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What I've Learned
In 1962, there was no reason for me or anyone in my town to be aware of a film called La Jetée, even though it was released that year. For one thing, the film was French. And the only theater in Guthrie, Oklahoma--called the Melba, after the owner's daughter--didn't show French films. It showed movies from Hollywood. In 1962, that would include Cape Fear, Days of Wine and Roses, Dr. No, Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Manchurian Candidate, The Music Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
It was a good year for movies. The Melba didn't need La Jetée, a tiny film only 28 minutes long. It barely qualifies as a movie, because there's only five seconds in which anything actually moves. The rest is a long series of black and white still pictures. Except for some quietly muttered German, there is no dialog. A narrator tells the story.
"What kind of French art house nonsense of a movie is that?" I hear you exclaim. "No wonder folks in Oklahoma had no use for it. I doubt that Mainers did, either."
Don't judge too quickly.
La Jetée -- in English this means The Pier -- La Jetée, despite what seems like every possible shortcoming, manages to be as plot-rich as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as character-rich as To Kill a Mockingbird, as visually alluring as Lawrence of Arabia, and as mind-bending as The Manchurian Candidate. All in 28 minutes.
There is an English version of the film. Its opening words are these:
"This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood."
The story begins with a young boy who has been taken to Orly airport in Paris to watch the airplanes take off and land. While standing on a long, outdoor observation deck (the pier, from which the film takes its name), the boy sees something he can't make sense of. He remembers screams and a haunted look on a young woman's face.
The narrator says:
"Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on they do claim remembrance when they show their scars. That face he had seen was to be the only peacetime image to survive the war. Had he really seen it? Or had he invented that tender moment to prop up the madness to come?
"The sudden roar, the woman's gesture, the crumpling body, and the cries of the crowd on the jetty blurred by fear.
"Later, he knew he had seen a man die.
"And sometime after came the destruction of Paris."
The destruction of Paris is not caused by World War II, but by World War III. Radioactivity on the surface drives survivors underground.
Those in charge determine that the only hope for the human race, what's left of it, lies in time travel. Somehow food, water, clothing and other necessities need to be brought from the past or the future to help get people through this desperate period. Scientists experiment and develop a possible method, but no one they try it on can stand the mental stress of visiting another time. Each one comes back insane.
The narrator explains:
". . . 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 weere now concentrating on men given to very strong mental images. If they were able to conceive or dream of another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it."
Because this man (he is never named) has such a strong and clear image from his boyhood of the attractive woman on the pier at Orly, he is chosen and sent back to that time period.
He meets the woman. Much of the movie is their blossoming relationship as they fall in love, while he is sent back and returns, sent back and returns, sent back and returns.
She calls him her Ghost. The narrator says:
"She accepts as a natural phenomenon the ways of this visitor who comes and goes, who exists, talks, laughs with her, stops talking, listens to her, then disappears."
One of the sweetest scenes takes place in a museum. She is toying with her hair and has idly moved it aside, exposing the back of her neck. He is looking, not at the museum display, but at the beauty of her neck. She is unaware of this, as he is standing slightly behind her.
After about fifty trips back, he learns that the scientists have perfected the procedure and are ready to send him to the future so he can get supplies and technology.
He is successfully sent to the future and returns.
It would be wrong for me to tell you more. The film is only 28 minutes long and can be easily found on the Internet. Netflix has it as an instant view.
I'm a little like the man in La Jetée. I mentally travel back to 1962 and see myself sitting in the Melba theater, hearing, for the first time, Sean Connery say, "Bond. James Bond."
My 13-year-old self can't see me, but I'm there. He is unaware that in France, a tiny film is being released. A film that will, almost 50 years later, stun an older me with its imagination, power, and beauty.