La Jetée

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A monkey-less masterpiece on memory.

The Film: Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental sci-fi short

The Potable: One six-pack of Sam Adams Summer Ale

A mysterious memory. A fragment from childhood. Myself, standing in the lapping waters of a shallow creek. I am fishing in a Donald Duck t-shirt, no pants. I use Funyuns as bait because I am also eating the Funyuns. Upstream, a splash. Ripples of water. I would like to go back to this place one day. Back to this time. But of course we remember things differently than they really were. I’ve not had a Funyun in years, and I may have been fishing with Ho Hos.

This is the primary of concern of La Jetée: memory, and as such, Marker’s short is composed almost entirely of still images. While I was initially unsure how to feel about this unique approach, I eventually found it quite comforting. Hypnotized by Sam Adams, I found that pausing on each frame allowed me to completely immerse myself. Details that ordinarily pass me by – shot composition, character names, key plot points – are given ample time to marinate. For the first time in my life, I feel that I understand a film completely. That I grasp, truly grasp, all of its parts.

la jetee poster

La Jetée tells the story of a commercial pilot grounded in Paris due to an expired license. He meets a pretty girl, takes a solo tour of the city’s intricate catacombs, but ultimately decides to do more traditional sightseeing with the mademoiselle. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, all of that. I say “sightseeing” because the true irony lies in the fact that the pilot has just undergone eye surgery. Twenty-four hours in the most beautiful city with a beautiful girl and he can’t see a damn thing.

By film’s end the pilot is mugged, left for dead on San Francisco’s Pier 39 – he got his license renewed – as his lady love “watches” on.

In lieu of dialogue, La Jetée relies on voiceover narration to drive its story forward, effectively turning the short into an experiment in exposition. “Show, don’t tell” becomes “show and tell.” Another flashback. I am older now, older than before. I walk into Miss Hale’s classroom cradling my modest geode collection. When my turn comes, I give the presentation of my life. I brag about their variety, lean heavy into the phrase “volcanic rock.” “Dinosaurs may have walked over the very stone I hold in my hand,” I say, clicking a flashlight on and off over the crystals. I pass them around the room. I hope to trade the whole lot for Ryan Lancaster’s Power Rangers Megazord because I never gave a shit about rocks.

The film’s twenty-minute running time also contributed to my keen comprehension. Most feature-length pictures, if we’re being honest, tend to make the mind wander. I still have no idea how The Dark Knight ends because somewhere around the 130-minute mark I just start thinking about soup. A short also means, however, very little time to drink six beers.

jetee embed

The lighting is often very dark, making one wonder why Marker didn’t use his flash.

The past is not the present is not the future. La Jetée touches on a surprising range of themes given its length. Love, despair, hubris, fate. But the short’s primary intent is to serve as a warning against the trappings of nostalgia, the danger of wallowing in the recollection of our former selves, of former worlds. To retreat into memory is to die.

Marker’s short was the key inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 Twelve Monkeys. While Gilliam’s feature foregoes the still images in favor of a traditional narrative, he does add monkeys. I ~ love ~ monkeys. The raucous, hairy id of our shared taxonomic order. The flamboyant jesters of the jungle. If dog is man’s best friend, then monkey is the friend your wife gets mad about you drinking with. “Monkey made you throw what off the overpass?” The remake also stars Bruce Willis, who I’m indifferent about.

Verdict: more monkeys

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