Sunday, 27 August 2017


41. “Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.”


These days, “La Jetée” is best known as the French short film remade by Hollywood as “12 Monkeys,” with Robert Kosberg, the film’s executive producer, appealing personally to writer and documentary maker Chris Marker for the rights to remake his only fictional film, released in 1963.

The plot of “12 Monkeys” borrows from the plot and themes of “La Jetée,” concerning our perceptions of time and memory, and of technology. Time travel is used in both films to create loops that make the survival of the “present” literally dependent on the actions of both the past and future, in spite of what the fallibility of human memory makes us think we see… Trying not to spoil the ending of one film is difficult, but two films makes it really tough.

However, what distinguishes “La Jetée” from most films, let alone “12 Monkeys,” is the way in which it is filmed or, to be more accurate, how it is not filmed. It is an experimental short film, made entirely of still photographs, save for one brief filmed shot of a woman waking up, using an Arriflex camera borrowed one afternoon. Of course, all that distinguishes film from photography is persistence of vision, which only occurs from about twelve frames per second, so even if “La Jetée” describes itself as a “photo-roman” at the beginning, rather than a film, it is still a film, even if the frame rate is extremely slow.

Once you realise you are being given a sequence of still frames, you begin to adjust – rather than following action, you begin to look more around the frame, looking for clues on which to hook your attention, and your understanding of what is happening. There is a tendency to rely on the narrative, told by the main character in a voiceover that gives the whole production the air of an old-style slideshow, but when you have a story that demands your attention, to make sure the loops in time do not send you flying out, you find that this different form is making you follow everything much more closely.

It is very clear “La Jetée” was an experiment, with a technique not really seen outside of the very limited animation found in some children’s TV shows, but there was a joke put into the opening  credits regarding this: the film was “Avec la participation du Service de la Recherche de la R.T.F.,” referring to the French state broadcaster at the time, but a one-frame joke changes “Recherche” to “Trouvaille” – a lucky find, or a windfall, meaning Chris Marker must have been thankful for the money.

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