23 years ago, producer Thierry Garrel’s documentary unit S.E.P.T. (also known as La Sept-Arte) and the Onassis Foundation commissioned the late Chris Marker to create a television series on the ancient Greek roots of western culture. Now, you don’t hire Marker — an “unclassifiable,” and cinema’s “one true essayist,” in the words of film theorist Roy Arnes — unless you’ve accepted that he’ll deliver something at least as formally, aesthetically, and intellectually unusual as, say, Sans Soleil. Or so one would think. “The Owl’s Legacy was never broadcasted, probably not having matched the Foundation’s expectations,” says monoskop.org, which now hosts very nearly this entire series exploring “the lost resonances of thirteen words.” Marker chooses these thirteen: symposium (or “accepted ideas”), Olympics (or “imaginary Greece”), democracy (or “the city of dreams”), nostalgia (or “the impossible return”), amnesia (or “history on the march”), mathematics (or “the empire counts back”), logomachy (or “the dialect of the tribe”), music (or “inner space”), cosmogony (or “the ways of the world”), mythology (or “lives like the truth”), misogyny (or “the snares of desire”), tragedy (or “the illusion of death”), and philosophy (or “the triumph of the owl”).
The brief clip from The Owl’s Legacy above describes the idea of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave — or, rather, it shows the cave, but with the distinctive processing of Marker’s visual imagination. The series deals with much else in Greek philosophy, as when the critic George Steiner turns up to pronounce Socrates “a royal pain in the ass.” He counts as only one of the project’s long lineup of notables, Greek and otherwise, including filmmakers Theo Angelopoulos and Elia Kazan, composer Iannis Xenakis, theater director Yukio Ninagawa, and actress Arielle Dombasle. See also the Pacific Film Archive’s screening notes at chrismarker.org, which claim that “It is difficult to imagine a more perfect illustration of one of Castoriadis’ final remarks about what he considers one of Greek philosophy’s major contributions: ‘What should I think?’” Or, as the film and video collective the Otolith Group said, “this is exactly the sort of TV programme that simply wouldn’t stand a chance of being made today.”