hris Markers film, La Jetee, and Roland Barthess book, Camera Lucida, I was thinking only about their most obvious link: photography. The more I looked, though, the more Marker and Barthes seemed to have in common. It was almost uncanny. Some things had to be twisted a little, but the strangest sort of interplay between the two works seemed to be happening, and it felt as if I were the first to discover it. For example, the first lines in the film, This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood, coincide amazingly well with Barthess story, branded by the image from his Mothers childhood, and subsequently his own. Even where they differ, it seems to me that the fact that Marker and Barthes are even considering the same ideas upon which they can differ is an amazing similarity. Perhaps every single major idea Barthes addresses in his novel I can find addressed in La Jetee. Because of this fact, and because of the power of both works, I was led at the end of my research to some new, yet fundamental ideas about the nature of photography itself.
One of the most interesting aspects of this study, and also the most challenging, is the nature of Markers film itself. Simply the fact that I have to put the word film in quotes when applying it to La Jetee is perhaps the strongest evidence of the enigma that this film has been throughout its history. What exactly is la Jetee? This is a question that haunted my research. How do you take a book about photography, and apply its statements to this film? Now, obviously there are some answers to this question. Markers film is of course largely about photography because it is largely photography. However, in many ways it also defies classification. We have a series of heterogeneous photographs. There is nothing to separate them out from any other photographs that one might find in the world, except that they are given a narrative. Suddenly… a film is created. Yet, I would propose that the soul of Markers film is still photography, and that film is its heart. Thus, though there were some very perplexing issues in applying Barthess ideas to La Jetee, I found that on the whole it could be done without making many stretches or leaps in interpretation. A startling number of similar themes and motifs are present in each of the works. As I said, the number of parallels is uncanny, and Barthes and Marker are certainly examining the same fundamental ideas that lie at the center of the photograph. Death, time, memory, history in the sense of the individual photographs history, and the raw power and mystery of the photographic image are all issues that are explored in both works. Barthes and Marker are looking at the same things in different ways. Barthess method is lucid and personal. It is essentially a long critical essay in a very liberal form. The important thing is that no interpretation is necessary, Barthes is telling us exactly what he thinks and feels about photography. We can learn from Camera Lucida and look at it in light of something else, but alone it is unassailable, we cannot read between the lines. La Jetee, however, is completely different. Marker is not simply examining the fundamental aspects of photography and giving us conclusions. Instead, he is playing off of these fundamental ideas, both on a theoretical level and upon that of the average persons paradigms. His film requires interpretation, and has gotten a great deal of it. I found Barthess book to be a perfect vehicle for this task.
Barthes writes that, the photograph is violent. It is violent because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because nothing in it can be refused or transformed. What he means is that the photograph is only what you see, and nothing more. The individual photograph cannot be interpreted, it yields itself wholly to the viewer, and the viewer cannot and does not need to go anywhere else but to the photograph in order to understand it. I stress this point now because it is important when examining La Jetee. If the photograph arrests interpretation, then one must go to the narration of the film to find out what Marker is trying to say. This is where the brilliance of La Jetee is for me. The photographs in the movie except for those of the time traveling experimentscould be pictures from just about anywhere, relating to just about anything, so one must ask, Why this story? When one does ask this question, the film opens up, and an understanding of what Marker is saying begins to form.
I am not sure that I can totally agree with Barthess comment that the photograph arrests interpretation. I believe he must be speaking strictly of the image itself, of the actual action of looking at it. However, this is not where the mystery of the photograph lies. The mystery is behind the photograph, and this is why so many questions arise when people look at certain pictures. So very often, when looking at a photo, I want to know What. What is going on in this photo? How did the events leading up to it come about? Who are these people? How did the photographer do that? What, essentially, is the story behind this photograph. Obviously, Barthes is aware of this characteristic of the photograph. Looking at Kerteszs portrait of a young schoolboy, he exclaims, it is possible that Ernest, a schoolboy photographed in 1931 by Kertesz, is still alive today (but where? How? What a novel!) Barthes is looking at the future of the photographed subject, rather than the story behind it, but there is still this underlying desire on the part of the viewer to want to know more.
Furthermore, I believe that Marker, in La Jetee, is playing off of this instinctive desire of the viewer. He is giving the viewer of the story the History that he yearns for. As I said before, most of the pictures in the film are not strange or unbelievable. They are not science fiction, as is the story. Even the pictures of the time traveling experiments could, on second glance, be taken for some sort of Vietnam War photographs. What I am trying to say is that none of the photos in the film need this particular story in order to have a believable history. They are almost all ordinary photographs, and Marker is playing off this fact. One gets the feeling that he could almost have picked up some random family album and simply mad up a story to go along with the pictures he saw. Of course, this is not what Marker did. The story, an utterly fantastic fiction, is well chosen. Through the irony of this impossible story and these entirely possible photographs, Marker is saying that though the photograph may be so forcefully clear, so completely fact, this history that we yearn for can never be true to the photograph. Instead, it will always be a story, and if we ask for the history of the photograph we will get a narrative fiction. Moreover, this history, being a fiction, and therefore blind to all the facts, will leave us wanting, with as many if not more questions than when we began. This is why so many things in the film are not told to the viewer, who is made all the more aware of these gaps because there is a narration in the first place. We do not know anything really about the experiments, or the camp, or the war, or characters. We are not even told the name of the hero or the name of any character in the film for that matter! This fact leaves me thinking of all the photographs there must be in the world with nameless people in them. Even if one were to be given a history of these photographs, one essential question could never be answered: Who is that person?
In fact, if there is one very striking thing in La Jetee, it is indeed this
coalescence of sorts between the representation (what there is to see: the
images) and the experience (what there is to feel: the affect); we cannot
think of La Jetee without being touched, moved, and even deeply upset.
It is a film that leaves its mark, that cannot easily be forgotten.
Near the beginning of his book Barthes writes that the photograph is composed of three practices: to do, to undergo, to look. These are the three things that are involved in the function of the photograph. The spectator is the viewer of it, the operator is he who takes the picture, and the target is that thing which is photographed. In La Jetee, the spectator and the target are obvious, but as soon as I read this in Camera Lucida I wondered, Who is the operator? It does not, to me, seem to be Marker for some reason. He seems connected with the story of the film, and perhaps with the order and composition of the photographs, but I cannot imagine him as the actual photographer. Not because he could not be the photographer, but the because the photographs in the film just seem to have none. This is, I feel, a large part of what creates the haunting quality of La Jetee mentioned in the quote above. We are used to photographs having a photographer, but here we have none. Even the occasional anonymous in place of a photographs name is something, we know that it came from somewhere. Now obviously the photographs in the film came from somewhere, and were of course carefully planned out, but I cannot shake the haunting feeling I get when I think about and view the film. We have a director, not a photographer, and subsequently, for me, the photos in the film feel somehow ghostly and ethereal.
There are, I believe, two imagesone from the film, and the other from the bookthat are amazingly similar in their function within their respective works and can be paralleled in two major ways. One is Barthess Winter Garden photographthe photo of his mother as a child that he uses to explore the link between memory and the photograph, and through which he discovers the photographs amazing power of being able to capture the air of a person. The image from the film, which parallels the Winter Garden photograph, is the image of the woman (the heroine of the film) on the jetty. It is, for the hero, the only peacetime image to survive the war, and it is the only thing that he loves or that gives him hope. This image also has to do with memory and it is, in fact, a memory of the heros. Furthermore, it holds, for him and for the viewer of the film, the air of that character in the film.
Barthes sits down one day shortly after his mothers death to sort and compile the photographs of her. Why? Because this is what people do in modern society. We use the photograph as a memory device. It is ritualistic, so intertwined with memory as to be a supplement to it. We keep photographs of people so that we can remember what they will look like, and after their death a photograph of them is placed above their coffin or on their grave. However, though Barthes engages in the ritual, he denies the photograph as memory.
Not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory…but it actually
blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory. One day, some
friends were talking about their childhood memories; they had any number;
but I, who had just been looking at my old photographs, had none left.
This idea is an interesting one, and it is tied up with Barthess idea of Death and the photograph, which I shall deal with later. For now, I turn to the image of the woman on the jetty and its relation to memory.
The first thing that struck me about the Jetty Image is that it seems, to me, to be an impossible image. The woman is staring thoughtfully into the distance, her fingers frozen on her lips in a pensive, poetic manner. It is an immediately striking image, and purposefully soit is the first time you see her in the film. But, it is first and foremost the mans memory of her, and it seems to me to be an impossible memory; the perfect frozen gesture, the hair blowing in the winddo people really remember this way?! What is Marker saying here about memory? Could he not have used a picture that was less stylized, more ordinary? This image is a central part of the film. It stays on screen form several seconds, long enough for the narrator to say a few sentences. Had he really seen it, the narrator asks, Or had he invented that tender moment? So is Marker saying that memory is invented, made into a likeness of the photograph by the mind, fantastic and romantic, or that memory is being replaced by the photograph, that we can no longer distinguish between the image on paper and the one in our heads? I cannot say for sure. Later in the film, during the early part of the heros time travels, he is bombarded by images. Other images appear, merge, in that museum, which is, perhaps, his memory. If memory is like a museum, a place where art is kept, then memory is like art, man made and built to please or perhaps horrify, but always constructed. I would not say, however, that Marker is proposing that the photograph is a counter-memory. The fact that this photographic photograph is used as a mans memory is saying something different, either that the photo is replacing memory, or that memory is photographic in the sense that it is stylized and fictionalized.
The link between Barthess Winter Garden photo and Markers Jetty Image does not end with memory, though. They are also similar in that they both represent something more about the person in them than simply their image. Barthes, engaging in his ritualistic study of the photographs of his mother, immediately comes up against a wallnone of the pictures satisfy. He looks through dozens of photos, but he does not recognize his mother. The pictures carry only her likeness, they do not hold her being, her manna. Since photography (this is its noeme) authenticates the existence of a certain being, I want to discover that being in the photograph completely, i.e., in its essence. Suddenly, with this in mind, Barthes comes to the Winter Garden photo, and he has found what he was looking for, he has found her. It is at this point in his book that Barthes begins to consider the power the photograph has of being able to capture the air of a person. The air is a kind of intractable supplement of identity…it expresses the subject. It is, furthermore, only through this quality of the air that Barthes believes a photograph comes alive and becomes more than simply a supplement to memory or something one can learn raw facts from. The Winter Garden picture becomes for him a symbol, almost an embodiment, of his mother.
The Jetty Image serves an analogous function for the hero of the film. In it, Marker certainly has placed the air of the character. I feel that Marker would agree with Barthes about the importance of the air in a photograph, and that he is commenting on the raw power of it when it does happen. Not only does the hero of the film remember this image for his entire life, but also it is, as I said before, the only peacetime image to survive the war. Furthermore, it is the way that the viewer of the movie is introduced to the female character. Marker wants us to feel as struck by this image as the man in the film was; he wants us to see the air of that character in the photograph and remember it long after the movie has ended. The image is poetic and riveting, we are filled with the heros longing.
Each photograph is a certificate of presence.
Probably the most prevalent, important, and intertwined themes throughout both La Jetee and Camera Lucida are Death and Time. These two issues are at the heart of both the film and the book, and I was astounded by how often Barthes and Marker seem to be exploring these issues in a similar way.
Barthes writes that within every photograph there is that terrible thing, which is the return of the dead. For Barthes, the photograph cannot escape from Death. Every single photograph is, at its heart, an image of death. This is because every photograph is shows something that has been. Each photograph shows a moment passed and gone, never to be repeatedin other words, dead. This idea is, in Camera Lucida, tied up with Time. Time, writes Barthes, is engorged in the photograph. Barthes comes to this conclusion through the observation that every photograph has the amazing quality to certify, unequivocally, that this has been. In Barthess opinion (and in my own), It is the advent of the photograph… which divides the history of the world. Before the photograph nothing about the times before ones own memory was certain. History and art existed to teach people about the past, but both of these things were interpretations of the facts, fictionalized by the human intermediary. History is like a narrative, a story about the past seen through the eyes of certain people, while painting and other arts are simply representations of things, regardless of how hard they try to be realistic. Then, along comes the photograph, and the past is no longer uncertain. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation. The fact of something, the existence of something can now be proven, undeniably, by this image on a sheet of paper, and the world is changed forever.
Yet this eventthe proving of the past, of Timeseemingly so wonderful at first glance, is full of irony in Barthess eyes. The photograph, in trying to capture, prove, and celebrate life, unwittingly becomes a symbol of Death. Moreover, as the photograph tries to capture the individual person in order to celebrate, commemorate, or remember them, soon it has gone too far, and far too often the picture is more like a rape of the individual. In an added irony, the photograph begins by trying to turn man into art, and ends by turning him into a spectacle. The modern age is full of this phenomenon. Bombarded by the media, we are constantly assaulted by the public images of other peoples private lives. Yet they are not real, they are a spectacle. It is through this type of action that photography, for Barthes, has transformed subject into object. A celebrity himself, he comments on the process:
…for what society makes of my photograph, what it reads there, I do not
know…but when I discover myself the product of this operation, what I
see is that I have become Total Image, which is to say, Death in person;
othersthe Otherdo not dispossess me of myself, they turn me,
ferociously, into an object, they put me at their mercy, at their disposal,
classified in a file, ready for the subtlest deceptions…
How unbelievable it was for me to take these ideas and apply them to La Jetee, a story about a dead man traveling in time to a world of dead people. Sent by a group of scientists who have turned him into an object, and before whom he has no private life, he is to be used and then discarded. Uncanny was an understatement, for Barthes and Marker seem to be seeing exactly the same issues in the photograph.
Death and Time are as pervading in La Jetee as they are in Camera Lucida. They are everywhere in the film. Set in a future world of dead people, killed by World War III, the film tells us the story of the survivors, struggling to escape Death. The main character is a man, kept alive and given hope by memories of the scene of his own death, who must travel back in time to the world of the dead to try to save the present. This proves, to me, that Marker also sees that Death and Time are the most striking things about a photograph, and that he views their affect in a similar way to Barthes. When Marker sends his character into the future the inhabitants of that world are like Barthes, viewing a photograph from the past. This photograph, like the hero, is undeniable. Right there before us, it loudly demands that we remember it, that we look back to the certainty of its existence and are aware that it in fact existed, all under the guise of a sophism, which is, for the photograph, art. Moreover, the hero and heroine in the film meet in a museum filled with eternal creatures. Here we have the ultimate marriage between Death and Timea museum not of art, but of geology. Dead creatures in a parody of rebirth, they are put on display in an attempt to recapture their life and create a memory of them. The exact description Barthes gives of the photographic process. Adding another layer, Marker takes photographs of these statues and puts them in a story, thereby effectively removing them from time altogether. For this is what stories do, they negate time by taking you and placing you within the fiction of the story where real time is irrelevant. Perhaps this is what creates that strange, haunting quality of film, the certainty of the photograph combined with the fiction of the narrative.
The hero of the film is, like the subject of the modern photograph, turned into an object. He is used by the scientists in the name of the race, much as a journalist uses the image in the name of society. He has no private life, The thought police see even into dreams. Barthes writes, …the age of the photograph corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public. At the end of the film the man is shot down, killed because he is no longer useful. Barthes writes, The only way that I can transform the Photograph is into refuse: either the drawer or the wastebasket.
To end my analysis, I shall address one of Barthess most powerful and most important ideas in Camera Lucida, that of the punctum. The punctum of a picture is what, for Barthes, makes that picture special. It is a detail within a picture that somehow makes that picture stand out and prick the viewer. A photographs punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). Not all photographs have a punctum, and every photograph might have a different punctum for a each different person viewing it, but when the punctum is there the picture suddenly becomes alive for the viewer. For Barthes, the punctum is a necessary quality for any great photograph, it is the only thing that can make a photograph come alive.
My first photography teacher often talked about the punctum, pointing it out in whatever photographs he found it in, and it is an idea that has been ingrained in my head for some time. So, when I first saw La Jetee, I immediately asked myself: What is its punctum? An answer came to me right away, and I felt very certain of it, but at the end of my research I came to question it, and was led to an alternate choice. This first thought, though, was that the punctum in Markers film is that one and only moment in the movie in which there is true movement (created with a motion camera rather than a photographic camera). The scene in which this happens is a very simple yet extremely powerful one, falling very close to the middle of the movie. The heroine of the film is lying in a bed, asleep. Though under the covers, we assume she is undressed and that she and the man whose story this is have just made love. We are shown a series of pictures of her like this. There is no music, only a slight and haunting rustling sound that begins quietly and builds to a crescendo. The pictures fade into one another, giving the illusion of movement, and then back into blackness. Suddenly, in the last photo, we see her open her eyes. As the rustling sound builds to a height we realize that this is not a trick of sandwiching negativesthis is actual film, we can see her breathing!! She stares right at the camera, which represents the mans point of view, and she blinks before fading to black.
I was immediately struck by this moment the first time I saw the film, as were the people who watched it with me. Almost every person in the audience gasped or made some sort of comment. For me, it is the most memorable and powerful moment in the film. Moreover, I believe it is perhaps the most important moment in the journey of the main character as well. We are looking, at this point, through his eyes, and suddenly we see movement, suddenly the woman comes alive and is no longer frozen and dead like a photograph but moving and fluid like film. Or like a memory. Suddenly, in light of this part of the film, I am rethinking my earlier conclusion that Marker would not see the photograph as a counter-memory. If this moment is so important, so striking and memorable to the main character, whyif the photograph is like memorydoes Marker use film here? What makes this so interesting is that the only two images in the film that I am certain are from the heros point of view are this image and the Jetty Image. What is Marker trying to say? Is the photograph not like memory at all, is the Jetty Image a pure fabrication, or are both parts of the film equally a part of the characters memory? Once again, I cannot be sure, but I can say for certain that I think the film sequence is a true memory of the character, and that it is the photograph I am uncertain of.
Another interesting aspect of this punctum of the film is that Marker achieves the power of this moment in the film by negating photography.He seems to be proving Barthess point that the photograph cannot escape death because at this point the woman comes alive for me, and also for the character in the film. She is suddenly living and breathing, real to both the viewer and the character, and photography had to be negated to achieve this effect.
As I began to explore this idea, and as I began to reexamine Barthess idea of the punctum, I began to rethink this original conclusion. This is because Barthes wrote that the punctum of a photograph is that thing which makes it stand out, makes it prick the viewer. When I thought about it, though, I realized that most, if not nearly all of the images in La Jetee prick me, and then I realized that the entire movie pricks me. Looking at the individual photographs in the film, I realized that not every one really struck me as an individual photograph, and that yet somehow they did strike me within the experience of the film. Then I realized that what I was looking for was exactly what I had already decided I needed to look to for my answers: the narration. So, I propose that the narration, the story, in La Jetee is its punctum, that thing which makes these photographs stand out and prick the viewer. Another way to put it would be to say that the punctum of La Jetee is that it is a film, and not a slide show. Yet this does not negate the video image in the film as its own punctum. That part is the punctum of the story within the film, and the narration is the punctum of the film itself.
To conclude, I would say that Roland Barthes and Chris Marker are, in their respective works of Camera Lucida and La Jetee, exploring the nature of photography and that, furthermore, they have come to, on the whole, almost exactly the same conclusions. They both are addressing Time, Death, and memory. They are both aware that these three things are deeply ingrained in the nature of the photograph and that they cannot be avoided by a person involved in the photograph, whether he be spectator, target, or operator. They are also examining the unique affects, powers, and characteristics of the photographic. Things such as the power of the photograph to capture the air of a person, or the power of specific photographs to come alive or deeply affect someone. Also, they are both aware of the negative affects of the photograph in the modern age, and the modern persons tendency to become unfeeling in the face of so much symbolic Death. As I said before, the amount and quality of the parallels between La Jetee and Camera Lucida is uncanny, and I feel like there is much more that could be written on the subject. Alas, I do not have the time to delve any more deeply, and I shall end this study here.