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Second Loop

“A peacetime bedroom, a real bedroom. Real children. Real birds. Real cats. Real graves.” – La Jeteé

In Chris Marker’s film La Jeteé, a boy goes with his family to the observation deck at Orly airport to watch planes take off and land.  While there he sees a man shot and killed.  The boy becomes obsessed with this image; a woman’s gesture, a sudden roar, the man falls.  Some time later,  the narrator tells us, a massive war breaks out.  The boy, now a man, must fight in the war. He survives along with a very small percentage of humanity and, with the other survivors, is forced to live in underground catacombs because the surface is radioactive.

They are governed by autocratic pseudo-scientists referred to as the camp experimenters.  The experiments they conduct are centered around the idea of sending someone through time.  They first want to send a person through a “loophole in time” to “summon the past and the future to the aid of the present.”

Except for one brief, famous sequence, the film is told entirely in black and white still images with a laconic narrator calmly dictating the awful fate of humans and then of two individuals: the man, and the woman from the observation deck.

The experimenters are able to read minds, to spy on dreams.  They are looking for people with very strong pre-war images and the man, “marked by an image from his childhood” is an obvious choice.  They send him back in time. But it’s not as easy as they hope.  Yes, the strong image helps him to move through time but whether he travels bodily or through a memory realm is never revealed.  What we know is that he goes back in time and is overjoyed to see normalcy again.

He meets the woman from the observation deck when he was a child.  She seems to know him and calls him her ghost.  It always seemed odd to me that he would find her. What are the chances?  But of course he finds her. We’re in his memories and he has precious few pre-war memories, certainly none as strong as the one of the one of her at Orly, just before he saw the man die.  They spend time together. She asks him about the “combat necklace” he wears but he won’t talk about what is to come.

They fall in love and he spends every journey back in time with her instead of looking for a way out of the catastrophe that has befallen the human race. The experimenters become angry. They send him to the future where the man is mocked as a barbaric relic of the past.  He pleads his case though and they take pity on him and give him a “power pack” with which apparently the human race can be saved.

We have to assume that humanity is saved because we know the future people exist and are far superior to us but we don’t know.  They appear to the man and tell him he is in danger. They can take him anywhere in time he wants to go. He wants to go to Orly, to the woman he hopes is waiting.  They take him there but the camp experimenters send an assassin after him. They shoot the man and it is only at that instant, in the instant of his death, that he realizes he is the man he had seen as a boy.

La Jeteé is the subject of my first opera and I’ve been completely immersed in it these last couple of weeks.  There’s so much to unpack here.  There’s the story of a man in his own time loop but there’s the larger story of the human race and its maddening tendency to repeat self-destructive patterns.  There’s the aspect of memory. How lost are we in the man’s memories?  How allegorical is all of this?

What is the real motive of the experimenters? Are they simply mental avatars of destruction or people with a diabolical agenda?  Then there’s the microverse versus the macroverse; the man’s memories versus hard cold reality.  It’s similar to the lotus eaters in the Odyssey who do nothing but sit and eat the lotus plant to alter their reality, a druggy, mythic version of Second Life.

Odysseus’ men are horrified by these people, that they would prefer a dream life to real life. In La Jeteé the experimenters are angry at the man for disappearing into his past.  We’re supposed to prefer objective reality to subjective reality but La Jeteé turns that idea inside out. Subjective reality is far preferable to objective reality, if that can even be defined.  As I immerse myself deeper in the world of La Jeteé I can’t help but wonder how much of this is playing out now, in real time.

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