This entry is part of the TCM Discoveries Blogathon hosted by The Nitrate Diva. Please click on the link at the bottom for a full list of participating bloggers.
“Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance, on account of their scars.”
The above quote, from Chris Marker’s La Jetée, I chose as one apropos to the films of Chris Marker and my relationship to La Jetée. The primary themes of Marker’s films are memory and time, and for me, discovering La Jetée is a good memory from a bad time. About a decade ago, I was having my second long struggle with depression and anxiety disorder. As was the case with my first bout, on days when getting out of bed was a task I was not equal to, I found solace in cinema. I would turn on TCM and regardless of what was airing, I watched. Good, great, bad, mediocre, drama, comedy, thriller, musical. I watched. Most of those were ordinary moments, being a largely painful stretch they have thankfully evaporated. I cannot remember 95% of the movies I saw during that period, but I can, in minute detail, remember La Jetée.
At 4:30 AM following the TCM Import, what I thought was going to be one of those old and/or odd shorts that TCM uses as time filler began. When I saw the Janus Films logo I knew I was wrong. When from a black screen came the whir of jet engines, followed by a still photo of Orly airport, chorale singing, and then the voiceover: “This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood” I knew I was very wrong. In less than two minutes, with two sounds, one image and fourteen words, I was hypnotized, I was in another world. And for the next 25 minutes I was a captive to this film, transfixed on the my television screen until the last image and line of voiceover rendered me slack jawed.
Wait…what happened? What did I just watch?
La Jetée is a wholly unique film. And film is the correct word for it, because La Jetée isn’t really a movie. Save for one shot in the middle, it is comprised entirely of still photos. Although in a certain respect it does move, through brilliant editing. Marker and editor Jean Ravel’s montage is perfect. Using only still photos, knowing how long to hold an image on screen is the film’s genius, reinforcing the importance of memory. The photos were almost like faded recollections I had suppressed, washed of their color by time. Frozen moments stood before me, some long enough to burn into the imagination, some so quickly as to be a glimpse. Some in succession with dissolves to give the illusion of movement, like a reflexive wink and nod to the nature of cinema itself.
Despite its experimental nature, the film has rather straightforward narrative. Straightforward for science fiction anyway. In most films, time travel, a post apocalyptic setting, and a “mad scientist” tend to turn me off more than draw me in. In La Jetée they worked for me, along with the beauty of the images and the disquieting soundtrack to pull me farther and farther into this other world until I felt almost as though I was the protagonist. There was even an allusion to Vertigo, Marker’s (and my) favorite Hitchcock film. I was having a real moment of connection to a work of art, like in that moment it was made just for me.
The soundtrack requires further mention. The spare and frankly creepy nature of the soundscape created deepened my relation to the protagonist. Excepting the voiceover and the handful of musical cues, almost all of the sounds I heard were unnerving. Screeching, whispers and mumbles, and a loudly thumping heartbeat. The heartbeat was particularly disquieting. As anybody that has experienced a panic attack can tell you, when they come it can feel like your heart is beating right behind your eardrums. And this further added to my overall feeling that this was not a movie I was watching, but one that I was experiencing.
That feeling of experience is a solitary one for me in movie going life. I have felt films more deeply in my heart, I have certainly have had more joyful times watching a movie. But La Jetée is the only time that I felt that the frames were being projected inside my mind, not something I was viewing. If it is the film mimicking the fragmented way we remember, or just where I was mentally at the time I do not know. I do know that it has stuck with me for a decade now, the man marked by an image from childhood has claimed remembrance in my memory.
Chris Marker (1921-2012) was a poet, fiction writer, critic, essayist, photographer, filmmaker and multimedia artist. Though La Jetée is his best known work, there are many films in his idiosyncratic and singular oeuvre worth seeing; Sans Soleil, AK, and Le joli mai among my favorites.
I know. I haven’t really gone into the plot, the narrative. And I am not going to. Should you be kindly enough to have read this and you haven’t seen La Jetée, I hope I have done it enough justice with my limited writing ability to make you seek it out. And I don’t think that I can give any kind of plot summary without ruining the film. This being an entry for The TCM Discoveries Blogathon, I feel the story is a discovery you should make for yourself.