Pop Goes the Culture
By Paul Tatara
Twenty years ago, when a British friend of mine was visiting the US for the first time, I told her the two words she needed to know in order to grasp the finer nuances of our country are “big” and “fast.” Given that so much media has passed under the bridge since then, I’d now add the word “stupid” to the list. But stupid runs much further with the help of big and fast, so we’re still in basically the same situation. There’s just more technology available to disperse and receive the empty calories.
I thought of this recently while watching the Criterion Collection DVD release of Chris Marker’s 1963 short film, La Jetée. This masterful, ethereal motion picture isn’t really a motion picture at all—aside from two or three jolting seconds of movement, the entire piece is comprised of gorgeous black and white stills. The power of its measured peacefulness tells us a lot about what’s wrong with modern commercial filmmaking.
On the surface, Marker’s story is science fiction. But he’s really examining the persistence of memory, why we cling to the images that come to be stored in our minds as our lives progress. His main character is a nameless Parisian who is taken captive after a nuclear war, then induced by his captors to enter a dream realm where he’ll pursue a woman he saw standing on an airport observation deck when he was a child. The lingering memory of this woman both frees and condemns the man during his poignant journey.
Marker’s images—he took the photographs himself—flash, shift, and dissolve in an ever-deepening representation of the protagonist’s inner life. There’s no dialogue in La Jetée, and it takes a while to even notice the omission. The film’s narrator virtually whispers his descriptions, for apparent fear of waking us from another person’s reverie. It’s a genuinely haunting viewing experience.
Terry Gilliam borrowed (read: “stole”) the plot mechanics and a pivotal existential moment from La Jetée when he made Twelve Monkeys back in 1995. Even with Gilliam laying the Python-esque loopiness on with a trowel, watching the two pictures back-to-back (please start with La Jetée) is proof positive that less can often be much, much more. It’s the difference between finding yourself moved by a piece of poetry and bludgeoned into a coma with a set of expensive wide-angle lenses.
Questions need to be asked, then, and I really wish somebody could give me an answer. If we have this powerful form of communication at our disposal, why does a commercial setting have to rob it of that power by definition? Why do silent passages, whispered thoughts, and people just being people make the average citizen recoil when they watch a movie? And why are we so chicken-shit scared to sit there and think a little while a picture unfolds? I honestly don’t know.
I used to bring this sort of thing up in my movie reviews back when I wrote for CNN.com (our motto: “fill the page again”), and I’d immediately receive emails from readers pointing out that this movie or that movie is fairly ruminative, and it just won an Oscar! An Oscar, I say! And my response to that, without fail, was “exactly.”
You don’t have to be a film critic to recognize that 75% of the movies released by the studios in any given year are sensory overload monstrosities designed to rattle the be-jeebies out of teenagers and not particularly impressive adults. And there’s no way to win at that game, except to ratchet up the excess every time out of the gate. Then, two months before the Oscar nominations, the studios grow pensive and release 10 or 12 pictures that can’t be readily understood by a breaded flounder. Soon enough, those pictures haul in their awards, and we’re supposed to think we’ve been fed a wide palette of films over the course of the entire year. And the problem is, most people actually do think that.
So here’s what you need to do. First, get your hands on a copy of La Jetée. Don’t go to Blockbuster, of course, because they only stock the big and fast movies. You know where to look, but since I’m not allowed to generate free advertising, we’ll just call this magical organization “Metflix.” Then, after letting La Jetée cast its considerable spell, take your loved ones out for a walk, enjoy the day, kiss ‘em, and head back home. Then look for movies that, in some small way, relate to the experience of being human. If they’re not at the theater, don’t go to the theater for a while. Wait for the studios to see the light and catch up with your humanity.
In the process, you might even catch up with it yourself.
Read more of Paul Tatara’s musings at www.wallofpaul.com.