Games of a Last Chance: Chris Marker’s Olympics


Jonathan Cushing in the LA Review of Books:

Looking back over a filmmaker’s early works for stylistic, aesthetic, or conceptual consistencies can be a fool’s errand, even if its draw seems irresistible. To construct an idea of who Marker was as a filmmaker and thinker is to impose the present upon a uniquely heterogeneous past. In projecting the faculties of the time-traveler from the year 4001 in Sans soleil onto the films themselves, we want Marker’s oeuvre to remember itself perfectly and to register a consistent authorial voice, even as it dramatizes the imperfection of memory.

But by the end of Olympia 52, there is indeed a moment that betrays Marker’s later concern with memory as a problem that emerges in both time and art. It is here that we begin to find some justification for our snooping:

And so the Olympic stadium emptied. The flame went out. The place of so many shouts retreated into silence. On the abandoned playing grounds, on the deserted tracks, we had come to seek out our ever-fleeting emotions, like childhood memories. For it is in some sense the world of childhood that had lived there again, among the eight broken world records, almost all Olympic records broken or equaled, the celebration in the city, the battle in the stadium, the two greats — the United States and the USSR — sharing the majority of the victories. It was certainly childhood, with its pure combats and its confidence in life. Athletically speaking, these games had been the most remarkable in Olympic history. We also saw them as the Games of a last chance [les Jeux de la dernière chance]. Before they began, we had called them the Games of the Cold War but, in reality, we almost forgot war there.

Bob Costas this is not, and not just because of its contemplative tone. Marker describes — perhaps even creates — a world, as opposed to a collection of individual acts. It is not about an athlete being the first from his or her country, gender, or race to achieve any singular feat. Individual athletes and spectators are subsumed under nations and geopolitical events, as well as under an even grander, classical force.

The Games return us, Marker suggests, to a childhood that is immediately transformed into a seemingly distant memory. In the moment, they appear to offer a respite from war but, outside of the present, they are identified with it. The naiveté of the “last chance” is the hope that sports can somehow transcend the contexts from which they emerge.