La Jetée

When I think of classic short films, I usually recall the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. Or I might remember my favorite cartoons from Walt Disney, Dave Fleischer, or Chuck Jones. Of course, there are many other fine short films that span the decades.

One of the best shorts from the 1960s is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). It’s remarkable for several reasons. First, it tells an absorbing story that builds to a never-to-be-forgotten climax. Second, it’s technically innovative in a way that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. And third, it shows you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a film production — if you have the imagination to transform the technical deficiencies into creative assets.

I’ve never encountered anyone who wasn’t impressed by this superb 26-minute film, yet strictly speaking, it may not quality as a motion picture. With the exception of a few seconds in the middle, the story is told entirely through still images. That had to save a ton of money, yet Marker was able to create the illusion of movement by panning, fading, cross-fading, and sequencing the images to match the narration, emotionally charged music, and occasional sound effects.

The story, which involves time travel and the persistence of memory, is an ideal fit for this approach. The protagonist is selected for the time travel experiments because he retains fragmentary images from the past and may be able to fill in the gaps (similar to the audience having to mentally fill in the missing film frames).

This short will appeal to a broader audience than just science fiction fans. It has a wistful romanticism that’s as vital to the story as any of the more fantastic elements. Though Marker is an American, he filmed La Jetée in France. As a result, it’s much closer in tone to Françoise Truffaut than to Hollywood sci-fi.

A newer version of this short replaces the French narrator — and English subtitles — with an American narrator, who I assume is Chris Marker. The out-of-print DVD titled Short 2: Dreams had this version, which was Marker’s “preferred cut.” I prefer the original version, though either would qualify as one of the best shorts made during the second half of the twentieth century. The Criterion DVD and Blu-ray have what are essentially both versions. You can run it with either a French or English narrator, and add in English subtitles to supplement the French narration.

You may have read about La Jetée because of its connection with Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Gilliam explains in his La Jetée DVD commentary that 12 Monkeys was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the short. The screenwriters used it to generate ideas for their script. Gilliam, however, chose not to see it until 12 Monkeys was completed. After finally viewing La Jetée, Gilliam proclaimed Marker to be a genius.

La Jetée
(1962; directed by Chris Marker; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD) [both discs includes Marker's Sans Soleil]

Thursday, May 28 at 11:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies