Spirals, Pt. 1

The Criterion DVD release of Chris Marker's justly famous "La Jetee" includes a video-essay (actually part of an episode of "Court-circuit," a French television show) which has, as its thesis, that Marker's film is actually an attempt on Marker's part, to insert himself into Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

Lug Lagier, the director of this segment, adduces as proof Marker's deliberate echo of Hitchcock's framing of Kim Novak in that film with the framing of Helene Chatelain ("The Woman") in "La Jetee," and goes on to explain how the concepts at work in Marker's film work to place the protagonist in a "film" that is in the past, as Marker wished to have been placed in "Vertigo."

Of course, this dovetails quite well with my recent reading, Lawrence Weschler's wonderful Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences, Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment, and John Berger's great "Ways of Seeing."

Marker's point of entry, I would add, is the photograph, since that is what his film is actually made up of-- photographs. In effect, Marker slows the speed of film, from 24 frames per second, to, well, however many seconds he chooses to show each frame. Thus allowing him "entry."

And, in a very strange way, the photograph is oddly absent, noticeably absent, in Hitchcock's film-- at the point where Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) first meets Gavin Elster, and Elster engages Scottie to spy on his wife, Elster tells Scottie where Madeleine will be that night, so that Scottie can get a look at her. Would we not expect Elster to simply hand over a photo of his wife at this point? In most detective novels, in most detective movies, that is precisely the ending of such a scene. And this is such a perfect example of such a scene that is doubly perplexing that it does not end that way. In fact, when we notice it, as I did when I watched "Vertigo" again after having seen "La Jetee," it almost seems to have been deliberately done, made deliberately odd. What could be more perfect, in a movie that is all about representation and doubling, than a representation of a double of Madeleine to start the whole thing off?

And then, too, how odd that Scottie is not exhorted to bring back evidence of Madeleine's excursions to Elster. At least, so we think, at this point in the movie. It should be suspicious, both to us, as viewer, and to Scottie, as investigator. But the premise of the movie explains it away-- Madeleine isn't Madeleine, and her movements have been choreographed by Elster in advance. He has no need to see where she goes and what she does, because he has written the script.

And so Marker inserts his photographs into Elster's plot, a plot which precludes the photograph as evidence, either for Scottie or against his wife, by her death, prior, in fact, to Scottie's investigation.

I thought, at the conclusion of "La Jetee," and before seeing the segment of "Court-circuit," not of "Vertigo," but of Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad," which had come out the previous year, and would have been well-known to Marker. Resnais's film, scripted by Alain Robbe-Grillet, was loosely based on Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, in which the protagonist finds himself part of a film, a film which he cannot enter but tries nonetheless, which is also, thus, about a man (Morel) who has created the film to live in it. And of course, Bioy Casares himself was, in a way, trying to "enter" Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The Nazi scientists of "La Jetee" certainly call up images of Moreau, of cruel experiments made on innocent beings that result in new realities, new ways of seeing that are doubly cruel because they are only ways of seeing, impenetrable to the viewer, who cannot take part in what s/he sees. And, of course, this is exactly what the film is, too.