Shadows & Windows: On Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” (1962)

A shot of a hooded "glasses man" from Chris Marker's "La Jetee".

[For a video discussion of Chris Marker’s La Jetée between automachination’s Alex Sheremet and photographer Joel Parrish, click here.]

It is not uncommon for one to imbue more into another than what is actually there; where time and memory are no longer obstacles, and on the outside exists some narrator. Everything then becomes ordered according to some standard. Memories uphold our moments as though they were poles in a tent, but remove them from our minds and we are left formless and limp. Free, possibly, to build into some other identity. Or perhaps left wandering some empty wartime world.

Chris Marker’s La Jetée finishes in just under 30 minutes and offers a narrative via voiceover and still pictures. Before us lives the war torn cities, the silence of metal and transport. Time is no obstacle, as humans can easily cross from one moment into another, seamlessly and without plans:

Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on they do claim remembrance when they show their scars. That face he had seen was to be the only peacetime image to survive the war. Had he really seen it? Or had he invented that tender moment to prop up the madness to come? The sudden roar, the woman’s gesture, the crumpling body, and the cries of the crowd on the jetty blurred by fear.

The world has been at war and a man and woman meet despite ageless loneliness. These people are whatever we wish them to be, as there are no words muttered by either. Their voices are silent, as their events are explained via the voice of the narrator. Night passes into sleep, and the woman rests peacefully. We watch her as though she were on display, as if at a museum. ‘A museum of memory,’ the narrator explains. Later, we witness a menagerie of ageless animals—unmoving and preserved, as the couple walks through.

Sci-fi mystery, psychological exploration of memory, a distillation on identity—all would be correct when describing Chris Marker’s 1962 seminal classic. In this sense, both the man and woman can be whomever we would like, as we watch them move via these still images. Perhaps one of this film’s most remarkable aspects is that upon memory, we don’t witness the same stillness, as our minds bridge each image into its own living motion. ‘No memories, no plans, time builds painlessly around them,’ the narrator notes, as we watch from shadows and windows. We, as observers, have become part of the storytelling legacy.

La Jetée captures one’s longing for elsewhere, but in order to long for something, must we also carry on in memory? Without remembering, would the world exist without pain? From where would we learn, grow, and become? Much of personality emerges via not just what we remember but how we choose to remember it:

Above ground, Paris, as most of the world, was uninhabitable, riddled with radioactivity. The victors stood guard over an empire of rats. The prisoners were subjected to experiments, apparently of great concern to those who conducted them. The outcome was a disappointment for some- death for others- and for others yet, madness. One day they came to select a new guinea pig from among the prisoners. He was the man whose story we are telling. He was frightened…

Sometimes one of the most effective tactics for an audience is a character with little background. Think of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where we know little about Travis’s past. Within that film, he shuffles among the crowded streets, working nights where time becomes something ageless. Nights turn into more nights and the days are gone. In a sense, he too is time traveling, albeit through a different type of war—the war of New York City’s crime and filth.

Imbuing into others can bring forth both a comfort and danger. Who is this person and who are we to assume they are what they claim? Do they know more than we? Or are we all merely strangers amid this wartime museum of place? Each of us can be anyone, even to ourselves, where we live on with and without memory.

To say that La Jetée is a great film would not do it justice, as there is simply nothing else like it. Perhaps the film it most reminds me of is My Dinner With Andre, where much of that film is dialogue that speaks of previous moments and also memory. Yet we too are observers and we experience these moments via the characters’ retelling. (As example, when Andre is relaying his story about a ritual burial, we experience it visually within our own minds.) Likewise, La Jetée, while told via still images, doesn’t feel so still when remembering it:

And deep in this limbo, he received a message from the people of the world to come. They too traveled through Time, and more easily. Now they were there, ready to accept him as one of their own. But he had a different request: rather than this pacified future, he wanted to be returned to the world of his childhood, and to this woman who was perhaps waiting for him.

It has been said that war occupies its own kind of time, and even more so in its aftermath. A Third World War is not so alien a concept, especially given the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which I mention within my review of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. However we, as onlookers, must hope it doesn’t happen, as our loved ones pass on and food and basic needs run scarce. What is it we fear? Whose blood runs into that single, red line? Somewhere, soldiers wait for hours that feel like only minutes to an onlooker, as their events are collected into a solitary, forgotten moment. Memories die with the mind, unless some artist can elevate them into something significant. Among the aloneness, is everywhere. Aloneness is everywhere. This, we remember.

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