Terry Gilliam’s favorite short has more meaning than a 2 hr movie
If you ever get a chance to see the 26 minute short, La Jetee (1962), I would recommend it. It is an experimental film, but it is also very powerful and filled with still images that evoke wonderful themes and symbolism, most of which are unforgettable. As such, it inspired Terry Gilliam to create the awesomely confusing movie, 12 Monkeys (1995).
This film is essentially composed of black-and-white photographic still images. They show the progression of a man from a certain point in time to the future, where he uses past memories to travel in time. Scientists give the man an injection and he descends so far back into his mind, it seems like time travel, as he conjures new images and experiences, but is it really? Or is he just dreaming?
At the beginning of the film, the images are familiar. One is of an airport in France. The man is a young child, walking on the airport pier. He sees a striking woman. She becomes his indelible memory, as a stranger is shot and killed in front of him. He grows up with that striking memory. World War III happens, the narrator tells us, but the still images give us all we need to know. Humanity is driven underground, and his memory from before, his focus, allows him to successfully undergo stressful, scientific experiments.
As he descends into his memory, the man meets the woman from the pier again, and they become acquainted. In probably the most metaphoric scene in the movie, they visit a museum, where they sightsee and examine some stuffed animals, who are frozen in time. Ironically, the still images of the sightseers are frozen in time, too. The future of humanity is also frozen in time, stifled underground by radiation above-ground.
The final scene is as in the film 12 Monkeys, and Terry Gilliam essentially took it verbatim. The man is running, as if to symbolize his obsession with the woman and his desire to get away from his Nazi experimenters. His captors kill him. The young version of the man witnesses the murder of his older self in front of the woman on the pier.
The movie also seems inspired by World War II, and the Nazi experiments. After they are done with him, much of what the man feels is helplessness and futility, for he knows he is not worth anything to them anymore. He waits for execution, but clearly they offer him one more “time travel” descent into his memory, before he “dies”. It is very surreal. The claustrophobic underground also conjures feelings of Cold War paranoia, and the scientists clearly represent the desperate future, but also oppression and torture.
This 26 minute movie was created by Chris Marker, who knew the power of film was in images and memories those images create. At one point, the man sees the woman starting to wake up, and the still images become less and less static, until the woman finally blinks her eyes open. The man is ripped away at that point by his captors, and prevented from defining anything from the encounter.
Cole in TV’s 12 Monkeys is also obsessed with the past. His one, true memory is of Cassie, probably more than he is willing to admit. He sacrifices his friendship with Ramsey to revisit these memories of Cassie, and travel back to the past over and over.
Overall, this is a fantastic film short. It is so deep and surreal that it almost seems scary to analyze it. There is some connection between memory, perception, and reality, but Marker delves into other human themes too. The man is obsessed with his memory of the woman, and Marker uses that to comment on film and the human experience. Here, he doesn’t need the moving picture to convey meaning, because he knows truth in meaning lies in images alone or simply in memory of images. At the same time, his character is confined by memory like a tragic flaw, and although it helps him survive the experiments, it is obvious half of him is stuck in the past with the woman, forever.