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La Jetée (1962) Chris Marker

August 6, 2012

This short film that came to my attention recently following both the death of its director and its placing in the recently published Sight and Sound top 50 films of all time list.

Marker’s work tended to get categorised as ‘film essays’ and were largely factually based, this is an exception, a 29 minute film that uses a dystopian science fiction setting to comment on memory. It is almost entirely comprised of a series of filmed still photos, a narration, choral music and at times quite disturbing, muttered, indistinct and untranslated German voices.

A nuclear war has destroyed Paris and reduced its remaining inhabitants to tunnel dwelling scavengers. The few remaining scientists experiment with time travel, killing their subjects or leaving them insane as they search for someone with a particularly strong memory of the past who will be able to time travel. The human mind is cast as a museum of remembered images, the only link left to a pre-apocalyptic society.

Davos Hanich, his character listed solely as ‘the man’ is haunted by the image of a womans face that he saw as a child on a traumatic day at Orly Airport. He undergoes the experiments, being sent back again and again to the pre-war past until he meets her and eventually falls in love, wandering through a museum filled with stuffed animals. This level of involvement in the past somehow detaches him from his real time and allows the scientists to send him to the future where he gains the technology needed to regenerate society.

His work done the scientists plan to execute him but he escapes once more into the past and is united with the girl at Orly aiport. As they are reunited he is shot down in front of his young self by a time travelling scientist who has followed him into the past. The image of the girls face as his older self is killed is burnt into the memory of the young boy starting the whole cycle again.

The plot, eventually to become the basis of Terry Gilliam’s ‘12 Monkeys’ is almost incidental to the experience of the film. It is in no way a science fiction adventure. The idea of our memories as snap shots of the past totally dependent on a context that we can edit or even totally lose is brought home powerfully by Marker’s use of still photographs. He moves the camera over the stills creating the illusion of movement and perpetually changing how we see the same image. He brings home how every movie is actually a succession of still images that our brain contextualises into a moving image. Here the succession is simply very slow and we have to create our own transitions between very different images.

The way we are aware of a movie camera filming an existing still photo creates layers of camera work and makes us aware of the stages between the actors and our brain. Firstly between the actor and the still camera, then between the photo and the movie camera and finally between the screen and our eyes or even our eyes and our mind. Images are constantly projected until they finally reach the place that gives them context.

I was taken with the idea of a man lying in the darkness trying to focus so hard on the frozen image he carries in his head of a beautiful woman. Feeling that if he tries hard enough he will actually travel through time to meet her evokes. It’s an excellent metaphor for the traditional escapist idea of watching a movie in a dark room and getting caught up in the action. The fact that we are concentrating really hard on the same image as the actor and using it to create a whole dystopian world where the time travel plot makes sense is very powerful. It is an incredibly knowing film about the relationship between viewer and image.

The scenes of man and woman (again these are the only names the characters are given) falling in love in the museum, a frozen image of them surrounded by stuffed, still, exotic animals. The animals are themselves permanently frozen in a faked afterlife, thousands of miles and possibly hundreds of years out of their natural context. We are made aware of the decades that have passed since the probably long dead actors were photographed in the museum as well as the in-film idea of the man out of time.

The stills do an excellent job of making the mundane seem miraculous without any dialogue about how shocking it is for Hanich to return to the pre-apocalyptic Paris.

The use of music and narration casts perfectly innocent images as sinister, particularly the opening shot of Orly airport where choral music creates a heightened feeling of a disaster happening on an almost biblical scale despite the visuals simply showing a peaceful, almost touristy, view of an airport.

The sinister muttered German, the only dialogue from within the story that we get, works with the way the nuclear devastation is conveyed via photos of World War 2 era Paris to bring up then fairly fresh French memories of the occupation. The muttering accompanies the scientists conducting mad and fatal experiments on Parisians reduced to living in tunnels. The idea that the people living this hellish existence had to search their own memories of a more peaceful Paris to try and recreate a society obviously has resonance in the post-war French experience.

It is an incredibly impressive short film, having a lot in common with Godard’s Alphaville in the way it uses images of the everyday to create a science fiction setting through well chosen music and lighting. There are a handful of unusual and disturbing shots of the experiments but almost every other still is fairly mundane and the heightened level of menace or romantic longing comes solely from the connections and contextualisation the viewer brings to them. The same photos could have been used to tell a completely different story. We make the faces in the darkness into horrific, sadistic experimenters, just like we actually provide all the emotional context for most of the films we watch.


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