Originally published at Mad About Moviez.
Beginning no 1: There was this woman I’d been flirting with and after lunch our group had to split up, me going somewhere and she somewhere else. Right after we said our good byes, I turned to my friend and said to him, “That smile, dude, that smile. That’s the dream.”
Okay, I didn’t tell him that. But, looking back at that short time, other things come to mind too if I look hard enough, but it is this and two or three other moments that jump to mind. One of the questions La Jetée asks is, what if these were all there was to life? Or more precisely: how much of life do these form, and in what sorts of non-constituent ways do they affect your life?
Beginning no. 2: Much as I loved The Catcher in the Rye, I knew when I read it that Holden Caulfield was in some sense less wise than I. I’d already gone through the phase where phoniness bothered me and got out the other end: the other end was the realisation that people are fundamentally clueless and do whatever they can to get by, and that social norms were basically guidelines. We live in a large world, with many moving parts both visible and invisible, and the set of actions that would be best for intimate little groups of loved ones – what we might call ‘genuineness’ – is very different from those best for this world – this latter set must consist of rigid rules. This is a manifestation of the larger fact that what is good for a group is often bad for individual people (though, by definition, the good of the group is on average good for each member).
Much ink has been spilt about this fact: you can’t turn on star movies for five minutes without the hero giving up the good of the group for a comrade or a loved one. There’s a standard phrase for this: ‘tension between the personal and the political.’
Beginning no. 3: Chris Marker wrote La Jetée, as he describes it, in an almost dreamlike state as a reaction to the interviews he was conducting for his movie Le Joli Mai, which Wikipedia describes thusly: “just after the close of the Algerian War and the Évian Accords, Marker and his camera operator Pierre L’homme shot 55 hours of footage interviewing random people on the streets of Paris. The questions […] range from their personal lives, as well as social and political issues of relevance at that time.”
The story [super-mega SPOILER alert]: Paris, post-apocalypse. Everyone’s stuck underground, supplies are absurdly short. The scientists have devised a time machine that works, somehow, using memories. Our hero, popularly known in the literature as the man, is picked out because he has in his mind this stark image of a woman’s face from the landing jetty at an airport, from the day in his childhood he saw someone die.
The time machine being a somewhat unpolished thing, he goes back in fits and spurts, jumping in at random points in the woman’s life.* They build a relationship. Then he’s sent to the future, to ask for help, because their existence depends on his time’s survival; the future gives them the required help, and then offers to take him in. He refuses, saying that instead he wants to be sent back to the pre-apocalyptic world. He ends up in the landing jetty at the airport. The woman is there and he runs; and as he runs he sees one of the experimenters pointing a gun at him: that obsession which gave him the ability to come back in time was created by the scientific team.
Tying most of it up: La Jetée is a movie about a man trying to save the world told as a ‘photo-novel,’ a series of stills with voiceover narration and non-diegetic music, apart from one shot: a woman wakes up, sees him, and smiles.
Sometimes, this tension between the personal and political is not so clear: in the largest view (the one I gave) it feels icky – the man was horribly manipulated, after all – but then it gave him great love in his life, but then again it caused his death, but then again he helped save the species.
*An interesting question about this film which I will not even hint at in-flow here is the personality of the woman and the nature of her acceptance of the relationship with him.