La Jetee (1962) is one of the seminal works of the French New Wave as well as one of the all-time great science fiction films. It deserves all the respect it receives but what is really so amazing is how much is achieved with so little. Made entirely of still black and white images--of WWII cities in ruin, of an airport observation deck in the fifties, of generic shots of a woman one could find in any magazine, of a group of men in one of the many tunnels beneath Paris--and a mundane but strangely compelling voice-over, Le Jetee is not so much a film as a series of random images linked only by the narrative spell of a single voice.
We view only one still photo at a time and we assign meaning only because the narrator tells us the significance of each. It doesn't sound like much to describe it so and yet because the technology is so primtive we are somehow less distracted than we would be were this a full-fledged cinematic production with action sequences and a pulsing soundtrack. This is basically a slide-show and that is the key to this films appeal. This film essay works because it asks for a different kind of attention than we are used to giving films. La Jetee asks for a much more personal kind of attention, the kind of attention we give to our own photo albums, slide shows and dreams. But, also, since many of the images look like they could have come from LIFE or National Geographic there is also a kind of generic quality to the slide show and we are lulled into a kind of attentive trance as we get the feeling that Marker is making a connection between our own personal memories/dreams/markers and the generic memories/dreams/markers of the culture at large. Watching this film is like looking at a pile of old magazines and contemplating our own deepest dreams/desires at the same time--perhaps viewing both as vehicles leading to the same place.
The presumption that there is a link between the personal and the universal is not a new idea, it is a presumption that various artists and essayists (Montaigne is the most obvious example) have held throughout history. The idea has developed in two ways. Some (Noam Chomsky is the most famous in our day) argue that the deep structures of the mind are the same in all men regardless of cultural/racial/gender differences. Others argue that man is no particular way but that he is shaped by the culture in which he lives. The former group celebrate universalism (or globalism, a word which began to be used after WWII) and the fact that we are all generic creatures capable of understanding each other. The latter group (and many science fiction writers fall into this group) fear that the more homogenous and pervasive the mass/universal/global culture becomes, the more homogenous man/existence becomes. Marker is in the latter group, so it is no surprise that he has a strange love/hate relationship with technology--for technology is seen to be the thing that facilitates the spreading of sameness as well as the thing that allows us to meditate upon it. In his films there are no special effects nor any of the usual visual or audio markers that we usually equate with science fiction, and the matter-of-fact monotone of the voiceover gives his films the feel of a documentary but a documentary that we somehow feel compelled to watch because as the speaker drones on we are reminded of our own archive of memories and our own personal views on the matters raised. La Jetee alerts us to the importance we place on memory and the recall process in establishing and maintaining an identity in an image saturated world but it also asks us to question the reliability and authenticity of memory and to what extent personal memory has been invaded/colonized by collective memory. In the later Sans Soleil (which makes use of moving images and color and in many ways resembles a contemporary travelogue or catalogue of all the various cultures that co-exist today), Marker alerts us to how conditioned our responses have become. Even in the presence of one exotic culture after another all the narrator can muster is a kind of bored resignation that there is no escape (except perhaps in death, a device/conceit that Godard also makes use of as early as Pierrot le Fou and as recently as Notre Musique) from the universalizing cultural processing machine that we have each internalized and that reduces all to a monotonous sameness.
That said, the films are at once both generic and intensely personal. The latter film is perhaps the more intimate as it is delivered as a personal letter. What is personal about existence and what merely generic is the question that informs every still and every moving image in a Marker film. This strangely unsolvable riddle is what gives the films their timeless power.
This is film essay/art of the highest order.