CAMBRIDGE — Style is how an artist approaches content. All great artists have one; it’s a proof of their greatness. Sensibility is different. Transcending style, sensibility is how an artist approaches life. Surprisingly few artists have a sensibility. Chris Marker (1921-2012) had one — and what a one. Few would recognize his name — Marker once puckishly described himself as “the best-known author of unknown movies” — but fame little concerned a man far more interested in making images, visiting distant lands, cherishing cats and owls, and distrusting authority.
Marker’s sensibility is what unites a lavishly large and varied body of work. That work encompasses film and video and photography, documentary and fiction and agitprop, writing and editing, computer art and multimedia projects and forays onto the Web.
The surpassing cultural project of the French Enlightenment was the Encyclopedie, its many volumes a way of making sense of the world through knowledge (and style) and by doing so subvert the political and religious establishment. It’s not inaccurate to describe Marker, a Frenchman, as the last Encylopediste. In his slyly unsystematic way, he was kin to Denis Diderot as well as Jean-Luc Godard. There’s an affiliation with Montaigne, too, the father of the essay. For regardless of medium or mode, Marker’s work is naturally essayistic and interrogatory.
The Marker sensibility — playful, intelligent, cool, lucid, deeply humane, audacious, happily heterodox, searching, skeptical, relaxed, restless, constantly curious, elegant (both intellectually and visually), historicist yet also up-to-the-minute and much drawn to technology — is on full and entrancing display at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. The exhibition, “Chris Marker: Guillaume-en-Égypte,” runs at Harvard through Dec. 22 and at MIT through Jan. 5. And the Harvard Film Archive hosts a Marker retrospective through Dec. 16. Taken together, they are a signal event in the cultural life of Greater Boston and a gratifying reminder of how enriching institutional collaboration can be.
(Guillaume-en-Égypte? It was the name of Marker’s cat, who then provided the model for his computer avatar.)
Marker’s most famous work, “La Jetée” (1962), is emblematic of his art in both excellence and unclassifiability. Does it even qualify as a film? Its 28 minutes consist almost entirely of still black-and-white photographs, purporting to show life in a post-apocalyptic Paris. There’s the merest instant of motion, which makes the stillness of the rest of the film all the more piercing. An evoking of love, memory, and mortality, and the interplay of past, present, and future, “La Jetée” is like nothing else — not even the film Terry Gilliam derived from it, “12 Monkeys” — yet a half century on, the influence of its lyrical dystopianism continues to be felt throughout the culture.
The List has the lion’s share of “Chris Marker: Guillaume-en-Égypte.” Monitors show a selection of two dozen or more of his films. Subjects include whales, Siberia, Tokyo, folk art in San Francisco Bay (that one lasts all of six minutes), a solar eclipse (not the eclipse itself, but the people observing it – a telling Markerish distinction), a French workers’ strike in 1968, the ‘30s photojournalist Denise Bellon. Nothing human was exotic to Marker.
More than anything else, perhaps, Marker was an ethnologist of “the strange tribes of the late 20th century.” Those words come from “Level Five” (1997), a film as extraordinary as it is unclassifiable (that word again). It’s about the nascent Worldwide Web (Marker offers his own version, Option World Link — note the initials), the battle of Okinawa, human isolation, computer games, Marker’s fascination with the actress Catherine Belkhodja, who delivers the narration as a sumptuous soliloquy. “Level Five” is projected on a large screen, as it well deserves.
Also at the List are upward of 200 photographs. They mostly come from three series: “Coréennes,” taken in North Korea in the late ‘50s; “Passengers,” showing riders on the Paris Métro; and “Staring Back.” “Staring Back” is just what it says it is: photographic subjects gazing into Marker’s camera. In implying an equal status between subject and maker, the images are Marker at his most characteristic.
None of the photographs are framed. They’re not meant to be discrete. They’re part of a larger whole, an ongoing engagement with the world. Some of the images are film stills, from “The Sixth Side of the Pentagon,” Marker’s documentary about a 1967 anti-Vietnam protest, and his magnum opus, “A Cat without a Grin” (1977), a three-hour recollection of the political upheaval of the ‘60s. Marker may have had the intellect of an 18th-century philosophe, but his soul belonged to the 1960s. Boundaries — temporal and geographic, no less than aesthetic and political — held no appeal for him whatsoever, other than the pleasure that came of ignoring them.
The Carpenter Center features two installations. “Owls at Noon: The Hollow Men” (2005) is a visual meditation on T. S. Eliot’s poem. It flirts with solemnity as nothing else in the show does. “Silent Movie” (1994-1995) celebrated the 100th birthday of the cinema — and Marker loved the movies as much as he did cats and owls. On five monitors footage from silent films is interspersed with black-and-white images of Belkhodja. Across from the installation hang several posters Marker created for “premakes.” As a remake succeeds a preexisting movie, a premake precedes it. For example, there’s a poster for “Hiroshima Mon Amour” starring Greta Garbo and Sessue Hayakawa. Or there’s the one seen on a monitor at the List for a version of Proust directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
Also at the Carpenter are monitors showing segments of Marker’s 13-part documentary for French television, “The Owl’s Legacy” (1989), about ancient Greece, and computers offering selections from his work for the Web and CD-ROM. The most notable, “Immemory” (1998), is on display at the List, too. Then there’s “Stopover in Dubai” (2011), a video of terrifying simplicity. Consisting solely of intertitles and 26 minutes of surveillance footage, silent but for the sound of a Henryk Górecki string quartet, it’s a documentary account of a Mossad assassination of a Hamas official. The murder is never seen. Instead, we’re shown indistinct images of people as they pass airport security, walk through lobbies, enter elevators, loiter in corridors. The visual neutrality makes the emotional effect all the more overwhelming. Will “Stopover in Dubai,” with its blank, blurry inexorability, be for the next half century what “La Jetée” has been for the one just past? The strange tribes of the 21st century may have Chris Marker to reckon with, too.
CHRIS MARKER: GUILLAUME-EN-ÉGYPTE
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Dec. 22, 617-495-3251, www.ves.fas.harvard.edu; MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St., Cambridge, through Jan. 4, 2014, 617-253-4400, http://listart.mit.edu/Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.