Chris Marker’s La Jetee
It’s hard to imagine a more irreplaceable filmmaker than Chris Marker. The legendary filmmaker passed away last week on his 91st birthday—although he was so elusive about his own past, refusing interviews and even photos of himself, he could have just as easily been born the same day the camera was invented.
In fact, that’s just the type poetic symmetry that might have found its way into one of Marker’s many short films, including La Jetee (1962), the gold standard of the form and the work for which he’ll best be remembered. La Jetee‘s futuristic story of a POW used in experiments to travel through time is simultaneously stark and straight forward, yet luscious with style and thick with ideas.
Made entirely from stills except one moving image, the film resonates even amid today’s onslaught of special effects-laden filmmaking. From the tone of the narrator’s voice to the stills, to the angles used, to the editing to create movement where there is none — all these elements add up to great storytelling, with tension and even romance. It’s a science fiction film that also happens to be full of emotion.
For many years in the late 90s, when the internet suddenly appeared and many of us film fanatics went nuts trading VHS tapes of films never released in America, Marker was our Moby Dick, the elusive prize catch lost in a vast ocean. Maybe you got to see La Jetee in a film class, but it demanded multiple views. It wasn’t hard to figure out the mystery ending, but Marker’s film was so captivating that you wanted to examine it. These days, it’s no longer available on YouTube, but you can find it on this Criterion Collection DVD.
Another classic Marker is his documentary A.K. (1985), where he films the also-legendary director Akira Kurosawa as he makes his epic film Ran. A film about a filmmaker making a film is almost always a terrible, boring idea relegated to egomaniacal DVD extras – except when made by a director as skilled and imaginative as Marker. Marker was a pioneer in combining video and film to slick, eye-grabbing effect.
Marker never speaks down to the viewer but rather invites and entices with his idea-driven imagery. in A.K., the narrator talks about how the documentary is being made as you are watching it. Marker captures beautiful moments without narration, then provides thoughts about what his camera caught. The final result is as poetic and simple as a friend telling you about his day.
The best introduction for A.K. is best summed up by the film’s narrator: “The first pitfall is to not appropriate a beauty that does not belong to us…we will try to show what we see the way we see, from our eye level.”