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Memories Are Made of This: La Jetee and Sans Soleil on Blu-ray

  Director Alain Resnais wondered if his fellow Frenchman Chris Marker was in fact an extra-terrestrial come down to observe we Earthlings, and even if he had only made La Jetée we would have reason to ponder if Resnais was onto something. Just as the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse-5 existed in a different dimension of time to humanity, Marker had a unique take on our place in the present and how it translated to our memories of being in the past, not to mention where our future would be without it. This was most obvious in his most famous work, the 1962 science fiction short.

But it was also present in his other most celebrated effort, the feature-length documentary Sans Soleil, which was linked to the earlier film in ways that were not always blatant unless you were really paying attention to the infodump of a narration on the soundtrack. La Jetée was a purer science fiction piece than the 1983 non-fiction item to come, yet they both existed in worlds that were partly recognisable as our own until we were forced to take them in from a perspective that was off-kilter yet nevertheless would be able to tell us something about human experience, if not go as far as explaining it outright.

The fact that everyone sees the same imagery and hears the same sound when they watch a film was less important than the equal fact that everyone puts their own spin on it: one person's masterpiece is another's trash. This was especially well-applied to Sans Soleil, which has turned off just as many viewers who have attempted it than it has turned viewers on, so to speak, but the nineteen-sixties classic short has inspired many other items in pop culture in a completely non-ironic fashion, from Terry Gilliam's retelling and expansion Twelve Monkeys to David Bowie referencing it in the video for his later period hit Jump They Say.

What is La Jetée about, then? As far as narrative goes, it concerns a man who is one of the few survivors of World War Three, which has laid waste to the planet and essentially left it to the nostalgics, who hanker after the way things used to be before the bombs dropped. With that in mind, some scientists have developed a method of travelling through time, back to the pre-apocalypse era, though thus far it has served to send the guinea pigs corralled into testing it utterly insane. But our unnamed hero is different, for he has a memory so strong that it guides him back safely: a woman he saw at a Paris airport.

This beautiful lady has become his ideal, and his recollection of her someone who he is convinced could make his life fulfilling. Though he is unstuck in time, in a Vonnegut-echoed manner, he can spend some of that time with her; now, a note on the technique, as the film was constructed through a series of still photographs, memory-like, except for one image when the static nature of the visuals springs subtly to life for his sweetest experience of this woman. Unlike the pessimistic Gilliam film, our protagonist travels to the far future as well, allowing him to understand that humanity survives in an advanced, hyper-intellectual state.

However, La Jetée strikes a note of doom as well, and not merely because of the Armageddon that triggers the tale, for it is leading up to an inevitability, a structure of circularity that is inescapable even if you think you have foiled time itself. Which leaves the film as the only record any of this happened at all, which technically it did not in the real world, it only happened in Marker's head and he was able to put it down on celluloid. That relation between film and memory was very important in his work, and influenced films like David Lynch's Lost Highway while being influenced in turn by Marker's favourite movie of all time.

This was Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, on the surface a mystery thriller with a sick obsession at its heart, but under Marker's approach a profound examination of time and its effects on us and our minds. You could say, yeah, it makes us get older, so what? But there is more to it than that, as our memory proves, flitting around anything from days of significance to moments of total trivia without delineating between the two, or all points in between, and even placing the trivia as more memorable than the significant: how often have you woken up with an ephemeral pop song in your head, or a line from a throwaway movie?

Sans Soleil was presented as a travelogue, with Marker's footage of a trip to Japan handy for supposing what it would be like to view our Earth through alien eyes, as many a Western talent has felt that way on arriving in the Land of the Rising Sun. Maybe nothing novel there, but he was not willing to leave it at that, as he sought out a mixture of the most bizarre and most banal clips he could find and edited them together with bits and pieces of other's documentaries too, including ones about Bissau in Africa and the one that opens the film of three Icelandic girls taken many years before - they had no idea they were featured until the twenty-tens.

More than that, those Japanese travelogues around cat shrines, gaming parlours and sex museums with taxidermy animals posing for dioramas that would be illegal to portray if they were human participants, the narration swims in and out of your consciousness, at points assisting you in identifying a new view on the world, at others obfuscating them. But that there is a trip to San Francisco to the locations from Vertigo oddly ties it all together, as we perceive Sans Soleil, and indeed La Jetée, demonstrate a lot about how memory can define us, guide us, and of course play tricks on us. Some of this imagery is deliberately obscure, some of it revelatory, some of it even revolting - isn't that a lot like life? Somehow Marker's disarming otherness undercuts accusations of pretension, and in the case of the 1962 film, taps into a weird truth that renders it curiously moving.

[The Criterion Collection release both these films on a single disc Blu-ray with the following features:

New, restored high-definition digital transfers, approved by director Chris Marker, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
Two interviews with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin
Chris on Chris, a video piece on Marker by filmmaker and critic Chris Darke
Two excerpts from the French television series Court-circuit (le magazine): a look at David Bowie's music video for the songJump They Say, inspired by La Jetée, and an analysis of Hitchcock's Vertigo and its influence on Marker
Junkopia, a six-minute film by Marker, Frank Simone, and John Chapman about the Emeryville Mudflats (Blu-ray only)
New English subtitle translations
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by Marker scholar Catherine Lupton, an interview with Marker, notes on the films and filmmaking by Marker, and more.]

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018