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Memories as Scars: La Jetée

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I was mesmerized watching Chris Marker’s two films La Jetée and Sans Soleil on DVD last night. It wasn’t long before I realized there are fascinating connections between Marker’s films and W.G. Sebald’s books. La Jetée (1962) is a photo-roman, the cinematic version of a photo-novel, constructed entirely of haunting still photographs and a single voice-over which relates the story. The circular narrative involves a young boy who, upon visiting Orly airport to see the planes with his parents, witnesses a death and becomes fixated on his memory of the event. Years later when Paris and presumably much of the world is annihilated by atomic warfare, the man’s obsessive memory link to this pre-apocalypse event makes him an ideal candidate for involuntary time travel experiments, conducted by his captors, who hope to discover a way to acquire medicines and supplies from the past or the future. (The conquerors speak in untranslated German, and its hard not to compare their pseudo-medical experiments with those conducted by the Nazis.) Over the course of repeated trips to pre-apocalypse Paris, the man ultimately discovers that it is he, the time-traveler, who is killed on the jetée of Orly airport to the everlasting horror of himself as a child.

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Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.

Even though La Jetée is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film (and the basis for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys), it is, like the work of Sebald, deliberately antiquarian. The film seems longer than its brief 19 minutes length. Marker’s use of still images gives it the rhythm of a slide show (while reminding us of the early films of the Lumière brothers), but the pace also results from the fact that the film is visually rich and densely allusive. There’s just a lot to look at and multiple directions to explore before the next image appears. Although I didn’t catch this the first time through, La Jetée is an homage to Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. And this, to my mind, brings things full circle back to Sebald. Marker and Sebald are both artists whose works are structured around the ideas of history, memory, nature, ritual, apocalypse. For me, some of the most evocative scenes in La Jetée occur in a natural history museum, redolent of the narrators in Sebald’s books who wander through museums and zoos. The man (and the woman he falls in love with during his time-travels to pre-apocalypse Paris) views the melancholy beauty of the twice-dead bestiary, for he alone bears the knowledge that these dead and stuffed animals are soon to become extinct as species.

La Jetée and Sans Soleil were re-released not long ago by Criterion and are available via Netflix. At Markertext, the English-language scripts for several of Marker’s films can be found, although the translation for La Jetée found there differs somewhat from the narrative on the new Criterion DVD.

 

9 Comments
  1. lothlaurien #

    I saw this incredible film once more than 20 years ago, but I remember that it was in fact not “constructed entirely of haunting still photographs”… Within the movie there is one tiny bit of film.

    July 2, 2008
  2. You are correct. I do not recall when it occurs, but there is one short moment of real-time film movement.

    July 5, 2008
  3. j #

    @everyone:
    Don’t ruin it by saying where the video moment is! It’s so sublime when it comes.

    Terry, if you’re in the NYC-metro area, you should check out the exhibit “After Nature” at The New Museum. Not so great as an exhibit, but the idea behind it was inspired by W. G. Sebald’s book of the same name. Check it out here: http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/399

    If you can’t go, the online exhibit was actually better than the physical one, i think, for reasons which would take me a page to explain, so just trust me.

    p.s. La Jetée is my all-time favorite film, and that won’t change for a while, if ever.

    September 17, 2008
  4. The style of writing is very familiar to me. Have you written guest posts for other bloggers?

    April 15, 2009
  5. Since my comment last July (and no I won’t say where the video moment is… ) I’ve bought the Criterion dvd (thank you criterion).

    I was happy to see that La Jette is as great a film as I remembered, but I was especially impressed that my teen agreed. (Still ranks as my favorite sf film.) Having read your article I had to go out and get Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys as well.

    Although we’re big Gilliam fans, and it was unquestionably well done, we just didn’t like 12 Monkeys much the first time through. I still can’t figure out if it was because it was too alike or too different from La Jette. Mr. Pitt was awesomely frightening. We watched it a second time and liked it better, quite possibly because we were watching it for itself and not comparing it.

    May 1, 2009
  6. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It
    in reality used to be a leisure account it. Glance complex to far added agreeable from you!
    By the way, how can we keep in touch?

    December 10, 2012
  7. Hmm it seems like your website ate my first comment (it was super
    long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly
    enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any points for first-time blog writers? I’d
    certainly appreciate it.

    January 1, 2013
    • Janine, just don’t censor what you write:) believe in yourself; wordpress is manageable if you are average technically minded. Good luck Steve(another Sebaldaholic!)

      January 1, 2013
  8. Janine, Blogging is really a means to an end, so everything kind of depends on why you want to blog. I initially started blogging because I wanted a place to focus on my writing and because I knew that blogging publicly about books would make me a better reader. These are still the main goals that keep me blogging on Vertigo. So my advice is just start and keep on going. When I look back at some of my earlier posts, I’m often embarrassed. But I have learned many lessons along the way and I now feel there is a bit of a community “out there” that finds interest in many of the same things I like to read.

    January 1, 2013

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