A Motion Picture Without Motion

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Title: La Jetee

Rating: 4 Stars

I just finished Time Travel, by James Gleick. Although I didn’t love the book, there were some topics that I found interesting. In particular, he was discussing movies involving time travel and he mentioned La Jetee.

I’d forgotten La Jetee. I remember when 12 Monkeys came out. I have a weakness for perplexing, non-linear plots and it certainly filled the bill. I enjoyed it and later researched it a bit. I remember reading that it was based upon La Jetee, an odd French film from the early 1960’s.

Reading about it again led me to try a hunch. I ventured over to youTube, and sure enough, there was a version available. This version apparently was played in an auditorium in the Philippines, with musical accompaniment and English narration. Since it’s only 28 minutes long, I sat down to watch it.

And I was properly amazed.

Warning, below are some spoilers. However, the movie was made in fucking 1962, so if you’re gonna get upset by me giving away plot points in the year 2017, may I suggest that there might be bigger battles for you to fight.

It’s the story of a man who has a single childhood memory of being at an airport, seeing a mysterious woman, and then something horrible happening (that he does not remember). Shortly after the time of that memory, some cataclysm hit the planet and nearly all people have perished. The few remaining ones are now deep underground with at best steampunk technologies.

Scientists underground have come to the conclusion that the only way out of their predicament is to send someone either backward or forward in time to either stop the cataclysm or to be provided with advanced technology.

Time travel is attempted by many but all of the experiments fail horribly. The man is selected because of the fact that he still has such a strong memory. This implies that he might have the proper mindset to cross time (for you literature geeks, think Time and Again, by Jack Finney).

The man is successful and on successive trips, recovers more memories. He meets the enigmatic woman and they fall in love. The scientists then send him into the future and he returns back with some kind of energy device that will allow them to start advancing civilization again.

Later, the people from the future visit him and offer to take him to the future, away from the current misery of underground existence. He declines but instead asks them to send him back to his past so that he can be with the woman.

So, he is sent back to the past to stay. He ends up at an airport. It’s the airport of his original memory. He sees the woman and heads over to her. He turns and sees that one of his keepers from the underground has followed him and intends to kill him. As he’s preparing for his death, he realizes that the memory from his childhood is in fact witnessing his own death as an adult.

If you’ve recently seen and/or remember 12 Monkeys, you can see how much of that plot was lifted from La Jetee.

What’s amazing about this movie is that it was told as a series of montages. As far as I can tell, there is only one truly filmed scene, where the woman opens her eyes. All other scenes are just a series of stills. For a film trying to make a statement about time, how cool is it that it tells the story in this manner? For, if you think of time as being just a series of moments, isn’t a movie ultimately just a series of images?

Just like in Finney’s book, I found it interesting that time travel can only happen to someone that is already susceptible to memories. Is having detailed memories a form of time travel? Especially if the memory is so detailed enough that it can trigger you to enter almost a different state? Not to make too much of this, but can the point be made that when Proust’s narrator takes a bite of the madeleine and is immediately flooded with an involuntary flood of memories that he might actually be transported in time? In fact, is that ultimately the meaning behind In Search of Lost Time?

At one point, the character is described as ‘no plans, no memories’. Does that mean at that point he is effectively out of any concept of time? If he has no plans, then he has no awareness of the future. If has no memories, then he has no awareness of the past. Without knowing of either the past or the future, what does time mean?

The fact that such questions can come out of a less than thirty minute film made over fifty years ago that consists of only one moving image is a testament to its greatness.

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