… à Valparaiso… à Valparaiso (1963 France/Chile 29 mins)

Prod Co: Argos Film/L’Université du Chili Prod: Anatole Dauman, Philippe Lifchitz Dir, Scr: Joris Ivens Commentary: Chris Marker Phot: Georges Strouvé Assist Phot: Patricio Guzman Ed: Jean Ravel Mus: Gustavo Becerra

Voiceover: Roger Pigaut

Often regarded as a somewhat peripheral work in the careers of both director Joris Ivens and writer Chris Marker, … à Valparaiso is actually one of the great collaborations in both filmmakers’ vast filmographies. It is also an extremely revealing film about the nature of collaboration, the ways in which authorship is perceived by audiences and critics, and the close relationship and symmetry between the globetrotting Ivens and Marker, compatriots who shared a particular and often poetic vision of travel (one that both heightens and abstracts perception).

Both filmmakers have persistently prioritised the importance and value of collaboration to their work and broader worldview, with Ivens working with a range of prominent writers aside from Marker (Ernest Hemingway, Jacques Prévert, Dudley Nichols, etc.), and Marker with an impressive range of other filmmakers (such as Alain Resnais, Walerian Borowczyk, Patricio Guzman, Yannick Bellon, and William Klein). But whereas Marker values and poeticises the “tyranny of distance” and the (im)possibility of truly capturing things or communicating emotions (he again returns to the difficulty of perceiving “happiness” here, an idea that more fully “motivates” the aleatory journey of Sans soleil/Sunless twenty years later), Ivens delves into the particularity and peculiarity of place, giving each country, city, region, tributary or event his full, captivated attention before moving elsewhere for a subsequent film. Marker’s sensibility is notoriously and wonderfully mercurial, almost beatifically melancholy, while Ivens constitutes a more concrete, knowable and seeable presence. These dominant characteristics don’t stop Ivens from expressing his more whimsical and lyrical sides – and collecting images of Marker’s favourite animals in … à Valparaiso (such as the face of the cat that appears on a kite in the film’s penultimate sequence) – but for all Ivens’ restlessness and incessant travel his films betray a less kaleidoscopic and encyclopedic nature than those of Marker. This is despite the actual use of the kaleidoscope as a visual trope in the final credits of… à Valparaiso, an apt symbol of the many moods and tones of this 1963 essay film (also mixing travelogue, associative montage, city symphony, etc.)

… à Valparaiso has regularly been regarded as more of a Marker film than one truly belonging to Ivens. This reading prioritises and favours sound over image – a common mistake even when reading Marker’s wholly “owned” work – and fails to recognise the range and often explicitly lyrical nature of Ivens’ broader filmography. Definitions and descriptions of Ivens’ work often anchor themselves to particular, explicitly leftist political and social allegiances and beliefs – which he certainly held, often steadfastly in contradistinction to the shifting wind of political change – and tend to marginalise, or just not adequately deal with, those works that sit outside of these parameters (focusing instead on the films Ivens made about the Spanish Civil War, New Deal projects in the United States, pro-Indonesian waterside workers in Sydney, and those made in such places as North Vietnam and Mao-era China). As a result of this – with the major exception of such early abstract and plainly poetic works as Regan (Rain, 1929) – the true range (both aesthetically and geographically) of his cinema has tended to be obscured.

It would nevertheless be inaccurate to suggest that … à Valparaiso has not received fulsome praise, it won the FIPRESCI prize at the Oberhausen Film Festival for example, but it has always suffered somewhat from the problems of correct or problematically singular authorial attribution. The glowing review that appeared upon the film’s 1967 British release, exemplifies this:

Although Chris Marker is credited only with the commentary, this superb documentary is so imbued with his personality that it is difficult to think of it as anything but a Marker film. Indeed, the strange perpendicular city of Valpariaso, “42 villages on 42 hills” towering over the sea in a series of plateaux, might have been created expressly for his benefit. (1)

It is true that the film does mirror the sensibility and even approach of such earlier Marker films as Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, 1958), but it equally betrays the visual and thematic preoccupations of Ivens’ cinema. And this writer is also plainly unfamiliar with or inattentive to both Ivens’ broader work and the production history of the film. Marker was supposedly only brought onto the project at a late stage, writing his commentary in Paris in response to a detailed shot breakdown and description provided by Ivens (and as is often the case with Marker, the spatial and temporal discontinuity of this process contributes significantly to the peculiarity of the commentary’s tone and approach). This response also highlights how dominant and identifiable Marker’s signature is, even when it is entwined with that of a filmmaker of Ivens’ stature and force. Whereas the often associational visual structure of the film betrays a familiarity with the byways and form of the city, Marker’s commentary is more idiosyncratic, at times fantasising – in an almost Barthesian fashion – about the meaning of particular configurations, associations, characteristics and images. It is almost as if the well-informed commentator only encounters “the perpendicular city of Valparaiso” through the idiosyncratic structure and form of the film. For example, the poetic observation about the ship-like nature of many of the buildings found in Valparaiso, a revelation that suggests that the nature and form of the city arises from the key way it is humanly encountered, is merely picked out by the camera but made concrete by the commentary. Both image and sound attempt to give an account of the range of experiences available in Valparaiso, and provide a thesis on the specific nature of its form and sensibility. Ultimately, a key point of attraction for both Marker and Ivens is the post-colonial nature and visage of Valparaiso, the specificity of its geography and the strange mix of influences that its seaport existence have wrought (particularly in its “garbled” Spanish, British and French influences).

By nature, Ivens is an inquisitive and reactive filmmaker, very open to planning and staging his largely documentary work but always attempting to get to know and genuinely reflect the places and people he represents. Although there are notable exceptions, such as the very significant pro-Indonesian independence film he made in Australia (Indonesia Calling, 1946), Ivens rarely made single films in any one country. His films are often journeys of return, efforts to remap and revisit already familiar territories. … à Valparaiso comes after two films he made in Castro’s Cuba and was followed by a subsequent film shot in Chile about Salvador Allende’s election campaign.

Like many of Ivens’ films, … à Valparaiso is preoccupied with the cinematic registration of geography and climate. Although it hardly reaches the level of Pour le mistral (1966) in this regard – which is a tour-de-force representation of such elementary forces – … à Valparaiso does grant the viewer a strong sense of the city’s climate and atmosphere (wind, water and sky, preeminently). As various writers have claimed, and as verified in his final summary work, Une histoire de vent (A Tale of the Wind, co-directed by Marceline Loridan, 1988), Ivens’ cinema provides a life-long fixation upon on the elements and the possibilities and difficulties of dynamically capturing them on film. This preoccupation thematises and symbolises a concern with the processes of historical change that defines Ivens’ films and marks the trajectory of his life across many of the key events and places of 20th century history. In contrast to Marker’s more embodied view of this history – and his return to such events as the World War II’s battle of Okinawa in films like Sunless and Level Five (1996) – Ivens provides a more dynamic and dialectical view. Such dialectics are most evident in the sudden shift to colour in … à Valparaiso – a device also used in Pour le mistral, but there combined with the equally sudden arrival of CinemaScope – a technique which attempts to utilise the expressive possibilities of cinema to capture something of the force of historical change. This sudden shift is in keeping with the film’s general form, which is very difficult to pre-empt, describe or pin-down (it also emerges out of an obviously staged exchange over a game of cards).

Although all of the images and information we see in the film are related to Valparaiso, we leave uncertain of the total veracity of what we see and hear, as well as any order of priority. Large sections of the film are structured around the ascending and descending nature of the city; the camera restless as it scoots up stairs or follows a cable car as it descends one of the many steep hills. Although the film does discuss and present particular views of class – the poor live at the top of the hills in contrast to many cities – and economics, it is not overly preoccupied by such base indicators and is more fixated upon the peculiar shape and feel of the city, its nature as a kind of palimpsest that reveals the influence and physical detritus of other cities. In this regard, the film’s view of Valparaiso is not so far removed from that of Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities, who transforms and imagines various cities in the long dialogues he constructs between the traveler, Marco Polo, and the sedentary emperor, Kublai Khan. The concreteness of experience summoned by Ivens’ images is fused to the imaginary and recollected realm of Marker’s commentary. In the process, … à Valparaiso creates a view of the Chilean city that is both attentive and phantasmagoric, a series of possible angles and tributaries that the viewer and traveler might possibly take.

Endnotes

  1. à Valparaiso”, Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 34, no. 405, October 1967, p. 159.