When I began to look at the relationship between Chris Markers film La
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When I began to look at the relationship between Chris Marker’s film, La Jetee, and Roland Barthes’s book, Camera Lucida, I was thinking only about their most obvious link: photography. The more I looked, though, the more Marker and Barthes seemed to have in common. It was almost uncanny. Some things had to be twisted a little, but the strangest sort of interplay between the two works seemed to be happening, and it felt as if I were the first to discover it. For example, the first lines in the film, “This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood”, coincide amazingly well with Barthes’s story, branded by the image from his Mother’s childhood, and subsequently his own. Even where they differ, it seems to me that the fact that Marker and Barthes are even considering the same ideas upon which they can differ is an amazing similarity. Perhaps every single major idea Barthes addresses in his novel I can find addressed in La Jetee. Because of this fact, and because of the power of both works, I was led at the end of my research to some new, yet fundamental ideas about the nature of photography itself.
One of the most interesting aspects of this study, and also the most challenging, is the nature of Marker’s “film” itself. Simply the fact that I have to put the word film in quotes when applying it to La Jetee is perhaps the strongest evidence of the enigma that this film has been throughout its history. What exactly is la Jetee? This is a question that haunted my research. How do you take a book about photography, and apply its statements to this “film?” Now, obviously there are some answers to this question. Marker’s film is of course largely about photography because it is largely photography. However, in many ways it also defies classification. We have a series of heterogeneous photographs. There is nothing to separate them out from any other photographs that one might find in the world, except that they are given a narrative. Suddenly... a film is created. Yet, I would propose that the soul of Marker’s film is still photography, and that film is its heart. Thus, though there were some very perplexing issues in applying Barthes’s ideas to La Jetee, I found that on the whole it could be done without making many stretches or leaps in interpretation.
A startling number of similar themes and motifs are present in each of the works. As I said, the number of parallels is uncanny, and Barthes and Marker are certainly examining the same fundamental ideas that lie at the center of the photograph. Death, time, memory, history in the sense of the individual photograph’s history, and the raw power and mystery of the photographic image are all issues that are explored in both works. Barthes and Marker are looking at the same things in different ways. Barthes’s method is lucid and personal. It is essentially a long critical essay in a very liberal form. The important thing is that no interpretation is necessary, Barthes is telling us exactly what he thinks and feels about photography. We can learn from Camera Lucida and look at it in light of something else, but alone it is unassailable, we cannot read between the lines. La Jetee, however, is completely different. Marker is not simply examining the fundamental aspects of photography and giving us conclusions. Instead, he is playing off of these fundamental ideas, both on a theoretical level and upon that of the average person’s paradigms. His “film” requires interpretation, and has gotten a great deal of it. I found Barthes’s book to be a perfect vehicle for this task.
Barthes writes that, “the photograph is violent.” It is violent because “on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because nothing in it can be refused or transformed.” What he means is that the photograph is only what you see, and nothing more. The individual photograph cannot be interpreted, it “yields itself wholly” to the viewer, and the viewer cannot and does not need to go anywhere else but to the photograph in order to understand it. I stress this point now because it is important
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