La Jette: The Reason for Film School


Title: La Jette

Possible Offensive Content: Nothing
La Jette is by far my favorite film of all time. I’ve never written about it nor been given the chance. The first time I saw it was in 1991 in a film class at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design as a Post Secondary Enrollment Options International Baccalaureate student at the age of 16. I was both a high school student and a college student at the same time. I had no idea that in my new Art school studies I would ever enter a film 101 class and see the best thing I’d ever seen in live action. It was, in fact, La Jette that made me realize that I wanted to tell stories in cinema and that CalArts was the school for me. In that time I still had to finish high school in order to go to CalArts, and MCAD was not where I wanted to be. I immediately wanted to make movies.
16mm film and the square aspect ration disappeared for me in that dark room that day. I was enthralled by the fact that film was pulling through the projector gate at twenty-four frames per second, and that the film itself was comprised of photographic stills. It made no sense to me that the film was going through the gate and that no moving images were taking place. This was the moment where I changed from a photographer to a filmmaker and couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. By the grace of God I was seeing La Jette with the French voice-over and English subtitles. It was the perfect cinematic moment that would form who I was and migrate my skills as an illustrator and photographer to 16mm cinema. I shot my first short film that summer and then the next year started the first 16mm feature that would take me fifteen years to complete. La Jette was the inspiration for why I became the Artist inside the moving medium of film.
The story stuck with me for decades. I tried to watch it once a year just to remind me what could be done in storytelling through the use of film and photographic narrative. The story of time, romance, tragedy and the rescue of humanity was central to all my own forms of Art. Chris Marker had hit paydirt as an artist and I was insanely proud and jealous of him at the same time. It wasn’t jealousy that I wanted to be Chris Marker or make his film, but jealousy that showed me that my own artistic voice had a long way to go and he had set the highest bar possible. It was, truly, the greatest film I had ever seen. It beat out Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, Walkabout, Taxi Driver -everything. It totally blew me away that this was what cinema could do.
There is a singular moment contained inside La Jette that was the very moment that shook my world to the foundations of what Art could do when it broke all rules. The film gets you moving through the timing of edits and how photographs smash up against each other. It reminds you of why an edit happens. The idea that one image effects another were unquestionable. Every edit was not just a choice, but a reason. The greatest surprise of all is when a woman is laying in bed and looking at the camera. We sit through this film in the notion and promise by the filmmaker that this is a series of photographs, one after another, telling a story in time. As the photograph of the young woman in bed with a sheet over her looks at the audience, we become her lover. We adjust to the photograph as a work of Art. Then, in brillance unmeasured, Chris Marker breaks his own rules to his movie -he lets just a moment become live action -a woman moving in the frame. She’s alive. We break through time and the film splits in half and returns us to the photographs juxtaposed as stills to tell the story, and yet, it’s too late. He’s taken us into something alive. We are, in fact, caught in time.
This film still has a unique magic. The structure is quite simple. We are with a man who is in the future. He must travel back in time to rescue the world. The scientists do this somehow through drugs and agreements of what time even is. We are convinced that they have sent our hero on a journey to stop the end of the world. It is the airport where a man is shot and a little boy sees the death of the man by a woman at the end of the airport overlook.
Our hero remembers being a little boy -seeing a man shot at the airport. The little boy, is, of course, him and the grand secret at the end of the film that shows us he saw the moment of his own death in some kind of endless time traveling -living to love and die again and again. Finality is expressed in the finale of the film, but there is still, in the tragedy, a sense that he will become both his own death and the endless loop of love and life through time.
The one, two, three structure seems clear. We move through time with the hero in total sync. We are in a linear adventure of finding out the mystery while struggling to hold onto the love of a woman caught in a timeline in a way where he can never have her but for a moment. Themes of heroism, tragedy, sadness, loss of love, keeping one’s sanity, sacrifice to rescue the world -they all sync and rise to the top. In the end, the film is both a live-action narrative and a photographic Artistic experience caught in time. The film itself is time-travel and no other film has captured time in quite this way.
The best way to see this film, quite frankly, is exactly how I did. Something is lost when the film isn’t seen on a 16mm print. The idea of the edit and time and the click of each frame does not exist in a digital format, and so, in a way, part of the story is lost. But even in that reality of a lost experience in film which would be beneficial to any and all filmmakers, La Jette still remains a singular experience as one of the finest films of all time that in its structure, utterly encapsulates what time itself is in live action cinema. The story lessons and themes and plot are clear, and they work in tandem to with film as Art. Watching La Jette is about experiencing it, not just absorbing the story. It is one of the few films where we become the protagonist in the midst of adventure and ultimately are caught in time. This formative Artistic experience as a viewer, for me, was the moment where I knew I wanted to be more as a storyteller. It is the very film that motivated me to enter film school raw, yet ready to absorb any and all things like it in order to find my own voice.