William Drenttel | Essays

Chris Marker: La Jetée

For years, I've owned a copy of La Jetée, a book about the film by Chris Marker, the experimental filmmaker. Designed by Bruce Mau and published by MIT Press/Zone Books in 1993, this is one of those design books that has ascended into the realm of rare bookdom (like Learning from Las Vegas); not a single copy is offered online today, and a seasoned dealer would catalogue a fine copy for over $500, even perhaps over $1000. While Zone was the project where Mau first established himself as an intellectual designer, these were generally text-laden monographs for an esoteric scholarly audience. La Jetee, the book, is different: a photo-novel ("ciné-roman") with no text except for captioned narration. I have always thought of it as the mother of the full-bled-photography thing that Mau is known for, and that has since become a frequent conceit in contemporary design publishing.

Then I saw the film. I love the book, but it becomes only a book in the face of its original media. I remember more of this movie than the previous hundred movies I've seen. La Jetée is constructed in still images; it is a movie of photographs. The implications of this, and the statement — "I remember more..." — are enormous.

La Jetée is a 28-minute experimental film made in 1962. Though I studied film in college, I managed to miss it. It shows up as a trendy icon of cultural studies, like Jean Baudrillard or Guy Debord, in student bibliographies (frequently in those I see from Yale); in new histories of the cinema; and even through Netflix, where I finally encountered it. La Jetée is its own special occasion. Scenes are inspired by Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958). And it inspired the story of 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995). I have seen both films a couple of times and remember numerous segments. Yet, I have the most precise and vivid memory of almost every image in La Jetée.

La Jetée is a story of memory. As described by film critic Jaime Christley: "it's present-day Paris, where a young boy sees a beautiful woman at an airport, and then sees a man die of a gunshot wound from an unknown assailant. Years later, following an apocalyptic disaster that has driven a decimated mankind into underground bunkers, the boy — now grown — is afflicted by his memory of the beautiful woman so strongly that government scientists wish to use it as a means for time travel, with the hope of finding a key to restoring the world to its former condition. Naturally, he meets the woman and falls in love with her."

This description of the narrative downplays the impact of the imagery. His time travel occurs through the most makeshift of experiments; he becomes a monster resembling nothing less than the madness portrayed in the photographs of Joel Peter Witkin. As a man encountering his lover, one can only think of the films of Claude LeLouche, which would come years in the future. In our time, one is reminded especially of the Matrix. In 28 short minutes, and a few hundred still images, La Jetée competes in my mind with the most dramatic three-part, six-hour science fiction epic that Hollywood can serve up.

The photographer as editor as designer as movie-maker is all contained within the genius of La Jetée. As it stirs our emotions with memories, it also makes possible the construction of a never-to-be forgotten narrative sequence. It's so simple. It's the ultimate visual essay, the epic novel told in the most minimal and constrained number of images.

Posted in: Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [10]

It is odd to think that a book I have kept on my coffee table is worth so much. The experience of watching the movie for the first time and then tracking down Sans soleil and the people I met along the way are worth something, the book though... I don't get it.

Print some more, it is really easy. Or is scarcity "cool" like water.

As for the movie "It's the ultimate visual essay, the epic novel told in the most minimal and constained number of images."

That is not true. Zero images is the most constrained, but that involves no time. Nor does a single image. Two images, (or zero to one), is the true minimum for a time based essay.

And, I find most anything by Tufte's to be more ultimate. My downstairs neighbor might find Groening more ultimate than either.

La Jetée plays with time thoroughly, both in style and plot. However you must keep in mind that while the images are "still" the audio is not.

Image can exist within a frozen moment, but audio can not. Sound and music are one with time, but image and sight can break free.

Or so our senses like us to think. But really an image is a segment of time, captured at the shutter speed or frame rate of the camera.

It is just audio does not have the resolution of image to tell a story in a 1/60th of second.

To focus on the image of La Jetée would be to miss the story. Through narration and subtitles the story unfolds. Without either it would be beautiful, but difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand.

After you see La Jetée, see Sans soleil.

Contradiction, like the notion of randomness, is necessary to understand something more complex than oneself.

One of the premises of La Jetée — if you remember something fiercely enough, you can physically transport yourself there — is shared by a corny but oddly compelling cult favorite, Time and Again a 1970 science fiction novel by Jack Finney. The search for lost time by sifting through closely remembered details, as Proust understood, must be a universal urge.

Simliarly, Twelve Monkeys is amazingly effective for a fairly overblown Hollywoodization of a simple, lovely original, more testimony to the power of the basic idea. Designers may be interested in another precedent for Gilliam's film: the fantastical architectural renderings of Lebbeus Woods. The movie's production designers more or less "built" some of Woods's renderings without crediting him, most notably the room with the elevated chair that Bruce Willis is interrogated in. Woods sued and actually got a temporary injuction issued to halt distribution of the film about a month into its release. The film's designers used the unlikely (and unsuccessful) defense that they had seen Woods's drawings somewhere and, in effect, made the memory real. Ironic.

Michael Bierut

aside: can't check right now but i believe chris marker himself produced some pieces in book format, visual scripts, and a book re: la jetée. these were mentioned in stuart bailey's piece on richard hollis in DotDotDot 5.

Chris Marker also assisted Jean Cayrol in writing the voiceover for Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955). Marker obviously specializes in memory.

I saw La Jetée first, and after seeing Night and Fog -- with its real images of Auschwitz -- La Jetée seemed less powerful to me. Of course Night and Fog uses images of a powerfully specific place and event to assemble memory, and the reality of its historical subject makes the film itself something of an artifact (or perhaps like the buildings and events depicted, a ruin) of memory. Formally La Jetée describes similar mechanisms of memory, and in doing so it might be seen as a peculiar simulation of the earlier film.

> The photographer as editor as designer as movie-maker is all contained within the genius of La Jetée.

Bill, Perhaps it's because of my fortune to be raised in western New York — smack between Hollis Frampton's Center for Media Study in Buffalo and the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester — that when I read your post I realized the irony of how you (and many of our colleagues in the visual arts) may be overlooking Language's superiority over Image in La Jetée:.

A quote from Lucy Fischer's essay "Sound Waves":
Avant-garde artist Stan Brakhage, for example, made a conscious choice at some point in his career to treat cinema as primarily a pictorial medium. As he wrote in a letter to Ronna Page in 1966: I now see/feel no more absolute necessity for a sound track than a painter feels the need to exhibit a painting with a recorded musical background.

Opposing this point of view over the course of cinema's history has been a group of artists who regard sound as a desirable, even requisite, element of the film. In the transitional years of 1926 and 1927 when acoustic technology took over the industry, Rouben Mamoulian was immediately impressed by "the magic of sound recording" that "enabled [him] to achieve effects that would be impossible and unnatural on the stage or in real life, yet meaningful and eloquent on the screen."' Likewise, Jacques Tati has called the sound track "of capital importance,"' and Orson Welles has claimed that language is, for him, the essence of cinema. "I know that in theory the word is secondary," he has remarked, "but the secret of my work is that everything is based on the word. I do not make silent films." More recently, avant-garde artist Paul Sharits has deemed the relation of sound to visuals "the most engaging problem of 'cinema."'

Because La Jetée is mainly composed of still images — with one moving-image sequence of the woman's fluttering eyelids — the narrative, the 'caption', tells the story. It's really not a visual work; but it did make rich material for budding structuralist filmmakers and post-structuralist theorists.

You may be interested that much of Frampton's critical writings center on the problem (?) of language in film and photography. And I can also highly recommend his films nostalgia and Poetic Justice (not the Janet Jackson version). Both play with the frission between language and image in an accessible manner akin to La Jetée. In fact, Poetic Justice was reproduced in book form years before La Jetée.

To misquote Pauline Kael: We murmur 'Language' and they are sunk.
M Kingsley

I saw La Jetée's 90s incarnate, Twelve Monkeys, before I saw Marker's--the original instantly became my favorite film (it's true), and inspired me to aspire to story-telling through the medium of photography.

It still gets me, even after having watched it somewhere around 25 times. But, unless my copy is old and worn (and that's a great possibility), one of the frames is a motion picture--take a look at the part when the woman's face is on screen for some time, she clearly blinks. If it is real, and not the product of an ancient VHS relic, it's certainly beautiful that Marker chose that simple action to lend movement to.
A. Scott Britton

One of the incidental pleasures of La Jetée, the movie, is its sense of having been put together with the help of friends—like many films made in France at the period, I suppose. Among the players of minor parts are people notable in their own right: William Klein, photographer and film-maker, and Germano Facetti, who worked as an architect on Orly airport, site of the jetty in question, before being art director of Penguin Books in London.

Marker's CD-ROM, 'Immemory,' is also fascinating. The blurb on the package compares Marker to Proust, which may be a stretch, but as an artist who uses his own memories to make you think about the whole state of memory, he's in a fairly exalted class.
Matthew Carter

Nice to see this. I'm always surprised that Marker receives such a modest amount of attention — I think his work is some of the most important of the 20th century. I was exposed to his films by chance, first in an introductory cinema studies class (La Jetee), but primarily through the suggestions of my undergraduate adviser. I was originally interested in writing about Russian cinema, specifically Tarkovsky and Sokurov, and issues of memory in their work. She suggested I look at Marker's elegy to Tarkovsky, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich — after that, Sans Soleil wasn't far behind. That film was a formative experience for me. His latest, Remembrance of Things to Come, was made at the age of 80, and he's still at work today. More on Marker here and here.
Ken Meier

sheesh, the brainiest comments on my site are "But what did Bill Murray whisper to her at the end?!!?"

It's interesting how the way people come to La Jetee influences their perception of it. I first saw it as evidence that while cinema was image+sound, it didn't have to be moving image. OR moving camera. The mise en scene of photographs, so to speak, was plenty. Of course, this perception was, in part, because I saw it only after soaking in more traditionally made films that treated action and camera movement as the stars of the show.

Also: now I gots to find me that book.

I came to La Jetée through the book in the 90s before ever knowing about the movie. So for me, it was always a piece of graphic design. And when I finally saw the film, I came upon a discovery, "Look at this great book turned into a movie! Graphic design has cinematic potential." Of course, I was confused, but the revelation motivated me and furthered my design passions. Image and sound working together, in much the same fashion as a book excited me. Later I would experiment on my own using Flash as I imagined Marker would, and created short films using modern software.
Jason Tselentis

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