Sunday, June 3, 2012

La Jetée (1962) - #387

This man was chosen because of his obsession with an image from the past.

For a film of such brevity - a mere twenty-nine minutes, including credits, and only 1244 words in the English-version script, Chris Marker's La Jetée, has generated an inordinate amount of praise and fascination ever since it emerged, as if an emissary petition from humanity's future, from the more ethereal realms of the French nouvelle vague in 1962. La Jetée wasn't Marker's first film - he'd been making short political and avant garde documentaries, collaborating with directors like Alain Resnais and others for the previous ten years - but it's clearly the starting point for the vast majority of cinephiles who've come to admire his work. A cursory sampling of user reviews from IMDb reveals a few of the more extravagant compliments aimed at this film:

The most heartbreakingly despairingly romantic science fiction film ever made...  one of the most sublime moments in all cinema... not only the most important work of science-fiction cinema since Fritz Lang's masterwork Metropolis, but is also one of the most staggering achievements in the entire history of film... A masterpiece of the highest order. If there's anything like perfection, this short film would be the epitome of it... quite possibly the greatest film ever made...
I'll grant that I've cherry-picked through quite a few comments in order to put that selection together, but the fact remains, they said it, not me. Personally, I think they've over-hyped this modest and exceedingly clever little film, with the effect that most viewers who come to La Jetée after reading such effusive adoration are likely to either feel a sense of disappointment at not being completely blown away by the experience or some degree of peer pressure to regard it (sincerely or not) as one of the most astonishing, mind blowing events of their lifetime. At least, that was my experience upon first watching the film several years ago, when the DVD was first released. While I found the film intriguing, ingeniously constructed and highly admirable for what it was, I still don't quite see the justification for placing it in the most rarified stratosphere of cinematic spectacles. I doubt that it will even go down as my favorite film of 1962. So my intention here is to restore a little balance to the equation, by playing along with the mind-bending visual and narrative puzzle that Marker constructed and illustrated with such meticulous discipline. In that regard, pertaining to his efficiency and brilliance in assembling his photographs and sound design to mesh so seamlessly with the slim narrative, he certainly deserves a lot of credit. But still, it's hard for me to put an artist, even one as talented and perceptive as Marker clearly is, at the top of the auteurist ranks when my gut tells me that for the most part, when all is said and done, he's mostly just messing around with us. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

If you haven't seen La Jetée or need a refresher, you can check it out here:

So here are some comments and questions that arise in my mind as I watch and try to figure out, for the umpteenth time, just what it is that's going on in La Jetée...

What is the meaning of that brief little flash of text at the beginning when the word recherche is replaced with trouvaille for just a split second in the opening credit that reads "Avec la participation du Service la Recherche de la R.T.F."? I watched all the supplemental material on the disc but no explanation was provided.

Was this the first example of the "photo-roman" (a montage of still photos spliced together to construct a narrative) on film, or was Marker imitating some other innovative forerunner who adapted the print media's early 60s experiments with
fumetti, a technique that never really caught on in cinema. (I'm struck by the thought that the proportion of still images to motion photography in La Jetée is approximately inverse to that same proportion of moving to still images in my previous review here, of Jules and Jim, which runs about 3.5 times as long...)

One of the cast members (I have no idea what role he plays) is named Philbert von Lifchitz, a name so incredible that I cannot help but mention it here. (Ligia Borowcyk also deserves honorable mention, and Bill "William" Klein also makes an appearance here, notable because he went on to direct some pretty wild and visually stupendous films which you can see in the Eclipse Series set dedicated to his work.)

"the fall of a body... shrieking people... only later did he realize he had seen a man dying... (electronic humming over black leader)... And soon afterwards, Paris was blown up." That's quite a magnificent transition! The insertion of old post-WWII footage to evoke impressions of a future destruction awaiting the fabled City of Lights is quite effective, especially considering that the majority of adult viewers in 1962 probably had some visual recollection of that damage and were currently living under the shadow of thermonuclear holocaust initiated by either the USA or USSR.

Marker really exploits that guy with the vacant, thousand-mile stare for all it's worth.

The optical gear worn by citizens of the future is amusing and ingenious, in a steam-punk kind of way.

I'm a bit perplexed by (though willing to go along with) the notion that some kind of drug-induced trance or hypnosis can realistically be considered a reliable conduit for time-travel. The brevity of the film allows Marker to bypass any question about what happens to the body of The Man (as he's listed in the credits) when he goes backward in time (or forward, for that matter.) Does the body just lay there in its hammock? At best, I see their experiment as some form of astral projection, so that whatever impressions or relationships he perceives must be purely mental, not physical. And yet, we're led to assume that when he goes back and forth in time, he's really being transported to the past or the future, as the case may be.

What kind of drugs did Marker have access to in 1962 to inspire this speculative dystopian fantasy anyway?

And where does the internet fit into this scenario?!?

The accelerated heart rhythms certainly contribute to a collective dread and anxiety experienced by the audience.

Children, birds, cats and graves. The face of happiness. Headless torsos, obsession-worthy images from humanity's disappearing past. A face without a nose... a nose without a face. Sinister whispers.

The Vertigo homage, a fixed, static profile of The Woman, placed at the exact center of the film. A clue that I was tipped off to while watching one of the supplemental features on the DVD and Blu-ray. Check it out for yourself if you haven't already; I think it's a much more persuasive explanation of Marker's intentions than any written review I've seen online.

Even though the filler images don't stick in the memory as much as the more crucial scenes accompanied by pointed voice-over narration, they are just as essential in creating the atmosphere of ordinariness necessary to create the overlay of plausibility that ultimately allows La Jetée to work.

The Man's intent staring at The Woman while she sleeps - a mix of adoration, lust, curiosity and revulsion as he contemplates her simultaneous warmth and aliveness even as he understands that in the world he truly inhabits, she is already dead and ultimately unattainable. And yet, here she is... within reach, responsive, touchable.

Their relationship turns out to be a simple commodity, manufactured and owned by the scientist/torturers who exert final control over The Man's destiny. Even in the afterglow of the exquisite blink, The Man is swiftly torn away, back under the steely impassive gaze of his master, only to be thrust back into another phase of the experiment, finding himself reunited with Her and surrounded by specimens of poor dumb brute animals, soon to be extinct in the radioactive future but in this illusion of the past, just inertly domesticated and preserved for our curious amusement.

Again, that glowering condescending face... Now, on to the future.

A prophecy soon to be fulfilled: the album cover of With/Meet The Beatles, revealed nearly two years ahead of its time:

I'm at least somewhat heartened by the notion that "the men of the future" could be persuaded to hand over a superior power-supply, powerful enough to supply the industrial needs of the past, to this "slag of another time," without invoking their intellectual property rights or trying to negotiate payment of future royalties in exchange for their precious knowledge. Clearly The Man had landed in a more enlightened and altruistic era than the one we currently inhabit.

On the other hand, sinus congestion must be a serious plague awaiting humanity hundreds of years or more from now. How else to explain the fancy apparatus they wear across the bridge of their nose? I don't think that fashion has anything to do with it.

That sad, pitiful moment when The Man realizes he had just been a tool in their hands (apply that metaphor as insidiously or masturbatorily as you care to), taking their bait and running with it despite never having any chance whatsoever at breaking the line once and for all that allows them to reel him back in whenever they please.

So The Man, deep in his limbos, gets another visitation from the Men of the Future who request that he join them in their pacified future. Ever the non-conformist, the free-thinking individual, a rebel who does his own thing, he refuses their offer and makes his own choice... a pre-destined option, as it turns out, exactly the thing that they knew he would do if asked to make a decision, one that leads to his own inevitable doom and destruction.

The Man's left wrist is wrapped in a bandage... what's up with that? Is there a meaning or purpose to it? What about his T-shirt, bearing the words "El Santo" and some kind of comic book image (a saint? a superhero? a Mexican wrestler?) A significant detail, or just some obscurantist bunny trail that Marker tossed in on a lark? I doubt we'll ever know for sure, so just make of it what you will. But the wrapped wrist and the gloved left hand are prominently displayed in the culminating death scene, when The Woman's "ghost" of a friend becomes a ghost for real, and La Jetée draws to its taut, sudden climax.

Death on the pier.

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