Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Microreview [film]: La Jetee

The Meat

Chris Marker died last week on his 91st birthday. The French experimental filmmaker, artist, and documentarian is best known -- especially since its Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release -- for his 1962 short film La Jetee. It's one of the more influential sci-fi films out there that relatively few people have seen. In 27 minutes, it tells a story about time travel set in a post-apocalyptic Paris. We spend time underground in the shelters that the survivors have made for themselves to avoid the nuclear contamination on the surface, we return to the past of the 1960s, and we go ahead to a distant future to see what lies in store for mankind.

And we do it all in still photographs.

Chris Marker's favorite film was Hitchcock's Vertigo (you can see over here the appreciation I wrote about that one after it was named the best film of all time, also last week), and echoes of Hitchcock's meditation on memory and obsession, which was made four years earlier, pervade Marker's sci-fi short film. You could even argue that in many ways, Le Jetee tells the same story as Vertigo, but through a sci-fi lens, in the same way Forbidden Planet is generally considered a sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

But La Jetee's real accomplishment is a lyrical and emotional evocation that is as close as anything I've ever seen to actual visual poetry. My experience of La Jetee is like my experience of T.S. Eliot or e.e. cummings. On an intellectual level I understand what's happening -- what the words and images literally mean -- but I cannot consciously account for the emotions they evoke. To try to analyze it and tear it all apart would be to rob the work of its magic. And there is a tremendous amount of magic here.

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10. Somebody basically gave Marker an old Pentax camera and a nickel and said "Here you go, kid. See if you can make a picture." So if you can see some of the photo matte work here and there, it's forgivable.

Bonuses: +1, because Terry Gilliam re-made La Jetee in 1995 as 12 Monkeys; +1, for the still photos, because it would not have been as nearly as good as a live-action film; +1 for the profoundly French quality of the narration ("Memories are just like other moments. They are only made memorable by the scars they leave behind.")

Penalties: None.

Cult Movie Coefficient: 10/10. Mind-blowing/life-changing/best ever.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]