How Chris Marker’s Radical SciFi Film, La Jetée, Changed the Life of Cyberpunk Prophet, William Gibson

Everyone remembers the first time they saw La JetéeFor cyberspace- and cyberpunk-defining writer William Gibson, author of such sui generis science-fiction novels as Neuromancer, Virtual Light, and Pattern Recognition, that life-changing experience came in the early 1970s, during a film history course at the University of British Columbia. “Nothing I had read or seen had prepared me for it,” he tells The Guardian in a reflection on the legacy of Chris Marker’s “thrilling and prophetic” 1962 short film, a post-apocalyptic time-travel love story told almost entirely with still photos. (You can get a taste of it from the short clip above and a longer one here.) “Or perhaps everything had, which is essentially the same thing.”

I can’t remember another single work of art ever having had that immediate and powerful an impact, which of course makes the experience quite impossible to describe. As I experienced it, I think, it drove me, as RD Laing had it, out of my wretched mind. I left the lecture hall where it had been screened in an altered state, profoundly alone. I do know that I knew immediately that my sense of what science fiction could be had been permanently altered.

Part of what I find remarkable about this memory today was the temporally hermetic nature of the experience. I saw it, yet was effectively unable to see it again. It would be over a decade before I would happen to see it again, on television, its screening a rare event. Seeing a short foreign film, then, could be the equivalent of seeing a UFO, the experience surviving only as memory. The world of cultural artefacts was only atemporal in theory then, not yet literally and instantly atemporal. Carrying the memory of that screening’s intensity for a decade after has become a touchstone for me. What would have happened had I been able to rewind? Had been able to rent or otherwise access a copy? It was as though I had witnessed a Mystery, and I could only remember that when something finally moved – and I realised that I had been breathlessly watching a sequence of still images – I very nearly screamed.

You’d think that would count as enough Chris Marker-granted astonishment for one lifetime — and whatever inspiration Gibson drew from La Jetée, he’s certainly put to good use — but the filmmaker, ever-curious technology and media enthusiast, and “prototype of the twenty-first-century man” had another shock in store. Two years after Marker’s death, and about thirty after Gibson’s first viewing of La Jetée, the latter found that he had actually appeared, unbeknownst to himself, in one of the former’s other movies.

“I was in a Chris Marker film and I never knew until today,” tweeted Gibson, appending the entirely understandable tag #gobsmacked. His image pops up at the beginning of Level Five, Marker’s story of a computer programmer’s search for a way to virtually recreate the Second World War’s Battle of Okinawa, released in 1997 in France but not until 2014 in the United States. As a work concerned with reality’s relationship to its reconstruction by human memory — a fascination of Marker’s all the way through his career — as well as with reality’s relationship to its only-just-beginning reconstruction by computer technology, it makes sense that its narration, which takes the form of the protagonist’s video diary, would reference Gibson’s conception of cyberspace.

Always making maximally creative use of the relationship between their words and their images, Marker doesn’t hesitate to flash the author’s face onscreen between bursts of gray static (an element famously evoked in Neuromancer‘s opening) and footage of Japan (another site of deep interest for both creators). Gibson himself always comes off as calm and reflective in person, especially for a craftsman of such stimulatingly realized, information-overloaded, sweepingly influential visions of the intensified present. But could anyone ever fully recover from the astonishment of seeing themselves passing through one of Chris Marker’s?

Related Content:

William Gibson Reads Neuromancer, His Cyberpunk-Defining Novel (1994)

Take a Road Trip with Cyberspace Visionary William Gibson, Watch No Maps for These Territories (2000)

The Owl’s Legacy: Chris Marker’s 13-Part Search for Western Culture’s Foundations in Ancient Greece

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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