Still Life: Telling Time in La Jetee with Henri Bergson, The Human Torch and EC's Weird Science

Posted by Charles Reece, March 16, 2008 01:52am | Post a Comment

The prisoners were subjected to experiments, apparently of great concern to those who conducted them.  The outcome was a disappointment for some - death for others - and for others yet, madness.  One day they came to select a new guinea pig from among the prisoners.  He was the man whose story we are telling.  He was frightened. He had heard about the Head Experimenter. He was prepared to meet Dr. Frankenstein, or the Mad Scientist. Instead, he met a reasonable man who explained calmly that the human race was doomed. Space was off-limits. The only hope for survival lay in Time. A loophole in Time, and then maybe it would be possible to reach food, medicine, sources of energy.  This was the aim of the experiments: to send emissaries into Time, to summon the Past and Future to the aid of the Present.  But the human mind balked at the idea. To wake up in another age meant to be born again as an adult. The shock would be too great.  Having only sent lifeless or insentient bodies through different zones of Time, the inventors where now concentrating on men given to very strong mental images. If they were able to conceive or dream another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it.  The camp police spied even on dreams.  This man was selected from among a thousand for his obsession with an image from the past. -- Narrator, La Jetée

I hate temporal mechanics! -- Miles O'Brien, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Thanks to YouTube, I finally got around to watching La Jetée by Chris Marker. Perhaps most surprising after all the ink that's been spilled analyzing this experimental work is how much it resembles the old science fiction stories of EC's Weird Science.  These stories -- like the majority of those from EC -- featured some twist ending that followed along like fate from whatever course of action the protagonist chose in the beginning. 

Take, for example, "Killed in Time" (written by Al Feldstein with art by Jack Kamen) from Weird Science #5 (1951), where on a particularly rainy night, driving down a old forest road, poor Kirk Williams accidentally runs over himself.  Baffled by this, Kirk runs to get help, only to trip and knock himself unconscious (why he didn't get in his car is best left to the mysteries of plot mechanics).  Upon wakening, he discovers a time machine from the future.  He knows it's a time machine because the now-dead owners left an open instruction manual.  Ergonomics being highly advanced in the future, there are only 2 buttons to operate the thing, 'start' and 'stop.'  Giving in to temptation, Kirk pushes the red button and, presto, he's 14 hours in the past.  Startled, he runs out of the ship and back onto that same forest road just in time to be hit by himself.  The lesson here is important to Marker's work, namely you can't escape time.

Or how about the tale of George Seymore, a physicist who's invented a "temporal-traveling-capacitor" in "Sinking of the the Titanic" from the following issue (#6, written by Feldstein, art by Wally Wood).  So haunted by his memories of having to leave his parents behind on the Titanic after being shoved onto a life boat by a mysterious stranger (I wonder who that will be), George decides to use his machine to save his parents by altering the course of history.  Back on the Titanic, he knocks the helmsman out and diverts the ship from an iceberg, only to discover that there's an even bigger one into which the ship crashes.  All that's left for George to do is save the younger version of himself and die with his parents, all the while realizing he's responsible for their deaths.  Nope, can't escape time.

You can't outrun it, either, as demonstrated by "...The Man Who Raced Time" from issue #13 (Feldstein again, with art by Harvey Kurtzman).  Nebbish scientist Julius Quantum has just lost both the gal and job of his dreams to the dashing, chisel-jawed Bruce Dupont.  Having successfully tested his "spherical accelerator" on himself, Julius discovers that he can move 300 times faster than what the philosopher Henri Bergson referred to as our lived time, or duration.  That is, while we normal folks are watching a coffee mug fall to the floor, experiencing the continuous movement of its trajectory, Julius is watching it as if it's frozen in the air.  Our duration is his series of abstracted time slices.  Anyway, Julius is pissed off and decides to exact revenge on Bruce and his floozy by hijacking their car while it's moving down a heavily trafficked multi-lane highway (which, to Julius, is standing still).  Unfortunately for Julius, the effects of his spherical accelerator wear off and he's killed in the ensuing collision.

In terms of plot, La Jetée is fairly close to what Feldstein cribbed from old sci-fi stories.  As in the EC stories, the hero encounters a stranger who will then haunt his memories, playing the role of a destiny figure eventually leading him to his fate.  Thus, as a child, the hero witnessed the death -- possible murder -- of some man at the airport.  The diegetic present day is a post-apocalyptic Paris, where everyone lives underground due to the nuclear fallout.   Society has segmented into two classes, the ruling class with their scientific method and those serving as test subjects.  The ruling scientific class is trying to prepare for a better tomorrow by controlling time.  As can be read in the epigram above, they do so by transferring the consciousnesses of their subjects into a previous time until they can discover an individual with enough cognitive fortitude to travel forward in time, with the intention of having him bring back some method by which to alter the moribund course civilization is currently on.  The hero proves to be just such a subject due to his fixation on a memory.  He's so suited for traveling back in time that he's capable of falling in love (or falling in love provides him with enough strength to survive living in these detached, oneiric slices of the past).  After being projected into the future, where he finds a solution for his time period's problem (i.e., allowing those in control to stay in control), the hero knows that he's outlived his instrumental value for the scientific elite.   Being impressed with this man from the past, the representatives from the future give him the opportunity of moving to a different time period, whereupon he chooses to return to that woman from his past with whom he fell in love.  Now in the past, he runs to her at the airport, with the narration concluding:

And when he recognized the man who had trailed him since the underground camp, he understood there was no way to escape Time, and that this moment he had been granted to watch as a child, which had never ceased to obsess him, was the moment of his own death.

That's about as EC an ending as a story can have.  The similarity between Marker's film and EC doesn't end there, though.  With his choice to make a "motion" picture out of static images (where the static images are perceived as static by the audience, unlike what occurs with slightly varying the image in each frame, 24 times a second), you might say he straight-jackets the cinematic form into one resembling a comic book, only without multiple images appearing simultaneously.   Thus, La Jetée requires more from memory than the panel grid of comics (where the eyes can go back and forth across the printed page).  All of which brings me back  to Henri Bergson.

For Bergson, the evolution of the world is fundamentally creative, each present moment being an irreducible emergence out of the sum total of the past.  This effectively renders time travel impossible.  For time travel to work, the present has to exist as a equal counterpart to the past, as if past and present were two sides of an equation:  what can be done on one side can be undone on the other (1+1 in the past = 2 in the present).  That is, the present has to be wholly predictable by the past.  Everything is determined and there is no free will. 

As Bergson argued, that approach confuses the map with mapped, substituting abstract mathematical representations for the real thing.  Like in some of Zeno's paradoxes, each moment in time is seen as discrete.  Thus, Achilles might be faster than the tortoise, but he'll never catch it since he has to traverse each half point between any two points separating the two racers.  Since our abstracting minds can keep dividing those distances on to infinity, it's conceptually impossible for him cover the necessary distance.  But, we know from experience that a faster being will catch up to a slower one.

To say that one can make a free choice is to introduce an element that is truly creative into the scheme of things.  The calculating god can't add up the past elements and predict, "Mildred will necessarily do the dishes tomorrow at 6:33 p.m."  Mildred just might decide to go to a movie instead, despite what the cosmic tally going back to the dawn of time predicts (1+1 can equal 3, as it were).  One can't travel from a future to the past, because the future doesn't exist.  Likewise, the present being the past's future means that no one could've traveled back to the past, since the present had yet to be created.  The present is everything that the past has evolved into.  To travel back from the present would require the undoing of the present, its complete annihilation from memory and existence.  If the past could be returned to sometime in the future, that would paradoxically make the past our future.  This could only work if past, present and future existed simultaneously as abstract points on a temporal plane.  Everything that has happened and that will happened has always existed in eternity.  That's a bunch of nonsense based on a flawed mathematical analogy.  In other words, there is only the present.  What allows for free will is the same thing that would allow Achilles to catch the tortoise in real life: pure motion, each "moment" being continuously connected to the last -- what was referred to above as duration.  Each moment in time can be represented as isolated (given a 1, with the next moment represented by another 1, etc.), but as Zeno's thought experiment demonstrate, that'll only get you an abstracted conception of the world, leading to paradox if taken for the world itself.

Ignoring the fact that a film exists in a spool, waiting to be unrolled and projected by a camera, consider the phenomenal difference between the experience of watching La Jetée's narrative unfold and reading a comic book.  The slices of time depicted in the film are presented to us through time (one after another), whereas in a comic they come to us spatially (one beside another).  For this reason, Marker's film is a closer approximation -- a more accurate representation -- of duration than Feldstein's comics, despite both using panel analogs to the mathematical points along a time dimension.  But even comics rely on knowledge of events existing in duration in order to convey a narrative depicting events unfolding in time.

In the page from issue # 3 of Fantastic Four 1234 (written by Grant Morrison, art by Jae Lee) that you see to the left, there is an inference of movement even though the 3 panels are static and arrange the event(s) depicted in space only.  In his book, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud referred to the process by which this inference is achieved as closure.  Closure is what the mind does when it fills in the gaps (or "gutters") between panels in order to process the narrative.  That we do this when reading a comic is undeniable, but why or how is left largely unaddressed by McCloud.  One reason for the why is that without closure the panels would be left as discrete pictures, unconnected to each other.  At times, McCloud seems to think that it's through social conditioning, an artifact of culture that enables us to read panel flow.  However, I suggest there's something more biologically basic to the process, namely our perceptual system picks up on visual cues that are close approximations of what we perceive in real-world motion.

A socially constructed reading of comics has us either looking at panels from left to right (in the Western tradition) or left to right (in the Eastern tradition), but Jae Lee's use of perspective over the entire page, across the panels, cues us to start at the bottom of the page in the center panel.  Additionally, the continuity of lines, either in the buildings, the flame trail of the Human Torch, or that big monster creates a gestalt-effect (the so-called law of prägnanz) where we naturally fill in the lacunae caused by the gutters.  That the passage of time is being represented can be understood by the combination of what we know panels to represent (a socially learned component) plus the visual cues triggering the perceptual system that has adapted to the requirements of our natural world (a biological component).  We infer that it's the same Human Torch moving through each of the three panels, because of perceptual cues and because it makes for the most parsimonious explanation within the context of a comic book narrative (which has to represent the passage of time if it is to ever go anywhere).

Perceptual cues function the same way for this series of Muybridge's motion-capture photos of a galloping horse.  The closer the picture in one panel is to the previous one in representing a slight change in movement (getting closer to approximating the continuous flow of moving figures we perceive around us), the less need we have of socially learned concepts of temporal representation and the more we can rely on the perceptual apparatus for telling the passage of time.  For example, a two-year passage in time between two comic book panels requires a good deal more from the socially mediated cognitive inferencing tools than going from one of Muybridge's images to the next in order to read into them a temporal flow.  Superimposing the images, one after another results in the cinematic effect, like so:

Each one of those pictures in Muybridge's series is an abstraction of time, just like the panels of a comic book and static images used by Marker for his film.  But, just like the animation that's done with the slight changes in formal shape from one of Muybridge's photos to the next, panels in a comic and Marker's images would begin to show motion with enough intervening images (such as the flip animation that exists in the old big little books or the average film).  In fact, there's a segment of La Jetée where the formal shape of the depicted figures is close enough to each other and the change in the images rapid enough that a rough animation occurs.

It's interesting to note that Bergson didn't consider the motion of cinema to be true motion due to its reliance on discrete frames.  But that's to confuse what's being depicted -- the representation -- with the format through which the depiction takes place.  The photoreceptors in the eye are, after all, discrete, but the images it takes in are not.  The eyes still allow us to perceive continuous motion and, I would suggest, the camera, when properly set up, projects continuous motion.  Similarly, there no breaks in one of Marker's static images, even though its stillness depends on multiple frames (the same image in multiple frames).

It seems to me that what Marker demonstrates about time through the form of discrete images is also applicable to how narrative is possible across comic book panels.  That is, time can only be represented through these abstracted means if we have a memory of what actual motion (or change) is.  Without that knowledge of true duration, narrative becomes impossible, like Achilles finally reaching the tortoise.

Consider this passage from Bergson's essay, "The Perception of Change" (p. 137, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics):

Our knowledge, far from being made up of a gradual association of simple elements, is the effect of a sudden dissociation: from the immensely vast field of our virtual knowledge, we have selected, in order to make it into actual knowledge, everything which concerns our action upon things; we have neglected the rest.

"Virtual knowledge" meaning what we could have knowledge of, but don't, because it didn't serve any particular use in our day-to-day functioning -- what  serves as our "actual knowledge."  Now, Bergson was something of a dualist, but don't hold that against him.  He suggested that all this virtual knowledge of the past was stored in a pure memory bank -- independent of the body -- which is constantly being added to as time moves on (the world evolves, or emerges into the present), regardless of what our perceptual selves might abstract from it (i.e., notice) in order to act (i.e., function).  We focus on certain aspects of any particular moment, because as finite creatures, what William James referred to as the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of raw reality, would be too much to process and, thus, act on.

There's the tragic rub of La Jetée's hero: He falls in love with only the sum total memories of an abstracted past with which the scientists have supplied him, not the pure memory of everything that was the past.  When he chooses to return to that past, it's only to a series of discrete moments making up his own particular actual knowledge, not those encompassed by the full potential of virtual knowledge.  Even if these thoughts are of an actual past -- and not merely created by the scientists -- they can only, at best, approximate that past.  (Can we even be sure that the beings from the future aren't merely part of the experiment?)  Therefore, his longing for that past is based on an illusion, confusing the map for the mapped.  By having chosen to live solely in an abstract past away from the Real, it could only lead to the temporal paradox of his having a memory of his own death.

Relevant Tags

Closure (1), Human Torch (1), Scott Mccloud (1), La Jetee (1), E.c. (1), Understanding Comics (1), Science Fiction (15), Chris Marker (2), Time Travel (2), Cinema Criticism (32), Henri Bergson (1), Weird Science (1), Comic Book Criticism (10)