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La Jetée (Chris Marker) 1962

    All cinematic expression, in a way, is the yearning to recreate an artist’s memory of a feeling strongly felt. Even when the film that’s created is entirely fictional, the director will ideally have a passionate response to the material, and the energy to make the film will be borne and recycled from that initial gut response. The race to create the image held in the mind’s eye before it dissipates seems the foremost challenge of moviemaking. There’s little that’s truly spontaneous when lurching through the technical logistics involved in making a movie, and any film that is shot has to be further condensed and primped in the editing room before it’s ready for our consumption. As such, one can understand that the medium lacks the impulsive immediacy in its creation that is inherent in some other forms of artistic expression. This makes the accessibility with which it ideally strikes the viewer all the more impressive. Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, a science fiction story told almost entirely with still images, seems to address many of these issues in its construction.

   Surely, it can be no mistake that the method of time travel that the protagonist uses in the story is propelled by his recreation of past memories. He moves about his memories as if they were reality, slowly becoming more adept at turning his subjective world into an objective one. A singular image fixed in his mind opens the floodgates to many more. The stunning culmination of his desires, in which he comes the closest to recapturing his past that never was, is a transcendent moment where the stills achieve brief cinematic movement. That burst of cinema is the end result of the protagonist’s arduous struggle and his moment of glory. He has been directing his own story, using a fragment of himself as his inspiration. It has to be noted, then, that his glimpse of transcendence comes up a bit short, since it remains something other than the complete recreation of reality that he strives for. Cinema remains cinema, even if it is closer to being real than a succession of photographs. The bittersweet ending of the film is the only appropriate one, because of the hubris of the lead character who believed he could truly recapture the past in such a way.

    Surely then, the film seems almost a critique of cinema’s fallibility, and that argument might stand a chance if La Jetée were not such a stunning example of how infallible the best of films can be. The narrative, despite any metaphysical paradoxes that it might raise, creates a tight loop of incident in which a man simultaneously realizes his past, present, and future. The photographed black and white stills have a uniformly grainy look to them, suggesting memory is a hazy and unreliable stand-in for reality while evoking the photography that documented France’s razing during World War II. The images of destruction are recycled ones, pretending to show us a future yet to come, but in reality showing the past’s ruin, making their use thematically relevant. That Marker builds a considerable amount of suspense without the use of traditional performances or tricks is impressive. That the movie feels kinetic despite its lack of moving objects is even more remarkable. Though the images remain still, the camera does not. One gets the impression that his omnipotent camera is scanning these slices of time, trying to animate them, much like the protagonist attempts to revitalize his memories. The palpable desire to recreate and rewrite reality (play God?) is the dominant theme here. Perhaps, as Marker suggests, this is the most fundamental struggle of the artist. As such, La Jetée, which eloquently makes that profound struggle its subject, strikes the viewer as one of the most cohesive expressions found in the art form.


**** Masterpiece

Jeremy Heilman