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Chris Marker dies at 91; avant-garde French filmmaker

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Chris Marker, an enigmatic figure in French cinema who avoided publicity and was loath to screen his films yet was often ranked with countrymen Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard as an avant-garde master, died at his home in Paris on Sunday, his 91st birthday.

His death was confirmed by the French Culture Ministry, but the cause was not given.

Marker, who worked well into his 80s, made more than two dozen films during a six-decade career. Known as a pioneer of the film essay, he was most admired for "La Jetee" (1962) and "Sans Soleil" (1983), which explored time, memory and history in an unconventional and evocative style.

"La Jetee" ("The Jetty") was a 28-minute movie made almost entirely of stills that focuses on a man who travels between the past and the future to understand a haunting image from his childhood.

The most startling moment in the film is when, for a brief few seconds, the stills give way to moving images of a sleeping woman opening her eyes, staring at the camera and blinking. For British film scholar Janet Harbord, who wrote the 2009 book "Chris Marker: La Jetee," the motion causes "a gasp close to an experience of the erotic or the religious or possibly both," and conveys in an instant the magic and mystery of the medium.

Critic Pauline Kael called "La Jetee" "very possibly the greatest science-fiction movie yet made." Film critic and historian David Thomson went further, declaring in a 2002 article in the British newspaper the Guardian that "La Jetee" could be "the one essential movie ever made."

Its theme may sound familiar to contemporary audiences because it inspired a Hollywood remake, "12 Monkeys." Directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, the 1995 film was generally viewed by critics as less essential than the original.

Marker's other masterpiece, "Sans Soleil" ("Sunless"), is narrated by a woman who reads aloud the letters she receives from a nomadic cameraman during his travels in Japan, Iceland, Africa and other far-flung destinations. The letters describe wondrous sights, such as a blindingly white desert, a musical staircase and a temple dedicated to cats.

Cats appear throughout Marker's films and are named in two of them: the documentaries "A Grin Without a Cat" (1977) and "The Case of the Grinning Cat" (2004). The first film examines the New Left movement from the Vietnam War era to the ouster of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. The latter film documents the political mood in France after the Sept. 11 attacks and incorporates images of smiling cat graffiti that began to appear in Paris then. Rare photographs of the filmmaker usually show a thin, balding man behind a camera with his cat, Guillaume.

Marker's politics were clear in other works, as well, such as "Cuba Sí" (1961), about Castro's Cuba; "Le Joli Mai" (1963), made from 55 hours of interviews with French citizens about their attitudes toward the French-Algerian War; and "The Last Bolshevik" (1993), conceived as a series of letters to Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin.

He also produced "Far from Vietnam," a 1967 documentary made in collaboration with Godard and Resnais that opposed American involvement in Vietnam.

One of Marker's later works, from the late 1990s, was an interactive CD-ROM called "Immemory" that consists of more than 20 hours of stills, film clips, music, text and sound bites divided into several sections, including poetry, cinema, travel and photography.

Little is known about Marker's life, which apparently was just as the filmmaker, who called himself "the best-known author of unknown movies," wanted it.

Most biographies say he was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly sur Seine, France, on July 29, 1921, and studied philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre in the late 1930s. It may be apocryphal, but some sources say his affection for the Magic Marker felt-tipped pen inspired him to change his last name.

Doubts also surrounded his birthplace. Marker told film historian Thomson during a meeting in Berkeley in the 1980s that Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary of Film" was in error and that he actually was born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

Thomson said he accepted the eccentric filmmaker's Mongolia story, explaining in the Guardian that it was "a part of Chris Marker's thinking that no place is actually farther away, more extreme or less plausible than another."

In Marker's view, history was fluid and a playful view was sometimes important. "Look what happened to dinosaurs," his narrator says in "The Last Bolshevik" as a child on screen hugs a stuffed version of the TV character Barney. "Kids love them."

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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