By the time I was born I the mid-1960s, cinema was already dead.
At first glance, that seems absurd. Weren’t the 1960s and 1970s a “Golden Age” of cinema? After all, Godard’s Breathless was made in 1960. Weekend came out in 1967. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were still in film school, Robert Bresson in mid-career.
Nevertheless, by 1965, TV had already eclipsed cinema as the primary form of visual communication. Hollywood movies would continue to get bigger, even as movie theaters continued to get smaller. Shown in a classic “movie palace,” wide-screen, 70mm blockbusters like Ben Hur or the Sound of Music already felt like an unnecessary gimmick. In the 2010s, when almost every movie theater has been subdivided into a multiplex, Hollywood’s spending $230 million to make The Dark Knight Rises, or $195 million to make Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, just seems a like cynical attempt to bludgeon moviegoers into emotions they don’t genuinely feel. Small, independent films, in turn, will never compete with the HBO TV series. Most people will watch them on their TV and computers, on DVDs, or on Netflix, anyway.
So far there has been only one genuinely great film made after 1960: La Jetée.
La Jetée, the short, 28 minutes long, low-budget “photographic novel” by the leftist French filmmaker Chris Marker is fairly well-known, especially among film students, and science-fiction writers, mainly because nobody has ever been able to recreate the often hypnotic effect it can have on its viewers. Terry Gilliam’s big-budget remake, 12-Monkeys, is a good film, mainly because of a great performance by a young Madeleine Stowe, but it largely misses the point. La Jetée, like the Mona Lisa, remains an enigma, a deceptively simple, yet haunting work of art with a magic that we cannot entirely explain.
La Jetée is set in a world that’s already dead. It begins with a child. He stands on the “jetty” of the Orly Airport in Paris, looking at the face of a woman in the crowd. That was before the nuclear holocaust, the narrator explains. The man, a survivor, the child fully grown, lives underground, deep beneath what were the Palais de Chaillot galleries in Paris. The surface of the earth is poisoned with radioactive fallout. The man is a prisoner of war. His captors, strange, yet strangely nondescript men who whisper in German, have chosen him to participate in an experiment. The earth is dying. Space is forbidden. The only path for survival is a link through time. They have chosen the man because they think he can survive the trip, mainly because of a strong sense of identity that comes from his fixation on the past. “His captors spied, even on his dreams.” They send him back in time to meet the woman he once saw at Orly International Airport.
How has a small group of men living underground after a nuclear holocaust has mastered time travel is not explained. That, paradoxically, is the foundation of La Jetée’s greatness. The lack of realism in La Jetée is in fact realism. There’s no mechanism to send the man back to the past, only the suggestion that images provide a glimpse of that link through time the man’s captor’s seek. The effect is that Chris Marker provides us, the viewers of La Jetée, with a link through time back to the early days of cinema. Watching La Jetée is to become the film’s hero. If the man’s captors send him back through time with a series of chemical injections, then La Jetée sends us back in time by rearranging our brains waves into the same pattern a film goer would have had in 1910 or 1915.
La Jetée is literal, not figurative time travel.
La Jetée, with the exception of one beautiful sequence, is made up only of still photographs. In the early days of Cinema, roughly from 1890 to 1930, Americans, and Frenchmen, had already been looking at still photographs for decades. One of the greatest silent films, for example, The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, recreates the United States Civil War, the first major event in American history to be photographed. For an American in 1915, The Birth of a Nation was magical, the hand of technology reanimating all those old portraits of young men, dead and gone, or grown old. As William Faulkner wrote in his novel Intruder the Dust, “for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” In 1915, for a Southerner, The Birth of a Nation was the chance to dream about changing the course of history, the chance to step into the past and join Pickett’s Charge before it had failed.
The man in La Jetée travels back in time to meet the woman he has loved for so many years, yet who is already long dead. His soul, her “ghost” as she calls him, revisits that moment he noticed her as a little boy. Only now, as a grown man, he can understand the emotions he felt when he saw her face, the sexual awakening that was never to be, that was lost in the nuclear catastrophe. They speak. They go to a museum. The wander through the park. For one, brief, haunting moment, Marker’s “photographic novel” becomes a film, and the woman’s eyes come alive, look directly into the camera, the man’s eyes. Their souls have met. We, in turn, have quite literally had the same experience as an early film goer would have had when he went into a movie theater and saw still photographs begin to move. Yet the man, like the viewer of La Jetée, cannot enter the world of the images that have captured his soul. The experiment over, he’s called back into the present, the dying planet after the nuclear Holocaust. He realizes, then, finally, what he had witnessed on the pier or the Orly International Airport in his childhood, so many years before. Pickett’s Charge will always fail. He will never meet her in the flesh.
You can travel though time, but you cannot change the course of history.