Tuesday, February 13, 2007

La Jetée, Photographs of Death

Chris Marker’s unique film La Jetée greatly parallels many of the concepts of photographs in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. The film presents the devastation of humans’ desire to go back to the past by means of experimental time travel, in order to seek help following the destruction of WWIII. The protagonist’s obsession with a particular childhood memory at Orly Airport, where, as a child, he was captivated by a young woman while witnessing the shooting of a man, leads him to his own death. This fate of the protagonist relates to the idea of a photograph as death in Camera Lucida. In Camera Lucida, Barthes claims that a photograph “produces Death while trying to preserve life … With the photograph, we enter into flat Death” (92). According to Barthes, while the photograph tries to preserve life by capturing the past, it “tells [one] death in the future” by providing “the absolute past of the pose” (96). Similar to this notion, the protagonist of the film tries desperately to preserve his childhood memory by giving up the future that is full of other possibilities. However, as his past becomes almost tangible to him, the past brings death to him to show that one can never have the real past back, even through photographs. Marker plays with Barthes’ perception by creating a film almost entirely composed of individual photographs in various still shots and close ups, and long shots. Therefore, the protagonist literally tries to preserve his past in the photographs of the day of the Orly Airport incident in his memories, which leads him to “flat Death.”

Furthermore, the film emphasizes the idea of the photograph as death by presenting contrast in the one scene that does have short and subtle motion. When the protagonist spends the day with the young woman from his childhood memory, the woman falls asleep in the sun. The film then shows a long and silent sequence of the still photographs of her sleeping as the protagonist narrates, “Now she is asleep in the sun … she is dead.” As the noise of the birds chirping gets louder, the woman (sleeping or dead) in a frozen photograph suddenly wakes up, and blinks her eyes in animated motions as in a regular movie. The reason why the woman can move, become alive, as in real life in this particular scene is because she is not captured in a photograph. This relates to Barthes’ beliefs about the difference between cinema and photograph, “Like the real world, [in] the filmic world … ‘the experience will continue to flow by in the same constitutive style’; but the Photograph breaks the ‘constitutive style’; it is without future” (89-90). With this notion, La Jetée delivers death in photographs in this short scene by contrasting it to life in motion pictures that are more like the real world.



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