Okay . . . I promise I'll try to see "Django Unchained" in time for the next column. Sometimes Life is not kind to the dedicated film critic/historian.
Well pumpkins, yesterday was David Bowie's birthday, and there I was . . . just off the bus that had pulled into Dilemma City. Should I discuss "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence", "The Man Who Fell to Earth", "Labyrinth", "Absolute Beginners" . . . or even "Jazzin' for Blue Jean"?
(And right now you go: "Well why not? I mean: it's not as if we're hearing about a current major theatrical release . . . and last time Uncle Mikey went on and on and on about an obscure Greek science-fiction tripfest from the 1960s, so why shouldn't we be exposed to commentary on yet another film we've probably never heard of?")
I sympathize with you. Honest. But, in the first place, I certainly don't want to bore you with details concerning the vicissitudes of my personal existence. In the second place, I've come to feel it's sort of my duty to expose you people to what I consider the wondrously obscure in the world of cinema.
Look at it this way. Consider the potential for snob appeal that I continually offer. In the midst of a conversation you casually remark about "an obscure little early Candice Bergen performance from the Sixties . . . filmed by the chap who did "Zorba the Greek" . . . not particularly accessible to the general population, y'understand, but possessed of a certain individual dynamic".
Nod if you're buying any of this.
In the meantime . . . "La jetee".
Chris Marker was perhaps the best candidate French cinema ever had for a genuine Renaissance Man. He was part of a movement which was working to produce films of a more experimental nature than even the bright lights of the New Wave were bringing us (no small feat). "La jetee" will doubtless be the film he'll best be known for; an opinion bolstered by the fact that it won the Prix Jean Vigo for the short film category (and don't bother scratching your woolly little heads. Just take my word that getting the Prix Jean Vigo is a Honkin' Big Deal as far as French filmmakers are concerned. Front row seats . . . extra pats of butter at the restaurants . . . that sort of Deal).
"La jetee" was a 28 minute black and white film made in 1962. It takes place in Paris after the world's been devastated by nuclear war. A group of survivors are scratching out a bare existence beneath the ruins of the city. Among them are scientists who've managed to discover a means by which people can travel through time, and they wish to use this process to try and solicit help from either the past or the future. The problem is that not everyone can mentally withstand the process, and the scientists are obliged to make use of a prisoner who is able to make the process work by focusing on an image from his past: a woman he had once seen standing on the jetty ("La jetee") at Orly Airport, and a man dying at the same time . . .
Yes, in the back? Clement? You had a question?
You are quite correct, Clement. This does sound an awful lot like the 1995 Terry Gilliam film "12 Monkeys", which starred Bruce Willis. And for good reason: as is mentioned in the opening credits, "12 Monkeys" was based on "La jetee".
So you're now asking if you should prefer "12 Monkeys" over "La jetee". Tell you what. Let me go on about "La jetee" and then I'll get back to that, okay? Appreciated.
Among other things, "La jetee" is best remembered for being composed almost entirely of still photographs. Yes, pumpkins . . . let's get the controversy out on the table right this instant. The entire story is told through 28 minutes of black-and-white stills, with the only exception being a very brief segment which was filmed through a motion picture camera. There's also no dialogue . . . only the voice-over of the narrator (Jean Negromi), plus occasional brief snippets of background voices and sounds.
The thing to keep in mind, though, is that this process of storytelling works within the context of the particular story being told. I'll try to clarify. Watching "La jetee" is like reading a story composed by a photo-journalist, or a comic book. Market makes the narrative flow from one still to the next, performing with frozen images what other directors manage with movement . . . drawing out drama and emotion and the development of both plot and characters. As we follow the prisoner (Davos Hanich) through his visits into the past (and his pursuit and growing interest in the woman, played by Helene Chatelain), the use of stills allows Marker to linger on a well-chosen expression or pose. It's almost paradoxical to consider that, by using stills, Marker acquires greater freedom in showing what he wishes for the audience to see. It's perhaps minimalism for the sake of Art, but it's still enough for the viewer to follow the prisoner as he slips in and out of time, trying to establish a meaningful relationship with a woman that proceeds without pause towards the inevitable tragic end.
And the sights which Marker builds have the ability to occasionally catch the eye. One scene (and yes, it's odd using words like "scene" in regards to a film made up of stills) shows the prisoner and the woman touring the National Museum of Natural History in Paris; the story unfolding amid seemingly endless displays of preserved animals. There's also the opening scenes which depict the devastated landscape of a post-Apocalyptic Paris; accompanied by the St. Alexander Cathedral Choirs on the soundtrack performing the "Hymne a la Croix" . . . the traditional song becoming an anguished howl over the grave of Mankind. As sobering moments in cinema go, this has few peers.
Certainly "La jetee" isn't going to appeal to all tastes. Few films actually do. With the exception of the most ardent of cineastes the majority of people aren't going to make the effort to appreciate "La jetee" on its own merits. Even 28 minutes might be too long for people to sit through stills (the majority of which probably believe Ken Burns is a genius, and Burns' technique in many of his documentaries is a logical extension of what Marker did in "La jetee"). Marker does succeed in telling an entire story . . . and a rather complex one at that. Accomplishing this with a collection of still photos is an accomplishment worthy of the salad days of "Life" magazine. That he manages to do all this in only 28 minutes is the basis for my appreciation of his genius.
So! Going back to "12 Monkeys". I have a particular fondness for Gilliam's work and am not going to play the mug's game of comparing his version of the story to Marker's. For me personally, it's all apples and oranges. I believe Gilliam did a wonderful job on his own without downplaying or degrading Marker's film. More than that, I felt Gilliam honored and enhanced "La jetee" with "12 Monkeys". I feel it is no crime to prefer one over the other. The real crime would be turning one's back on both. Does that help?
Good, because I Enjoyed the Movie!