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At the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium May 29 and 30

In writer-director Chris Marker’s cine-poem Sans Soleil (1982), one of the few screen masterpieces of the last quarter-century, an unidentified woman reads letters she receives from her friend, a free-lance cameraman. This speculative commentary accompanies footage depicting “two extreme poles of survival”—Japan’s “economic miracle” and the poverty of Guinea Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands. Questioning how accurately his images represent reality and their role in determining the future’s understanding of the present, he surrenders his films to a Japanese friend who processes them on a video synthesizer. The result is a series of colorful abstractions: “pictures that are less deceptive…than those you see on television. At least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images—not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality.”

Marker’s provocative new film, Level Five, begins where Sans Soleil leaves off, embracing the technological innovations of the past 15 years—advanced computer graphics, interactive videogames, the World Wide Web. Indeed, one wonders whether the term “film” still applies. Level Five was composed on an Apple Power Macintosh 8100/80—combining newly shot video footage, layered images created with five graphics programs, and vintage movie clips—then transferred to 35mm film stock.

In a rare 1996 interview, the reclusive Marker describes his procedure: “One of the niceties of the setup was that the location was itself a tool in the formal process. The special effects were achieved on the computer, which appears onscreen—a good old Power Mac. The control panel visible in the foreground is part of my editing kit. Except for the Japanese footage, the film is a duet, manufactured by two people housed in a room 6 foot by 10, with no crew, no technical assistance….You could never make Lawrence of Arabia like this. Nor Andrei Rublev. Nor Vertigo. But we possess the wherewithal—and this is something new—for intimate, solitary filmmaking. The process of making films in communion with oneself, the way a painter works or a writer, need not now be solely experimental….Nowadays, a young filmmaker needs only an idea and a small amount of equipment to prove himself. He needn’t kowtow to producers, TV stations, or committees.”

Revolutionary in production method, Level Five is equally innovative in its form, while continuing to explore themes that Marker has been developing since the ’50s. His summary of the work offers keys to some of its complexities:

“A woman (Laura), a computer, an invisible interlocutor: Such is the setup on which Level Five is built. She ‘inherits’ a task: to finish writing a videogame centered on the Battle of Okinawa—a tragedy practically unknown in the West, but whose development played a decisive role in the way World War II ended, as well as in postwar times, and even our present. A strange game, in fact. Contrary to classical strategy games whose purpose is to turn back the tide of History, this one seems willing only to reproduce History as it happened. While working on Okinawa and meeting through a rather unusual network—parallel to Internet—informants and even eye-witnesses of the battle (among which film director Nagisa Oshima), Laura gathers pieces of the tragedy, until they start to interfere with her own life. As in any self-respecting videogame, this one proceeds by ‘levels.’ Laura and her interlocutor, intoxicated by their enterprise, use this as a metaphor for life itself, and gladly attribute levels to everything around them. Will she attain Level Five?”

A mixture of documentary, fiction, painting, poetry, and music, Level Five is a tantalizing, sometimes frustrating work of art. Based on a single viewing, I can’t discuss it with much confidence, let alone authority. At best, I understood perhaps a third of it, about the same fraction of comprehension I’m able to obtain from initial exposure to a demanding poem or musical composition. But I can safely say that it is the most challenging and invigorating movie I’ve seen in years and recommend it without reservation to viewers who have abandoned hope of discovering new films to stimulate the mind and heart. If you see it with a companion, be prepared to spend the rest of the night discussing it.

Laura (named after Otto Preminger’s noir classic and played by Catherine Belkhodja, an intense actress with the most generous mouth since Mick Jagger) is the film’s only character. As she explores the labyrinth of the Okinawa game, she delivers long, contemplative monologues to a video camera. In effect, we view her from the perspective of her computer monitor, leaving us to wonder who is really watching whom.

On its most basic level—one that anybody can follow—Level Five documents the Battle of Okinawa through archival footage and testimonies by witnesses. In the encounter, which lasted from April 1 through the end of June, 1945, historical accounts record 100,000 Japanese military casualties and 12,000 American losses. What usually goes unmentioned is that there were an estimated 150,000 Okinawan civilian deaths, one-third of the island’s population. Mass suicides occurred even after “the bloodiest battle of all time” ended, because the pacifistic Okinawans, sacrificed as pawns by the Japanese military, had been brainwashed into refusing to surrender to invading forces. The relentlessness of their resistance proved instrumental in America’s decision to bomb Hiroshima. “The case is unique,” Marker observes, “one of the maddest and deadliest episodes in the Second World War, bypassed by history, erased from our collective consciousness, and that is why I wanted to bring it to light.” The most gripping testimony comes from Shigeaki Kinjo, an idealistic boy at the time of the battle, who murdered “for love” his mother, brother, and sister. Having confronted this memory and struggled for redemption, Kinjo has since become a Christian clergyman.

Documentary blends with fiction as Laura relives her terminated relationship with the videogame’s creator. (It’s unclear whether he is dead or has abandoned her.) She links her private loss with the public tragedy of the Okinawans, echoing the theme of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. (Marker and Resnais are both obsessed with time and memory, and collaborated on the 1953 short Les Statues Meurent Aussi.) Addressing her absent lover as though he had vanished into his computer, she recalls their love affair while reflecting on more abstract matters—the obstinacy of material objects, the precarious line separating memory from oblivion, a future in which knowledge will replace money as currency. In the final sequence, which parallels the ending of Resnais’ Muriel, Laura vanishes, replaced by an unidentified man, perhaps her lover. He turns on the computer but finds no trace of her or the film we have just witnessed.

Level Five deserves to be seen, if only for the beauty and intricacy of its stratiform compositions. Since Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway has been making similar experiments—moving collages, frames within frames, textured and distorted images—but Marker’s work is refreshingly free of the hermetic museum-chill of his British counterpart’s efforts. Despite the grimness of Marker’s subject, there are leavening passages of humor: an ironic anecdote about how composer David Raksin wrote the love theme for Laura, a wry dismissal of Catholicism, Marxism, anarchism, and “other bigotries,” a bizarre sequence featuring Laura and a brightly plumed mechanical parrot named Cocoloco that echoes her words until its battery runs down. Viewers familiar with Marker’s previous movies will not fail to note the reappearance of some of his favorite creatures—cats, owls, and emus.

Although one could make a strong case for regarding Marker as the greatest living filmmaker, he is largely responsible for his continuing obscurity. His origins have been established—he was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on July 29, 1921, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France—but after that, his biography blurs. Apparently, he was a resistance fighter during the occupation of France and, according to some sources, joined the U.S. Army. After the war, he published a book about playwright Jean Giradoux.

Marker turned to filmmaking in the early ’50s, creating a series of idiosyncratic travel documentaries—Sunday in Peking (1956), Letter From Siberia (1957), and Cuba Si! (1961). His best-known work in this country is the time-tripping science-fiction parable, La Jetée (1962), a short film composed almost entirely of still photographs, which served as the basis for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. In 1966, he founded a Marxist filmmaking collective designed to help workers document their own lives and struggles. In recent years, he has created projects for French television—The Owl’s Legacy (1989) and The Last Bolshevik (1993)—designed a multimedia installation commemorating the first century of cinema (presently touring American museums), and is now working on a DVD-ROM project called Immemory.

Level Five will screen at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, May 29 and 30, at the Hirshhorn Museum as part of Kelly Gordon’s invaluable independent film series. (Admission is free on a first-come, first-seated basis.) Gordon has been Marker’s local champion, exhibiting his work for nearly a decade, and considers his latest effort “easily the most mentally expansive film of the 1990s.” Working single-handedly on a very restrictive budget, she consistently offers programming that puts the generously subsidized but artistically conservative Filmfest DC to shame. (Why wasn’t Level Five chosen to represent France in last month’s festival instead of the tiresome, trivial L’Année Juliette?) With the Biograph shuttered, Gordon’s series is the last best hope for keeping interest in serious, innovative filmmaking alive in our area.CP