Memories are so often only tangentially related to the history which they recall. A version of events with only a fingertip connection to reality. Seemingly insignificant fragments become pivotal moments around which our memories turn, connected by a web of hidden links known only to the mind which they inhabit. How do our memories shape themselves? And how do these fantastical representations of our past influence our future?
These are two of the questions asked by La Jetée (Marker, 1962), Chris Marker’s science fiction masterpiece.
Set in post-WWIII Paris, a man is held prisoner in a subterranean city. His captors subject him to horrific experiments, forcing him through time and memory. Through the protagonist’s searing journey into his past, the audience is pushed to consider how ‘real’ our memories really are. Is it all a dream?
Our memories often seem only tenuously connected to the reality that created them, a series of images distorted as they filter through our minds. Time and memory are, of course, inextricably linked. Time distills our recollections into their purest essence, reducing them to a series of images, a kind of internal photo-roman, cue cards from which we construct our history. I think (or I theorise) this is why Marker chose to present his visual essay on time and memory almost exclusively via still images. The medium mimics the indexical anatomy of our brains, presenting each moment as a kind of memento mori.
By contrast, the brief flash of moving image is the only moment in the film that feels real, now, present. It’s the moment when we’re lifted out of the detached, documented style of the photo-roman and dropped into the middle of a love story. The cutting of the still images leading up to this moment feel like the man is blinking at his lover. Then suddenly she blinks back, as if it’s the first time that she’s seen him. And Marker’s choice of this particular moment for his brief interlude of moving image footage seems telling. It is the moment the man has been waiting for, the moment she sees him the way he sees her, the moment that he’s finally alive in his adopted past.
Yet Marker’s photo-roman has a surprising amount of motion, despite the almost exclusive use of still images. He often photographs the same moment from subtly different angles, presenting the results collectively, hinting at the Rashomon quality of our recollections.
Marker also uses sound to a create haunting effect… The heartbeat rising and falling with the rhythm of footsteps as The Man journeys into his past… The whisper of the chief experimenter overlaid with his captive’s heavy breathing… It’s a lesson in creating a soundscape for psychological horror. In fact the whole film is a masterclass in creating a sense of time and place with only the sparsest of sets.
Marker also uses mise en scène and motifs to hint at his themes; the seemingly endless curving corridor that appears throughout the film is a clear reference to the looping path of time. He also uses a multitude of statues to remind us of moments fixed in time that once captured, immediately begin to decay. An image of a statue’s face is faded into an image of the man, his face framed so that it exactly replaced that of the statue – he is as fixed in his time as if he were carved from stone (no matter how desperately he tries to escape it). The dates, initials and love notes carved into the tree are yet more representations of futile attempts to fix a moment in memory forever.
But the most potent image in the film is the museum visited by the couple. It’s a mortuary to thousands of animals preserved indefinitely, not necessarily as they lived, but as we wish to remember them. Is there a more perfect representation of how we organise our memories?
Marker, C., (1962) La Jetée, Argos Films