Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Remain Quiet and Still in the Subterranean Apocalypse

As the credits roll, the "film" La Jetée is presented as a
"photo-roman," french for a "photo-novel." A novel in photos. What
elements were missing? There is no dialog, only narrative. And in
the place of moving images there are only still shots in sequence,
save for a single 10-second clip. The "photo-novel" still retained some of the core
elements of films, with the director very much in control of what the
audience is seeing and hearing and controlling how long we spend
gazing on a particular image.

The experience of watching the photo-novel was not altogether
different from watching a standard film. It often felt less a
sequence of stills and more like the director simply instructed
his actors to remain quiet and still in each shot.

The decision to use a clip in that one part of the film was lost on
me, although there must have been some reason for it. It is preceded
by several shots of the same subject, the woman in bed with her eyes
closed but seemingly not asleep, and the suggestion of post-coital
giddiness seems to be intended. The stills are cut closer and closer
together, and several stills are used of the same subject where a
single still would be used in other parts of the film, and suddenly
the woman's eyes flutter open and the audience realizes that we have
shifted into a real moving image.

I suppose the timing of this sequence coincides with the main
character's increasing ability to exist and function in this "memory"
time, travelling into the past with greater and greater permanence,
and just as the moving image of the woman seems more real than the
snapshots, it helps us feel how these moments in the past are becoming
more and more real for the main character.

Still, I felt like there was another point being made by this that I
was missing.

It was striking, seeing this for the second time (I rented it a decade
ago after watching the 1995 Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys), and noting
this time how much the Wachowski Brothers borrowed for their 1999 film
The Matrix. In particular, the shots of the character lying prone in
a cot with electrodes attached to him, being sent from a glum
apocalyptic subterranean future to another time and place -- an almost
exact prototype for the mode of astral travel that is presented in The

Which brings me to another observation -- this obsession with humanity
being driven underground. We have tunnel dwellers in H. G. Wells'
Time Machine, underground workers in Metropolis, post-apocalyptic
underground civilization in la Jetée, underground Zion in The Matrix.
Why is it that we are to be denied the light of the sun in all of
these imagined futures? Are some of these stories paying homage to
other ones or have all these creative types come up with this
subterranean fate for humanity independently?

The sun, the giver of light, the very reflection of which is crucial
to the capture of images and moving images, is that which we
apparently most fear to lose.



Blogger Nina said...

I think the theme of driving humans underground is to amplify the effect loss of sunlight can cause. The sun, or rather its light, is crucial for life, as it drives photosynthesis and other processes. Sunlight helps the formation of vitamin D in our skin, which can counteract depression caused by deficiencies - science aside, even just seeing the sun can bring happiness. It also helps reset our circadian rhythms (as humans have a circadian rhythm of 25 rather than 24 hours) and give us a judge of time.

To be without light means that just the opposite of those processes will happen; there can be no organic life more complicated than a bacteria, less joy and more depression, and a skewed sense of time, so that each day and hour melds into each other and becomes meaningless.

2/14/2007 6:37 PM  
Blogger Dan Ben-Nun said...

I couldn't agree more with the points and the connections you brought up in your post Tom. I also think it is interesting to note that La Jetee represents one of the first psychological thrillers. That is to say it is one of the earlier movies to blur the line between the inside someone's mind and objective reality. Now with immense popularity of films like Fight Club, Being John Malcovitch, Pi, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind etc. it is interesting to see how these film borrowed the themes first espoused in La Jetee.

2/18/2007 12:23 AM  
Blogger Frank Song said...

interesting connection.
hmm, i kinda agree with the idea of the sun. In addition, there is definately a contrasting image between the sun and what you call it "underground." I guess the use of still image in 'black and white' amplifies that kind of sensation. however it is ironic that the presence of light is one of most essential parts of photography.

2/18/2007 8:04 PM  
Blogger Silbi Song said...

Tom, you made me think about things that i didn't see before. It is so interesting to wonder whether the modern movies borrowed the idea of mind travel from La Jetee or it's just a coincedence. I think they were influenced by La Jetee. About the sunlight question? Maybe it's the dream of humans to be so independent even from the most powerful and essential thing like sun. I think all these movies and stories play as cautionary tales, saying that if humans try to advance and be artifical too much, they will eventually fail. So humans can't really be artificial. We are the creatures of nature. =)

2/25/2007 2:19 PM  
Blogger Ifan Wei said...

I found the idea of mental travel to be particularly intriguing. The prisoner in La Jetee travels to destinations that are dictated by between either memories or dreams. The images of his mind seem to be a combination of reality and fantasy. The idea that these locations are rooted in dreams is supported by the only "moving" image. The girl seems to waking from sleep.

I also wanted to note that her eyes are the main focus of the movement. There seems to be a motif surrounding the eyes. The time machine is something that covers the eyes. There images of heads of statues with lifeless eyes. I was curious if anyone else had any interpretations of this motif.

2/25/2007 10:06 PM  

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