Understanding Chris Marker’s Radical Sci-Fi Film La Jetée: A Study Guide Distributed to High Schools in the 1970s

Pop quiz, hot shot. World War III has dev­as­tat­ed civ­i­liza­tion. As a pris­on­er of sur­vivors liv­ing beneath the ruins of Paris, you’re made to go trav­el back in time, to the era of your own child­hood, in order to secure aid for the present from the past. What do you do? You prob­a­bly nev­er faced this ques­tion in school — unless you were in one of the class­rooms of the 1970s that received the study guide for Chris Mark­er’s La Jetée. Like the inno­v­a­tive 1962 sci­ence-fic­tion short itself, this edu­ca­tion­al pam­phlet was dis­trib­uted (and recent­ly tweet­ed out again) by Janus Films, the com­pa­ny that first brought to Amer­i­can audi­ences the work of auteurs like Ing­mar Bergman, Fed­eri­co Felli­ni, and Aki­ra Kuro­sawa.

Writ­ten by Con­necti­cut prep-school teacher Tom Andrews, this study guide describes La Jetée as “a bril­liant mix­ture of fan­ta­sy and pseu­do-sci­en­tif­ic romance” that “explores new dra­mat­ic ter­ri­to­ry and forms, and rush­es with a stun­ning log­ic and a pow­er­ful impact to its shock­ing cli­max.”

The film does all this “almost entire­ly in still pho­tographs, their sta­t­ic state cor­re­spond­ing to the strat­i­fi­ca­tion of mem­o­ry.” More prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, at “twen­ty-sev­en min­utes in length, La Jetée is an ide­al class-peri­od vehi­cle” that “can help stu­dents spec­u­late on the awe­some poten­tial of life as it may exist after a third world war” as well as “man’s inhu­man­i­ty to man, not only as it may occur in the future, but as it already has occurred in our past.”

“Why do you sup­pose Mark­er filmed La Jetée in still pho­tographs? What sig­nif­i­cance does the one moment of live action have?” “How does Mark­er’s con­cept of time and space com­pare with that of H.G. Wells in the lat­ter’s nov­el, The Time Machine?” “If the man of this sto­ry has helped his cap­tors to per­fect the tech­nique of time trav­el, why do they wish to liq­ui­date him?” These and oth­er sug­gest­ed dis­cus­sion ques­tions appear at the end of the study guide, all of whose pages you can read at Socks. It was pro­duced for Films for Now and The Human Con­di­tion, “two reper­to­ries for high school assem­blies and group dis­cus­sions” based on Janus’ for­mi­da­ble cin­e­ma library. (François Truf­faut’s The 400 Blows also looks to have been among their edu­ca­tion­al offer­ings.) You can see fur­ther analy­sis of La Jetée in A.O. Scot­t’s New York Times Crit­ics’ Picks video, as well as the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion video essay Echo Cham­ber: Lis­ten­ing to La Jetée.

Much lat­er, in the mid-1990s, Ter­ry Gilliam would pay trib­ute with his Hol­ly­wood homage 12 Mon­keys, and Mark­er him­self still had many films to make, includ­ing his sec­ond mas­ter­piece, the equal­ly uncon­ven­tion­al Sans Soleil. But at time of this study guide’s pub­li­ca­tion, La Jetée’s con­sid­er­able influ­ence had only just begun to man­i­fest. It was around then that pio­neer­ing cyber­punk nov­el­ist William Gib­son viewed the film in col­lege. “I left the lec­ture hall where it had been screened in an altered state, pro­found­ly alone,” he lat­er remem­bered. “My sense of what sci­ence fic­tion could be had been per­ma­nent­ly altered.” Per­haps his instruc­tor heed­ed Andrews’ advice that “teach­ers would prob­a­bly do bet­ter not to ‘pre­pare’ their stu­dents for view­ing this film.” Not that any­one, in the 58 years of the film’s exis­tence, has any­one ever tru­ly been pre­pared for their first view­ing of La Jetée.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

David Bowie’s Music Video “Jump They Say” Pays Trib­ute to Marker’s La Jetée, Godard’s Alphav­ille, Welles’ The Tri­al & Kubrick’s 2001

Petite Planète: Dis­cov­er Chris Marker’s Influ­en­tial 1950s Trav­el Pho­to­book Series

A Con­cise Break­down of How Time Trav­el Works in Pop­u­lar Movies, Books & TV Shows

Free MIT Course Teach­es You to Watch Movies Like a Crit­ic: Watch Lec­tures from The Film Expe­ri­ence

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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