Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Jetty Stream

John Farrelly, one of my students in the class I'm teaching this semester on The Science Fiction Genre at Fordham University, brought to my attention the fact that the amazing independent short film by Chris Marker, La Jetée, can be screened on YouTube. The way the course works is that students are expected to screen films and television programming (and listen to radio broadcast recordings) on their own, along with reading SF literature and criticism--and watching La Jetée is one of the assignments for this Monday's class. I have VHS copies on reserve for my students to view, and at the end of June a DVD is due to be released that includes this and a second film by Chris Marker, La Jetée/Sans Soleil in a new, restored, high definition transfer. Now, of course, the best way to view La Jetée is in a theater, projected on a screen, but the second best way is an uninterrupted version on video. For YouTube, it was necesary to break the half hour long movie up into three segments, which is far from optimal. But, it is still better to watch the film this way than not to watch it at all.

La Jetée was released in France back in 1962, and its science fiction scenario revolves around time travel. Following a nuclear apocalypse, the small number of survivors left among the ruins somehow develop a method of traveling back in time, to search for food and supplies, and perhaps even a way to change history. One such individual, a man haunted by a childhood memory, returns to that dramatic moment that he witnessed in his youth, completing a loop in time. La Jetée is listed as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's spectacular feature film, 12 Monkeys (starring Bruce Willis), and is also thought to be the unacknowledged influence behind the original Terminator film (not a great work of art like Gilliam's, but a fine example of James Cameron's skill at crafting exciting entertainment, not to mention the fact that this was the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a major star), along with its special effects blockbuster sequel, Terminator 2 - Judgment Day and its inferior but not entirely uninteresting third chapter, Terminator 3 - Rise of the Machines (and also the entertaining Terminator 2--3D attraction at Universal Studies Theme Parks in Hollywood and Orlando). What all these movies have in common is a time-loop paradox that essentially defies logic because it is nonlinear--there is no starting point where someone goes back in time and changes history in a way that allows us to follow a chain of causes and effects. Instead, we seem to find a closed system in which the cause could not occur without the effect which could not occur without the cause, and so on ad infinitum.

This time-loop paradox seems to corresponds to Aristotle's notion of formal cause, as opposed to the efficient cause associated with linear cause-and-effect. Marshall McLuhan, and his son Eric, believed that formal cause makes for a better fit with a media ecological approach than efficient cause (and also matches up better with systems theory, complexity, and the idea that the concept of emergence, that a phenomenon emerges out of a system rather than being directly caused by another discrete phenomenon. Aristotle argued that there are four different types of causes, and material cause (the raw material as the cause of the final product) is associated with efficient cause, while final cause (the end result as causing itself) goes along with formal cause. But that's a topic for another time.

Anyway, apart from the view of time as a circle rather than a line, a view that reflects both an oral/tribal/traditional view of the world as cyclical, as opposed to the literate/civilized/modern understanding rooted in linearity and right angles, all squares and rectangles, Chris Marker makes a fascinating choice for this film. Being primarily a photographer, Marker composes this film almost entirely of still images, photographs (but look for the one moment when someone's eyes move)! This represents a highly original reversal of what film is all about as a medium of the moving image, and also emphasizes the role of editing in film in a new way. But Marker's triumph is that he pulls it off, that it works, that viewers watch this and say wow! rather than feeling confused and disappointed.

Moreover, this is not just aesthetics for aesthetics' sake, but fits in with the theme of time travel. For starters, photography was the first true medium of time travel, transporting us back in time in a way that nothing else previously could because of its perceived direct connection to the real, its recording rather than recreation of reality. Second, photography is the medium of memory, but it objectifies memory, places it outside of ourselves, technologizes and commodifies memory, and thereby dramatically alters our relation to time (see my previous post on archives as medium). The use of the still image not only corresponds to the interrelated themes of time travel and memory, but the photograph also produces it own sense and conception of time. For one, the photograph is always about the past, always communicating in the past tense, as do all recording media, in contrast to the broadcast or electronic transmission which is always in the present, even when its content is prerecorded. Beyond living in the past, the photograph conveys a sense of frozen time, the moment preserved for all time, the eternal now. In our snapshots we stay forever young (thank you, Bob Dylan). While the frozen moment did not originate with photography, but can be found in painting especially following the Renaissance, and sculpture since antiquity, the photograph makes that sense of time objectively real in a manner that it never before could be. So, we have the sense that a given moment does not pass out of existence, as it seems to do in continuous time, but remains set in time somewhere, somehow accessible to us if we could just develop the technology for time travel (see also my last post on Kurt Vonnegut).

So, I took a look on YouTube and found a number of different items posted under the heading of La Jetée, including several tribute films and fragments of La Jetée, as well as a couple of versions of the actual film, complete in three parts. Of course the best way to view the film is with the original French soundtrack, assuming fluency in the French language (my own competence is limited, based on what I can recall from Junior High and High School, although I do remember 1432234312--sorry, that was an inside joke). The second best way is to have subtitles so you can listen to the sound of the original and read the translation, but unfortunately, no such version is available on YouTube for English speakers, at least not at this moment. There's a version with Spanish subtitles, and a version dubbed in English, but the quality of the latter is poor, and this apart from the fact that you really should listen to the film in its original form. But there is the French version, and the person who uploaded it, identified as Krzysiek and "headcancer25," provided the English script in the comments area. The script can also be found online, and I will include it below. So, maybe the best way to watch this is to read the script as you watch the version in French, but hey, all I can do is provide the tools and materials, and leave it to you to do with them as you will.

So, here's Part I:

and now Part II:

and Part III:

and here is La Jetée's script.

Part of the Chris Marker World Wide Web Site (not accessible at the time of this posting).

Written by Adrian Miles.

This script is reproduced from:

Marker, Chris. La Jetee: cine-roman. New York: Zone Books, 1992.

This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene that upsets him, and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later, happened on the main jetty at Orly, the Paris airport, sometime before the outbreak of World War III.

Orly, Sunday. Parents used to take their children there to watch the departing planes.

On this particular Sunday, the child whose story we are telling was bound to remember the frozen sun, the setting at the end of the jetty, and a woman's face.

Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on they do claim remembrance when they show their scars. That face he had seen was to be the only peacetime image to survive the war. Had he really seen it? Or had he invented that tender moment to prop up the madness to come?

The sudden roar, the woman's gesture, the crumpling body, and the cries of the crowd on the jetty blurred by fear.

Later, he knew he had seen a man die.

And sometime after came the destruction of Paris.

Many died. Some believed themselves to be victors. Others were taken prisoner. The survivors settled beneath Chaillot, in an underground network of galleries.

Above ground, Paris, as most of the world, was uninhabitable, riddled with radioactivity.

The victors stood guard over an empire of rats.

The prisoners were subjected to experiments, apparently of great concern to those who conducted them.

The outcome was a disappointment for some - death for others - and for others yet, madness.

One day they came to select a new guinea pig from among the prisoners.

He was the man whose story we are telling.

He was frightened. He had heard about the Head Experimenter. He was prepared to meet Dr. Frankenstein, or the Mad Scientist. Instead, he met a reasonable man who explained calmly that the human race was doomed. Space was off-limits. The only hope for survival lay in Time. A loophole in Time, and then maybe it would be possible to reach food, medicine, sources of energy.

This was the aim of the experiments: to send emissaries into Time, to summon the Past and Future to the aid of the Present.

But the human mind balked at the idea. To wake up in another age meant to be born again as an adult. The shock would be too great.

Having only sent lifeless or insentient bodies through different zones of Time, the inventors where now concentrating on men given to very strong mental images. If they were able to conceive or dream another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it.

The camp police spied even on dreams.

This man was selected from among a thousand for his obsession with an image from the past.

Nothing else, at first, put stripping out the present, and its racks.

They begin again.

The man doesn't die, nor does he go mad. He suffers.

They continue.

On the tenth day, images begin to ooze, like confessions.

A peacetime morning. A peacetime bedroom, a real bedroom. Real children. Real birds. Real cats. Real graves.

On the sixteenth day he is on the jetty at Orly. Empty.

Sometimes he recaptures a day of happiness, though different.

A face of happiness, though different.


A girl who could be the one he seeks. He passes her on the jetty. She smiles at him from an automobile. Other images appear, merge, in that museum, which is perhaps that of his memory.

On the thirtieth day, the meeting takes place. Now he is sure he recognizes her. In fact, it is the only thing he is sure of, in the middle of this dateless world that at first stuns him with its affluence. Around him, only fabulous materials: glass, plastic, terry cloth. When he recovers from his trance, the woman has gone.

The experimenters tighten their control. They send him back out on the trail. Time rolls back again, the moment returns.

This time he is close to her, he speaks to her. She welcomes him without surprise. They are without memories, without plans. Time builds itself painlessly around them. Their only landmarks are the flavor of the moment they are living and the markings on the walls.

Later on, they are in a garden. He remembers there were gardens.

She asks him about his necklace, the combat necklace he wore at the start of the war that is yet to come. He invents an explanation.

They walk. They look at the trunk of a redwood tree covered with historical dates. She pronounces an English name he doesn't understand. As in a dream, he shows her a point beyond the tree, hears himself say, "This is where I come from ..." - and falls back, exhausted. Then another wave of Time washes over him. The result of another injection perhaps.

Now she is asleep in the sun. He knows that in this world to which he has just returned for a while, only to be sent back to her, she is dead. She wakes up. He speaks again. Of a truth too fantastic to be believed he retains the essential: an unreachable country, a long way to go. She listens. She doesn't laugh.

Is it the same day? He doesn't know. They shall go on like this, on countless walks in which an unspoken trust, an unadulterated trust will grow between them, without memories or plans. Up to the moment where he feels - ahead of them - a barrier.

And this was the end of the first experiment.

It was the starting point for a whole series of tests, in which he would meet her at different times. Sometimes he finds her in front of their markings. She welcomes him in a simple way. She calls him her Ghost.

One day she seems frightened. One day she leans toward him. As for him, he never knows whether he moves toward her, whether he is driven, whether he has made it up, or whether he is only dreaming.

Around the fiftieth day, they meet in a museum filled with timeless animals. Now the aim is perfectly adjusted. Thrown at the right moment, he may stay there and move without effort.

She too seems tamed. She accepts as a natural phenomenon the ways of this visitor who comes and goes, who exists, talks, laughs with her, stops talking, listens to her, then disappears.

Once back in the experiment room, he knew something was different. The camp leader was there. From the conversation around him, he gathered that after the brilliant results of the tests in the Past, they now meant to ship him into the Future. His excitement made him forget for a moment that the meeting at the museum had been the last.

The Future was better protected than the Past. After more, painful tries, he eventually caught some waves of the world to come. He went through a brand new planet, Paris rebuilt, ten thousand incomprehensible avenues. Others were waiting for him. It was a brief encounter. Obviously, they rejected these scoriae of another time.

He recited his lesson: because humanity had survived, it could not refuse to its own past the means of its survival. This sophism was taken for Fate in disguise.

They gave him a power unit strong enough to put all human industry back into motion, and again the gates of the Future were closed.

Sometime after his return, he was transferred to another part of the camp. He knew that his jailers would not spare him. He had been a tool in their hands, his childhood image had been used as bait to condition him, he had lived up to their expectations, he had played his part. Now he only waited to be liquidated with, somewhere inside him, the memory of a twice-lived fragment of time.

And deep in this limbo, he received a message from the people of the world to come. They too travelled through Time, and more easily. Now they were there, ready to accept him as one of their own. But he had a different request: rather than this pacified future, he wanted to be returned to the world of his childhood, and to this woman who was perhaps waiting for him.

Once again the main jetty at Orly, in the middle of this warm pre-war Sunday afternoon where he could not stay, he though in a confused way that the child he had been was due to be there too, watching the planes.

But first of all he looked for the woman's face, at the end of the jetty. He ran toward her. And when he recognized the man who had trailed him since the underground camp, he understood there was no way to escape Time, and that this moment he had been granted to watch as a child, which had never ceased to obsess him, was the moment of his own death.

1 comment:

JF said...

Hey professor, There's also a full, dubbed in English version on Google Video: