What really strikes me about San Soleil is the ways in which Chris Marker manipulates the medium to express the concept of time. I often hear people mention admiringly that a film passed in no time at all, that they were sucked into the story world so completely that 2 hours felt like seconds. San Soleil makes the viewer aware of the passage of time, and invites us to lovingly reflect on time even as we sit in the act of viewing. Time is marked by the recorded ceremonies- Coming of Age Day, Doll Burning Ceremonies- as well as through narration, which marks the passage of time, while retaining the ability to see beyond the present. The viewer is shown two “extreme poles of survival” in Japan and Africa, and we are guided by a woman’s voice reading letters from the cinematographer Sandor Krasna. The film, however, assumes a position that references the ethnographic gaze even while it resists this mode of viewing. The images are occasionally “clothed” in “soft focus or electronically processed textures” (Marks, 177). The electronic processing is one of the finest touches in the film, distorting the image while deepening our knowledge of the subject. It invites the viewer to employ the caressing eye and bodily relationship the haptic viewer shares with the image. We are unable to see distinctly, but the shape of a dog, the truncheon of protestors, or the gaping mouth of a television villain is plainly visible. This distortion of the image also references “how much of perception is generated by memory and longing, rather than engagement with a crisply available object” (Marks, 156). Krasna’s excitement at returning to Japan and his engagement with the country is not something that can be communicated through traditional narrative, and the electronically altered images encourages us to trace the edges of “his” Japan.
I loved Marker’s treatment of Japanese television, and the idea of Tokyo as an image-packed madhouse that “voyeurizes the voyeur”. Television and commercials, the voice-over points out, speak to the “impermanence of things”. The television images shot from a monitor are “already once-reproduced,” but I would compare Marker with Torossian in the ability to “rework these images in a way that thoroughly restores their aura, or endows them with another aura” (Marks, 174). The electronic treatment makes the images difficult to distinguish, and the black lines caused by the lack of synchronization between camera and television reworks the surface of the image. The entire sequence also captures the concept of mono-no-aware, an awareness of the transience of things and wistfulness at their passing. The “impermanence” of the image makes us aware of the passage of time.
It is also important to give some attention to the voice over employed throughout the film. The woman reads from letters sent by the imaginary Krasna, with occasional references such as “he said” to indicate the origin of the dialogue. The letters acknowledge the imperfection of the visual, and the voice-over guides, instructs, and informs us of that which we cannot see. The president honors ex-guerilla commandos, and a general cries as he is decorated. The voice tells us that this is not what it seems: he tears stem from anger, and in a year he will overthrow his leader. The image is not infallible, and the lack of synchronous sound makes us rethink the function of audio. The voice speaks continually throughout the film, and I found myself disregarding her words, and listening intently to music, background noise, and even the sound of her speech, rather than the content. The film achieves “haptic hearing”, “that usually brief moment when all sounds present themselves to us undifferentiated, before we make the choice of which sounds are most important to attend to” (Marks, 183). The film not only gives us the moment of undifferentiated sound, but what we eventually designate as “most important” is not the spoken voice, which is traditionally given precedent.
Marker shows the true prowess of his storytelling in San Soleil. The project is of a huge scale and complexity, but the film manages to create a whole, incredibly diverse product.