Plato’s Fire-Born Shadows: La Jetée, by Chris Marker
La Jetée, the Chris Marker photo-romon, or “Photo Novel,” is a story told through still photographs with a total run time of under a half-hour. It stands among the best new wave offerings, an untraditional, groundbreaking effort – a film that would go on to influence American cinema heavily in the decades to follow. La Jetée inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and was the direct influence of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 American film 12 Monkeys.
In his 1989 film, The Owl’s Legacy, Chris Marker offers the following narration over footage of an audience in a dark theater watching the opening sequence of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amor: “In 1940, Simone Weil wrote, ‘Our movie houses are not unlike that cave.’ It wasn’t meant as a compliment. How could she accept that this inferior artform should find within the cave the power to negate the cave, to disarm the Gorgon, to tie itself to the thread of human creation and, finally to create its own myths?”
Weil, a French philosopher, was talking about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” a treatise on human intellectualism versus man’s basest desires that describes a hypothetical cave in which men are chained to a fixed position and made to watch shadows of a fire dance of the cave walls. The shadows become the only reality the men know. If per chance a cave-dweller was to escape, he would be blinded by the sun and disbelieving of his new reality. Weil compares the cave to cinema to show how the medium can so readily manipulate the minds of those who sit in the dark and watch the images bounce of the screen. Less than two decades removed from a second World War in which Hitler used the cinema of Joseph Goebbels to help create an environment in which the systematic extermination of six million Jews was possible, it’s not hard to conjure where Weil is coming from. But Marker responds in his 1989 film, acknowledging Weil’s perceived slight and countering with a Plato’s Cave interpretation of his own: Just as cinema has the power to manipulate weak minds, so too does it have the power to expose truth and empower strong minds.
In Sander Lee’s piece on La Jetée, the author compares the film itself to Plato’s allegory, maintaining that the cave-dwellers of the post-apocalyptic Paris are like the cave dwellers Plato describes. The German researchers, Lee says, represents Plato’s captors, the metaphorical chains that hold the men in place, themselves a metaphor for man’s desires, and The Man (whose story we are telling), represents a captive cave-dweller, a slave to the reality his captors allow him. Lee maintains that The Man’s passionate desire to interpret the images in his mind are what allow him safe-passage through time-travel, as well as the intellectual know-how to navigate time-travel and retrieve the future power source his captors covet. It’s not until The Man gives into his basest desires, namely, the urge to find the beautiful woman at Orly airport, that he fails, opening the doors for his captors to kill him in the same place and fashion in which his journey begins.
“The poignancy of this story, as in traditional classical Greek tragedy, lies in the hero’s fatal flaw,” Lee writes. “Although intellectually superior to all others of his time, in the end he reduces himself to the level of his enemies when he chooses to discard the noble path offered to him by the future in order to wallow in a nostalgic illusion of adolescent romantic love.”
La Jetée is a film that reminds us what film is, that is, a collection of still images projected onto a screen at a rate of 24 frames-per-second. The brilliance of Marker’s film is that he uses only the still frames that display the very most information possible, and slows his frame-rate drastically, to the tune of one every one or two seconds. Because of this, we don’t view the film through the lens of a perceptual phenomenon, but are left only with the bare necessities under narration that guides us through the time-traveler’s journey.
“Jean Ravel’s subtly rhythmic editing restores a fluid energy to the film’s succession of frozen moments,” Jonathan Romney writes. “At one point, we see the woman in bed asleep, as a series of stills gently and sensuously shift into each other, evoking her tentative stirring.”
And again, as the film reaches its climax, the editing takes over, pushing ahead a few frames of The Man running in rapid succession, giving us a sense of tension that leads to The Man’s final breath. The editing of La Jetée under the expert hand of Ravel is described by as the most brilliant he’s ever seen, commenting with high praise: “You’re dealing with poetry.”
Romney writes: “La Jetée‘s narrative … is a Möbius strip, returning paradoxically to its point of origin to swallow its own tail and engender itself once more.”
Marker describes the process of making the film like that of putting a puzzle together, and by finishing the film where it starts, with the woman on the pier at the Orly, Marker sets in motion a filmic tradition that is commonplace in American cinema today. Although a handful of films used the technique prior to La Jetée, including Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane and Double Indemnity, the list of films which use it afterward is far longer: Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, Gandhi, Saving Private Ryan, Crash, Pans Labyrinth, Quadrophenia, Forrest Gump, The Prestige, Big Fish, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Reservoir Dogs, Slumdog Millionaire, Annie Hall, Into the Wild, Goodfellas, 12 Monkeys, Snatch, Amadeus and Casino.