Eli Friedlander makes a philosophical and psychoanalytic case for Chris Marker’s La Jetée working in part as a metaphor for cinema while questioning multiple boundaries and definitions, including that of cinema itself (boundary 2, Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2001, Duke University Press, pp. 75-90). In what sense is La Jetée a “film,” anyway? It is composed of 28 minutes of montaged photographs, with one brief, blink-of-an-eye (literally) exception. Friedlander locates this exception to the film’s formal rules as part of its key. Consciousness and unconsciousness are integral to life and to cinema, to say nothing of the film’s narrative content. In a word, the film has us “look” at the “gaze.” This is not a Mulveyan gaze, but more like the gaze of cinema. Of most essential import is, can the gaze return itself? Can a film return the gaze of the spectator? As a production – a reproduction – and an artifact that creates the impression of movement intended for viewing, one might consider it non-real, unreal. Friedlander forces the issue, however, probing the ramifications of our prejudices concerning “the real.”
Consciousness functions as a filter for the real. What we “know” and, much more, what we have experienced, is a complex web that protects us from the real and prevents entrance of the real into our psyches. How many components of our experience have seeped through the filter even while we are conscious, sneaked through our framework and permeated our unconsciousness, becoming one with the web? The man in La Jetée finds himself in a dark room time and time again. He is thrown into another time and another space during a period of unconsciousness – the term “jetée” comes from “jeter,”connoting “thrownness,” not only “levy,” as this aspect of the film’s narrative, Friedlander notes, is fundamentally dispensable. Similarly, “projeter” is related to “project,” to throw ahead, in to the future, precisely what the man experiences. Only after these episodes does he awaken, return to consciousness. His mental problem revolves exactly around his inability (and therefore ours, too, as spectators) to discern the real from the unreal, to know what part of his unconscious has absorbed real experiences, persons, and interactions.
While he sleeps, his eyes are covered. This prevents the entrance of light while he sleeps underground, recalling Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. But Friedlander insists that the concepts with which we are dealing here are not so simple, not so formal, not so dichotomized between real and unreal. This has to do with the possibility of the real becoming unreal, and vice versa, and the problem of knowing them apart. Freudian thought is more active here than platonic. We are dealing with dreams, unconsciousness, and repression. Memory and trauma are wed inextricably; the latter takes its toll on the former and blurs boundaries between dreams and reality and even time and space. The gaze is spatial in nature, but its movement is temporal. The man’s temporal movement in the film – time travel – problematizes the issue of the spatially real. As he and the woman walk through the museum, they encounter freakish creatures, like a toucan with a double beak. The creatures are inanimate just as the man and the woman are for the spectator, and just as likely, freaks.
What the man’s experiences create is a subjective mythology, not unlike that which Marker suggests the cinematic spectator constructs, albeit unconsciously. A potential problem with this term is that a mythology is intended to offer narrative meaning to a person or to a people, but not traditionally to be confused with a real, historical, temporal heritage. The cinematic spectator may do this with cinema; s/he may encounter images with a surplus of meaning, images that return the spectator’s gaze by injecting (“injeter,” throwing-into) the spectator with mythological meaning without confusing the spectator with the possibility that the cinematic is equal to the real. The man within La Jetée, however, is so crazed by his participation in the medium of the unreal that all is one with itself. He believes the woman to be real, but the scientists who inundate him with temporally unstable images do not confirm or deny this. They maximize the practical possibilities of his obsession, borrowing or stealing from his insanity for their gain. Is Marker thereby admitting the guilt of the scientists behind the unreal, the maker (“Marker”?) of the film? Friedlander points out Marker’s possible autobiographical self-identification with the man, however. While he is the “marker,” the one leaving an effect on the viewer, the one whose unreal creations reconnoiter into the minds of the viewer, his self-given first name recalls the tortured, the Christ. The man within the film wears a t-shirt with the words “Il Santos,” “The Saint.” So problematized remain every simplistic distinction: who offers the gaze, who/what returns it, who creates, who receives, who is complicit in the guilt of the psychical attack.