AUGUST 3, 2016
“THIS IS THE STORY of a man marked by an image from his childhood”: so goes the famous opening line of Chris Marker’s self-designated photo-roman, La Jetée (1962). The image in question is of a woman’s face, remembered from the observation pier of the Paris Orly Airport. And then commotion: what our hero only later recognizes as the image of a man dying. As the off-screen narrator tells us, this memory predates the outbreak of World War III by a few years, and the woman’s face becomes “the only peacetime image to survive the war.” Paris is destroyed and its survivors take shelter in the underground chambers of the Palais de Chaillot, a “camp” where scientists subject their underlings to experiments in time-travel (now that the spatial dimension has become a dead end as to any prospects for humankind’s survival). Our hero, we are told, will wonder if he had really seen that face on the Orly pier, or if he’d only invented “that tender moment to prop up the madness to come.” Regardless, it is because of this somehow remarkable capacity to retain mental images that our hero is singled out as a strong candidate, he is told, to endure the psychic strain of time-travel.
“Ceci est l’histoire d’un homme marqué par une image d’enfance,” in the original French. This is the line printed down the spine of the gatefold sleeve of a vinyl LP of La Jetée’s 29-minute audio track, a recent release from San Francisco record label Superior Viaduct. With the French version on the A-side and the English on B, the object is an artfully conceived fusion of the cinephilic, the francophilic, and, at 33 rpm, the audiophilic. So much so that, for those of a certain bourgeois disposition, Superior Viaduct may have conjured up the fetish object par excellence. But the draw of this record — its aura, I would almost say — comes from Marker’s own magic as a thinker of media and memory. And that magic goes a lot deeper than the satisfactions I get from my more run-of-the-mill vinyl-bin discoveries.
As the fourth anniversary of Marker’s death has come and gone, the LP is an evocative invitation to rethink one of the richest meditations that we have on the cinematic medium. Listening to La Jetée certainly provides a new angle on the philosophical-narrative premise of the film: that our potential to intervene in the passage of time stems from our faculty to have mental images, to remember. No doubt Marker understood — and constructed in this film a very literal figuration of — one of the central arguments that Henri Bergson made about the relationship between memory and perception (and this was some time before Gilles Deleuze would turn the latter into an unwilling philosophical godfather of the French cinema). In short, memory and perception are different by nature and not degree. It is not, in Bergson’s schema, that perception affords us an image of the present, while memory is the retention of a past one. Perception works in the service of action, a trigger in an action-reaction chain. The image, on the other hand, falls squarely in the domain of the memory. Memory is a condensation of the present moment into an image, lagging imperceptibly behind the now, but opening an associative portal between our most recent images and all those stored up from the past. The image then is a point where the past can project itself, gnawing into the future (as Bergson had it) and intervening in that reflexive chain of perception and action. The philosophical significance, at least for Bergson and so for Marker, is grand: whatever capacity we have to exercise our free will lies in memory, in the image, at least as much as it does in action.
And yet, the hero of La Jetée is hardly the victor of this Bergsonian premise. In the end, the childhood memory that obsesses him turns out to be the image of his own death, the hero assassinated as he seeks to reunite with the woman of his dreams. The film stages, with this final revelation, the most macabre of déjà vu.
But listening to the sounds of just that, a film déjà vu — its images etched out across the surface of my turntable — my sense is that Superior Viaduct may have reopened Marker’s time portal. And this not least because up until now, the richness of La Jetée’s soundscape has been too easy to overlook in light of the film’s more reputed peculiarity as an experiment in cinematic form. But for a single shot (that of a woman — the woman — waking up), the film is composed entirely of still images. Not film stills, it bears pointing out, but photographs taken with a Pentax Spotmatic, with a few archival ones wired in: bombed-out buildings and ruined cities to stand in for a post-apocalyptic Paris.
As such, it’s somewhere in between the photographic and the cinematic that the singular effect of La Jetée is crafted. Marker’s subtraction of cinema’s ostensibly essential kernel, the moving image, has the effect of making the film’s viewer uncannily sensible to the fact of watching a film, of getting marked by it, and moving with it. And in a film that tells a story about images — about our capacity to have them (to be saved or wounded by them, even) — the typical distinctions that we make between film and photography are majestically deferred. Recall the “radical opposition” that Roland Barthes would describe in “The Rhetoric of the Image” a decade or so later between the real sense of a having-been-there transmitted by the photograph and the illusion, inherent to cinematic experience, of an actually being-there. In La Jetée, images overflow these categories: neither singularly cinematic nor photographic, the film’s images are being there at the same time as having been. They deliver the real experience of an illusion.
With the release of their 12-inch La Jetée, the time-travelers at Superior Viaduct have taken the experiment a few steps further, completing Marker’s near subtraction of the moving image, with a near erasure of the photographic one. I say near erasure in acknowledgment of the photographs reproduced on the front, back, and interior of the record’s gatefold sleeve. There is also a 10-by-6-inch print inserted within: the image of the hero’s death on the Orly pier, his body flung back in homage (as Peter Wollen has pointed out) to Robert Capa’s well-known Spanish Civil War photograph of the falling Republican militiaman. On and inside the record sleeve, the photographs take on something of the aspect of icons ornamenting a ritual object. The matter at hand, as I lower the needle again, is what exactly that ritual accomplishes.
“[…] [H]e 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.” — La Jetée (dir. Chris Marker, 1962)
La Jetée was one of two films Marker made in 1962. In fact, he began working on it during his days off from filming Le Joli Mai, a portrait of Paris and its residents over the summer months following the close of the Algerian War. In sidewalk interviews, Marker and co-director, Pierre Lhomme, probed Parisians for a glimpse of how they construct their own personhood, and then (in the second half) folded those narratives into the sociopolitical moment. A great deal can be said of the Le Joli Mai’s documentation of a moment in time and (as Marker saw it) La Jetée’s science-fiction allegorizing of such a project. But significantly, Le Joli Mai was also the first of Marker’s films to feature original synced sound in dialogue with its on-screen subjects, who offer up their own idiosyncratic histories of the present to be woven into the whole. Nothing of the sort for La Jetée, whose audio track is assembled largely from stock recordings: sounds that, as Janet Harbord puts it in her excellent monograph on the film, “reside on the cusp between the diegetic and the imaginary.” These sounds are governed by Marker’s voice-over commentary, one that is much in more in line with the essayistic exegeses that Marker composed for his travel documentaries in the 1950s (Letter from Siberia and Sunday in Peking among others) than it is with the conversational tone of Le Joli Mai.
Indeed, it is La Jetée’s commentary that does most of the work in producing a sense of narrative synthesis, just as much as its visual treatment does to deconstruct it. The voice takes us in pursuit of the unnamed hero, backward in time, toward his images of a prewar world, then forward, in search of salvation from the utopian beings of the future. But now, watching La Jetée with my eyes closed, as it were, at 33 revolutions a minute, it is through the roar of passenger jets flying over the Orly pier, the German whispering of scientists probing at the time-traveler hero, his heart beating as he slips into the past, a chorus of songbirds chirping in a new day that the film’s images come back to me. And all of this is cued and punctuated by the Russian Liturgy of the Good Sunday of the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral choir and Trevor Duncan’s score. (Duncan’s is a stock store, composed for a film, or films, that hadn’t been made yet. It’s therefore an ideal accompaniment to these stills from a movie that itself, in a certain sense, never quite got made.) Amid the cinematic components of this listening experience, the quality of the audio format, the crackle and pop of a dusty stylus, sticks out. You can fit upward of 40 minutes of sound on a 12-inch side of vinyl but not without distortion, unless you significantly lower the levels. La Jetée’s 29 minutes is on the long side. Distortion is present, but not severe, and not at all to the detriment of the experience, evocative as it is of the quivering of a celluloid strip running through the gate of a projector.
It’s against the backdrop of this soundscape, and no less the materiality of the format, that the images of La Jetée reemerge in the mind’s eye. Images, that is, remembered from a film that I’ve seen a number of times, and which now seem to come as much from those screenings as they come from Marker’s own visual vocabulary (cats, birds, planes, etc.). And here, more than ever, these mental images take flight from both the stillness of the photograph and the movement of film, flickering on the screen of memory: memories of photographs that once were, memories of a film that almost was. In fact it is the film’s narrator who best describes this experience, as he unfolds the hero’s voyage into the past. As the experiments in time-travel commence, the hero is “ejected from the present and its certainties,” and “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.” The porousness of this passage on vinyl is remarkable. For these mornings, bedrooms, animals, I supply my own. In the film, the same passage stands out for the prolonged absence of actors in the accompanying images. On the 16th day of experimentation, the hero reenters the frame. Listening to the vinyl, I’m right there with him, back in time, with my own peacetime memories.
If it seems too facile to analogize my own listening experience to that of La Jetée’s transtemporal hero, consider the photograph reproduced on the front of the LP’s sleeve: that of the time-traveler mid-voyage, recumbent with his eyes covered.
What kind of time machine is it that involves little more than covering the eyes? (To be precise, the hero was given some intravenous injections, too, but these served likewise to numb the senses, unraveling “the present and its certainties.”) My hunch is that covering the eyes and putting a record on may contain something of the time machine in and of itself.
In his 1986 media studies classic Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich Kittler remarks that it was the 19th-century theorization of frequency that paved the way for Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. With frequency, the measurement of sound shifted from the spatial dimension (of lengths, between points on stringed instruments or valves on others) to the temporal one (of speed, specifically waves per second). If photography and cinema emerged from the funneling and projection of light through space, with recorded sound — with its playbacks, loops, and pauses — we are intrinsically bound to the axis of time.
There is a history that runs parallel to this transition: “Technological sound storage,” Kittler writes, “provides a first model for data streams, which are simultaneously becoming objects of neurophysiological research.” Joining an artificial ear to an artificial mouth, the phonograph is the model of the soul-become-brain. In what Kittler calls the first theory of the phonograph, the late 19th-century philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau compared the grooves of a phonographic cylinder to the neuronal pathways through which memories are both forged and replayed. Self-consciousness, the faculty that allows us to distinguish a memory from a new experience, was for Guyau the sole feature to set cognition apart from the workings of Edison’s technological marvel: what better metaphor for the human brain than that of a phonograph that could recognize a song it had already played?
Marker’s subterranean scientists might represent another point in this history, a nightmarish future in which the phonographic brain is co-opted by the surveillance-state. Time-travel, then, is the brain “played back,” just like a phonograph, deprived of its self-reflective faculty. As such, the underlying project of the film’s scientists is to instrumentalize that Bergsonsian difference-in-nature between perception-action and memory-image. By covering the eyes, numbing the senses, suppressing the reflexive perception of the present against which the memory-image pushes, the scientists exploit memory not as the essence of free will (as Bergson maintained), but as the key to control.
Funnily enough, this reasoning gets them back in time to assassinate our hero, but it’s he alone, the man marked by an image, that can get to the future, where the utopian beings of tomorrow offer him an infinite power supply, the key to humankind’s salvation. Once in the future, his only mistake is not staying there. When the beings of tomorrow try to rescue him from the hands of the Chaillot scientists, now ready to do away with him, his request is not to follow them, but to return to the Orly pier, to the woman he left behind. And then the déjà vu.
To be anchored to our memories of the past in lieu of opening ourselves up to the imaginary potential of the future: is this the tragic paradigm that La Jetée paints for our image-saturated world? It undoubtedly is for our hero, but it needn’t be for the rest of us. By suspending the movement command of “action” — by stilling the moving image — Marker throws his hopes for humanity’s salvation in with images, and thus in with memory.
Today it is a rare treat to catch a theatrical screening of La Jetée in print form. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, it is only a few clicks away on Hulu, not to mention YouTube and Vimeo. My own excitement for the Superior Viaduct release stems in no small part from my suspicion that we lose something authentic in translating a film into binary code. I doubt Marker would share my snobbishness, ever the experimenter in new and multi-media (video, CD-ROMs, virtual reality, and more) that he was. To use images in the service of memory, that’s one way of summing up Marker’s project, perhaps best expressed by Sandor Krasna, his cameraman alter ego and author of the letters read over Sans Soleil (1983), Marker’s other most famous “essay film” on the nature of memory. Krasna writes,
I remember that January in Tokyo. Or rather, I remember the images I filmed in Tokyo in January. They have now put themselves in place of my memory, they are my memory. I wonder how people who do not film, take photos, or record tapes remember, how humankind used to go about remembering.
The question has a flipside, a lining (as Krasna/Marker might have called it): how should we go on remembering?
I borrow Krasna’s citation from the introduction to Kittler’s book, where a few pages earlier he writes that the “general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media […] Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, storage, transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping — a total media link on a digital base will erase the very concept of medium.” This is what Marker’s legacy inspires us to resist. It’s in the spaces and slippages between different media forms that Marker produced something a lot more valuable than information: I would call it experience.
And it’s this legacy that is captured so vitally in Superior Viaduct’s vinyl release of La Jetée. Consider what happens when you get to what was, and still is, the film’s focal point: just after the peacetime images of Paris begin to sediment, to unfold one by one, all around the woman’s face. The narration pauses, and the dissolves between distinct stills become slower, as the movement from one to the next speeds up until, for few a seconds, at 24 frames per second, we have full-fledged moving image: the woman waking up. A paradigmatically lyrical moment, this is the lynchpin in Marker’s ingenious exposition of the cinematic illusion — the real experience of an illusion, having-been-there soldered to the being-there. On record, this is where the sound experience most thoroughly asserts itself, a moment where memory meets the openness of the future, tuned to nothing but 40 seconds of birdsong. My eyes are closed, but my ears are alert, tuned in to the passing of time. And just like our hero, as the narrator let me know a few seconds ago, I’m no longer sure if I’m dreaming or inventing.
Matthew H. Evans is a writer based in Oakland, California. He is completing a dissertation on 20th-century ethnographic writing and film in the French department at University of California, Berkeley, and is currently managing editor of the interdisciplinary studies journal qui parle.