Chris Marker’s Use of Photography in La Jetée to Explore the Themes of Time and Place
Time and place are explored in Chris Marker’s 1962 short film, La Jetée. Constructed almost entirely from photographs, the French story of a time travel experiment post-nuclear war is overshadowed by death, acting as momento mori. Orly airport viewing platform dominates the protagonist’s dreams. A place synonymous with travel combined with Marker’s stills invites the viewer to become a fellow tourist in time.
Historical context dominates Marker’s film and the influence of current affairs on his work is clear when he offers Jaques Ledoux ‘a role as experimental-doctor-in-a-World- War-Three-underground-concentration-camp’. [Marker (1962), cited in Darke, 2016:14] Created in an era of impending nuclear war and leaps forward in scientific knowledge, La Jetée encapsulates the sense of fear and uncertainty. Like earlier Arte Nucleare and Surrealist director Luis Buñuel, who made movies ‘to show that this is not the best of all possible worlds’, La Jetée warns of the dangers of nuclear technology. [Buñuel, cited in Sontag, 2008:34]
Susan Sontag believed that ‘the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.’[Sontag, 2008:57] Marker’s stills combined with the setting of the viewing platform in Orly airport, Paris, signifies tourism and J.G. Ballard refers to the jetty as ‘the departure-point for other worlds’. [Ballard, 1966] The focus of the protagonist’s dreams, the jetty captures the viewer’s attention because it is a real place and, Sontag suggests, ‘images that mobilise conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective.’ [Sontag, 2008:17] Other images of Paris are of destroyed buildings, which, if not real, evoke the destruction left behind in the wake of World War Two. The desolation is clear when compared to pre-war photographs; the Paris of Atget and Brassaï is gone.
The stills are reminiscent of the fragmentation of memory. Joanna Hogg writes of the ‘constructed nature of memory’ and how moments of happiness are ‘frozen’ in our memories, much like the image of the couple in the museum. [Hogg, 2014] The protagonist finds himself in a ‘dateless world’, a sentiment echoed by the use of photographs which Sontag described as ‘a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck’. [La Jetée/Sans Soleil, 1963/1983] [Sontag, 2008:71]
Photobooks have established the idea that a sequence of images represents a narrative and Marker takes this further in his ‘photo-roman’ (photo-novel). [Wilson, 2008] The interplay of text, image and soundtrack is critical as Darke explains, ‘Marker was constantly exploring the relationship between word and image, page and screen.’ [Darke, cited in Hogg, 2016] The reading time of the transcript or a photobook is up to the reader, however La Jetée is time-based media lasting 29 minutes. This contradicts the traditional notion of a still, which Sontag writes, ‘allows one to linger over a single moment as long as one likes’. [Sontag, 2008:81]
Maker’s economy of frames encourages the audience to think for themselves and the ambiguity of using stills allows a role for the viewer. There seem to be as many interpretations of La Jetée as there are reviews, which can be explained by Sontag’s observation ‘words do speak louder than pictures. Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning.’ [Sontag, 2008:108]. For Jean-Louis Schefer, the protagonist could also be the narrator and thereby adds further questions about time including when is the narrator telling the story? [Schefer, 1990]
Marker’s utilisation of still photos, prompted Scott to write, ‘[t]he camera is itself a time machine, drawing us simultaneously forward and backward’. [Scott, 2012] However reality itself can be questioned when considering Sontag’s assertion that ‘photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal’. [Sontag, 2008:11] The advent of social media and its focus on the photographic presentation of the user’s life makes photography’s ability to fabricate ‘a new, parallel reality that makes the past immediate’ by transforming ‘the present into the past’ is perhaps more relevant today than in 1963.[Sontag, 2008]
An elusive character, Marker ‘rarely gave interviews and was happy to be represented by images of a cat.’ [Hogg, 2014] Dorothea Lange said of photographers, ‘Every image he sees, every photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait’ and the characters remaining unnamed mirror Marker’s elusiveness. [Lange, cited in Sontag, 2008:122] La Jetée is suggestive of a documentary or photojournalism as the stills appear to bear witness to events. Time is implied in the photographs of the scientists looking upwards, a gesture that Sontag suggests instead of bearing relation ‘to the viewer, to the present, the more ennobling abstract relation to the future.’ [Sontag, 2008:37-38]
When the protagonist is offered the chance to be transported to the future, he chooses instead to return to the past; the lure of nostalgia is preferable to the possibilities of the future. Walter Benjamin said the collector’s deepest desire is ‘[t]o renew the old world’ however La Jetée climaxes with the hero’s death suggesting ‘the old world cannot be renewed’. [Benjamin, 1999] [Sontag, 2008:76] The motif of death is seen the ‘museum filled with ageless animals’ and repeated throughout the narration; ‘he knew he had seen a man die’, ‘Many died’, ‘death for others’. [La Jetée/Sans Soleil, 1963/1983] Sontag writes that the ‘link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people’ so Marker’s decision to use stills foreshadows the protagonist’s demise. [Sontag, 2008:70]
According to Darke, Marker described himself as a ‘bricoleur’, creating art out of any materials that came to hand (an approach that became popular because of early twentieth century resource scarcity). [Darke, 2016] Arguably Marker’s La Jetée created ‘its own conventions from scratch’, conventions that have now become synonymous with contemporary science fiction. [Ballard, 1966] Marker’s Sans Soleil continues his explorations on the themes of time, place and death. La Jéete directly inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and influenced many films including the Terminator franchise, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Looper.
La Jetée could be considered a postmodern masterpiece, challenging the distinction between high and popular culture. Marker contradicted Sontag’s interpretation of photography’s role to open ‘to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces’ with his time-based media creation. [Sontag, 2008:11] If Marker intended La Jetée as a cautionary tale, I am relieved that it has not, thus far, come to pass.
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Ballard, J.G. (1966) ‘La Jetée: Academy One’ In: New Worlds magazine At: https://chrismarker.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/jgballard-orig-article-lajetee.pdf (Accessed on 27 February 2018)
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Hogg, J. (2014) ‘‘Thrilling and prophetic’: why film-maker Chris Marker’s radical images influenced so many artists’ In: The Guardian 15 April 2014 At: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/apr/15/thrilling-prophetic-chris-marker-experimental-films (Accessed on 27 February 2018)
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La Jetée/San Soleil (1963/1983) Directed by Marker, C. [DVD] Optimum Releasing Ltd
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Scott, A. O. (2012) ‘What ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Terminator’ Owe to ‘La Jetée’ ‘ In: The New York Times 26 Sept 2012 At: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/magazine/la-jetee.html (Accessed on 27 February 2018)
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