Back To The Future

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In La Jetee, an unnamed man (the protagonist) has a very strong memory of his boyhood involving a glimpse of a woman on the end of the main pier at Orly airport in Paris and a man falling to his death—the indelible quality of this memory in the man’s mind becomes a motivating force for much of what follows in the rest of the story, making this moment, therefore a precipitating event in the man’s life. After Paris is destroyed in a global World War III apocalypse and people are forced underground, he is selected as a new guinea pig by those responsible for the destruction (the antagonists), in the attempt to secure help from the past and future in order to save the human race from its current state of doom. The experimenters work on the protagonist, stripping away his grounding in the present and sending him into his past, beginning from his strong memory of the Orly pier. On the tenth day he begins to encounter images from the past. On the sixteenth day, he finally arrives back on the Orly pier. In returning to this memory, he is able to find the woman again and on the thirtieth day they meet and he is sure they are meant to be together—along with the transformative childhood memory, this becomes a precipitating event, motivating the protagonist throughout the rest of the story. The woman’s motivations are unclear, though she appears to embrace their sporadic encounters and to feel the same connection as he does. Together they travel to various points in the past—a garden, sleeping in the sun, and later wandering (on the fiftieth day) through a museum of his memory. He realizes she is dead and that they can only be together if he stays in the past with her. But, instead the men who are conducting the experiment decide he is ready to be sent to the future. In the future, Paris is rebuilt and he convinces the leaders of this future world to give him the means of saving humanity—he returns to the present and the experimenters have exhausted their need for him. All of this constitutes the story’s rising action. He waits to be executed but the men from the future come to find him and bring him to the future—he opts instead to return to the past to be with the woman. Back on the pier at Orly, returned to the moment of his boyhood memory, he runs towards the woman, but recognizes a man who has trailed him from the present and realizes there is no way to escape the framework of time and reality—in the climactic final moment, he realizes that the childhood memory of the man falling to his death was, in fact, a prescient glimpse of the moment of his own death. This final moment of realization and revelation is both the climax and the denouement.

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Throughout the story, the protagonist moves numerous times back and forth fluidly between the past, present, and future. The story is grounded in the present of post-apocalyptic underground Paris, with traveling occurring backward and forward from this point. The final moment of climax and denouement occurs in the past, which, however, is in some sense the farthest point in the future, since it proves to be the final moment of the protagonist’s life. The major external conflicts include the struggle of the antagonists to save humanity through time travel, as well as the struggle of the protagonist and the rest of his fellow prisoners to live in their underground conditions and not be killed by the experiments of the antagonists. The protagonist’s primary internal conflict is his desire to stay in the past in order remain with the woman he loves.
I found La Jetee powerful, captivating, and ultimately somewhat unsettling. While I haven’t seen the Terry Gilliam film, Twelve Monkeys, which was supposedly inspired by the story and concept of La Jetee, I was overwhelmingly reminded of the work of Michel Gondry, particularly his 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while watching. The scenes in that film which feature the two protagonists, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, escaping into their minds, hiding, literally, among their memories in the attempt to save their history together and prevent it from being erased, while not representing the exact same plot line seemed to deal with similar themes and conflicts and present a similarly fluid idea of the chronology of time and the nature of memory in relation to space and human beings. This rupturing of the commonly understood boundaries of time and space, centered around the desperate attempts of the protagonists to stay together and be together, venturing through much the same kind of fragmentary world, their own museum of memories, I found deeply reminiscent of La Jetee.

The use of sequential still images rather than uninterrupted film was very effective in creating the kind of dystopian feeling of fractured reality that was reflected in the facts of the story as it unfolded. It gave the film an episodic feel, as if grasped from snatches of memory, flickering in and out of reality, and helped to enhance the disrupted and disturbing sense of moving back and forth in time, not being anchored in any one state of reality for very long. It also helped to build a sense of drama. I keep thinking back to what Herbert Zettl said about the way in which sometimes very blown out, black and white photographs draw the viewer in more emotionally than more “realistic” photographs where more visual information is present because they invite or force the viewer to fill in what is missing, to invest themselves more emotionally and intellectually in the image in order to fully constitute it. It’s an idea I’m very interested by and one I’m interested in working with in my own work in the future, and it seems to me that this accounted for some of the emotional, visual power of La Jetee.

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