Home Video Hovel- La Jetee/Sans Soleil
Film is such a malleable art form, but when you watch as much narrative cinema as I, you often need a reminder of this fact. Enter Chris Marker and his extraordinary films La Jetée and Sans Soleil, which are fifty and thirty years old, respectively, but as fresh, forward-thinking, and innovative as though their were conceived five years from now. Once can imagine it’d be relatively easy to make a film unlike any we’ve seen before, but it’s something else to make such a film that also, in turn, seems like the most natural extension of the art form. It’s like scratching an itch you never knew was there (yeah, that’s right, that’ll sell ‘em!), and The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release of these two films is simply extraordinary in this regard and many others.
It is a testament to La Jetée’s power as a film and legacy as a cultural object that, even at 27 minutes, it is given equal footing with Marker’s feature film Sans Soleil. In the home video market, short films remain a bit of an enigma, as it’s almost impossible to get many people to shell out more than a few dollars for a film that runs about the length of an episode of The Honeymooners. Nevertheless, La Jetée is such a monumental piece, both in the history of science fiction and the avant-garde, that it is much more fitting as a main feature than a supplement.
Probably most famous at this point for inspiring Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, La Jetée tells a very simple story that has surprising depth. An omniscient narrator addresses the third world war as a fact of history, focusing on the story of one postwar test subject forced into time travel experiments to attempt to save mankind from its own undoing. But the central drive of the film is far more personal and emotional – the man’s interaction with his own past, and his obsession with a woman he saw as a young boy.
Although La Jetée is told entirely in still images, its purpose as a piece of cinema (rather than an illustrated book or photo installation) should be immediately evident, and Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is a bold declaration of principles. A lot of high-def transfers look beautiful, and this is no exception, but it’s in how they represented it – not as a series of still frames, but as a moving image – that makes it really special. Marker’s visceral photography, focusing on people in motion rather than in cemented poses (it almost feels like there’s more movement here than in Last Year at Marienbad), clearly marks the intent that these images be read as frozen moments in the context of a living world. This is, ultimately, what makes a series of stills so effective – they feel alive, but tied to the past, tied to a fate that has already been set. By keeping the moving film grain and fluttering image that would come from 35mm projection, Criterion has provided a subtle but perfect way to transfer the aesthetic themes Marker had established onto a new, digital medium. La Jetée is presented in its original aspect ratio, 1.66:1 (my second-favorite aspect ratio!).
Their approach to Marker’s sound design takes a similar tact. The narration – which is provided in both English and French, and intended to be heard in whichever language the viewer is more familiar – is clear but not entirely clean. It feels like a discovered recording, a document of a bygone era, which gives the film the feeling of an artifact, that this was all inevitable, unpreventable, and doomed from the start (a theme not unfamiliar to science fiction), making the immediacy of Marker’s images all the more heartbreaking.
Much like La Jetée, Sans Soleil uses the immediacy of film to give life to the past. The set-up is that a woman is reading letters from a fictional cameraman, Sandor Krasna (really the writings of Marker, though presumably not in letter form in point of fact), as we see the images he shot from several trips abroad. The film focuses on voyages to Japan and Guinea-Bissau, but incorporates footage from other expeditions, most notably San Francisco to visit the shooting locations from Vertigo. That latter one is of particular interest to Vertigo obsessives (amongst whom I count myself), as he contrasts the mostly-unchanged settings with the footage from the film to remarkably resonant effect.
The rest is perhaps the greatest documentary about traveling abroad that also just so happens to be a nearly musical, pure-cinema experience. Through his “letters,” Marker provides the fascination with the cultures he encounters that only an outsider could bring, a status buoyed by his voyeuristic, wandering, inquisitive camera, constantly on the lookout for some small detail that can be extrapolated into essayistic prose. It’s impossible to take in entirely in one viewing, so dense is Marker’s writing, never mind the way he chooses to pair it with his footage. As this is my first, I’ll simply say I found it deeply moving even as I couldn’t totally penetrate it, and leave it at that.
Sans Soleil certainly benefits from Criterion’s high-def upgrade, though there is less room for the kind of statement they made with La Jetée. Shot on 16mm, though transferred from a 35mm print, Sans Soleil is presented appropriately with flat, muted colors, and a consistent but not overwhelming layer of grain. Short of the reel changes and scratches, this has all the feel of a gloriously worn film print. It is, naturally, presented in its original aspect ratio, 1.66:1.
Fitting, too, is Criterion’s decision to present Alexandra Stewart’s narration in clean, clear, resonant audio. Her soothing voice came booming out of my speakers, and I didn’t dare turn it down. Functioning almost as a fictional commentary track to Marker’s nearly-silent footage (the sound he gathered is fittingly faded, as though the voices and noises are echoing from the past), Stewart is a guide in the room, the family member or friend who is showing us the footage sent over by Krasna as she finds the matching correspondence. Once again, you get both English and French tracks, with the intention you’ll pick the language with which you’re most familiar. Subtitles are provided as well.
Hearing of Marker’s own obsession with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in Sans Soleil, one could easily draw very direct parallels to Le Jetée – both deal with men chasing their image of a woman as much as the woman herself, and both allow them to totally live in that fantasy, if only for a moment. In Criterion’s supplemental material, they provide a segment from the French television series Court-circuit (le magazine) that goes even further, saying that the protagonist is trying to insert himself into Vertigo. I wouldn’t go so far, but it makes for a fascinating 9-minute watch.
From that same series, a very short piece (one-and-a-half minutes) is provided on David Bowie’s music video for “Jump They Say,” which is more than a little inspired by La Jetée. The full video isn’t provided; just a comparison. But, hey, you have YouTube. Get some. Also of interest is that the 1993 video was directed by Mark Romanek, who would go onto make one of the best films of the last decade (and, for my money, just as resonant a piece of science fiction as La Jetée), Never Let Me Go.
“Chris on Chris” is a video piece on Marker by filmmaker and critic Chris Darke, though he mostly relies on an interview with Michael Shamberg, for whom Marker produced some early computer effects for his film, Souvenir. He also speaks with Terry Gilliam, who to his credit doesn’t mention 12 Monkeys at all, but is more than happy to extol the virtues of La Jetée. Good stuff, only ten minutes.
We also get two rather long interviews with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin (whose “popular films” were recently released by Criterion as an Eclipse set), one for each film. Don’t get me wrong, Gorin is a compelling, engaged subject whose pure enthusiasm for Marker and his work is incomparable and infectious, but these interviews are edited in such a way that it feels like the interviewer set a camera in front of him, left the room, and let him ramble for hours. Still, the pieces they’ve selected are very good, and well curated for the best insight. The La Jetée piece is also interspersed with quotes from other luminaries that sometimes directly address Marker’s work, other times are meditation of similar themes, and other times are, well, the opening text of The Twlight Zone. Yet it will all make sense by the end.
Finally, Junkopia is one of those wonderful supplements that’s also a whole other film in and of itself, albeit a six-minute one. In his travels for Sans Soleil, Marker was driven to Zoetrope Studios, which would have probably been a pretty righteous expedition in and of itself, as this would have been the height of Francis Ford Coppola’s massive endeavor – in other words, right before One From the Heart came out. That aside, this piece is actually about the Emeryville Mudflats, located outside of San Francisco, which once housed an unsanctioned, unofficial art installation featuring works made from materials found in the area (driftwood, branches, plants, etc.), which would eventually be broken down by nature and washed to sea. Very cool piece on a specific moment in time – the sculptures were permanently removed in the 1990s, and Emeryville is now most famous as the home of Pixar.
And of course you get a 46-page booklet with every purchase, and this one is possibly the definitive way to put these together. You get an essay about the films by Catherine Lupton, the writer and photographer (oh, THAT Catherine Lupton), an interview with Marker, an essay by Marker, an essay by a couple about the first time they saw La Jetée, a guide to the characters and crew of Sans Soleil, and a few pieces of writing by Marker. Whew. It’s a lot of material, and as Marker is, unsurprisingly, an incredibly thoughtful and insightful man, quite dense, but makes for such rich reading, it’s surprising they didn’t charge extra for it. Even if you weren’t already buying two great films and a bevy of video-based features, the booklet would be worth the cost of this set alone, so filled with insight into the art of film as it is.
La Jetée/Sans Soleil comes highly recommended. Even if you’ve never seen the films before, it’d be the smartest blind-buy you made all year.