The Owl’s Legacy

(Chris Marker, France/Greece, 1989)


Chris Marker’s rendezvous with electronic video and then digital media came much earlier in his career than for most low-budget, independent filmmakers of his ilk: his feature-length essay Sunless already arrives, in 1983, at a moment of liberating ecstasy when images we have previously glimpsed in the montage are worked – revivified – through being fed into a video synthesizer, and extravagantly colourised.


But Marker’s relation to broadcast television – this time, more in sync with the filmmakers of his generation and political orientation – was wary, at a distance. He regarded TV as “an anxiously moral medium”, and was fond of quoting Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that, while the TV set is something we literally look down upon, the cinema screen is something we must look up at.


Above all, as with Godard or Harun Farocki, Marker regarded conventional TV as the veritable voice of the State Apparatus, with its dominant ideology writ large and enforced, day in and day out, in the homes of citizens. This was not merely a matter of overt messages communicated by the mass media, but also the type of creeping menace theorised, over many years, by the radical filmmaker Peter Watkins: the form of TV, its relentless and monotonous rhythm, the slick relationship of voices to images, the seamless fusion of fiction with advertising … All this added up to a formidable opponent, a veritable Goliath (Watkins called it the Monoform), for any left-wing filmmaker to tackle.


Many uncompromising, imaginative directors – from Godard and Farocki to Raúl Ruiz and Alexander Kluge – have toiled inside the great machine of TV, but frequently at the cost of being shoved into specialist slots for “minority viewing”, often around the stroke of midnight.


When approaching Marker’s delightful 13-part series, The Owl’s Legacy – and the DVD from Icarus Films in USA will be, for most viewers, the first opportunity to see it – it does well to remind ourselves of this conflictual relation between progressive cinema and commercial TV. Such an attitude characterised film culture, in many of its works and gestures, from the 1960s until at least the turn of the century. Today, in the time of Netflix, HBO and all the rest, it is easy (if deceptive) to imagine the opposite image of a free-for-all paradise: if David Lynch, Jane Campion or Terence Nance can express themselves there, then what’s the problem, any longer? Although Marker (alongside his old pal, Alain Resnais) became, late in his life, a big fan of the best American TV series, I am sure he entertained no illusions about any lessening of the ideological power that the medium held.


Certainly, he had to reckon with some political static on completion of this ambitious, playful project in 1989. One assumes that the Onassis Foundation, which financed the production, expected a more-or-less typical, conventional, straight-down-the-line documentary series on the origins of ancient Greek culture and its lasting legacy. What they got was something at once more unusual and, at times, outrightly contestatory: modern-day Greece comes in for some hard knocks in passing, and Marker, being Marker, is unafraid to broaden his cosmopolitan gaze to Japan or Africa.


The Foundation, in response, not only complained to Marker about the work in progress (he ignored this), but also appended a disclaimer to each episode – now snipped out of the ensemble – and effectively blocked access to the series for close to three decades. Jean-Michel Frodon’s excellent DVD booklet essay gives invaluable documentation on all this behind-the-scenes drama, direct from the Marker archives (no other extras are provided on the DVD but, in this case, they aren’t really needed).


Marker likes to let his chosen participants have their say – however contentious their sentiments may be in the minds of those officially dishing out the cash. The Owl’s Legacy is conceived as a kind of agora, an open discussion with many voices. This polyphonic form has recently made its surreptitious way back into cinema, in films as different as José Luis Guerin’s The Academy of Muses (2015) and Joseph Kahn’s Bodied (2017).


Clearly Marker, for his part, seized the talking-head format as one of the best, untapped possibilities of TV as a medium. Those looking for the dazzling montage sequences or lyrical voice-over passages typical of most Marker films will find only intermittent flourishes of such techniques here. Marker hands the microphone over to the speakers, frames them elegantly and statically (in slightly oneiric settings, with projected backdrops and sometimes surreal-looking objects present), and lets them talk – often at length.


The series (offered in both French and English versions) is structured as a game – an essayistic meditation on 13 words, chosen not quite randomly or arbitrarily, but certainly with the implication that other words could have worked just as well. These words (structuring each 26 minute episode) include: democracy, nostalgia, mathematics, music, tragedy and mythology. As in the chapter division of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), the structure is deliberately left loose and ragged: many speakers, at any given moment of their discourse, range across several of these headings.


Marker’s art reveals itself here in the associative chains he builds by joining one fragment of testimony to the next – often with startling wit. The range of invited guests includes artists of various sorts (Angelique Ionatos, Theo Angelopoulos, Iannis Xenakis), historians (Giulia Sissa), politicians (Michel Jobert), philosophers (Michel Serres) and literary critics (George Steiner).


Of course, there are some eccentric tweaks along the way. When Elia Kazan starts rambling off-topic about Koreans in America, a robot inserted into the editing serves to sternly re-direct him. And Marker himself, while remaining definitively off-screen, is nonetheless present as a constantly referenced interlocutor, encouraging the escalating passion of the speakers. The infectious intensity of the political philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997), for example, is conveyed not only in the headlong fervour of his words and gestures, but above all in his constant appeals to “Chris” on the other side of the camera. Evidently, the film-maker’s own store of friendships, down many decades, formed the very basis of The Owl’s Legacy – and that, too, is interwoven as an indispensable part of the fabric.


Many reviewers have, in the months since the Icarus release, noted – usually with some embarrassment – the one decidedly dated element of Marker’s sensibility as exhibited here: although there’s a fair number of female talking-head experts included, there is also the conspicuous, strained conceit of a gaggle of Muses (including the star of Level Five [1997], Catherine Belkhodja) looking on silently (or, in one case, plucking a harp) while various groups of guys, in various lovely locations, chatter away. Marker might have been taking an ironic dig at waffly, patriarchal discourse here … but I doubt it.


Another turn of the historical wheel may only now be catching up with The Owl’s Legacy. In what would sadly turn out to be his final book published in his lifetime, European Cinema and Continental Philosophy: Film as Thought Experiment (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), Thomas Elsaesser (1943-2019) meditated on the long-held image of Greece as the home or birthplace of thought, and especially political and philosophical thought. Elsaesser detects signs that this image may be, at last, on the verge of eclipse:


This very priority given to Greek politics and philosophy, together with Judaeo-Christian religion and ethics in any definition of Europe, has been criticised as Eurocentric, suppressing the debts to other civilisations, setting up a successive series of distorting mirrors, as well as acting as an elitist and exclusionary narrative even with respect to Europe’s own indigenous populations and their cultures.


I think we can assume that Marker was, to some extent, already aware of such a critique of the impulse behind his series – hence his enthusiastic embrace of Asia and Africa, as well as his general playfulness, and the occasional sharp montage-jab to give us a glimpse of Greece’s various 20th century crises.


Ultimately, however, we would be churlish not to allow Marker his magnificent, multi-levelled dream of ancient Greece – one that he expresses with forceful eloquence, aided at every turn by his beloved figure of the owl.

© Adrian Martin January 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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