La Jetée, or Photography as Cinema

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La Jetée by Chris Marker, 28 min, 35mm, 1962.

(Spoilers, I guess.)

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Romance is born in the time between moments.

La Jetée is a beautiful, classic film. You may have heard of or seen La Jetée before, and you have probably seen its 1990’s interpretation by Terry Gilliam; 12 Monkeys. But what no one may have told you before is just why La Jetée is so loved and revered. But, I am getting ahead of myself!

La Jetée is a little under a half an hour long, and while it is (or was originally) a 35mm film projection, almost all of the shots are composed of still photographs used as a photomontage. The film is narrated in English by a male narrator, and he tells us the story of a man in a post-apocalyptic, post World War III, world where the surface of the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, and humans are now living underground. I feel as though I shouldn’t go any farther until you’ve had the chance to view the film for yourself, so here’s a link to it on Go
La Jetée by Chris Marker, 28 min, 35mm, 1962.

(Spoilers, I guess.)

 

Romance is born in the time between moments.

La Jetée is a beautiful, classic film. You may have heard of or seen La Jetée before, and you have probably seen its 1990's interpretation by Terry Gilliam; 12 Monkeys. But what no one may have told you before is just why La Jetée is so loved and revered. But, I am getting ahead of myself!

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La Jetée is a little under a half an hour long, and while it is (or was originally) a 35mm film projection, almost all of the shots are composed of still photographs used as a photomontage. The film is narrated in English by a male narrator, and he tells us the story of a man in a post-apocalyptic, post World War III, world where the surface of the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, and humans are now living underground. I feel as though I shouldn't go any farther until you've had the chance to view the film for yourself, so here's a link to it on Google Video, and afterwards, we'll investigate why this thing is so important!  (If you click the little Google drop-down on the lower right you can view it on Google Video and there you can full-screen it.)

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8796749344506734237#

As the title of this post suggests, the reason why people geek-out over La Jetée is because it's entering a discussion about using photography as cinema. Now, this seems pretty obvious, I mean, it's not like it's a secret that La Jetée is made of photographs, right? But what's important here is that this film is taking two separate mediums of art, that do two separate things, and combining them to make something uniquely powerful.

So, let's start with photography. Photography is a still medium. And photographs can only exist in the past. (I like to use the term “time-mummies”.) Photographs are little captured pieces of the past, and are only understood in reference to the present or to each other, as is the case in La Jetée. Photographs are the mummification of a particular time and place that can never be fully reproduced.

While cinema on the other hand, only exists in the present, for a film can only exist as a film when it's being played. It is infinite, and will exist as long as we do. So, if we have a movie where photographs are the film itself, what we have is a film that is an encapsulation of the past and that is only existing in the present, all the while forming a narrative that mirrors that thought exactly.  La Jetée is essentially naming photography as a medium of death and stillness, and cinema as a medium of life and movement.

So, if Chris Marker, the filmmaker, is asserting that photographs are a representation of death and film is a representation of life, then our main character is trying to escape the rigidity of his still, dead, photographic life by escaping to the only part of the film that has actual movement – the moment with the woman's eye – which is arguably the only part of the film that is alive.

In Uriel Orlow's fantastic write-up about the significance of La Jetée, (Photography as Cinema: La Jetée and the Redemptive Powers of the Image, 2006) she writes that,

“This liberation of the image from a rigid syntactical tense structure and its consequent immersion into a new kind of 'holistic' time, of course mirrors the narrative of La Jetée, whose mental time travel shatters linear chronology and diffuses the separation of past, present and future and their alignment on an (unavoidably spatially imagined) continuum.”

At its heart, La Jetée is a great science-fiction film, but, it's also about the deconstruction of photography and cinema, and examines what they both can do. It turns the quest for an image into a questioning of essence, and it is understood both spatially (because it's still) and temporally (because it passes through time). La Jetée ends up rupturing our expectations of what cinema is, and that, friends, is why this film is important.

 

More on Chris Maker and La Jetée.  Uriel Orlow's essay is available from her website.