Did This Iconic 1962 Short Film Show Us Our Dark Future?

David Ulin Reflects on Death, Science Fi and Scenes From La Jetée

This past summer, I stumbled across a link on social media to Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction film La Jetée. For those who don’t know it, Marker’s miniature masterpiece—its running time is 28 minutes—mixes black-and-white stills with narration to tell the story of a man who circles back in time to re-enact a disturbing memory from childhood, in which he witnesses a death that, we discover, turns out to be his own. I first encountered the movie as an undergraduate, in a class taught by Amos Vogel, author of Film as a Subversive Art. What I had anticipated as a slacker’s paradise, every Monday from 7 to 10 PM (the class was known as “Monday Night at the Movies”), instead cracked my consciousness into pieces, introducing me to Warhol, Brakhage, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Sergei Eisenstein. Of them all, however, it was Marker who struck the deepest chord.

In part, that was because, despite its experimental textures, his film was the most straightforward, or at least the most direct. In part, it was because at the time I was enthralled by science fiction, especially of the apocalyptic sort. More than anything, it was because I found La Jetée so deeply compelling, with its looping, circular approach to time and history. I was intrigued, and remain so, by the idea that our deaths might be encoded within us like a secret knowledge, an individual unconscious rather than a collective one. Decades later, I would write a short story appropriating Marker’s title and (loosely) his larger structure, although my version is not built around the devastation of a nuclear Armageddon. Instead, for me, the holocaust was, had to be, more personal, more internalized, less a matter of societal desolation than of individual mortality.

Like the knowledge of our deaths, the stories of our lives are inscribed in all that we once took for granted.

I had been intending to argue that the experience of watching La Jetée again was akin to being a character in the movie (or my own story), which is to say: like going back in time. But already, I have to admit that isn’t accurate. I first saw the film in a university auditorium, 300 seats banking upward from a full-size screen. I was sitting with my girlfriend. (We are married now.) Back then, the film felt rare, uncommon, not even searchable. I wouldn’t have known where to look. Occasionally I’d hear about a screening at an arthouse or a festival, usually in a showcase of shorts. Then the internet arrived and gave everything a keystroke proximity. It felt like waking up in a different world.

This, ironically, is the point of Marker’s movie also, set as it is in Paris after civilization has been destroyed. For the survivors, time travel offers the only hope for survival, “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.” When the protagonist is sent back to the pre-war era, he discovers a world that “stuns with its affluence . . . Around him, only fabulous materials: Glass, plastics, terry cloth.” Do I need to say I feel a similar sort of wonder in regard to the pre-digital era, when culture circulated like a rumor, and even to encounter La Jetée was a matter of fortuitous circumstance? Do I need to say I feel a similar sort of wonder in regard to the now evaporated pleasures of that time? A movie screen, a midnight showing, a film you may not see again. Like the knowledge of our deaths, the stories of our lives are inscribed in all that we once took for granted, like dreams we cannot quite recall. “Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments,” La Jetée’s narrator insists. “Only afterwards do they claim remembrance . . . On account of their scars.” Perhaps, we are already living, then, in a version of Marker’s future, mourning a continuity to which we no longer have the access code.

Future? Yes, or possibly the past. Isn’t that the whole idea? La Jetée may be about time, but like all narratives, it also exists in time. Nineteen-sixty-two is long behind us, the span of my entire life almost. It is a date drawn from a prior century, what may as well be a different universe. Because of this, perhaps, Marker’s imagery looks back as much as forward; he constructs his post-apocalyptic Paris using a montage of photographs—collapsed buildings, desecrated churches, streets turned into rubble—taken during World War II. “Did you see the frightened ones?” David Gilmour sings on The Wall, “Did you hear the falling bombs? / Did you ever wonder / why we had to run for shelter / when the promise of a brave new world / unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?”

It doesn’t matter that the apocalypse both he and Marker are invoking has already happened. There will always be another one. For the survivors, it’s as if past and future have switched places, leaving the present unmoored. That makes sense, especially in regard to Marker, for the early 1960s were particularly liminal, suspended between the onset of the Cold War on the one hand, and on the other, Beatlemania, LSD. One might still almost imagine that, for all its destructive capacities, technology could build a bridge into the future; hence La Jetée’s opening sequence: a line of passenger planes queued against the observation deck at Orly, the revving of jet engines yielding to Trevor Duncan’s operatic score.

Apocalypse, non-apocalypse, who’s to say the difference?

And yet, what such a moment also tells us is that technology will turn. Marker understood this contradiction, or more accurately, he was projecting, as does every artist, out of the context of his time. La Jetée opened barely five weeks before the end of the Algerian War. Eight months after its release, the Cuban Missile Crisis would come within days (hours?) of fulfilling the prophecy—if we can call it that—imagined by his film. I’ve long considered science fiction less allegorical than representative, expressive of the period in which it is created rather than the one it seeks to extrapolate. What do we know of the apocalypse? Nothing but what we are living through right now. It’s no coincidence, I’d argue, that Marker’s film is roughly contemporaneous with Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), which also begins in a world scarred by nuclear devastation, and Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des singes, or Monkey Planet, the 1963 novel that inspired Planet of the Apes.

Recall the closing of that movie: Charlton Heston crying out, as he discovers the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand of some deserted future shoreline: “You maniacs. You blew it up. Damn you. God damn you all to hell.” The scene is not Boulle’s but Rod Serling’s. (He was the original screenwriter on the project.) Nonetheless, you get the point. It has become iconic because of how it captures the pervasive anxiety of its moment: mutually assured destruction, proxy wars, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye. The novel, interestingly, doesn’t deal with such issues, although like La Jetée, its final scene unfolds at Orly, which has survived, in this telling, for 800 years. Apocalypse, non-apocalypse, who’s to say the difference? In La Planète des singes, Paris survives, even though humanity does not.

As it happens, this may be the way it plays out … at least until the cities crumble. In that sense, Boulle’s post-human Paris represents not a triumph of imagination but its opposite, because the built environment remains recognizable and intact. His failing is the refusal to acknowledge that, like our frail and self-destructive species, the settlements and landmarks we have made are here to go. 800 years? Does anyone believe our monuments will last that long? And if they do, what will they look like? Desolated versions of their former selves.

It’s not that no one had thought of this by the 1960s; in Make Room! Make Room! (1966), Harry Harrison imagines New York at the end of the 20th century, a city of diminished resources and income inequality, with food riots, assisted suicide, repressive police tactics, and 35 million residents spilling out of overcrowded tenements and streets. (The novel would later be filmed as Soylent Green.) J.G Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, and The Drought (all released between 1961 and 1964) posit a series of environmental crises that have left humanity on the brink. “We should have got out years ago,” Ballard writes in the second of these books, which opens in a tropicalized London where “dense groves of giant gymnosperms [crowd] over the roofs of the abandoned department stores four hundred yards away on the east side of the lagoon.”

Still, even that—get out? to where? and how?—seems naïvely optimistic at this point. By contrast, consider Megan Hunter, whose 2017 novel The End We Start From, also set (in part) in a submerged and flooded London, approaches catastrophe as a more matter-of-fact experience, to be lived, as Isak Dinesen once observed of writing, “every day, without hope, without despair.” Hunter’s protagonist has no other option; she is a mother with a newborn, which sharpens the focus of existence to an existential edge. “How easily we have got used to it all,” she reflects, “as though we knew what was coming all along.”

But still, of course, we do; but still, of course, we have—even as we pretend that nothing is happening, that everything remains the same. I think about this every day when I go out to walk. Just this morning, I stepped into crisp light, under a sky of cloudless blue. On the street, time held me green and dying; I could hear birds singing in the trees. There is an interactive map, produced by the non-profit news outlet Climate Central, that projects the potential effect of rising sea levels on more than 400 American cities, including mine. Scroll the virtual coastline and you’ll see flooding throughout the marina, at the ports. The neighborhood where I live, which is inland, in the flats, stays dry. For many years, in the face of fires, floods, and earthquakes, I have joked (call it a gallows humor) that this will be the last part of the city standing, that if catastrophe were to reach these “plains of Id,” as Reyner Banham once referred to them, then it truly would be the apocalypse. So far so good, I sometimes think as I am walking, through streets that look essentially unchanged from day to day.

Earlier this year, during a climate change conference at UC Irvine, I invoked Robinson Jeffers, his notion of “transhuman magnificence” (i.e., the idea that humanity is just a passing fancy, that the earth, that life, will outlast us, that we are but a single species, and not even an especially good one, at that) to Elizabeth Kolbert, whom I was about to interview. Call it bravado, call it (again) gallows humor; in either case, she knocked me flat. “What if we destroy not just ourselves but all other life?” she asked. “What if we destroy the possibility of life itself?” What she was saying is that life is fragile, that we can’t take it for granted, that certain processes, once initiated, may not be able to be contained. Her 2009 book The Sixth Extinction is all about these questions, although we ignore the answers as we go blithely on about our lives. Or maybe it’s just that we are overwhelmed.

When I was in college, I felt the same about nuclear catastrophe. When I was in college, I felt the same about La Jetée. Now, I look back with if not nostalgia then a certain . . . longing, for the simplicity, the clean lines, of that apocalypse. We live in a world where disaster is accretive, not the result of a single, signal event such as an exchange of ballistic missiles but instead a series of overlapping somethings that are, by turns, more all-encompassing and more indistinct.

We can see the threats, but can we really? And even if we can, what recourse is available to us? La Jetée might have once been viewed as a corrective; by imagining the bleakest sort of future, in other words, we might dream our way—if not by time travel then by awareness or a kind of will—into a different, more enlightened one. Yet where is our corrective in a world gone mad with its own negative capabilities: nuclear proliferation, rogue states (including this one), the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, and the melting of the Antarctic ice shelf, among other climate catastrophes? In the face of that, how do we have faith in any future, even a dystopian one? How can we deny that we are living not only at the end of empire but also, perhaps, at the end of humanity?

I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I clicked the link to La Jetée. It was late and I was in a tee shirt and bare feet. The house was dark. I was drinking a beer. But isn’t that also the whole idea? I was looking for something, some angle of remembrance or reconnection, or I was curious to see the film again, or maybe I was just killing half an hour before I drifted into bed. That none of it happened—or happened like that—is as it must be; if experience (not unlike, perhaps, La Jetée itself) offers any lesson, it’s that we can’t go back. Our deaths, individual or collective, may exist inside us, like a future memory, or a marker on a strand of DNA. But they remain as inaccessible as the past is . . . until it is their moment to emerge. “Space was off-limits,” La Jetée’s narrator explains. “The only hope for survival lay in Time.” But for us, time travels in one direction only: from past to future, from what we know to what we may not, finally, have the fortitude to know.

David L. Ulin
David L. Ulin
David L. Ulin is a contributing editor to Literary Hub. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author, most recently, of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.





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