Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

La Jetee by Ernest Callenbach


From CineFiles: University of California Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

The most widely praised and respected film of the Janus New Cinema Collection, Chris Marker’s La Jetee is best described by Ernest Callenback, editor of Film Quarterly.

La Jetee (1963) by Chris Marker

I cannot escape the feeling that La Jetee is a great film and will last: a film so rich in emotional complexity and in its mastery of form that it will compel our attention beyond anything I have seen since The Silence. It is a film of heart-breaking nostalgia—nostalgia for the ordinary life, the ordinary loves, of our present. Its base point in time is just after World War III when everything we know has been destroyed: all that is left is a tyrannical band of survivors, living underground, desperately marshaling its remaining scientific resources to find a way out of the radioactive impasse—to draw upon the future for means of survival, by experiments in time travel.

The hero, in fact, is projected on successful journeys through time—often to the past, though also to the future—beginning at this same place. In the past, he re-encounters a girl he has seen on the pier before the war, in one of those magical moments one remembers for life. He meets her at various times; she refers to him as “my ghost.” Their walks through Paris, their visit to a museum of natural history, their awakening in bed, or sitting in the sun, are all perfectly ordinary and yet infused with a sense of irrecoverable loss. The hero is brooding, wounded, the prey of the experimenters. The girl, who at first seems plain, becomes achingly beautiful because of that: no “beauty,” she is terribly young, serious, human.

There is one flicker of movement in the film; that one instant makes the breath catch and the tears start. For the rest, the story is entirely told with a masterly flow of arrested motions; the shots are cut or dissolved into one another with a great fluidity and variety.

There is a sparse narration, which impersonally gives the essentials of the story. In the end the hero proves fit to visit the future; he does, but to this expedition attaches none of the humanity of his visits to the girl. Strange persons, with decorations on their faces, regard him as unkempt and unpleasant; but they give him the information needed to provide power to the survivors of the war. Later, he is to be liquidated; he refuses the chance of escape offered by the future; and, once again on the pier at Orly, he searches for the girl and realizes that he might see too the boy he had been. What he sees instead is one of the experimenters, and he realizes that he was present at the moment of his own death.

The stilled images have a terrible documentary quality, accentuated by their graininess. It is as if the film is saying, “These persons once existed, and were caught by these photographs; we show you now this partial record (the technical term is “live photography”) of people who are now dead. Such records are comforting. They stir our animistic unconscious feelings, and we are faintly reassured, as if to say, “Well, with this fine film they are not entirely dead after all.” Marker’s technique forecloses all such easy reaction possibilities.

A related effect of La Jetee‘s technique comes, I think, from the fact that we so badly want these people to move, to live; it is a movie, why are they not moving? … it is why that tiny moment of “live” motion, which is both a critical turning point in the plot and the most charged emotional moment in the film, is so terribly powerful. … La Jetee…. is not a science-fiction film… it springs from our lives here and now, and the threat under which we live. There is no romanticism in Marker’s portrait—no pretty views, no youthful zooming around Paris… They do not really “do” anything; they are just alive. The overwhelming point of La Jetee is the simple awesome difference between being alive and being dead.

— Ernest Callenbach

Very lightly edited…

Walking in the past - La Jetée still image of couple
La Jetee — “Perfectly ordinary, yet infused with a sense of irrecoverable loss”
Download the PDF of Ernest Callenbach's La Jetee
Arnaldo Pomodoro — Orb Sphere sculpture at University of California Berkeley
Arnaldo Pomodoro (1926-present) — Orb Sphere Sculpture at University of California Berkeley

The Silence (Swedish: Tystnaden) is a 1963 Swedish drama film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom. The plot focuses on two sisters, the younger a sensuous woman with a young son, the elder more intellectually oriented and seriously ill, and their tense relationship as they travel toward home through a fictional Central European country on the brink of war.

The film is the third in a series of thematically related films, following Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963), which is sometimes considered a trilogy. In addition to interpretations of spiritual issues, The Silence is sometimes interpreted as presenting its two sister characters as two sides of a single woman, one representing the physical and the other language. Bergman was inspired by his travels around Europe after World War II.

Against the expectations of the filmmakers, it was a box-office hit. The film was also noted for its frank depiction of sexuality and won the award for Best Film at the 1st Guldbagge Awards. It is regarded favorably by modern critics.

The Silence by Ingmar Bergman

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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