Chris Marker’s sci-fi masterpiece La Jetée (1962) is best viewed with the kind of red wine that cleverly dissociates you from the memory of a viewing. In piecing together the puzzle, some interesting discoveries are made. "Human consciousness or mind is produced in the delay or interval between being affected by an image and acting". Thank you Gilles Deleuze for your contribution to the philosophy of the hangover. I love the French and their habit of... trying to figure out what is going on around them? Post-WW II modernism, leaps of scientific innovation, and an apocalyptic hangover is Marker's recipe for enlightenment. La Jetée belongs to a somewhat ambiguous genre of filmmaking, known as the essay film.
In the “1st experiment” (running time 13:10) scene, the man first meets with his vague past on the thirtieth day. He catches glimpses of a beautiful woman, who is fleeting and as Baudelaire would describe, she is his “invitation to happiness”. However anticlimactic, the man is distracted from her image, and by nothing more than what the poetic narrator describes as “glass, plastic, terry cloth”. But why is this poetic, and why are these objects in his memory so distracting that he should lose sight of the woman he has obsessed over since childhood?
These materials can no longer be found in the apocalyptic present. In his memory, and arguably his subconscious, the woman’s beauty and that of the materials are for a time equal. He has found the woman from his past, and because this is the only thing he is sure of, his ego relaxes and enjoys the world she inhabits. She moves forward in time, and although his fear of losing her in memory/history is beautifully fleeting, materials in their stillness distract him. “Once he gets out of this fascination” with materials, “the woman is gone”.
Why are the materials so compelling? The still materials are accurate depictions of their moment in time. The materials, like the latest ipod, are uninhibited by his memory and consciousness. These materials are very attractive to the individual who can believe that by obtaining these objects, they too will truthfully depict themselves in their time. This is the world of fashion and fetishism.
The individual is disillusioned because as soon as the object is obtained it becomes chained to history, obtaining a past in the memory of the individual.
This is what the scientists in the story, the directors of the individual, do not want. They don’t want him to confuse beauty (the woman) with objects, for as he travels through memory, any previously unrecorded experience would have to be invented. This process could have the effect of replacing and confusing memories with objects other than the woman of his obsession, who exists from a previous experience of the real and not of predication. When he loses her to distraction in the market they pull the plug to focus the man on the future. The distraction dissatisfies the directors of the experiment because they believe he must subjugate his past. Therefore, to live wholly in the present of his memory or dream requires of him the ability to capture and control the fleeting moments of modern time.
Photography has the capacity to capture a single moment, and isolate it from the past and future. Chris Marker chooses photographs and not film for this reason. The man is not freely moving through memory, as he would be if he were moving through real time. Stanely Cavell offers in his cinema book that, “the depth of the automatism of photography is to be read not alone in its mechanical reproduction of an image of reality, but in its mechanical defeat of our presence to that reality”. The man is, after all, at the mercy of a Dr. Frankenstein. He is frozen in what Cavell describes as an “isolation and estrangement from the present and the foreignness of the past”. Marker portrays the experience of memory/dream without the satisfaction of the “specific simultaneity of presence and absence” in motion pictures. He is juxtaposing poetic narrative with a constrictive form. Unlike other conventional motion pictures of the time, Marker is posing both an aesthetic question, and the resulting philosophic question to his audience, as in an essay.
Like a computer, the scientists restart the web of his history in time, and he returns to her. In the median present, neither truly past nor future, they stroll through the park observing a fleeting society. He is unimpeded to witness, but is forced to remain passive as he approaches the future, for fear of losing her again if the scientists were to pull the plug. However, there comes a time when an object which represents its time so very specifically is called into question. He abstracts and lies about his combat necklace when she takes it in her hand. In order to continue with this woman into his memory’s future, he must become active and lie. Deleuze reminds us that, "if this contraction of memory becomes habitual, requiring less and less effort, we also find that the mind comes closer to matter, beccoming extended or relaxed to the point of inertia." For her sake, he takes the risk of being ruined. If for too long he invents, he could become dislodged from her moment in time, but he must save her the pain of knowing the WW III in her future, and he does so through invention and creativity. To abstract, to lie, is then to change time, and prevent the ruin of her consciousness, as is to be the case of the physical world, previously illustrated in the historical photographs of Paris in ruins post WW II.
Chris Marker joined the Maquis of the French Resistance in WWII, and experienced the horrors of war. Many found it difficult to tell their stories after the war. Marker, however, challenged the subject with a critique of modern disconnectedness. He does this by imagining a post-apocalyptic dystopia, partly as a reaction to the fear of communism. Marker uses the images from the past to tell us a story of the future. Like the work of a modern painter, he’s making a deliberate choice to reduce form to its essential elements, and question the intelligibility of their structure in isolation. Thank you red wine.
Unlike the Man of the World (who lives for the present), the scientists cannot escape their past. Radiation still prevents them from living on the surface, in the real world. However, the image that is the man’s obsession is one of his childhood and such images are immediately intelligible. He is transported into the nostalgia of his past, where he is forced to perceive the world in the discontinuous moments of fleeting memory, so that when he arrives back at the present the scientists better understand the limits in controlling the future. He doesn’t know it yet in the film, but he witnesses himself dying. Borrowed from the literary aesthetic, Marker shows us that “the ‘meaning’ of his life”, the obsessive memory he is chasing, “is revealed only in his death.” Existing in the present can be a time of invention, creativity and of clarity. The man and woman wish to stay there, “without memories or plans”. However, it’s when the man rejects the future that the fear of it traps him. In other words, he senses having it manipulated by the scientists, and “he feels – ahead of them – a barrier”. The interesting paradox is that the scientists must give him a delicately balanced chemical intoxication to slow and delay the possibility of him transgressing. In the fleeting moments spent with his obsession, a slow or delayed perception is necessary to achieve consciousness with her. If Deleuze is right that consciousness is a slowing down or delay that renders us different from matter, than to think is to place oneself outside of time as a construct of objects moving in space, and the lurking tragedy of La Jetee is that we are just bodies. We may be "bodies without organs" while alive, but death is a certainty for the main character.
To remain with his obsession he must reduce himself and this is contradictory to our understanding of love, where we desire all of ourselves and another. His continuous contractions, dramaticized in a poetic reluctance in which the viewer craves action, is what allows him to stay with her. "This slowing down or duration of mind is enabled by contraction - which allows the past to be carried into the present."
We actively engage with the images, because like the man and the materials, they are attractive as a representation of a future that we relate to because it doesn’t appear to have any major differences to our own present. The images can have more than one meaning. They have immediately intelligible meanings for the viewer, but also the meaning given through the storyteller, and finally a meaning that may arise as a result of the intersections between the two previous. “The implied presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly represents.” Theoretically speaking, each image holds an infinite number of associations. We are allowed to invent the past and future of these moments, and create meanings, filling empty sections in the puzzle of our past. The camera has been praised for extending the senses; it may, as the world goes, deserve more praise for confining them, leaving room for thought.
Later in the film, when the man’s lover awakes in motion pictures, we discover that her time becomes ours, and the meaning of the present is inexpressible. This is because the experience of film is so very similar to the most fundamental existential experience we all have, which is to meditate on the reality of our past. As Cavell writes, "that the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality”. Like the man in La Jetée, we are all often time-travelers in the present, revisiting someone we loved or even materialistic goods we obsessed over. Time, like in the novel, is primary. Just as arguably any great storyteller is rooted in the people, primarily in a milieu of craftsmen, so is Marker interested in the craft of film. In La Jetee, Marker has designed a modern experience of images, full of paradox and poetically philosophizing on our desire for romantic authenticity contrary to fetish. In her book on Deleuze, Claire Colebrook explains that "cinematic forces, or the power for a machine to connect and redistribute images, are not representations of life; they allow a power of life to become evident to the human brain." With a philosophy similar to that of Deleuze, Marker's film asks an audience to see the disconnect between seemingly appropriate relations, subverting the idea that the world can be reduced to a singular universal mechanism. Interestingly, Marker does this using a singular mechanism of capturing images (photography) irrespective of time past and present.
A bit long, but it's been a while. Thanks for reading.