Successions of images manifest then disappear on the screen. A shot of a beautiful woman’s face appears, captivates, and vanishes. A man, his face skull-like in the half light, stares mournfully until his presence is stolen by the next image. Each photograph is strong in its singularity but ultimately pushed aside by waves of new visions. Ghosts of impressions linger but nothing concrete can last in this fragile world.
Viewing Chris Markers ‘La Jetée’ is like returning to the familiar landscape of a recurring dream. I fell in love with the film years ago while studying it for a photography and film class. Each time I watch the film it unfolds with a reassuring sense of familiarity, the simple framework of the plot, the rapid transition of stills, the narrator smooth tone and poetic words. However it is one of those magical pieces of film that repeatedly rewards a persistent viewer. Previously unseen images appear, thrilling in their evanescence, and flesh out the tale in unexpected ways. Others hit you as startlingly emotive, something that mirrors you own thoughts in a manner you just cannot quite figure out.
‘La Jetée’ is one of Chris Marker’s many short films and perhaps his signature piece in his considerable body of work. The film, lasting only a half-hour, is made up of entirely of black and white still images (apart from one notable moment which I will resist from spoiling). The plot in many ways is a classic piece of science fiction. The story is set in Paris during the aftermath of a war large enough to be dubbed by the narrator ‘World War III’. Nuclear weapons have devastated the land and driven survivors to live underground. The only foreseeable tool for survival exists in the resources of the past. One man is particular is chosen to undergo the painful and dangerous time travel procedure due to his intense attachment to a pre-war childhood memory. The transitions of time reveal the true reasons for his connection to the image and lead to his ultimate downfall.
Beyond the constructs of the narrative ‘La Jetée’ is really about the very human desire for imagery and photography. The film captures the desire and need to preserve fleeting moments in frozen perfection; never to let go, to have proof, to celebrate and mourn the passing of time. However one of the most challenging aspects of the film is how it illustrates the sheer power of images and how with manipulation they can bind and control the subject. After all, the time traveling protagonist never moves willingly through time, it is his experimenters that utilize the seductive qualities of the still moment to lure him along their chosen path.
It is easy to draw parallels to the present day. We live in an age in which our vision is saturated by photography. We preserve our daily existence religiously so to forever add to an extensive image-world. Where will this path take us? It is difficult to say and fascinating to observe. The morals that can be taken from the film exist in a grey area. The image-world may provide answers, even redemption, but can also be destructive. The personal narrative we create through experience and time is as much about forgetting as it is remembrance. To cling and follow the traces of time may be alluring but will always be ultimately futile. Nothing can restore a moment as purely as when it was first conceived.
La Jetée itself lives up to its subject matter: it can move through time. The film’s beauty exists in its universal and enduring themes of time and memory. These themes enable it to mirror the world of the viewer and adapt seamlessly to the most contemporary of issues. Accessing the film through Google Video and viewing it on my laptop screen seem such a perfect fit for a film that tracks our evolving obsession with imagery. I can only wonder, as our relationship with photography alters over time, how it will appear to future viewers. It remains to be seen if Chris Marker can achieve something beyond the capture of a single moment: to forever preserve the tragedy, beauty and wonder of our everlasting love affair with the frozen image.