Chris Marker: La Jetée

Janet Harbord,
Chris Marker: La Jetée.
Afterall Books, London, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-84638-048-8
UK£9.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Afterall Books)

Janet Harbord’s elegantly written and structured monograph Chris Marker: La Jetée is an early and distinguished entry in Afterall Books’ “One Work” series, a collection of single-authored books devoted to contemporary (or at least post-1940s) art. It currently sits alongside monographs devoted to works from other art forms, as well as somewhat similar – or at least related – examples of ’60s and ’70s cinema such as Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (USA 1963) and Hollis Frampton’s Hapax Legomena I: Nostalgia (USA 1971). Each of these select films blurs key distinctions between the cinema and other art forms, and both Nostalgia and La Jetée (France 1962) draw heavily on both the ontological nature and common understanding of photography and its arguably constitutive relationship to the cinema. All three of these films also delve into what might be considered the extra-cinematic or, more prosaically in the case of Blow Job, off-screen space. It is thus unsurprising that amongst the most impressive passages in Harbord’s book are those devoted to La Jetées reframing of photography within cinema, and how the film explores and blurs the commonly held distinctions argued for (by writers such as Roland Barthes) between each.

Studies of Marker’s most famous and influential film tend to stand or fall on how they negotiate this “distinction” and deal with the justly famous and much-discussed moment when the film’s constantly moving stillness erupts into genuine (or at least perceived) movement. This talismanic moment – where a woman briefly blinks and smiles – highlights the constitutive relationship often argued for between photography and cinema, and is a key impetus in drawing many theorists of the moving and still image to Marker’s short but seminal film. This brief moment is returned to at various points throughout Harbord’s book, and provides something of a correlative for the image (of a man falling) that fuels La Jetée’s own “search” (the kind of pregnant and evocative moment that provides the starting point for several other Marker films as well). Harbord’s discussion of this passage is particularly rich, enigmatic and exploratory. For example, it sets her off into an investigation of the notion and nature of “gesture” that draws on the work of Giorgio Agamben and an epigrammatic comment attributed to Roberto Rossellini (in which he claimed he would be willing to make a whole film for the sake of a particular gesture). This somewhat dispersive and exploratory approach – which across its 110 pages references many key thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries like Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche – is fused with an always close attention to the specifics of Marker’s film. Despite drawing on broader conceptions and theories of such areas as memory, time, history, repetition, the archive, the nature of photography and cinema, Harbord’s analysis remains deeply rooted in the film, and fully attentive to such varied elements as its mise en scène, tone, rhythm, story, editing, and the film’s evocative use of black leader. That said, Harbord’s book is a little less successful when exploring and discussing the cinematic antecedents for Marker’s film and its subsequent influence. There are, of course, the standard references to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (USA 1958) and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (USA 1995), but the cinephilic resonances and influences generated by La Jetée aren’t a preoccupation. The great success of Harbord’s book does not lie in its deep or consistent engagement with film history. This book is also – and understandably – relatively limited in terms of how it places La Jetée within Marker’s career. Nevertheless, the connections it draws to another Marker film of the same year – Le Joli mai (France 1963) – suggest a further and deeper line of discussion that Harbord’s book never fully follows. Overall, this combination of the discursive and the hermetic, the broader field of fiction and this singular, circular instance, suggests a strong affinity between Harbord’s monograph and Marker’s epigrammatic but suggestive film. But it does have its limitations.

The three monographs in this series mentioned above are also joined by the curious but rewarding decision to focus on cinematic works of short duration (but vast implication). Such a decision redresses an imbalance in much writing on cinema, particularly that found in similarly intentioned series sanctioned by the British Film Institute and even Australia’s own Currency Press (“Australian Screen Classics”). For example, both the BFI’s “Film Classics” and “Modern Classics” imprints – each of which follows the single author on a single text formula – have rarely (if ever) strayed from the feature film as the lynchpin of their discussion. These series also rarely examine films that can be considered avant-garde or truly underground. This prejudice partly emerges from a reluctance to explore work that exists outside of the mainstream of both film distribution and film interpretation – including that of much academia – but it is also an outcome of what might be considered the appropriately commensurate relationship between analysis and its object (a whole book on a short film? some might ask). La Jetée is, of course, an exceptional work that has moved beyond the conventional boundaries and barriers of the short film to achieve truly popular status and notoriety. But still, many writers would be daunted by the task of weaving a whole book around a work of less than 30 minutes duration, even a film as rich in implication as La Jetée. Such a format tempts the writer to work around the film, and to provide copious contextual information and readings in place of close attention to the work itself. Possibly the greatest achievement of Harbord’s monograph is that it manages to fulfill both of these requirements. It is both expansive and finely detailed. It could have done with fewer or more selective references to such writers as Freud, Derrida, Deleuze and Nietzsche, but these connections do mostly work to anchor the core qualities and philosophical implications of Marker’s film. It is, I would argue, churlish and inaccurate to argue that such writers have little to do with Marker’s work, as he plainly emerges from a context and environment deeply enmeshed in many of the same ideas, concerns and political preoccupations as these writers and thinkers. For example, it would be unproductive to argue against the application of deconstructionist “methodologies” and thought to a film like Sans soleil (Sunless, 1982), a work that plainly emerges from the same intellectual ferment and mode of enquiry as that of Derrida. Similar arguments can, of course, be made for La Jetée and the appropriateness and even need of particular lines of enquiry.

Despite what I have just argued, La Jetée is actually one of the most widely discussed and critically dissected works in film history. One therefore needs to ask whether such a monograph as that deftly fashioned by Harbord is in fact necessary. Is it a significant contribution to the field or merely a useful summary and even restatement of previous readings of Marker’s work? Such a question is particularly pertinent at this point in time because the critical work devoted to Marker in English language film criticism is expanding exponentially and shows little sign of slowing down. It is really only in the last 15 years that Marker’s work has been examined closely in Anglophone film criticism, with several book length monographs (by Nora M. Alter and Catherine Lupton) and various ancillary books (including a somewhat unnecessary and fetishistic photo book of La Jetée published by Zone Books), articles and journal issues appearing. Since the late 1940s, Marker’s career has been incredibly productive, varied and almost impossible to pin down, with only a few works being examined and discussed in any detail (La Jetée and Sans soleil, in particular). In this context, one must wonder whether a monograph devoted to Marker’s most well-known, picked-over and influential work is indeed necessary or even wise. Considering that Marker has often returned to similar themes, ideas and aesthetic considerations throughout his career and across a variety of media, it is easy to envision a monograph on any number of his less seen and examined works – say, for example, Lettre de Sibérie (France 1958), Le Mystère Koumiko (France 1965), Le Fond de l’air est rouge (France 1977), Level Five (France 1996), any one of a number of collaborations such as Les Statues meurent aussi (Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, France 1953) and A Valparaiso (Joris Ivens, Chile/France 1963), or the CD-ROM Immemory (1998, and which has generated its own edited collection). And although Harbord’s book does a terrific job of analysing Marker’s film in detail, it is somewhat reticent in placing itself within this vast existing field of study. It would be very unfair to suggest that Harbord avoids or ignores this existing criticism, as much of the best writing on Marker’s film – such as that by Raymond Bellour, Réda Bensmaïa, Victor Burgin, and Chris Darke – is cited throughout, but rarely does she engage with this existing work substantively or directly. In many ways this is a very understandable omission in a work of this length: although the book runs to just over 100 pages it includes around 40 pages of images from the film. But the level and form of the existing discussion devoted to La Jetée can tell us much about the continued fascination and circulation of the film, and Harbord’s only brief discussion of this existing analysis seems like a missed opportunity considering many of the points she raises. Like the image of a falling man that motivates the painful and melancholy search of La Jetée’s protagonist, Marker’s film itself draws viewers, writers, philosophers and cinephiles (to randomly name a few interconnected groups) continually back to its circular mysteries. Inspiring, in the process, numerous acts of homage and spiraling “continuation”. It is a truly generative work. Harbord’s book triumphantly contributes to this “body” of work without fully enough reflecting on its genealogy and reason for being.

But ultimately it is the quality of the book’s analysis and prose that justifies its existence. There are nevertheless aspects of the monograph that seem a little superfluous. For example, although they are evocative and usefully illustrative, I’m not so sure that we need to see another reproduction of copious stills from the film (and a few from Alain Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard [France 1955] as well). Such an approach seems to run counter to some of the book’s core arguments that rely upon the consideration of the temporality of these “photographic” images when placed within the cinema. Harbord’s book is generally marked by a conciseness and precision that rhyme evocatively with Marker’s film. In the end, this is the challenge and difficulty of writing on La Jetée and Marker’s cinema more generally. Although Harbord does draw heavily on the work of other theorists, as indicated, she generally does so in a relatively “light” or selective fashion. Her prose is not weighed down by the work of others. Some of these references are more pertinent and resonant than others – and several are fairly obvious points of connection – but each does contribute something useful to her analysis without swamping or derailing the discussion. In the end, amongst the most pleasing aspects of Janet Harbord’s Chris Marker: La Jetée are its partiality, expansiveness and attentiveness: somewhat contradictory qualities that are also characteristic of Marker’s work. Harbord’s book concludes with a restatement of the material reality and conditions that define and restrict any viewer of Marker’s temporally infinite but endlessly returning film. In these final pages, which emphasise the particularity, selectiveness and partiality of any reading of La Jetée, Harbord strikes at the heart of our continued fascination with Marker’s mercurial film. As Harbord wistfully suggests, La Jetée is a film that has a life beyond us and our immediate concerns and interpretations.

Adrian Danks,
RMIT University, Australia.

Created on: Sunday, 18 April 2010

About the Author

Adrian Danks

About the Author

Adrian Danks

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published widely in a range of books and journals including: Senses of Cinema, Metro, Screening the Past, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in Australasian Cinema, Australian Book Review, Screen Education, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Traditions in World Cinema, Melbourne in the 60s, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, Contemporary Westerns, B is for Bad Cinema, Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave, Being Cultural, World Film Locations: Melbourne and Sydney, and Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films. He is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley, 2015), co-editor of American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave, 2018) and is currently writing several books including monographs devoted to 3-D Cinema (Rutgers) and "international" feature-film production in Australia during the postwar era (Australian International Pictures, with Con Verevis, to be published by Edinburgh University Press)."View all posts by Adrian Danks →