What makes movies unique from other art forms?
Most movie-goers, if asked the question, would point out that the defining characteristic of a movie is that it is a moving picture. This is an easy answer, but one that has odd implications if we dig into it.
Before the era of digital movie-making, movies were shot on film. When projected, they created illusory motion by displaying the individual frames fast enough that they all ran together. So at a base level, movies are still images projected fast enough to create the illusion of motion.
But how fast of a projection rate defines a movie? If 24 frames-per-second was the standard for 35 mm film, does that mean that anything slower than that is no longer a movie? And if so, what would we call such an art piece?
La Jetée occupies that uncomfortable middle ground between the traditional movie and a still photograph. Shot in 1962, La Jetée tells a post-apocalyptic science fiction tale, but with an interesting technical twist. Instead of using moving pictures to tell the story, the movie is a series of still photographs, about one for every few seconds of run time.
Right off the bat, this short French avant-garde film forces us into an awkward philosophical place, forcing us to make a judgement call about how to define film. If the images of La Jetée are too slow for the classic definition of a movie, then what do we call it, and why does a slow frame rate suddenly disqualify it as being a traditional movie?
I am not sure I even know the answer.
Fortunately though, the movie is fascinating even outside of its technical challenge to the viewers, meaning that people can watch it and enjoy it, even without confronting the weird technical questions.
In La Jetée the world has experienced a third World War. This time around the surface of the planet has been rendered uninhabitable due to radiation. Underneath Paris, a group of scientists hold and use prisoners to test a new experimental time travel technique.
One prisoner is found perfect for the test, since he has an abnormally strong image of his past that can guide him through the process of time travel. As the tests begin, this prisoner is told that his ultimate mission is to find a way to rebuild society, either in the past or in the future. The first rounds of tests send him to the past, where he meets a woman in the pre-war world. The two start an odd relationship, with the prisoner rapidly blinking in and out of time, showing up randomly in the past where the woman patiently awaits for her lover.
If you are thinking that this sounds oddly similar to the movie 12 Monkeys you are right. La Jetée is the basis for that classic 90s science fiction film but with a more avant-garde spin.
As the prisoner travels through time the narrator of the story constantly reminds us that this pre-war Paris exists essentially out of time. Bodily, the prisoner is still stuck underground in the apocalyptic wasteland, yet with his mind he can wander through time and space, exploring possibilities that are otherwise impossible for him.
This is the power of memory. Though our bodies are confined to our familiar dimensions, our memories allow us to travel to the past, and our imaginations can let us explore the future. By having it very clear that the prisoner has to return to his time (at least until the end of the movie). His mind is powerful enough to escape the horrors that his body is subject to.
Beyond that, La Jetée also tales an existentialist tale about the reality of the present.
No matter how much we might choose to escape into our own minds, eventually we have to face the realities of our existence. Living in the past is not real life. Even if we spend all our time living in the past or pining for the future, present situations will always catch up to us, sealing our fates.
La Jetée is unique among avant-garde films because its technical aspects support the meaning behind the narrative. Having the movie shot in still frames further teaches the lessons of the story. The frames are lifeless and disconnected. We only catch glimpses of what is happening to the characters, forcing us to fill in the blanks. Just as our own pasts and futures only exist in still, unchangeable snapshots, so does the narrative of the time travelling prisoner. Ultimately, his fate is predetermined and can not change. Is it the same for us? Is our future a still photograph, determined by our collective life circumstances? How much control do we really have over our own lives?
This is heavy stuff.
But don’t worry, La Jetée opens itself up for multiple interpretations, as any good science fiction film should, and is actually interesting to watch, even if you are not in the mood to confront the possibility of a pre-determined future.
For anybody looking to get into avant-garde films, La Jetée is a great start. It is deep and interesting, but does not fall into the art house pretension that many other similar films do. The structure is never a gimmick and only supports the narrative elements, uncomfortable as though elements are when considered.