La Jeteerecommended viewing

Like a circle in a spiral like a wheel within a wheel
Chris Marker
Davos Hanich, Helene Chatelain, Jean Negroni, Jacques Ledoux
The Setup: 
Short science-fiction film, told in still photographs, of a man retreating into a swirl of his memories.

This movie came to my attention when Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys came out, as that film is a large-form adaptation of this. It gives you a clue of the evocative material here that Gilliam could make a 2-hour movie out of this 28-minute film and still have it not seem [too] padded. I knew that this film was comprised entirely of still photographs [and one moving image], which somehow gave me the impression that it would be somewhat of a chore to sit through or difficult to figure out, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a nice, involving, easy-to-follow story with a lot of depth and an evocative ending.

It begins with a story of a man’s boyhood memory of being at an airport with his parents. They are looking around when a distant incident happens, and later, the boy realizes that he saw a man die. “Soon afterward, Paris was blown up.” There is a nuclear war, and the survivors retreat into underground caves.

Some of them, for reasons unclear to me, are prisoners, and our main character, Chris, is to be a “new guinea pig among the prisoners,” set up to participate in these experiments in which they will send him forward in time in order to receive a technology they can use to save mankind. Chris is selected because he is “glued to an image from his past,” which is of a woman he knew aboveground.

He is first sent back in time, to establish this link with his memory [that will somehow allow him to later move forward]. He walks around, until at last he sees the woman he knew, and is sure she is the one. They spend time together, fall in love, and grow to trust one another. At one point they see a cut tree ring of a redwood, and he shows her the point in the future when he is from. In here comes the one moving picture, in which, after a number of still images of her sleeping, she dreamily opens her eyes. Soon they go to a “museum of ageless animals,” and he comes to understand that “Thrown into the right moment, he could stay forever.” When he returns to the present his link to the past has been firmly established, and he realizes that the memory in the museum was his last.

He is now sent into the future, where he meets people who give him a “power plant” capable of getting humanity going again. You will notice that when he is sent into the future, he wears aviator sunglasses. He realizes that his jailers will execute him after he completes his mission. The people from the future come to him—he asks to be sent back into his memory. He is at the airport. He sees the woman, and runs toward her. There is a man there, another person from the postapocalyptic “present,” who kills him. He realizes that the man he saw die as a child was himself.

It was good and rich, and leaves you a lot to think about. Aside from all the science-fiction stuff, it is about a retreat into memory, a wish to remain in the past, made especially urgent since, in the story, the rest of civilization has been destroyed. Then of course it ends with the ultimate memory loop, which works better in this short version, where that becomes one of the film’s main features. By contrast, I didn’t even remember that twist being in 12 Monkeys, there was just too much else to distract from it.

There are several supplementary features on the disc, one of which is very interesting, as it ties the film to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It tells us that the tunnel where the film was shot became the national film archives after filming, and the guy who plays the lead scientist here—who sends our hero into the past—is the man who went on to become the president of those archives. It argues that perhaps the film isn’t just a return into the past but into FILM HISTORY. It then argues for an interpretation which sees the film as heavily influenced by Vertigo, which apparently director Marker has seen several times and was obsessed with. First, it’s about a man re-doing his past and encountering a woman who is his projection of a real woman he once knew. The woman is introduced with a shot very similar to the famous profile of Kim Novak in Vertigo, and notes the scene, similar to one in Vertigo, where they examine the rings of a redwood tree. It may not be completely convincing, but it’s interesting, and it’s interesting to see a DVD featurette devoted entirely to an interpretation of a film.

Anyway, an interesting, easy-to-watch film that leaves you with a lot to think about and is very influential. It only takes 28 minutes and provides a lot of return on a small time investment. That’s smart moviewatching business!

Should you watch it: 

Yes, you should.