La Jetee (France, 1962, Chris Marker)
Wherein Ben and I attempt to deconstruct Marker's technique.
I have only seen about half of the Short 2 disc but so far I have found all of the selections worthwhile and deserving of commentary. However, La Jetee is clearly in a class by itself. I was confused about which Terry Gilliam film it inspired, telling Jacob that it was Brazil. He has seen 12 Monkeys three times to my once, however, and quickly corrected me.
The story is compelling, to be sure, but this is not what stands out for me, at least not cinematically. I mean, the post-apocalyptic setting, the premise of time travel and the thematic implication of dream-reality are solid material but not especially original. I can believe that Gilliam really did not watch the film as is rumored insofar a he ran with the basics of the story and did not attempt to replicate what is most powerful about La Jetee - the atmosphere. The vibe coming off the thing is intense man!
The secret of this motion picture is, of course, that it is not a motion picture at all. It is one still after another. Occasionally too slow and a couple of time repetitious in a bad way - probably the result of this being the always-longer, let's-put-back-in-what-we-correctly-left-out-before director's cut - La Jetee is otherwise a tour de force of shot juxtaposition and cumulative frame-by-frame impact. Factor in the black and white, the bleak voice over and the nature of the tale itself and you've got one powerfully disturbing little film.
And factor in too, that, audio track notwithstanding, La Jetee is a silent movie. It can't be a talkie because it isn't even a walkie, as it were, and the absence of dialogue is a big part of why the film works. Even more than bodies in motion generally (walkie), when we see - not hear, my point is visual - when we see jaws and lips in motion specifically (talkie), we are especially susceptible to cognitively processing this as temporally grounded. That is, we see speech as occurring in-time, indeed, usually in real time. Both the premise of time travel and the intense atmosphere of La Jetee are well served by the negation of our cinematic sense of real time. This negation is achieved through the film being a black hole of non-motion. This non-motion I have already ascribed to the film being a stream of stills. But, ironically, it is the lack of anything in the audio stream suggestive of real time, particularly dialogue that makes the film LOOK temporally inert.
Hence, we are ripe to believe in the science fiction time-dynamism called for by the plot because our feeling of time standing still legitimates the narrative going back and forward in time. Still. Back. Forward. It's all fair game as a result of us being emotionally imprisoned by the atmosphere of the film. This touches on an almost gothic level of horror by rendering historical linearity meaningless. The fall-out is vacillation between memory as a cause of insanity and life as a permanent nightmare - oops! - redundant. That all of this is in the context of a given World War Three, with society barely surviving in a subterranean hell, to be saved only by the most sinister science - seriously, you've got one powerfully disturbing little film.
Excellent. Rod Serling meets Bergman with a broken film projector and cereal bowl full of battery acid.
>>>>>>>>>Dan Briefly Interjects: And what about the single moment of action in the film, when she turns to the camera and smiles? Isn't that about the most beautiful momen in the history of movies?
Okay, I exaggerate. But it's fucking awesome, nonetheless. More on this one later, after I've had a good night's sleep. It is one of my very favourite films.
Then Ben Carries On:
You refer to the smile as the single moment of action. Of course, this is not actually the case. Like everything else, it is a still shot of a smile (noun) not motion pictures of smiling (verb). Still - ha! - and yet, you are so correct. Because, as we all know from our own feeble attempts to "catch" people genuinely smiling when we snap off a shot for the family album, this "catching" is a matter of entering into real movement in time. I elaborate on this because you highlighting the emotional power, the single interjection of beauty, of the smile shot supports my previous discussion about how we SEE - again, not hear, my point is visual - time, usually grasped by us as real time no less, when we look upon mouths in motion. It is the sight the speech-act that most dramatically signals human activity/temporality. This is because compared to any other bodily act, talking involves the body in and through space least of all. The involvement of space is so relatively minor, we are cognitively predisposed to think of speech as purely temporal. Sound, after all, is invisible, does not appear in space even though it happens there, of course. In truth, we all read lips much more than we realize we do and along with the deaf, the hearing would soon find it impossible to communicate with a ventriloquist. But this materialist return to the fact of the body does not vitiate my thesis about the relatively space-less aspect of speech and therefore its false impression of being full of nothing but time. Now, then, the interesting contribution you are making by pointing to the smile is that it is just like the speech-act in that it brings out all of this time stuff I've been hammering at. But at the same time, smiling is soundless and as such it does not trigger a pure-time sensibility in the same way as talking does. I hit a wall at this point, unable to explain how exactly the smile works in Le Jetee with respect to my mouth-motion analysis. All I can say is that I honestly feel I am on to something, which is not to try to take away anything from the obviously emotional power of a smile anytime and especially in something as bleak as Le Jetee.
I've got to see this film again. I can't stop thinking about it. Surprisingly, I'm not finding too much about it on the net, not that I've searched hard. But one posting did mention that there is, in fact, one shot of motion pictures in the film, a woman's eye blinking. Ah-ha! Furthermore - I'm so dense - the original narration is in French (duh). As I am hopelessly Anglo-monolingual, the narration in French would leave me lost in space... lost in time, that is.... fucking lost. I've got to see this film again
Tarkovsky tried to fix still images in motion pictures while Marker attached still photographic images in a moving program. Tarkovsky was trying to "sculpt in time" what Marker achieved with a slide show.
What! You thought you were gonna get out of this without me referring to Tarkovsky?
I have decided that my visual analysis of mouth movement may (or may not!) be interesting in its own right (and possibly even correct somehow), but it is a digression from my initial (yes, worthwhile) observation about La Jetee being not just a series of stills but also a silent movie. This is only partially correct as there is an audio track with some narration (thank god), music (excellent) and whispering (freaky). But these are used sparingly and there is a total lack of dialogue and ambient sound. The latter is key, I maintain, to the dead spatiality and inert temporality of the film's atmosphere, indeed properly understood as an anti-atmosphere if we take the term literally as physical environment. With this in (non-)place, the fantastic time travel, memory movement, dream motion of La Jetee works works works.
A pal of Marker, Resnais has been on my mind too. You may not have picked up in my attack on Merienbad that, you know, me thinks he doth protest too much. Subsequently, I did confess that I was unable to stop seeing the film in my head and already in my original review I proposed that perhaps the main problem with Merienbad is merely that it is a short film trapped in a feature length picture. Now that La Jetee has knocked the wind out of me - you wish! - I am convinced that Merienbad is also brilliant but runs far far too long. If it had been a half an hour like La Jetee...
Okay, here are a random collection of my thoughts about this film.
First, my bad. My memory clearly is as malleable as the dude in the film, cuz it is indeed a closeup of a blinking eye, not the girl’s smile, that marks the movie’s only “filmic” moment. Mebbe the eye reflects the camera’s lens, to show how we, through seeing see the world in a way that a camera does not. I dunno. It’s still a gorgeous moment, though, even if she isn’t smiling in it.
It probably comes as no surprise to you that Marker is a huge fan of Tarkovsky. His documentary (which I haven't seen) One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch is an account of how Tarkovsky worked, as Marker was given carte blanche on the set of The Sacrifice, as well as Marker's interpretation of T's films. From all accounts, it is a terrific doc and since it wasn't released until after T's death, stands as a (apparently) fine tribute to him.
Is there meaning in the action that we don't see between each of the still shots? Is it intended to mirror the nature of memory, which is not fluid, like a motion picture, but a series of sometimes disconnected shot? Is it intended to akin to literature's stream of consciousness, exploring the peculiar, non-rational nature of memory, skipping across time, space, from one impression to the next?
I think the key to Marker's approach to the film is editorial; the "film" is a natural montage, Eisenstein stripped back to the studs. Deciding angles, distance, length of each shot, determining juxtaposition, composition, each image is given increased emphasis. While the lack of dialogue focuses even more attention on the narration, without which the story would be incomprehensible, it also makes us feel the weight of each photograph. The emphasis placed upon each individual shot is immense. We are asked to consider much more deeply the emotion, the idea behind of each moment, and how it relates to the moment before and after it. In a word, montage. Tarkovsky sculpted in time, Marker froze us in it.
Surely the use of B & W photography is meant to signify something. It reminds us of the photojournalistic aspect to the photography, like a Depression Era Walker Evans or the Civil War photography of Matthew Brady or the dozens of photographers who documented the razing of Europe in WWII. All these images of the future are built upon our memories of the past, memories that have been greatly influenced by the photography of the past. It fits with the film's sense of looping backwards and forwards in time, the past affecting the present, the present informing the past as well as the future.
While technology may prove humanity's saviour, it is equal part oppressor as well. In fact, science and reason are presented as creepy representatives of the death impulse, in that there is no humanity in the way they experiment upon their subject. The poor man is trapped in Hell, moving from one horror to another in an increasingly desperate attempt to realize his dreams, and simultaneously save humanity. It is in the coordination of past, present and future that the grim irony of the film is realized. It is in the realization of his dreams that marks the protag's end. The past cannot save us in the future. But the future may be able to save us from the present.
Is the fact that our protagonist wears a mask during his travels significant? Are his journeys equal parts psychological and temporal? As we never actually go on these journeys, but only see the effect that they have upon him, could this point to Marker's purpose in La Jetee, to examine how we are damaged and deranged by the memories that we make and shape, but cannot shake. There is a paradoxical effect here, too. That is, while the man travels through time, we are locked down in time. Each shot held for several seconds, the cumulative effect being a sense of stasis, rather than movement.
Sorry for the lack of coherence--I'm doing this on the fly. But I love this film, and look forward to talking about it some more.
Then and finally Ben:
Your thoughts are perfectly coherent. Don't confuse having no thesis with being incoherent. I am generally too quick to cobble together an argument. You are raising a number of probing questions and offering a number of interpretive angles. Frankly, you are way ahead of me in your attempts to explicate what the larger themes of the work might be. I am still treading water about the power of the filmic technique to make the plot - not credible - experienceable, and this cinematic experience in turn, meaningful. What we are supposed to make of it all is higher up the intellectual food chain than I am presently feeding.
Picking up on your categorization of Marker's method as the montage of Eisenstein stripped back to the studs, Wikipedia tells me that Marker studied with Sartre. One of Sarte's fundamental concepts with which he describes and criticizes experience and consciousness in capitalist modernity is "seriality." This is a kind of ahistorical, mechanical violation of lived time, which positivistically turns existential reality into "this" atomistic event, next "that"atomistic event, connected but not genuinely related, an alienated series. Ring a bell with the negative stasis of La Jette?
I am tickled pink(o) to be told that Marker and Tarkovsky were into each other.