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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