obsessions.Each episode has a subtitle which underlines Marker 's intention not to simply recapitulate Greek ideas to a modem audience, but rather to subject them to scrutiny and find contemporary parallels or universality in them. Olympics or Imaginary Greece is followed by Democracy or The City of Dreams; Nostalgia or the Impossible Return by Amnesia or the Sense of History. He covers Mathematics, Logomachy or the Words of the Tribe, Music, Cosmogeny, Mythology, Misogyny, Tragedy and with the final episode Philosophy or the Triumph of the Owl, Minerva's bird rests. By which time dawn has arrived, and with it a degree of wisdom.

In an editorial written to accompany the films, Marker notes that "it is extremely difficult to write or say anything without using Greek words. Hence this project: take 13 words covering a wide range of meanings in order to run to earth the imaginary Greece that haunts our thoughts, inspires our writers, and keeps alive amongst us—like a nude model in a classroom full of dunces—the image of ideal beauty and society; ideas that history belies, but that legend makes lasting." But later he writes of his desire to reveal "a continual counterpoint between those who feel for the authentic imagery and for its degraded, often caricature -like form, which paradoxically sometimes returns to the well- spring of innocent vision. All this centering on one question: What is the role of Greece?"

Looking critically at all 13 parts of The Owl's Legacy is impossible. The series is too long and its ideas too many to be fully explored here. How­ ever, each episode is (formally) identical in visual terms and it is as revealing to concentrate on a single episode as  on the whole. Episode 12, Tragedy or the Illusion of Death, exemplifies the triumphs and problems which attend the series. Init Marker weaves together two lines of inquiry.The first asks what Greek tragedy is (the nature of tragedy as an authentic and essential artifact) and the second whether tragedy can be shared between cultures (a question which demands that one suspend judgement about what it is and ask how it is used.) There is a tension between these themes which reveals the tension between Marker's dual motivations. On the one hand he is a political romantic, on the other a disinterested philosopher.

The film starts with a camera moving through a narrow restaurant­ lined alley in Shinjuku (Japan) with the narrator asking, "Since we were sure of being accused, once again, of provoking these encounters between Greeks and Japanese, wouldn't it be better to establish at once that they didn't need us to meet?" Finally, the camera moves through an open door­ way to reveal a group of Japanese eating and talking at a table, and we hear how one of them first encountered and felt an affinity with ancient Greece by watching Theo Angelopoulos' The Travelling Players. The scene is interrupted by an interview with Angelopoulos, who explains that although his film was inspired by the specifically Greek myth of the Atreides, it stresses the universal and atemporal qualities of the story. The juxtaposition implies that since what we think of as Greek tragedy is also accessible to the Japanese, Angelopoulos' success indicates that tragedy belongs to us all.

But this simple idea is questioned as Marker shows pieces of a 'classical' Japanese performance of Medea between interviews with experts who stress the closeness of Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater rhythms and sensibilities to those of Greek drama. The Noh performance is convincing (in the sense that we can feel its passion and know it to be much more than a pastiche of the original), but perhaps the accessibility of the one to the other is the result of an accidental closeness of form. As Elia Kazan defines it, ''when one side is right and the other's wrong—that's melodrama, it's not drama. When both sides are right it's tragedy."

Tragedy was the unique invention of the Greeks, so perhaps the understanding of the one for the other is that mysterious knowledge between ancient cultures. Or perhaps it strikes another common chord. But which one?

Then, quite abruptly, Marker appears to drop his inquiry into the nature of the form and approaches the more political question of how tragedy is used with a squirmingly funny piece of footage from the BBC children's program Zig-Zag. The hapless presenter wanders around the open-air theater at Epidaurus saying things like "I expect a lot of you have been to the theater, and if you have, I expect you enjoyed it...and like so many of the things in our lives, it was invented by the Greeks." Not only is the presenta­ tion transparently elitist, appealing to a narrow audience of middle-class theater-going British children, but its claim is untrue since the Greeks no more invented drama than did the Balinese, Chinese or a dozen others. The real meaning of what she says is a political one designed to reinforce the middle-class British connection to Greece. "This Greece," the ultimate symbol of high culture and good breeding, is the emblem of the British ruling classes' right to govern. "Do you have the classics?" is one of those withering British questions asked only of those who do not have them by those who do and who are intent on underlining the difference.

The absurdity and politicization of Zig-Zag's reduction is made painfully clear when the great French classicist, Jean-Pierre Vernant explains to a group of French children how tragedy reminded the Greek audience to surrender to the forces of Dionysus and madness, because resistance to the power of the gods was a form of hubris that condemned one to their punishment. Marker intends to show Greek tragedy in its 'authentic' form—not as the mere precursor to the theater we know so well—but as the dramatization of authentic human truths. His egalitarian sentiments argue that it should be returned to 'the people ' as the Greeks intended.

As if the point needed to be made any further, Marker elegantly sets up Alexis Minotis (the Greek theater director) to make it. Minotis is seen in an old BBC interview claiming that ancient Greek drama retains its modernity today, a position with which one might not argue. But the underpinnings of his argument, revealed in interview, are more contentious. For Minotis, "ancient drama is a privilege inherited from the ancient Greeks." He thinks that "we Greeks are best equipped to do this, we have...the heritage, the Mediterranean temperament, the Mediterranean lucidity...These qualities are inherent in our history or in our nature. No other nation has these qualities, so they all make mistakes." In cutting between his platitudes and images of his formal bloodless productions and the mesmerizing Japanese production of Medea, Marker exposes Minotis' senti­ ments as being close to simple racism overlaid with a spurious veneer of 'artistic' rationalization. When Minotis goes on to say that "The Japanese are very clever. It is a well known fact they're clever in technology, in the aesthetics or arts, so they have scrupulously copied our usage of the chorus," the point is unambiguously made.

The coup de grace comes when the Japanese production of Medea that has laced through the film is revealed to be taking place not in Tokyo but in Athens, and at its conclusion, Melina Mercouri strides forward to congratulate the performers on their triumph. (It is typical of Marker that in Melina Mercouri he has found a way to insert a clever joke into a serious point, for the play that Mercouri attended in the film Never on a Sunday was none other than Medea.)

After establishing that tragedy, like 'classics,' is a political category, and showing Minotis' and the BBC's use of 'Greekness' to be a rationalization of the status quo, Marker gives tragedy back to us on the basis that the Greeks intended it for us all, at all times. He implies that they understood something profound about the human condition, the tendency towards and the dangers of hubris, and that this universally valid observation makes the Japanese (egalitarian) Medea more Greek than Minotis' elitist version.

There is a problem, however, with this argument, and it points up the difficulty of exploring the authentic nature of "this Greece" as well as the uses of 'Greekness'.


In presenting a series of disturbing postcards from ancient Greece, Marker is making two related but ultimately contradictory points. In examining the images that we send to one another, he reveals them as being highly politicized. Concisely and with great elegance, he shows how transparent is the British ruling classes' claim to be the heirs of Ancient Greece. What appears to be a value­ neutral postcard from Greece that merely says "I was there" is in Marker's hands transformed into a justification of the legitimacy of their rule.

In this enterprise, Marker is a past master. In Sans Soleil Marker's argu­ment was the same. There he was not concerned with the authentic nature of places and times but, in the juxtaposition of postcard after postcard, with the way in which place and time slip places. Trains in Japan, a carnival in Guinea Bissau, children on the road in Iceland, dogs running on the beach in the Cape Verde islands, the face of an African woman, landscapes in the Ile de France, shop windows filled with saluting Japanese cats, travels in San Francisco—the images arrive in a flood. But we return time and again to Tokyo, to the neon symbols of power and the movements of people and things through the city. We are where we are, and only Marker's reports from the places he visits tell us how we got there. In the end the torrent of impres­ sions only cohere in their recollection, in our memory of them. The film's elements come together because Marker has visited them all, and now we have too.The subject is the process of memory—his and ours—a mechanism which collapses space into time, time into memory, memory into space. If the object of his scrutiny is an interrupted vision of Tokyo, it is because Tokyo is not so much a place as a memory indivisible from other memories, not so much a thing as a time indivisible from other times. In the same way, The Owl's Legacy reveals ancient Greece as being as much an argument about power as it is a historical reality.

But in The Owl's Legacy Marker uses a second line of attack to reveal the politics inherent in the notion of far-away places. Not content with showing Greece as a political idea, he suggests that it was a place whose true nature gives the lie to those who justify their rule by proximity to it. For him, Greece was a society of argument, disagreement, compromise and sacrifice. If the British are its progeny, at best they are it's bastards. But this "double whammy " argument, designed to reveal elitism and the justifications of the ruling classes' right to rule in their glorious nakedness, in fact makes the argument less effective. The problem is that if (as the first argument claims) images of ancient Greece are in fact claims about power, the question of what Greece was as a place is irrelevant. What it was can never be known authoritatively, and even if it could be, by its own logic, it would automatically be translated into a new claim about power.

While the romantic and egalitarian inclination asks about the true nature of places, the more philosophical inclination suspends judgement about truth in favor of asking questions about how we use those places.And in Marker, these inclinations are at war with one another.

Without wishing to fall into the trap of establishing contradictory versions of an 'authentic' Greece, it is worth pointing out that the birth of tragedy can be seen in a number of lights, each of which is politicized. Tragedy may represent the dramatiza­ tion of features which emerged myste­ riously to transform a traditional, non­ intellectual agrarian society in Greece during an incredible burst of dyna­ mism in the 5th Century B.C. Features of self- consciousness and the ability to analyze and abstract emerge seemingly without precedent in Greece. But this transformation may not be unique. Indeed, the Japanese have their own history of abstract, analytical transformations in their own society to explain how they understand the idea. The motive to suggest that Minotis is wrong and the BBC are manipulative comes from Marker's inclination to attack elitism where he finds it, but it is no more than romanticism to suggest that the Japanese share a true knowl­ edge of what the ancient Greeks were (in some authentic sense).

In this spirit we should not forget that both Medea and Stalin are supposed to have come from Georgia; that the Greeks who gave us the tragedy also gave us the tyrant. If the Greek's Medea inspired the Japanese production, then on the same basis we must also say that the Greek's tyrant also gave us Stalin. The true nature of Greece is an unknowable property, but our imagination of it includes all the characteristics of the modem world they began ; Marker simply replaces one less acceptable version of the imaginary Greece with another. His is a romantic one hearkening to a golden age, and although one might find the romantic version more agreeable than the elitist, both are politicized and neither has much to do with authenticity.

The ancient Greeks had no word to express our idea of obedience. Indeed their Persian neighbors' practice of prostrating themselves before a superior made them deeply uneasy. The Illiad tells us that even the great generals on both sides were required to present an argument to get their men into battle and only if the argu­ ment was good, would they say peithomai—"I am persuaded, I obey." It remains a question whether the 'authentic' Greece is a separate category from the Greece of our dreams. On that point we must watch the films and make up our own minds whether or not we can say peithomai. The Owl's Legacy has its problems, but still it is one of the most sophisticated television series one could imagine, and a model which will require another great filmmaker to emulate. Marker's triumph is in his revelation that Greece, like the other places from which he has written, is an essential part of our dreams.

Dan Marks is a filmmaker and anthropologist who works at the Center for Visual Anthropology the University of Southern California.

I would like to express my thanks to Therese de Vet and Carolyn Dewald for sharing their knowledge and insights with me, and to Cameron Allen and Jean-Pierre Gorin for many good hints. l'Heritage de la Chouette, 1989. Dir. Chris Marker. Distributed by FIT: 16, rue des Tournelles 75004 Paris, France.