Monday, March 19, 2007

Studies in Chronos: La Jetée and 12 Monkeys

I may have mentioned this movie before, but La Jetée is one of my favorite movies of all time. Why, you ask? Well, not because it's the basis for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, though god knows that's the reason I found it in the first place. So late last night, as I wasted time not-reading due to the non-arrival of my luggage from the second half of my flight, I found this blog which links to Google video online versions of the film both in French (and note that the username of the poster of said movie might be mildly offensive, though the movie itself is well worth the momentary offense...) and English.

It's an interesting story, moving in its simplicity and the starkness of its black and white still photographs, the monologue of the voice over telling the story in third person omniscient. Yet there's something about it -- as there was with the movie 12 Monkeys -- that seems difficult to trace. And what's bizarre about the film isn't its strained relationship to the idea of chronological time. Rather, La Jetée focuses on something that 12 Monkeys elides somewhat: the centrality of the protagonist's "twice lived fragment of time". He sees a moment that defines his whole life, an experience so real it connects him to the past in a palpable way. He can be linked back in time because of this memory. They send him back, to see if it can be done -- and then when they realize that they can send him back, before the third world war and the nuclear attack that destroyed Paris, they can send him forward, to find in the world of the Future a way to save humanity -- "he said his piece, since humanity had survived, it cannot refuse its own past the means of its own survival. That sophism was taken as Fate in disguise."

And here I will give away the ending: in order to save the man's life from the executioners who no longer need him to save humanity, the humans of the future come back through time to offer him asylum in their "pacified" world. He chooses, instead, to return to the scene of his childhood, the death he had seen as a child that had haunted him his whole life: and he finds, on his arrival, the woman's face at the end of the pier. He sees a man who has tracked him through time -- and realizes that "there was no way out of Time and he knew that this haunted moment he had been granted to see as a child was the moment of his own death."

As usual, I've fixed on a few words from these final moments of the movie. "he knew there was no way out of Time." In the movie 12 Monkeys, the woman he's been visiting is a scientist(he sees her multiple times in the past), and she speaks of different times when someone has appeared in the past, making predictions about the coming plague --

According to the accounts of local officials at that time, this gentleman, judged to be about forty years of age, appeared suddenly in the village of Wyle near Stonehenge in the West of England in April of 1162. Using unfamiliar words and speaking in a strange accent, the man made dire prognostications about a pestilence which he predicted would wipe out humanity in approximately 8OO years. Deranged and hysterical, the man raped a young woman of the village, was taken into custody, but then mysteriously escaped and was not heard of again.
Of course, the 1995 version multiplies the complexities of the 1962 version, including a plot about bioterrorism and the possible extinction of the human race.

But the question from La Jetée resonates still: "there was no way out of Time." In an age of Astrophysics and advanced relativity theory -- I wonder how it is that Time becomes a sort of fetishized site of longing -- a simultaneous repulsion to the corruption of the Time line via our own future intrusions, and the longing for our pasts, our own childhoods, the moments that--in ways we could never understand without a way to return, to live them again--shape our lives. I'm also curious in what ways someone could be "out of Time." You can see where the danger lies in time travel there -- the need in science fiction for the policing of the timeline, and the strictness of the rules of time travel, or even the fact that in many science fiction worlds you can't change the past, only observe it. It's a fear of intermingling, of hybridity -- the mixing of times. I wonder if it isn't partially a fear -- projected onto a future that we will never see, using a technology that is, for all intents and purposes, unobtainable -- of the way in which history is written. Time travel, if it were to interfere with or change the course of human events, suggests that these stories of our past might have been written differently -- that they are not a fixed point of reference for our current identity.

How might the world change if history could be observed, truly observed -- by someone who played no part in it? Or moreover -- by someone empowered to change it? Further: how might our conception of history change, if the past was no longer fixed?