There are several images or moments from my childhood that I can recall at a moments notice, to be brought up with a particular smell or when the lighting outside matches the lighting of the memory. Faces or moments kind of stick like images instead of video reels. I’m not sure if that is the same for the current generation, being brought up on live photos and videos instead of faded photographs you pick up at your local drug store. But that is how my memory works, in mental photographs.
Coming in at number 50, La Jetée plays off that very idea. A film like La Jetée probably wouldn’t work now. It was a risk when it was made in 1962. This isn’t because of its storyline (which is awesome and I will get to that), but it’s because the film is only still images and narration. It is a short film (28 minutes or so), so it’s easy enough to convince yourself to go along with the gambit, and I would say worth your while if you had a spare half hour and were even the least bit curious.
The story is about a man who has a memory so burned in his consciousness that he returns to it again and again. It is the image of a women’s face and a man dying. Then, when World War III breaks out, and humanity is driven underground to hide from the fallout, he is subjected to time travel experiments (yeah, its a sci-fi short). He ends up going back in time and visiting the woman whose face he can’t seem to forget. They fall in love….
It was at this point in my viewing that I realized this is the plot from the 1995 sci-fi film that I love, Twelve Monkeys. If you’ve seen that film, you know how this short ends. I won’t spoil it for you in case you haven’t seen either, but both accomplish that rare feat in a time travel movie, where it all makes sense in the end and connects.
The story works, but what is fascinating about this film, and perhaps why its on this list, is the way it’s told, and the image of the future it portrays. It was a big risk to make a movie (the term coming from moving pictures) out of still images. But telling it in that fashion really connects the narrative with the style of storytelling. The narrative is about images, so telling the story through still images is apt.
The images themselves, specifically of the future, are gritty and realistic, not the type of futurism that was popular at the time it was made. This was pretty groundbreaking, and has laid the road for so many sci-fi films that have followed, including recent post-apocalyptic features like The Hunger Games films or Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (which feels recent but came out TWELVE YEARS AGO!!!!). Or even works of literature like The Handmaid’s Tale (which is now a hugely successful TV show that uses the same types of imagery). The film paints a future that we can imagine and touch, its textured and lived in. And all of that with still images.
There is a scene where for a brief second the screen comes alive and we see the woman move and blink. Because of all the stillness before, that moment feels magical, as if you are transported out of a memory into reality. It’s pretty brilliant.
So is it a top 50 film of all time? Why I get it being on this list because of its storytelling, imagery, and all the broken ground at its feet, I couldn’t help wondering who was voting for this film to be on this list. There are at least 10 films I can name off the top of my head that are more deserving in my opinion. Is that because I have seen all the films that pull from this one first? As I continue to watch these, I am going to have to fight against my “recent bias” and remember that all things recent are made because of what’s been done in the past.
In this case, we got one of my favorite sci-fi films, Twelve Monkeys, from this short film. And its influences are easy enough to spot in a number of sci-fi films. That is truly the mark of a great piece of art, which is probably why the more educated critics have it on this list.