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I first encountered La Jetée—Marker's 1962 international debut and best-known film—in high school. I was just beginning to cut my teeth on cinema, and the sparse, 27-minute short film I found at the library left me with arresting images and apocalypse-fueled dreams. A few months later I saw 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's amped-up reimagining of Marker's story, and couldn't stand it. A mix of romance, war film, and science fiction dystopia, La Jetée is composed (almost) entirely of still images. Photos are linked together, voice-over narration is dropped on top, and somehow the film becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.
While it was fun to see Marker’s plot fleshed out in 12 Monkeys, the story had lost its magic for me. Bruce Willis is fun to look at, but where were the quiet images of the woman he pines for, the homages to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the afternoon in the museum? A doomed couple taking the time to wander a natural history museum may not belong in an action-packed science fiction plot, but the resulting sequence is unarguably beautiful.
Yes, Marker’s film had the potential (read: sexiness and plot twist) to become a big film, but that wasn’t the point. At 17 I was amazed that a film could be created from photographs, a Pentax Spotmatic and a 35-millimeter Arriflex. If Marker could create something out of nothing, maybe I could too. The film was complicated and experimental, the theory behind it a product of Cahiers du Cinéma articles and the nouveau roman. But it was, in essence, a shoestring project that went down in history.
Marker went on to direct many other films, and is even credited with inventing the essay film. His work became more political, he made countless documentaries on the socialist movement, the plight of post-Allende Chile, and factory workers in Russia, as well as more personal essay films like Sans Soleil (1982). He was nothing if not multifaceted, and he left dozens of films behind that warrant watching.
But La Jetée is the one that I still think about.