SEP 13


Tues, Sept 13

VIEW: Chris Marker, La jetée



  1. Bullet Constance Penley, The Future of an Illusion, 126-39

  2. BulletGarrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen, 102-05, 293-98


  1. Bullet Brooks Module on Plot

  2. Bullet Brooks Module on Narrative Desire

  3. Bullet Terms applied to the analysis of film



In these first four weeks, I will introduce students to the basic structures of narrative form, specifically the distinction between "story" and "discourse" and between the "proairetic and hermeneutic codes" of narrative. Students will also begin to analyze film, thus becoming familiar with those terms from film theory that we will build on over the course of the semester. Two pop cultural shows (Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files) and one experimental film (La jetée) will serve to help us in our exploration of the narrative limitations of human consciousness.




"La jetée and the photographemic heart of cinema"

We spent this week discussing the experimental French film, La jetée (1962), the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. The film begins at an airport runway. We witness a sequence of black-and-white still shots in which we see a young boy, whose memory this scene is supposed to represent. He sees a beautiful young woman and what he later realizes to be the death of a man. The background music is a choral piece (evocative of a requiem).

I suggested, following Garrett Stewart, that what we are being presented in Marker's film is an allegory for film itself; for example, I asked you to consider why Marker decides to present us his film in a series of still images. Here are some of the topics of interest regarding this film:


In the very first scene, a camera zooms out of the shot of an airport pier. The scene thus creates the sense of movement even though we are actually inside a still shot, as Kailey Merida pointed out to us; that is, the film creates the illusion of properly cinematic movement. We are thus given an optical illusion, much like the optical illusion we examined at the beginning of "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." Already, the film could be said thus to deconstruct the medium of film, since the opening shot thus reminds us that ALL film is, in fact, an optical illusion, as Caitlin Stamper pointed out: a series of still shots made to assume the appearance of movement. One might say that the illusion goes further: it appears as if we are in a position of mastery with relation to the scene (we are above the runway in a position of overview) and it appears as if we are going somewhere yet, in the end, we go nowhere, much like our main character who thinks he is moving forward when in fact he is fixated on one moment from his past, as I argued; indeed, since the camera is moving backwards along a runway (itself a metaphor for narrative), we have here a metaphor for time travel, as Caitlin Stamper and Sara Kramer argued. Though we are at the beginning of the narrative, the film thus suggests movement backwards in time. There is also an irony inherent in the fact that airports are places where one both begins and ends one's narratives of travel: as we come to see, that undecidability is important here since the next scene will give us at once the beginning and end of a character's life. (The child is actually seeing his own death on the jetty.) We may even have an aural analog here since it's hard to tell from the soundtrack whether we are hearing planes taking off or landing, whether we're at the beginning or end of a plane's journey.  In various ways, then, the discourse here perfectly mirrors or literalizes various story elements. Add to all that the fact that La jetée, a film all about psychoanalytical fixation on a moment of childhood, is discursively literalized here through the fixed image of the still photo, just as regression is here literalized as time travel. We even have the suggestion of an Oedipal scenario here, Sara Kramer pointed out, especially since we actually see the protagonist with his mother and father in the same scene where we see his object of desire. 

The opening sequence also highlights the ways that temporal structures are encoded even within still images: not only hair blowing, etc. but also the ways that any still image implies a whole slough of temporal signatures (the gaze of the characters, the implied movement between elements within the frame, even the movement of our eye across the still canvas). Consider the last image before the outbreak of WWWIII: a blurred image, which could be suggestive of the very POV of the subject. Either the camera itself must be moving to achieve that effect, or we could be seeing the falling perspective of the dying subject, an interpretation that is underlined by the black screen of the next shot (and the two deaths encoded here: the death of the subject and the death of humanity because of WWWIII).

Also of interest in the opening scene is the fact that the effect here (the subject's death) could be said to precede the cause (his subsequent life after WWWIII), much as the effect precedes the cause in that other time-loop narrative we saw, Star Trek: TNG's "Cause and Effect."


Of note here is the nature of memory, which the film aligns with "scars." We tend to remember significant events from our past, what we might term narratively significant events. Indeed, one might align such memory-scars with Freud's understanding of trauma and repetition compulsion. We remember these moments because we become fixated on them, particularly if they are in some way traumatic (or even just out of the ordinary) for us. We repeat them in our minds in an effort to give them meaning, to give them narrative shape.


There are other ways that the discourse mirrors the story in the film. The first time our protagonist time-travels, we are for example given a sequence of images: real children, real birds, real cats, real graves, and then the jetty from the start of the film. Each image is separated out by a black screen. As you argued, we are thus given in short and by metaphorical association the full circle of the narrative from childhood to death. Indeed, the cut from graves to the jetty suggests a metaphorical alignment which turns out to be quite literal: the jetty does represent the protagonist's death. In cinema, such editing often suggests a metaphorical relation between the two disparate scenes thus spliced together. (Martin Scorsese calls any edit the "opening of a third eye" because of such metaphorical implications.)


You also provided a lovely reading of the main character's blinders, which he is forced to wear through the experiments. The blinders strip the character of his present, as the narrator states, allowing him to open his third eye, in a different sense than the one above. (Such a third eye is literally represented by the time-travelers he meets from the future.) The third eye thus serves as a metaphor for clairvoyance or the stepping outside of our present reality. Of course, the same situation exists for the audience: when we watch a film we too are invited to strip ourselves of the present (the reason why the lights go down in a cinema at the start of a film), so that we can travel to the time of the film. As Constance Penley argued at the very start of your reading assignment, in this way all film could be called a time-travel device.


What we are being given here is literally a "spatialization of time" (Penley’s term, and as Ross Piedmonte argued). Narrative, as we've been discovering, is not the same as life. It desires to step outside of the flow of chronological time (out of what Penley, following Frank Kermode, calls chronos) in order to achieve the knowledge that comes from being outside of time (or kairos). The desire, in other words, is to close the circle of narrative (and thus to give it meaning) rather than to see it flow forward as a straight or squiggly line. That opposition is represented metaphorically here: the straight line of the airport runway vs. the closed circle of the tree rings. Our protagonist, who can time-travel, stands metaphorically outside of time, which is one reason he points to a space outside the tree. What the tree and also the jetty give us, thus once again, is the "spatialization of time" that Penley describes in our reading for the week.


And, as we've learned from Peter Brooks, we can align the pleasure principle with the chronological line and the death drive or repetition compulsion with that repetitive circling around a central trauma (which ultimately represents our fascination with death). The tree rings are a perfect metaphor for this spatialization of time. Indeed, we could even say that the rings exemplify trauma since they are caused by the seasonal repetition of winter, a literal trauma for the lifespan of the tree. That desire to return to a moment of the past, to the moment of our fixation, is impossible. We are driven to repeat the moment because of the death drive; however, as La jetée makes clear, to achieve it finally is akin to experiencing one's own death once and for all. Indeed, the psychoanalytical drama here is further underlined by having the instrument of death be a man (even more specifically, a scientist in a position of authority), who thus comes to stand in for the psychoanalytical figure of the "Law" or "Name of the Father." We are thus given a perfect psychoanalytical allegory for the mechanism of the Oedipus complex. (More on that later by way of Buffy next week.)


The final point that needs to be made is that, as Garrett Stewart argued in our readings for this week, La jetée here is encoding the very history of film, as, for example, the choice of the black-and-white still medium makes clear. The opposition of film to photo also exemplifies the difference between the pastness of photography (especially B&W photography) and what Constance Penley termed the "'here-nowness' of the illusionistic (filmic) movement" (139). The film is self-conscious in many other ways too, of course. For one, the events themselves could be interpreted either as a long subjective treatment (the protagonist is only dreaming these events, as he suggests on several occasions) or as an actual objective treatment (he is really traveling through time). As Garrett Stewart put it our reading, we are "in a narrative pitched between science fiction thriller and existential reverie" (297).

The one time in the film when we move from still shots into regular film is in the hauntingly lyrical moment when the love object's eyes open and look directly into the camera—another superb example of the film's self-consciousness. The one point when we move from the static frames of the dead photo into the apparent continuity of a film's frames (the here-nowness of film) is at the moment when the protagonist's desire is consummated: the woman in bed waking from her sleep. Ecstasy (Greek, ex-tasis, meaning "out of place") comes to represent the one moment when our protagonist is most purely "in the moment" of the past. And yet, the moment of consummation is also the beginning of the end. The moment thus remains in tension between the metonymic forward movement of the pleasure principle and the repetitive insistence of the death drive, which is the result of attempting to reconstruct a moment from the past upon which one has become fixed/fixated. The danger behind the complete consummation of the desire for the love object or the desire for a return to a moment of childhood is the utter quiescence of death, which marks the end of desire.  Perhaps for this reason, the other point in the film that comes close to illusionistic film movement (a series of quick edits) is the last sequence when the protagonist runs towards his love object only to face his own death. The sound effects here (the birds), which Žižek will theorize as rendu in upcoming readings (following Michel Chion), further underscores that the Real here threatens to undo the protagonist’s masturbatory fantasy.

We also began here to discuss the ways the audience is asked to identify with the main camera, who largely focalizes events for us.  In this way, the character takes the place of the camera (which is actually doing the looking) and we are invited to identify with his position through POV and over-the-shoulder shots.  That position of mastery is further supported by having him constantly looking at the woman, who, remember, never speaks and is continually in a position of passivity (sleeping, resting, in bed). One could say that she is thus objectified, as Vivian Gu suggested. One might say that what we are seeing is yet another film objectifying the female object of desire in order to give the authoritative male (and, through him, the audience) a feeling of control; however, as you pointed out, we should remember that the film also makes clear how much this is nothing but a fantasy since the protagonist throughout all of this is himself supine, blinded, incarcerated, and controlled by subjects who have authority over him. La jetée also constantly reminds us of the artificiality of the fantasy by constant reminders that we are seeing nothing but still photographs, plus a number of shock cuts to the “Name of the Father” scientist in the protagonist’s present.  Between each frame, you could say, lies the black nothingness that destroys the fantasy.  In the end, it’s the camera that has control, which may explain the elongated eyepieces of the man who destroys the protagonist’s fantasy in the end—they remind us that it’s the camera that is actually in control.   


Synopsis for Feb 3

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   :