*Note — I do not own the rights to any video here, they are presented for your enjoyment and learning only. See David Lynch discussing surrealist cinema in two parts below and the entirety of Chris Marker’s La Jetée below this write-up.
Film is undoubtedly one of the more potent ways to artistically examine memory. Film has a one-of-a-kind power to evoke memory, mold it, form it and — perhaps most importantly — examine, prod and question the mechanics of HOW we remember.
Chris Marker’s remarkable little film, La Jetée (1962) does all this and more and holds a pretty powerful sway over great film-makers like David Lynch. A film that, yes, did much to spawn Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi classic Twelve Monkeys (1995) starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Chris Marker is even credited as a writer for Gilliam’s film because of La Jetée.
Before examining Marker’s film however, it is worthwhile to take a quick look at Marker the man because of his very interesting and eccentric life. He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on July 29, 1921 in Neulilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, France. Allegedly taking his name from the Sharpie Marker, he was a notoriously private artist, very rarely giving interviews, and — many have speculated — attending his films’ screenings in disguise.
Marker studied philosophy with Sartre in the 1930’s, fought the Nazis in WWII as a part of the French Resistance, and later taught at L’Institut Des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (often abbreviated L’IDHEC) La Fémis which is the film school. He made over 24 films in a career spanning sixty years, his first being Olympia ’52, a 16mm feature documentary with the 1952 Olympic Games in the Finnish capital as its subject.
He was a very versatile and politically active artist too, supporting Barack Obama’s 2008 run for the US Presidency by making and selling t-shirts using his famous cat graphic, seen in his experimental films like Sans Soleil (1983), and sporting the quote, “Cats go Barack.”
He produced 1967’s Far from Vietnam, with Godard and Resnais, which opposed US involvement, and even sent film stock to Patricio Guzmán in Chile to document the 1973 coup after the US pulled all film stock it sent to the country over ideological differences with the rebels. The result was The Battle of Chile: Part I (1975).
One of Marker’s last works was a CD-ROM called “Immemory” promoting user interactivity with over 20 hours of film stills, clips, and bits of text and sound sorted into several categories like poetry, travel, photography, and cinema.
Marker died in 2012 on his birthday, July 29, at age 91.
The film Marker will likely be remembered most for is undoubtedly 1962’s La Jetée however (it, along with many of Marker’s other works can be watched via the spectacular streaming service filmstruck.com which offers a free trial membership). The film is a 28 minute apocalyptic tale of WWIII, told from the perspective of one man who is forced into a series of time travel experiments in the hope of finding a cure for the famine, disease, and general malaise which plague his future.
It is not La Jetée’s sci-fi themes that initially hooked me. I, truthfully, am not a fan of science fiction because it typically strains the bounds of my believability. To me, La Jetée is very different from typical sci-fi for two reasons. First, is the experimental way in which Marker filmed the piece: La Jetée is literally composed almost exclusively of a series of still images with a voice-over, the only live shot in the 28 minute piece is the shot of the story’s woman blinking.
This series of still images is really an exceptional way of framing the central theme of the story: a study of memory. Our poor, experimented on, man is repeatedly transported to a one-on-one interpersonal memory of a time with a woman throughout the story. We see all the drama of a typical romantic relationship play out (with extra dramatic flair in the apocalyptic nature of the story), but in a exquisitely dream-like way because of the snail’s pace frame rate of La Jetée. The stills are in many ways representative of how we often remember our dreams: picture by picture.
This theme of memory is driven home by one of the film’s principal influences: Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), reflected also in Sans Soleil, and Marker’s Notes on Vertigo. Vertigo itself is highlighted rather profoundly in Twelve Monkeys, with the Hitchcock Theater in the film.
The desolation of the film is a fine allegory to what happens when memories become corrupted too. Our once idyllic places to retreat mentally become like a war zone — destruction everywhere until the place (memory) is ultimately forgotten. We see this very eloquently elucidated in the WWIII-ravaged Parisian streets and countryside.
This study of memory that La Jetée is is also further driven home by the films that were influenced by it: namely the more overtly psychological works of David Lynch, including Lost Highway (1997), and Mulholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006), read my analyses of all three by clicking their titles.
La Jetée thus hits on multiple fronts. Fans of not just sci-fi will enjoy it, but it should not be missed by devotees of the best in very psychological story exposition, and also very experimental cinema which all adds up to a pretty profound study of memory. Marker’s work stands the test of time for its innovative methods, solid story structure, and profound influence over other titans of film.
See the entire 26 minutes of La Jetée below:
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: email@example.com as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.