La Jetee

(France - 1962)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jean Negroni, Davos Hanich, Helene Chatelain
Genre: Sci-Fi
Director: Chris Marker
Screenplay: Chris Marker
Cinematography: Chris Marker & Jean Chiabaut
Composer: Trevor Duncan
Runtime: 28 minutes

Great successes like La Jetee are the reason I'd always rather tolerate a bad original movie than waste my time with these rehashes, remakes, and sequels that litter the theatres today. By trying something, at least there's a chance it might work. It might even add something to the art form and expand our horizons. Maybe it will turn out worse than the trashed masterworks of the supposed auteur Steven Fodderbergh, whose dumbed down films might occasionally retain enough quality to still be decent or once in a great while even good but in the end are still pointless and needless. Original and unique are bandied about by critics far too often, but La Jetee is an extremely rare case where they are not only applicable (there are a few successors including Marker's latest - Remembrance of Things to Come) but are primary reasons for success.

La Jetee is a prime example of why less is often more. It's hard to understand why the big budget films are getting longer at the same time the films refuse to be the least bit challenging and the belief is that everyone's attention span has reached a record low. The material should dictate the amount of time needed, but these days a few minutes worth of material is being stretched to 90 or more minutes, resulting in the movies primarily consisting of cliched filler. Chris Marker had enough material for a short, and despite the difficulty of getting them show, he was willing to make one. The big budget version 12 Monkeys stretched his story out to 129 minutes, losing much of the original power and meaning in the process.

More than Marker's story, his techniques are what demanded the short running time. Aside from a transcendent moment, his film is comprised entirely of black-and-white still photos (backed by a narration and score). This transformation of photography into cinematography, or stripping of film to its essence is interesting enough, but presenting the vast majority of stories in this way would be nothing more than a gimmick. Two hours of this would might be nothing more than dull.

One reason the film works is its method and truth is in unison. One thing Marker is showing by using stills is our recollections are motionless fragments marked by the surroundings. His story is predominantly about memory, with the scientists choosing a man fixated on a certain image from his past (to them this means he has a strong memory) to send through time because the images have to be extracted from his brain. Marker could have used color photos, but black and white allows for more toying with contrast and suits the underground post nuke setting and noirish story. Marker could have mixed colors or thrown in some fancy effects, but what's lost in all this technique is rhythm. The consistency doesn't distract you from the story, which is ultimately what makes this a memorable film rather than an experimental slide show.

The absence of effects allows the images to pass very fluidly without calling special attention to themselves. I saw the film twice before I stopped to consider its stills were being presented in cinematic terms. Rather than following the traditional time lapse rhythm of photo shoots, Marker takes a storyboard type approach, with his camera placement, suggested movement, and editing allowing us to envision what the movie would look like if it was done in the traditional manner. But the point is not to imagine what could be, as the motion is nothing more than projecting the stills at a speed quick enough to lie, but to realize what is. The truth in cinema and memory - the data - is essentially the same. If there's a flaw in the film it's that there's too much and too clear data in the memories. I would have blacked out portions in some of the images and made some objects blurry because even though all the details are in your brain, you don't always get the complete file.

The soundtrack is extremely important to La Jetee because, though the images suggest a lot, they are inherently stagnant and gapped. It's a rare case where the soundtrack has to be manipulative because otherwise the photos might come and go before you knew what to make of them. What the soundtrack is doing is providing the consistency that the still images can not. The soundtrack is the kind you might associate with Goblin (though it predates them) - very complex for it's day, utilizing various voice and sound effects, reverberation, and ambient noises. The heart throbbing is particularly effective, but the reason this stands out as such an unnerving portion is Marker understands how to use the soundtrack. This isn't one of those blaring aural attacks, there are times when you don't even notice it, which is why it can stand out so much when it needs to.

The freeing of the mind, or in this case more the memory, seems a constant among the best science fictions. It's not the world that's created, it's the audiences' curiosity about the rules, mysteries, differences and their effect, and so on. This is why films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky's (real) Solaris & Stalker (Marker is a big admirer of Tarkovsky, the subject of his great documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch)
are so engaging and effective. They might be long, slow, and sparse on dialogue, but they don't bog you down and they certainly don't toss the rulebook at your feet. They rely on ideas, both theirs and yours. Unfortunately, the trend now due to The Matrix is to drop the load on you. Announcing the topic of the lecture and spouting a bunch of philosophy as fact at another character doesn't engage the viewer in any way; they just sit there listing to a bunch of one liners that aren't funny. In trying to be so "smart", this type of movie only succeeds in shutting the audiences' brains off.

One reason the narration in La Jetee works is the narrator is essentially talking to you. In the aforementioned brand of pretentious "smart" sci-fi, the character that's in the know tells the other character(s) this is the way it is and that's the end of it. Thus, the audience's only role is eavesdropper. Here, there is no spoken dialogue between the characters (technically the scientists whisper to each other, but they do so in a language only they can understand), so the audience is being directly addressed at all times. We are given a handful of facts throughout the story and put in the place of the imprisoned hero, referred to as "the man whose story this is". We are led along through his journey, not preached to, and like him we don't know where it's going or exactly what to believe. Marker's work, which aside from this film is of the non-fiction variety often focusing on Japan, great foreign directors, or photography, is never authoritarian. In fact, he goes so far in the other direction that his most profoundly truthful statements come off as offhand comments. He urges us to think and formulate our opinions, and gives us some time to do so. It is through this style of narration that we are engaged by the story.

What's so unusual about the story is it doesn't cherish science. The technology offers a chance for humanity to survive, but technology is what has destroyed everything in the first place. There is none of the expected championing of humanities triumphs; no excitement about the scientists experiments in time travel because their repercussions, the shock of an adult being reborn in a new time period, drives most of the human lab rats insane. The film is subtly very powerful against nuclear weapons. It doesn't give the usual sermon about their dangers, but shows how much we'd miss the ordinary things we take for granted once it was too late. Instead of "cool" explosions the memorable scenes occur in places most anyone could go like the park or the museum. The power of the film lies in its simplicity and its ability to engross us in the story to the point we are moved by the longing for real children, birds, and bedrooms.

Two of the key themes are closure and impermanence. What makes the story so good is it appears to be a tragedy but in the end you aren't sure whether to feel happy or sad about the man's journey. He goes from one undesirable position to another; prisoner in the underground to scientific guinea pig. By doing so he is able to have a romance with the girl he saw at the airport whom he's desired all his life, but he knows she is now dead and as with dreams he cannot control their encounters and knows each might be the last. He is also able to find out the meaning of the image that's been haunting him all his life, but that answer is the end of him. Live to desire, die to resolve. The tradeoff is played out in a more extraordinary manner here, but the question is still whether life is a success if one experiences and discoverers what they set out to?





* Copyright 2003 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *