Saturday, 17 May 2008

[24] Memory, Time and Genre in La Jetée and Tokyo-Ga

This is the second exam answer draft I have written for my Memory, Space and Place exam on Monday. The first was my previous post, on Siegfried Sassoon and War Trauma. La Jetée and Tokyo-Ga are two films that have really intrigued me, and through my own stubborn determination, I have slotted them in as an answer to the following question:

'Discuss the role of avant-garde film in relation to issues of memory and genre'

I think this would make a good essay to submit to a magazine. I'll post it here for the time being, but bear in mind it is work in progress. Enjoy.

Once again, as this is for an exam answer, I haven't retained full bibliographic information (although I at least attribute every quote or concept). If it becomes an issue, I can add it in later; or leave a comment and I'll sort it out.


Since certain landmark theoretical texts put forward by French Nouvelle Vague theorists, avant garde cinema has explored various thematic and formal approaches to the medium. Philosophical and psychological content is often married to a fresh or radical reworking of generic boundaries, to give sophisticated and complex pieces of art. Two filmmakers, who in their own ways have engaged with the accepted notions of genre, and the thematic opportunities of memory, are the French artist Chris Marker and the German director Wim Wenders. I will focus on the films La Jetée (dir. Marker, 1962) and Tokyo-Ga (dir. Wenders, 1985).

Both films are examples of the cinematic style described by Alexandre Astruc as 'camera-stylo', where cinema had moved beyond simple spectacle and towards 'a form of expression', or 'that the motion picture [had] become an art of sheer personal creation, as direct and immediate as the novelist's pen' (Bordwell 1997, 49). Indeed, despite the two films' immediate genres (science-fiction and documentary respectively), they both exhibit aspects of avant-garde subgenres (Marker's 'photo-roman', Wenders' cinematic essay). The use of these reworked genres allows the filmmakers the space to discuss and present issues related to the topic of memory.

La Jetée is ostensibly a science fiction film. In a post-World War III France, a group of scientists experiment with time travel in order to solve issues of food and fuel shortages. However, the style of the film does not comply with mainstream aspects of the genre. This film is a 'photo-roman', a photographic novel. Indeed, the film progresses as a sequence of still images, accompanied by a voice-over narration. The film opens with the introduction

'This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood. The violent scene that upsets him, and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later, happened on the main jetty at Orly, the Paris airport, sometime before the outbreak of World War III'

Marker here references Freud's concept of 'Screen Memories', as experiences 'which had aroused some powerful emotion or which, owing to their consequences, had been recognised as important soon after their occurrence' (Gay 1995, 117). These lingering and influential memories are articulated by the narrator as 'scars'. The protagonist's obsession with this childhood memory makes him a perfect candidate for the time travel experiments ('...the inventors were now concentrating on men with very strong mental images...if able to conceive or dream another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it'). Moving away from the industrialised or mechanised traditions of science fiction, La Jetée's form of time travel involves deep psychological connections with the past. Time travel is facilitated by memory.

Sellers describes the 'photo' aspect of the film as conjuring up 'the frozen moments that constitute memory'. Indeed, the use of still images as the visual track of the narrative calls up the theoretical work on the psychological aspects of still photography, such as the work of Siegfried Kracauer or Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. Indeed, the presence of narration coupled with the images recalls Kracauer's focus on the need for the 'oral tradition' to make sense, in order to make cause a more distinct reaction in the viewer (Barthes' 'punctum'). Bringing such attention to the role of narration, through its necessity in the film, also helps to stress the uncertainty of the narrator - Who is speaking, what is their relation to the story? Such questions, and such a formal critique of the narrative form, gives La Jetée a distinctly literary quality.

The film also uses elements of cultural and cinematic memory to present issues of time and identity. In one scene, where the main character is in the past, with the woman from his memories, they 'stare at the trunk of a sequoia tree covered with historical dates'. This scene is an allusion to Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo. In a sly inversion of one of that film's key scenes, where Madeleine points to a point on the tree, telling Scottie 'here I was born... and there I died', La Jetée's time traveller 'shows her a point beyond the tree', and says 'this is where I come from'. In La Jetée, such a moment resonates with notions of identity, history and memory.

Indeed, the protagonist of the film, in travelling into the past, motivated by his own desire for the woman of his memories, creates his own identity, and attempts to control time. The central 'sci-fi' narrative, that of resolving the WW3 survivors' shortages of fuel and food, is effectively used as a 'narrative alibi', in order to discuss more philosophical themes (Nelmes 2003, 435). When given the choice at the end of the film, the man decides not to reside in the 'pacified future', but 'the world of his childhood'. This moment of re-fashioning is nostalgic: the man escapes the horrors of the post-war France, and retreats into a fantasy of the woman he loves, even though this experience is dated and war nevertheless looms. This nostalgia, coupled with the black and white photography, highlights the sense, articulated by Barthes, that still images and photographs, as artefacts of the past, remind the present viewer that the subject, as represented, is dead or will die.

This final act from the man, to escape from the trauma of war, is rendered futile, as he is killed on the jetty at Orly. Indeed, the final narration of
La Jetée is unavoidably fatalistic, as the traumatic memory from the character's childhood is revealed to be 'the moment of his own death'. This ending is interestingly, and importantly articulated as there being 'no way out of time', acutely focusing the audience's attention on the philosophical aspects of the film.

Whereas Marker uses aspects of fiction in his meditation on memory and time, Wenders' Tokyo-Ga uses the framework of documentary film. Like La Jetée, Tokyo-Ga is narrated, although this time by the director himself. Wenders begins the film with a short clip from Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 film Tokyo Story, and explains that his respect for the Japanese director led him to travel to Tokyo in order to find the city as depicted by Ozu. This very engagement with a fictional, cinematic memory of a foreign culture (especially one that is over 20 years old) is inevitably flawed, and Wenders finds a very different Japan from the tranquil, spiritual world of Ozu. Indeed, even though Wenders bookends his film with clips from Tokyo Story and interviews with Ozu's collaborators (actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta), these sections only make up a small proportion of the film's running time. As a documentary on Ozu, this film fails.

Instead, as soon as Wenders introduces the footage from his trip to Tokyo in 1983, the film begins to exhibit certain 'camera-stylo' aspects. Wenders presents and narrates this footage of Japanese culture in a very subjective style, with many asides and deviations from the stated topic of the film. McKenna describes this development as Tokyo-Ga being 'overtly about the process of trying to make one kind of film and getting sidetracked'. This kind of film is referred to as a 'cinematic essay', which is described as a rejection of 'the restrictive notion that documentary was merely a medium for mass communication and social betterment', and instead using cinema 'as a means to express strong personal opinions and points of view' (Macdonald and Cousins 1996, 211).

Wenders' narration gives the film a very subjective feel, and his opening narration muses on the link between film and memory

'...I don't have the slightest recollection, I just don't remember any more. I know I was in Tokyo. I know it was the spring of '83. I know. I had a camera with me, and I shot footage. These images now exist and they have become my memory. But I can't help thinking, if I had been there without the camera, I'd now be able to better remember.'

This recalls Sontag's On Photography, and her discussion of the 'the camera's role in beautifying the world', and the modern culture of photography as more relevant or permanent than memory. This monologue is a homage to Chris Marker's 1983 film Sans Soleil, another cinematic essay, which is similar to Tokyo-Ga in its blending of travelogue and documentary. Indeed, Marker is featured in the film, as well as Wenders' fellow German filmmaker Werner Herzog. These sequences solidify the film's subjective, diary-like style. The discussion with Herzog about the pursuit of 'pure imagery' in a consumerist world is filmed in a spontaneous style, in public, with a handheld camera. This in particular provides a heavy contrast to the composed interviews with the Japanese filmmakers, which is told in long, meditative takes, like an Ozu film.

One of the most striking qualities of this film is due to Wenders' obsession with cultural representation and memory. The focus on the dichotomy between the 1940s cinematic Tokyo and the 'real-life' 1980s Tokyo, with its Pachinko parlours and golf driving ranges, inevitably ties the film to a specific time and place. Like Marker's motif of the sequoia tree, used to solidify and highlight the passing of time, Wenders' subjective stance dates Tokyo-Ga, both in its stance and its representation of Japan. Viewers of the film will be reminded of the passage of time between the work of Ozu and Wenders, as well as between Tokyo-Ga and their present.

Indeed, even though in Tokyo-Ga, Wenders focuses on a very different topic and style to La Jetée, the film resonates with Marker's pronouncement that there is 'no way out of Time'. Both of these films, through use of hybrid or avant-garde genres, in their own way explore these themes of time and memory.

1 comment:

Vagrant-Lover said...

This is really interesting I'm currently writing a paper exploring philosophical themes that crop up in La Jetee si I reaaly enjoyed your article. It is such a fantastic film :)