This year I am attempting to see more films that I ever have in a year, and whilst I can easily increase the number of new releases I see by attending the cinema on a more regular basis I also want to expand upon the number of classics in my repertoire. These ‘great’ films are the ones that many would claim are essential to expanding my cinematic vocabulary and are pieces of cinema history that have greatly impacted the discourses that come about in my classes and in my everyday film-related conversations.
With this goal in mind I am embarking on what I call ‘The Sight & Sound Top 50 Challenge’. This entails watching one film each week from the most recent Sight & Sound Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time poll, beginning with number 50 and working all the way to number 1. Each week I will publish a brief response to the film where I document my reaction, reading and understanding of the film, particularly as a piece of work holding a “greatest film of all time” title. Let the challenge begin...
#50 La Jetée (1962) dir. Chris Marker
La Jetée tells the story of a post-apocalyptic Paris where those who have survived are either "victors" or "victor's prisoners". The key to saving humanity, the victors believes, lies in time travel, and it is with their prisoners that the torturous task of time travel can be achieved. Amongst these prisoners is one Man whom scientists believe stands the best chance to gather the tools required for salvation from the "men from the world to come." His strength they contend, resides in a resounding childhood memory of time spent on a pier (la jetée), where he sees both a beautiful woman, and a man's death. Without hero's entire life marked by the memory of what is later revealed to be his own death, director Chris Marker conveys who our own sense of the continuity of time is ultimately nothing more than an illusion.
Void of any motion picture, the film's three key elements - stills, score and narration, can at first feel unnatural to contemporary viewing practices, jarring even. Despite this however, La Jetée is a cinematic marvel, luring audiences in with its emotionally imprisoning atmosphere. Marker's short film is a work of technical brilliance, produced through a very small number of techniques. Its extraordinary editing sets a rhythm against which the narrator's storytelling becomes poetic. This is further amplified by the dependence on just still images which force audiences to rely heavily on the narrator's input. Much like the words i na picture book, the interplay of the narration and the stills combine to aid the other in an effort to convey the poetic intentions.
Even without the abundance of special effects that pervade the overabundance of science fiction films of this century, Marker's unique piece of cinematic magic is hauntingly realistic. On top of this, the plot feels as contemporary today as it did 54 years ago upon its release and despite its science fiction label, the film is equally as much about the past as it is about a futuristic world. It is a philosophical investigation into the way our minds perceive and even construct our recollections and understandings of time. The film even teeters towards paradoxical. As the Man travels through time, audiences are locked down in one time. Each shot is held for several seconds, the discordant effect being a sense of stasis, rather than movement.
Cinema, much like memory, is all about perception. Every film is a collection of still images, played at 24 frames per second so that our perception can connect the pieces, establishing the moving image, which in turn, becomes the story. What La Jetée does, is make this process apparent to audiences. It makes us consciously aware of the procedure that goes into conveying meaning, and also constructing meaning. For we, as the audiences, are equally as responsible for the latter as the filmmaker. At only 28 minutes in length Marker's featurette is not a time consuming, nor an emotionally taxing watch. It is however, incredibly repetitious in its imagery for a film of such short length. This choice by Marker, to repeatedly exhibit a small collection of images again and again, further underscores his examination of the links between perception and illusion as audiences question what part familiarity plays in cognitive recollection.
As a piece of cinema history that has influenced much that has followed (Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys the most resounding connection, but more recently, The Time Traveler's Wife also bares a striking resemblance), La Jetée can provide a tremendously enlightening education into contemporary storytelling. At the conclusion of watching La Jetée, audiences feel encouraged to further investigate other textual sources that bare thematic similarities, perhaps due to the contemporary relevance of Marker's underlying message. It is this, along with its unique mode of storytelling - relying on stills rather than motion picture to craft the film, that warrant the film its place on Sight & Sound's Top Films list. Repeated viewings only further disclose the wealth of talent that Marker possessed to both tell stories and craft films - a prized combination that makes the most talented of directors.