Re-Membering the Time-Travel Film: From La Jetée to Primer – Corinn Columpar

With its capacity to transport a viewer to the past or future through a convincing mise-en-scene, to accumulate discontinuous moments through elliptical editing, and to compress or expand the flow of time through optical effects, the cinema is a time machine that works by way of mediation.  For this reason films about time travel have proven consistently compelling to media scholars.  Indeed, science fiction films in general tend toward self-reflexivity; as noted by Elena del Rio (2001), they typically foreground issues related to technology and, moreover, subvert the narrative and formal conventions of classical cinema with their blend of realism and fantasy (385).  Yet it is the time-travel film in particular, with its literalization of what cinema does virtually, that holds out the greatest promise of a “meta-” discourse. 

As evinced by the sheer volume of critical literature it has inspired since its release in 1962, Chris Marker’s La Jetée has been singularly successful at realizing that promise. In this article, however, I suggest that La Jetée has in this regard a quintessentially contemporary heir in a more recent time-travel film, Shane Carruth’s low budget, American independent feature Primer (2004).  While contemporary critics in the popular press have forged a connection between Primer and its landmark predecessor, they have typically only done so in order to highlight their shared subject matter or, in the case of Amy Taubin (2004), their similar use of certain techniques, such as voice-over narration.  Yet what is most striking is the fact these two films occupy similar positions within the wider film cultures out of which they came.  More specifically, Primer is to contemporary theories of visual culture what La Jetée is to those of the past.  While Marker’s work exists in the space between not only photography and cinema, but also classical film theory and its contemporary counterpart, Primer straddles the representational traditions of film and new media.  In so doing, it broaches the very issues that currently preoccupy a number of scholars: namely, the vicissitudes of contemporary cinema in the information age as well as the state and stakes of film theory as it grapples with the formal, industrial, ideological, and institutional effects of the digital revolution.

Set in the wake of a third world war that has left the surface of the earth uninhabitable, La Jetée offers up a scenario in which the only recourse for a human race seeking to survive in the present is travel to the future where desperately needed resources are in abundant supply.  Assuming that those with strong memories of the past will prove most capable of moving through time, the scientists engaging in experimentation choose as their guinea pig the film’s protagonist, a man “marked by an image” from his childhood: specifically, that of a woman’s face as she witnesses a shocking event while on a jetty at the Orly airport.  While this premise is certainly provocative, what makes this tale so resonant is its telling, for Marker relies almost exclusively on still images in order to construct what he calls a “photo-roman.”   As a result, most of the articles on Marker’s work foreground its formal techniques, and the critical corpus as a whole functions as a collectively authored catalogue in which no signifying stone is left unturned. For example, to cite just a few of the authors who have contributed to this body of literature, Paul Sandro (1999) argues that the film’s shots, drained of animation, literalize the theme of death; Paul Coates (1987) cites the film’s succession of still images as a demonstration of the fact that all that remains after WW3 (and perhaps WW2 as well) are the shards of narrative; and Réda Bensmaïa (1990) reads the film’s slow dissolves as a way of representing as unrepresentable that with which the film is most preoccupied: the fading of the subject in the face of apocalypse.

What has solidified La Jetée’s privileged status among film theorists, however, is the fact that many of them “have found in this film the best framework for rethinking and expanding theories of film language and representation” (Bensmaïa 1990, 139).  That is, in addition to translating visually ideas about the mechanics of memory, the nature of identity, and the politics of history, La Jetée also draws attention to the character and function of imaging technologies in the post-war, Cold War era.  In so doing, it responds to that film theory of the 1940s concerned with the metaphysics of the photographic arts – that is, the status of the image, both still and moving – while simultaneously anticipating the questions that fueled the development of cine-semiotics in the 1960s — namely, those about the syntagmatic structures through which cinematic meaning is created.  On this count, the analyses mentioned above are instructive, for Sandro, Coates, and Bensmaïa develop their theses in order to show how La Jetée implicates itself in the issues of memory, identity, and history under exploration by revealing the following, respectively: first, that photography preserves life by suspending it; second, that film is always fragmented, and narration, always collaborative; and, finally, that visual representation depends on presence, not absence and promises plenitude, not deprivation. 

One of the most recent engagements with La Jetée suggests that it still remains relevant as a meditation on the nature of cinema, even at a time when that nature is in profound flux due to the proliferation and popularization of digital technologies with imaging capabilities.  In The Remembered Film (2004), Victor Burgin takes as his subject the contemporary historical moment, in which film circulates in fragmented form throughout not only the exterior landscape of a popular culture saturated with cinematic references, but also the interior landscape of the mind, wherein fleeting memories of film are regularly subject both to and of processes such as inner speech and involuntary association.  When addressing the latter of these landscapes Burgin offers up La Jetée as a touchstone text for a couple reasons. First, it explicitly thematizes the subjective state in which Burgin is interested since it is a memory – the image of a woman’s face – that facilitates the protagonist’s movement through time, leading him to return to the very airport jetty where the film began in order to experience the death he witnessed as a child and subsequently disavowed.  Second, with its extensive use of photograms, La Jetée stakes out a conceptual terrain between photography and cinema and thereby prepares the way for Burgin’s conceptualization of the “sequence-image,” the means by which a film is remembered by viewers.  Comprised of “perceptions and recollections [that] emerge successively but not teleologically” (21), the sequence-image is, according to Burgin, characterized by neither the iconicity of the image nor the narrativity of the image sequence.  In other words, it is an image that unfolds over time, but not as part of any cause and effect logic supplied by the text from which it came; as a result its resonance is more affective than intellectual and any larger narrative context in which it comes to assume meaning is one supplied by the subject based on his/her own experiences and/or those always, already known stories by which a culture and its members make sense of the world.
 

The implications of this argument are borne out in Burgin’s final comments about La Jetée. In the face of the film’s conclusion, which serves to reveal – or, better yet, to realize — the film’s circular structure by implicating the protagonist in a fatal time loop in which memory constitutes premonition and from which there is no escape, Burgin posits a multiplication of narrative possibilities:

The linearity and narrative closure of La Jetée is only apparent, a contingent consequence of the conventional demand for a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end when the spool of film runs out.  The plurality of narratives that La Jetée generates are dreamed.  A dream is a redistribution of the signifying elements of everyday existence under the impact of desire.  It represents another throw of the dice.  The narrator of La Jetée tells us, “there is no escaping time.”  But we may add, with Jorge Luis Borges, “Time forks perpetually towards innumerable futures. (108)

While the frequent fragmentation of cinematic texts as well as the consequent de- and re-contextualization of images within postmodern culture at large provide Burgin with the impetus and opportunity for a discussion of the way films are re-written when re-collected, La Jetée offers him a language, both visual and verbal, with which to do so.  Thus what the quotation above captures so well is the critical move that Burgin makes with his provocative text, one from the exterior to the interior of the subject, from the film seen to the film remembered.  Yet, interestingly enough, the year that The Remembered Film was published also marks the release of Primer, another film about time travel that lends Burgin’s work even more currency by facilitating a subsequent critical move in the opposite direction, from the interior to the exterior.  By actually representing the perpetual forking of time into innumerable directions, Primer “objectifies” (to use Hugo Münsterberg’s language) the sequence-image and thereby emerges as heir to La Jetée’s discursive and aesthetic legacy. 

At the center of Primer are two engineers, Aaron and Abe, who devote their nights and weekends to scientific experimentation in the garage of Aaron’s suburban home in the hopes of inventing something that will make them rich quick.  In the process they stumble across a way to travel back in time to the previous day, which they then do repeatedly in order to achieve a couple prosaic goals: to make money on the stock market and to play hero at a party where a gunman threatens a guest.  What allows Primer to function as both a continuation of and update on La Jetée, literally picking up where its predecessor leaves off, is its treatment of the very situation with which La Jetée concludes: the conundrum of two versions of the self existing in the same diegetic space simultaneously.  With its ending, La Jetée suggests that to be and have been simultaneously, as Constance Penley (1989) puts it, is an existential impossibility (138). As a result of this imperative to maintain the unity of the singular subject, the narrative trajectory (as structured by the text, if not the memory of Burgin’s spectator) emerges as circular, yet linear nonetheless.  In Primer, in contrast, a moment of doubling occurs quite early in the film, approximately a quarter of the way into it, and instead of “squaring” (actually, “circling”) the film’s logic, it exerts a centrifugal influence on its narrative structure. 

The scene is set for this doubling when Abe picks Aaron up from work one day with the promise of showing him “the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed.”  The two visit with a series of scientists and lab technicians who explain to Aaron, as they had earlier to Abe, the implications of their recent experimentation in the garage.  As a result Aaron eventually comes to understand what Abe has already ascertained: that they have built a contraption capable of sending a body – up until this point, that of a weeble-wobble — through time.  Their excursion concludes with a scene featuring the two as they sit and talk on the back of Abe’s pick-up truck outside of a U-Haul facility.  In the midst of a discussion about the possibility of building a time-machine large enough to accommodate a human, Abe suddenly hands Aaron a set of binoculars through which he watches another version of Abe entering the storage unit.  In so doing, Abe reveals to Aaron that he has already built the bigger machine and, moreover, traveled back in time to the afternoon that he and Aaron have just spent together.

Subsequent to this revelation, the two of them take several more trips, together at first, but separately once self-interest gets the better of them.  Initially the result of their time-travel is best understood as a splitting of the self since Abe and Aaron are quite careful to interfere with causality as little as possible.  Specifically, they prepare for their trips to the past by locking themselves in a hotel room for the duration of the day that they will re-experience once they travel through time.  By doing so, they, in Abe’s words, “take [themselves] out of the equation” in order to ensure that their new mobility serves only to alter their current lives in small ways rather than to create parallel temporalities or duplicate selves.  Despite the fact that Abe and Aaron are initially careful to clear a space for their future past selves thus, however, the film is not.  Once Primer presents the conundrum that draws La Jetée to a structurally satisfying, if emotionally disquieting close – that is, once Abe reveals his double to Aaron — its narrative splinters.  Subsequent sequences feature Abe and Aaron without any explicit indication of where they are temporally and thus of which experiences they have had and what knowledge they have accrued.  Moreover, the seeming coherence of both self and story in preceding sequences is called into question as well when seemingly innocent signifiers – Abe’s exhaustion and Aaron’s use of an ear piece, for example – demand to be read retroactively as indicators of time travel. 

As a result the film confuses the issue of chronology and, by extension causality, to such an extent as to suggest that it is ordered by some other logic altogether.  For this reason it bears resemblance to the texts produced, according to Lev Manovich (2001), when film undergoes “transcoding,” a process whereby “cultural categories and concepts are substituted on the level of meaning and/or language, by new ones that derive from the computer’s ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics (47).  A hallmark characteristic of the computer for Manovich is its suitability to the creation and maintenance of databases, collections of objects wherein no single item is more significant than any other and all can be retrieved with the same amount of effort and time.  Arguing that the database is thus pure paradigm, he posits an inverse relationship between it and narrative, which he defines, in contrast, in terms of its association with the syntagmatic dimension of language and its attendant capacity to create linkages between discreet bits of information.  For Manovich, evidence of the so-called “computerization of culture” lies in the fact that the balance between database and narrative, paradigm and syntagm has shifted in recent years.  Describing the same phenomenon with which Burgin is concerned at the outset of The Remembered Film, but in different terms, he writes, “If traditional cultures provided people with well-defined narratives (myths, religion) and litt
le ‘stand-alone’ information, today we have too much information and too few narratives that can tie it all together” (217).

According to Manovich, cinema has always existed at the intersection of database and narrative, at least in its production since filmmakers have to choose between multiple takes of a single shot when editing a film and thereby creating a sequence of images.  What qualifies a director as a “database filmmaker,” however, is his/her attempts to make the database component of cinema explicit.  On this count, Peter Greenaway is exemplary; listing material, as in Prospero’s Books (1991) or numbering it, as in The Falls (1980) and even The Draughtman’s Contract (1982), he loosens and on occasion subverts entirely linear narrative by systematically producing catalogues rather than positing sequential causality.  By no means does Primer exhibit the same taxonomic impulse that characterizes Greenaway’s work; yet there is a database component to it nonetheless insofar as it presents a succession of events, but renders opaque the connections between them.  In other words, it offers up plenty of information, but very little indication of the logic that would allow for its narrative synthesis. 

This database component notwithstanding, Primer still has one foot planted firmly in a narrative cinematic tradition that encourages what Fredric Jameson (1991) identifies as a hermeneutical reading practice, wherein “the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth” (8).  In an opening voice-over, an anonymous telephone caller with a seemingly mechanized voice introduces the film as a story about to unfold for a necessarily compliant audience: “Here’s what’s going to happen.  I’m going to read this, and you’re going to listen.  And you’re going to stay on the line.  And you’re not going to interrupt, you’re not going to speak for any reason.  Some of this you know.  I’m going to start at the top of the page.”  Additionally, in interviews and discussion forums Carruth has been adamant in his claims that the film contains all the clues necessary for its viewers to piece together a coherent and logically sound narrative and thus is not simply “some kind of random assemblage” or “a tone poem to time travel” (Lim 2004). Following the lead of these textual and extratextual indicators, many devout fans have taken up the challenge of discovering Primer’s “vaster reality” and “ultimate truth,” assuming that a fabula can be constructed, no matter how tenuous the connections between successive scenes and sequences.  To wit, in the on-line forum hosted by the film’s official website (www.primermovie.com) alone, there are well over 1100 threads of discussion and 8000 postings, many of which proffer extremely lengthy, considered, and often insightful analyses of the film purporting to explain its many intricacies.  Thus the scenario that emerges in the case of Primer’s re-membering  is the reverse of that described in The Remembered Film.  That is, unlike the viewer posited by Burgin, one whose desire fuels the dream(ing) of plural possibilities and multiple narratives when confronted with a seemingly hermetic story, a typical fan of Primer makes sense of the film by integrating its constitutive parts, unmoored as they are from any continuous temporal schema or apparent cause and effect logic, into a singular and all-encompassing explanatory paradigm.  The sum result is a film of hybrid form, a database/narrative wherein meaning is equally dependent on the accumulation and sequencing of information.

Yet Primer is not simply a liminal text; it is also a limit one.  More specifically, it lays bare that which is at stake as film culture undergoes the process of transcoding: a modernist metaphysics of surface and depth that, in Jameson’s analysis, supports the hermeneutical reading practice invoked above as well as an “aesthetic of expression” (11), which presupposes subjectivity and produces affect.  The film is only able to do so, however, once it orchestrates a scenario in which two versions of the self (Aaron’s self, in particular) not only co-exist in space and time, but also interact, each assuming a presence as causal agent in the other’s present.  While Abe approaches time-travel with great care over the entirety of the film due primarily to his reluctance to engage in any activity that will have ripple effects beyond his immediate experience, Aaron demonstrates far less consistency as a character, becoming increasingly more ambitious and, in turn, reckless with each trip that he takes.  His erratic behavior reaches a culmination when an Aaron who has already traveled through time takes it upon himself to prevent an Aaron that hasn’t — in other words, the Aaron he used to be — from getting into the time machine as scheduled.  From this point on, the film proves even more confounding since the fragmentation, both narrative and formal, already underway intensifies.  For example, once the various versions of Aaron start engaging in a battle of wills, the film’s editing becomes increasingly more rapid and rhythmic, creating disorientation within scenes as well as between them by interrupting the flow of events and inhibiting the characters’ movement.  Additionally, the soundtrack contributes to the increasing fragmentation through the voice-over narration that accompanies the images of two Aarons in conflict:   

“How?” Abe would ask. And Aaron would describe how simple things become when you know precisely what someone will have for breakfast, even in a world of tamper-proof lids.  How?  And that’s where I would’ve entered the story – or exited, depending on your reference.

For most of the film the voice-over that provides intermittent narration appears to be non-diegetic in origin due primarily to the fact that it assumes a posture of detached omniscience.  In the scene featuring two Aarons, however, it gets associated for the first time with an on-screen body, specifically that of the renegade Aaron who makes a bid for autonomy by intervening in the predetermined course of events and then taking leave of his counterpart (“And that’s where I would’ve entered the story”). 

Serving to consolidate the doubled Aaron’s status as subject, this association contributes to rather than compensates for the splinter effect already noted.  As a result, the argument that Roger Odin (1981) makes about La Jetée’s voice-over – namely, that it imbues the protagonist with coherence despite the film’s visual fragmentation – cannot be extended to Primer (163).  During the scene just discussed, the two versions of Aaron are distinguishable from each other insofar as one, the narrator, has a pronounced five ‘o clock shadow, having lived longer than the other by the length of at least one trip back in time.  Yet this most contingent mark of distinction is only salient temporarily; in subsequent scenes (and, for that matter, earlier ones as well), various versions of Aaron all appear equally clean-shaven.  As a result, there is ultimately no sure way to know which Aaron is on screen at any given moment and which trajectory of events would endow his actions with motive and meaning.  As time forks perpetually, a dispersed narrative and duplicated subject ensure that depth of character is supplanted by a surplus of indistinguishable and potentially interchangeable surfaces.  In short, coherence and interiority, both guarantors of identity, are forsaken.

That the voice through which the film speaks itself and b
y which the doubled Aaron is spoken – that is, the voice of the narrator, who has more discursive power than anyone else in the film — is one that bears the traces of a computer in its texture and tone is quite telling.  Filtered through, if not generated by, technology, it announces itself, like the film over which it exerts a structuring influence, to be a product of transcoding.  In such a context, codes for conventional representation break down, forcing the viewer of Primer to confront the same question haunting Abe (as well as his double as well as his triple as well as…): Is (this) Aaron trustworthy?  While this query may prove difficult for Abe to answer, it represents for the viewer a horizon of (im)possibility, the vestige of a representational and epistemological paradigm in danger of eclipse by a digital culture wherein memory is measured by the capacity to store data rather than, as in the case of La Jetée, the ease of retrieving it. 

Bibliography

Bensmaïa, Réda.  1990.  “From the Photogram to the Pictogram: On Chris Marker’s La Jetée.” Camera Obscura 24: 138-161.

Burgin, Victor.  2004.  The Remembered Film.  London: Reaktion Books.

Coates, Paul.  1987.  Chris Marker and the Cinema as Time Machine.  Science Fiction Studies 14: 307-315.

Del Rio, Elena.  2001.  “The Remaking of La Jetée’s Time-Travel Narrative: Twelve Monkeys and the Rhetoric of Absolute Visibility.”  Science Fiction Studies 28: 383-398.

Jameson, Fredric.  1991.  Postmodernism, or, The Cultural logic of Late Capitalism.  Durham: Duke University Press.

Langdale, Allan, ed. 2002.  Hugo Münsterberg on Film: The Photoplay: A Psychological Study and Other Writings.  New York: Routledge.

Lim, Dennis.  2004.  “A Primer Primer.”  The Village Voice,  14 October. http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0441,lim,57519,20.html (28 September 2006).

Manovich, Lev.  2001.  The Language of New Media.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Odin, Roger.  1981.  Le film de fiction menacé par la photographie et sauvé par la bande-son (à propos de La Jetée de Chris Marker).  In Cinémas de la modernité, Films, Théorie, Colloque de Cerisy directed by Dominique Cateau, André Gardies and Françoise Jost, 147-171.  Paris: Éditions Klincksieck.

Penley, Constance. 1989.  The Future of an Illusion: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sandro, Paul.  1999.  “Singled out by History: La Jetée and the aesthetics of memory.”  French Cultural Studies 10(1): 107-127.

Taubin, Amy.  2004.  “Primer: The New Whiz Kid on the Block.” Film Comment. http://www.filmlinc.com/fcm/artandindustry/primer.htm (accessed 11 May 2006).

 

Author Biography:

Corinn Columpar is an Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and English at the University of Toronto.Her areas of research include feminist film theory; postcolonialism and film; and the filmmaking practices and textual politics of various counter-cinematic traditions (“independent,” feminist, aboriginal).  She has published articles in many journals, including Women’s Studies Quarterly and Quarterly Review of Film and Video , and she is currently completing two books: a single author work on the Fourth World in film and an edited volume (with Sophie Mayer) on the flows within feminist film culture.