How do your memories, your visual memories, come to you, as stills or as moving pictures? I have a hunch about this, but I wonder if the answer is generation-dependent, photographs no longer holding the monopoly on our access to the past they once did. Still, there’s something poignant about the arrested moment, the sense of having stopped time. It’s surely one of several reasons why La Jetée (1962), despite being a featurette (it’s only 28 minutes long), remains the mysterious French filmmaker Chris Marker’s most famous movie. Despite being a featurette, yes, and maybe even despite not exactly being a movie. Comprised of still photographs, voice-over narration, music and soundscapes, La Jetée calls itself a photo-roman. It is something between cinema, comic books, photo albums, radio drama and storytelling. And it’s a perfect marriage of form and content, this “story of a man marked by an image of his childhood,” an image of someone dying on the pier at Orly Airport, an image that is actually two images: he also remembers a woman’s lovely face. The man is one of a small number of survivors of World War III, forced to live underground due to poisonous levels of radiation on the planet’s surface. Because his fixation on this childhood image is so acute, so powerful, some rather sinister scientists select the man for an experiment in time travel, a way “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.”
Marker was inspired in part by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and the homage made explicit by a scene in which the man and a woman, just like Scotty and Madeleine, examine the rings in an old tree as a way to read time. Like Vertigo, La Jetée is about projection and morbid nostalgia, about the desire to fashion the current object of one’s affection into a copy of someone long-lost—and in both films, the current object of affection and the long-lost love are the same person. The woman is played by Hélène Chatelain, an actress about whom I know little, but whose screen presence, whose captivating ability to transmit thought and emotion in just a handful of still images, is absolutely essential to the haunting power of La Jetée. There is a sequence, which could be memory or dream, in which the man remembers watching the woman sleep, the images of her slumbering head draped in light shadows, dissolving one into the other until that astonishing moment when this photo-roman, ever so fleetingly, becomes motion picture.
from Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968)
So this singular little masterpiece of French cinema is a genre film, a work of science fiction—another reason to love it. It could be a Philip K. Dick story. And it inevitably became a major influence on subsequent films, most obviously 12 Monkeys (1995), which Edmonton's Metro Cinema will be screening as a double-feature with La Jetée on May 24th, and which is essentially a big-budget, star-studded, elaborately designed extrapolation of La Jetée, though there are many, many others. (An eerie coincidence: between watching La Jetée and 12 Monkeys on DVD at home, I went out to a screening of Je t’aime, Je t’aime, Alain Resnais’ rarely seen 1968 film, which I bought a ticket to for no other reason than it’s being a rarely seen Resnais. I knew absolutely nothing about it. But my jaw dropped when about ten minutes in I realized it was about a guy haunted by an event from his past who’s selected by a group of scientists for an experiment in time travel! Also, for the record, it is deeply creepy, intermittently baffling, and very, very good.)
Maybe coming right off of the narrative elegance and emotional complexity of Chris Marker (and Alain Resnais) spoiled me. Maybe I’ll just never completely get the ostensible appeal of Terry Gilliam’s trademark cartooniness, his Dutch angles and bulbous long-lens close-ups. (This cartooniness strikes me as much more controlled and effective in what’s widely accepted as Gilliam’s masterpiece, 1985’s Brazil.) Maybe, no matter how much I’ve grudgingly come to admire his work in recent years, I’ll never stop feeling annoyed when Brad Pitt acts “crazy” and surrenders to that fidgety finger flinging he does when he seems to not know what else to do. (And yes, Pitt was nominated for an Oscar for this.) Maybe all of the above and other biases dulled my experience, but 12 Monkeys left me underwhelmed. The film utilizes every essential aspect of La Jetée’s story, yet seems to have misplaced that story’s soul.
That paucity of soul certainly can’t be blamed on any lack of woundedness being conveyed by Bruce Willis, in the role that seems to define his battered and bruised, vulnerable macho man persona. (He actually gets pretty hysterical at points.) And it’s hardly as though there’s any lack of imaginative production design: those cavernous, at times seemingly infinite interiors; the frost-encrusted post-apocalyptic surface ruins overrun by wildlife (who apparently aren’t affected by radiation?); the subterranean cages in vertical rows that make it look like living in the future will be like being trapped in a mine for your entire life. (Though all of these locations are weirdly over-lit, or just ugly-lit.) Perhaps it’s simply that, for all its 129 minutes of impressive spectacle, 12 Monkeys never takes the time to stop time, to suspend us in a single moment-image like the one that marks the man. Perhaps the only way to travel through time is to learn how to be truly still.