I can trace my interest in avant-garde film back to day in March of 2009, when Noel Murray wrote an interesting article for The A.V. Club about the struggles of being a fan of the experimental brother of the narrative films we all love. If you know the name I used to comment on the AVC back then, you can find my thoughts on avant-garde films from the time. I viewed experimental film more as a breeding ground for techniques I’d see in the films I love than as a genre of film I could love myself. The techniques I’d see in Béla Tarr and Martin Scorsese films were born in avant-garde, but beyond that, I couldn’t appreciate them as fully formed works of art. I admitted I wasn’t right to think that way, but it was the way I thought.
The part of Murray’s article that stuck with me was the idea that more people might not only appreciate, but actually love, avant-garde film if there were the non-narrative film equivalent of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Having been somewhat lost in the jungle of movies that rarely make any sense for the past 3 years, I can attest to the fact that having a guide would be welcome to millions of cinephiles around the world. So I’ve decided to try it. This series, however long it runs, will hopefully provide you with an opportunity to learn more about a style of film that, while entirely different from the great narrative films we all love so much, offers just as much entertainment and opportunity for thoughtful engagement.
You should know I don’t claim to be anything resembling an expert on avant-garde film. In fact, I’ll get this out of the way now: I’m a novice. This series of blog entries serves two purposes: to introduce people who want to learn more about the subject to new gateways and to teach myself more about it, too. I feel like I’m in the position where I can teach others about avant-garde film because I have my foot in both worlds. I know more than I did on that probably dreary morning in 2009, but I also know that I’m only familiar with a tiny fraction of a fraction of the world I’m writing about. But since the day I read that article, I’ve seen some great films by directors like Stan Brakhage, George Kuchar, Hollis Frampton, and Chantal Akerman, and I understand just how wrong I was. I hope that I’ll be able to show you how wrong I was, too.
I’ve been thinking about writing something like this for about a year, now, and I’m still trying to figure out how to do it. What are the sticking points for someone who wants to know more about avant-garde film (besides, you know, everything about it)? One of the first things that comes to mind is the term itself. Avant-garde film. It’s so artsy. So pretentious. So French. It sticks on the roof of your mouth and makes you feel like you’ll never be able to understand anything about this entire genre. So I say we start by throwing “avant-garde” out the window. That and “experimental.” Lots of films are experimental. Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock, Welles, they all made experimental movies. But none of them are included in the genre of “experimental films”. Frankly, I think there term, when applied to a single group of movies, is bullshit.
So what do we call this genre? There’s no perfect term for it, just like there’s no perfect term for the movies playing at the multiplex. But I’ve settled, after a lot of thought, on non-narrative film. It’s imperfect, since a lot of non-narrative films have what you might call narratives (including our first film). But even those movies subvert or downright abuse the idea of a traditional narrative, to the point where they’re nearly unrecognizable as (if you’ll excuse my scare quotes) “traditional” narrative films. For our purposes, non-narrative film is simply the best term for this genre.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the actual meat and potatoes of what we’re going to do each week. The idea I want to get across in this series, with a hat tip to Noel Murray, is that while non-narrative films may seem foreign and inscrutable, we’re more familiar with the terms they present us with than we think. Music videos, commercials, YouTube videos, and even home videos have introduced us to worlds without logic, images that, when presented in succession, take on new meanings, and entertainment and emotional connection without anything resembling a traditional narrative. We’ve all been subjected to these things before, and most of us have watched them willingly and enjoyed them.
Keeping that in mind, I want to make sure my focus stays firmly on the films themselves, rather than delving too much into the culture they influenced. When I talk about Kenneth Anger, I’m going to talk about Kenneth Anger. Not Martin Scorsese, not David Lynch, not John Waters. They’ll come into my discussion, I’m sure, because they’re the filmmakers on whom Anger most clearly exerted an influence, but this series is about first appreciating and hopefully loving non-narrative film as an artform itself.
Each week, I’ll watch a non-narrative film, and write about the ideas and themes which I think make it worth watching. Most of these movies are short and on YouTube, so I’ll link to the film itself as often as possible. After the body of the post, I’ll try to include a short selection of music videos, commercials, and movies that I see as gateways to enjoying the movie in question, essentially a “if you like that, you might like this” section.
I hope that eventually these posts will inspire some conversation in the comments, but I don’t expect much by way of that at first. But please, if you’re reading this, I want to hear your opinion. If you agree, if you disagree, even if you have input on my process, I welcome it.
So without further ado we’ll start with our first film: Chris Marker’s most famous work, La Jetée.
As most of you know, Chris Marker died on monday, the day after his 91st birthday. When I tweeted about his death, one of the first responses came from Peter Labuza, who pointed out that La Jetée may be the best entry point to non-narrative film for the uninitiated. The more I thought about it that day, the more I agreed. La Jetée tells an exciting sci-fi story, avoids the cold emotional distance that many non-narrative films proudly engender, and inspired Terry Gilliam movie with a devoted cult. Not only is it one of the best gateways to non-narrative film, it may be the most seen non-narrative movies ever made. So I think the fact that it is such a great entry point combined with the timeliness of Marker’s death make La Jetée a perfect place to start.
In just 27 minutes, La Jetée presents us with an amazingly complex story about memory and love. It’s rarely mentioned among the greatest love stories in cinema, but wholly deserving of a place among them. The story begins with a memory of a young boy witnessing a death at an airport. From this introduction, we’re thrown into the outbreak of World War III. Paris is destroyed in a nuclear attack, and the survivors are forced to live under the city as either “victors” or “prisoners.” The victors perform experiments on the prisoners. One of the prisoners (none of the characters are named, he is only credited as The Man) is selected for his intense memory, the memory of a child witnessing a death from the opening. This vivid memory will allow him to travel backwards in time.
The Man is injected with a serum by The Experimenter, at which point he travels back to a time before the war. Each time he time travels, he encounters a woman who he remembers from the day of the murder.. The Woman is his connection to peacetime, and they fall in love. The bulk of the film is spent on their love affair. She refers to him as “her ghost.” After one trip back,a visit to a museum of natural history, The Experimenter explains that the experiment has been a success, and that The Man is to be sent to the future to get help for the fallen society. The Man realizes he will no longer be sent back, and he will never see the woman he loves again. He accepts this fact; he has no choice. He travels to the future, he’s given a power source which will help with reconstruction, and goes back, knowing that he will most likely be disposed of. He was only a tool to The Experimenter.
Instead, as he lays in his cell, the people from the future come to him (they can travel easily through time) and tell him they want him to join them. Without hesitation, he asks to be sent back in time to be with the woman he loves instead. They oblige, and he is sent back to the same day of his childhood memory. The Woman stands on the far end of the airport’s concourse. He runs to her, but before he can reach her, he sees The Experimenter, who shoots and kills him. He realizes, as he dies, that as a child, he witnessed his own death.
What separates La Jetée from films with similar themes, such as Solaris, is the way in which the story is presented on screen. It is told entirely with still images. Where a normal film would present us with a shot in which the camera and its subjects move, here, every image we see is static (save for one). In addition to this, all dialogue is whispered in German, and the story is narrated by a pleasantly monotone voice.
Essentially, Marker took the basic concepts of cinema in the sound era and broke them down. Sound combines with images, but not in any way we’re familiar with. In a conventional film, images become motion. In La Jetée, motion becomes images. The film is projected the same way as any other film. The flicker effect that creates the illusion of movement is still there, but instead it creates the illusion of an image sitting unmoving on the screen, followed by another image, and so on. There’s no reason for La Jetée to be presented as a film rather than a book with pictures, except that it shows us the reality of what we see every time we sit in a dark theater.
One of the reasons La Jetée is such a strong gateway to non-narrative film is that it’s rooted in something we all innately understand from the time we’re children. Two or more images combining to create a larger narrative isn’t just the basis for film, comic books, and picture books; it’s the basis for language itself. Anyone reading this sentence understands the concept. But when we watch a movie, we’re used to images being presented in such rapid succession that we don’t recognize them as still photographs or drawings.
In the booklet for the Criterion Collection DVD of La Jetée, there is a short recollection from Marker about where the idea for the movie came from. He tells a story about a small viewfinder through which he slid frames from movies like Abel Gance’s Napoleon; in a way, it was an early form of home video. He loved looking at the frames so much, he eventually endeavored to make his own. He got a hold of some transparent film and drew several frames. When he presented it to the most creative boy in his class, the boy scoffed and told him that movies were supposed to move.
Marker’s story betrays the playfulness under the black-and-white, the classical music, and the meditative tone in La Jetée. It may be the most important thing about the movie. We’ll come back to the concept of playfulness a lot in this series, because I think it’s one of the things that starkly separates non-narrative film from narrative film, and also makes films more accessible than they may seem at first. Here, Marker isn’t just creating a beautiful film; he’s having a lot of fun doing it.
La Jetée is so playful that it doesn’t even follow its own rules. I mentioned above that I consider it one of the greatest love stories ever told, up there with The Apartment. One scene in particular pushes it onto another level. For the first 20 minutes or so, La Jetée is, as you know, presented entirely in still frames. On one of The Man’s trips back, though, we see images of The Woman laying in bed, lit by an early morning light, nude and covered by bedsheets. There’s no narration and no music in this scene, just the sound of hundreds of birds singing cacophonously at once. The images move faster and faster as she wakes from her sleep, until finally we get to a single shot of her face looking directly at the camera, and she blinks twice. Not a still image of her blinking, but a traditionally filmed shot of her blinking. In that moment, everything that seemed artificial before becomes painfully, beautifully real.
Unlike many of the movies I’ll be writing about going forward, La Jetée is grounded in emotion as much as it is intellect. It’s not a romantic film, but it is an emotional one. It’s a film about memory, and the ways that memory ties us to the past and holds us there. The Man rejects the utopian world of the future for the past, and because he’s trapped in that memory, he dies. Still, I don’t think there’s any question that Marker is at least sympathetic to The Man’s desire to stay with The Woman, the one memory he has to hold onto in a dying world.