I’ve realized over the years that I have a thing for dystopian films. Whether they be corporate or government ruled or just post-apocalyptic visions of societies, I find stories of individuals or groups struggling against the decisions of an unjust authority or organization, is one of my favorite narrative conflicts. Ultimately, it is the little stories within the larger idea that excite my imagination. How do individuals act, react, change or not change, evolve or devolve, live or die, when faced with circumstances beyond their control? An abbreviated list of some of my favorite movie stories within these genres have been the Alien series, Blade Runner, the Mad Max series, the Planet of the Apes series, The Warriors, Soylent Green, Hardware, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, 28 Days/Weeks Later, Children of Men, Escape from New York, The Matrix series, Time of the Wolf (haunting film – I kept waiting for the zombies to appear over the hills to attack the survivors, but the real horror was how many of the people treated each other), Twelve Monkeys and of course, La Jetée.
The Story of La Jetée
La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962) has taken up a treasured space in my heart. It’s a film I first saw in college during a film history class, then at home on VHS, then in a public theatre screening and most recently on the Internet. It’s just over 26 minutes (to 29 minutes depending on the version), in black and white, is composed mostly of voice over in French, with a little bit of German and I’d guesstimate it to be composed of about 99 percent, still photographs.
As a short film, La Jetée packs a big punch. Sometime in the future, World War III breaks out and the resulting radiation from the use of nuclear weaponry drives the “survivors” and the “victors” to an underground life in France. Scientists and leaders of this last vestige of humanity begin to experiment with forced volunteers in a time travel program with the goal of sending scouts forward in time to retrieve help for their starving and dying society. The experiments begin by sending people back in time, but many of these volunteers go mad or die from the stress placed upon them. Soon the scientists, who are also capable of reading the minds of their subjects, pick the protagonist because of his obsession with a memory from his childhood of a sad woman on a pier who watches the death on an unknown man.
With him the experiments progressively prove more promising, as he is sent back in time, where he becomes friends with the woman from his memory on the pier (la jetée) at the Orly airport. As his presence is controlled and dictated by the motivations of the scientists, he comes and goes in her life over a series of days or possibly weeks, without warning. She calls him her ghost and they seem to fall in love. Then suddenly without warning he is pulled back into his own time, to complete his ultimate mission.
The scientists, confident that he will survive the future trip, send him off. He encounters the floating heads of four people (two men and two women), possibly the leaders of this future society. He pleads for assistance from them on behalf of whats left of humanity in his time. The future beings reflect upon his request and eventually give him an energy source that they conclude will help the war survivors re-start their society.
Upon the completion of his mission, the protagonist realizes that he is now expendable and will be terminated by the scientists. Miraculously, the future people come to him, in his mind, and offer to to let him stay with them in their society. He turns them down and instead requests to be sent back to the memory and the woman from his past. They send him there but as he runs to the woman on the pier, he is executed by a tracker sent by the scientists from his original time. We realize that it was his own death that was the memory that he had as a child.
The Technology of La Jetée
I recall that the first time I saw La Jetée it took me about a minute or so to realize that I was seeing still photographs at longer temporal intervals than 24 frames per second. The first shot zooms out of a wide shot of an airport and holds for a minute or so while the titles appear in the lower right hand corner. The shot is so wide that figure movement is kind of hard to seek out. Then, after the inter-titles, the next couple of shots are quick cuts of a close up of a tower and then another wide shot of the airport from a different angle, close enough to look for movement within the shot but still resulting in none. After this it becomes apparent that when people do appear in the shot they are stationery. I say all this because it by the still images, sound effects, voice over and music alone that I was immediately pulled into the story. Throughout the short film, the cuts change time intervals but are all over 1 second. The cuts at times turn into dissolves, fades and maybe even a wipe or two. The types of shots are varied from CU, MS, LS, WS and all in between from low angles to high angles, etc. Everything that one would expect to see from a moving picture is here except for the frame rate that causes our eyes to recognize what we determine to be natural motion on film, 24 fps. In a historical sense, the film is purposely using an earlier technology (still photography) to get the effect of a later technology (motion picture cameras) as it is trying to reproduce moving pictures.
There is one moment when motion appears in the film because of the use of motion picture technology. After a series of jump cuts dissolve on the face of the sleeping woman, we are ever so slightly teased by the opening of her eyes for maybe three seconds. It’s so subtle that one could miss it.
The Creativity of La Jetée
Why do I make mention of this film? Well I think, in less than 30 minutes and with its black and white still photography, voice over, sound effects and music, that it puts many bigger budgeted, dystopian movies to shame. It is minimalistic but it stimulates our visual and aural senses and has enough narrative information for us to complete the experience in our minds. I have always screened this film as an active viewer by using my imagination to fill in what Chris Marker didn’t necessarily want to show us with motion. It has always been a amazing technological experience for me.