*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*
2012 Poll Rank: #50 (tied with City Lights and Ugetsu monogatari)
Several times over the course of this series, "pure cinematography" has come up several times, most notably in the very first edition. The basic theory behind Robert Bresson's "pure cinematography" is that film transcends simply being "filmed theatre," but creates a unique visual language that conveys meaning outside of the narrative. In other words, films that fit his theory of cinematography didn't emphasize "plot" and "character" so much as images that conveyed information without exposition, allowing the film to essentially speak in visual language that the audience would be able to understand. The moving image is what transcends cinema as an artistic medium.
La Jetée, Chris Marker's acclaimed 1962 short, is not so much antithetical to "pure cinematography" so much as an abstraction of the theory's core tenant. The film, which runs a brief 28 minutes, is a sci-fi story about a man (Davos Hanich) in post-World War III France who is sent back in time to help save humanity from wiping itself out. The film's most noted accomplishment, though, is that it is almost completely told through still photographs rather than through moving images, making this more of a narrative montage than what a film is expected to be. This much is obvious from the outset, with the zoom out on a photograph of Paris' Orly Airport, and the credit of "un photo-roman de Chris Marker" - literally, "a photo-story by Chris Marker."
Marker's use of still photographs has a purpose, of course. This is a film about time travel, but Marker actually uses the time-travel motif to make a larger point about memory. This is advanced by the use of still photographs, creating an impressionist timeline that suggests rather than shows. Marker's statement is that our memories don't play out as videos, at least not all the time. Memories are snapshots of the past, and, as in the film, they may be accompanied by sounds that maybe aren't completely natural to the image, but still related to it. In that sense, La Jetée plays out like a collection of memories pasted together by the narrator, trying to recount a history in which it appears most physical evidence of events has been destroyed, along with the rest of human civilization.
But Marker's film is also challenging the conventions of cinema, in particular the importance of the moving image. Whereas the average film moves at a rate of 24 frames-per-second (this speed creating the illusion of movement on film), each photograph in La Jetée extends for varying amounts of time, the characters locked in a moment before the cut to the next one. It is a complete breakdown of cinema itself, an abstraction of "pure cinematography" to the point where the image is the only thing, with only the non-diagetic sound (that is, sound that is not originating from the image on the screen) accompanying each image indicating that this is technically a film. This distortion helps serve the purpose of the post-apocalyptic setting of the film as well. Much like Cormac McCarthy's spare prose and lack of punctuation was evocative of a world in complete disrepair in his novel The Road, Marker's disjointed sound and collection of stills implies a devastated world in which even film has fallen apart, no longer recognizable as "movies."
La Jetée, then, is a extreme vision of the theory of "pure cinematography," abstracting the central idea of visual language to an extent that very few films have revisited (Marker would return to the conceit a few times in his career). Moreover, it's a film that explores the nature of memory itself and memory on film, taking cinema to places that it had never ventured before.
On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Battleship Potemkin (1925)