Cinematography and composition in La Jetée

January 27, 2010

In Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1963), the story of a time-travelling test subject is told through a 28-minute montage of still images, with only one sequence of animated film. The scene I have elected to analyze depicts the protagonist’s love interest as she sleeps and slowly wakes. It runs from 19:02 to 19:52 in the film.

The first forty seconds of the scene consist of still black-and-white photographs, taken with a Pentax 24 x 36 (according to the notes included in the DVD case). The depth of field is wide enough to allow everything in the frame to be in focus, from the sheets on top of her in the foreground, to the pillow behind her. However, not everything is lit—there seems to be only one light source, above and to the left of the woman. It is probably a smaller light, because it only illuminates her left side and leaves the right in darkness, and seems highly diffused.

The first shots are medium shots, with the camera positioned above the woman and pointing down. Then the camera either moves closer, or zooms in—I suspect a zoom, only because no other camera motion is evident, making me think it was fixed in place. The feeling of movement in the scene comes instead from the woman’s changes in position.  By using long cross-fades to transition between photographs in which nothing moves but the woman herself, the sequence approaches a feeling of continuous animation, which stands out in contrast to the somewhat discontinuous nature of the rest of the film. The sheet on top of her is particularly notable, because it moves up and down between shots, but instead of jumping between positions, it seems to fade in and out as if we could see the woman breathing.

When the transition is made to “real” film at 19:45, nothing initially changes about the image—I suspect the film camera (an Arriflex 35mm, according to the notes) was fixed in exactly the same position as the still camera had been, and the focus carefully matched, with the lighting and the staging left untouched for the transition. The camera begins rolling with the woman unmoving and we cross-fade in, as in the earlier shots. After a few moments, she opens her eyes and blinks. By changing so little in the transition, it draws a direct correlation between the montage of still images and traditional film; when the sheet moves with her breathing, it is as if we have managed to take 24 photographs of her every second. It hardly feels like a change at all, until the camera switches to the next scene, and we return to the usual montage of still images in which a great deal changes between each shot.

The overall effect of the scene is peaceful and beautiful, because of the unusual seamlessness of the shots. It also feels more realistic than many other parts of the movie due to the illusion of motion, which, the film reminds us, is still only an illusion even in the shot that is “real” film. Although very little action takes place in these fifty seconds, the unexpected sense of reality becomes a significant event in itself.


Dynamic Utopia in Star Trek

January 26, 2010

In episode 15 of Star Trek season 3, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” we receive two messages about the nature of utopia. First, when reprimanding the warring idividuals Bele and Lokai for attempting to violently control the starship Enterprise, Kirk informs him that in the United Federation of Planets, “We live in peace, with full exercise of individual rights. The need to resort to violence and force has long since passed” (timestamp 30:29). Later, when urging Bele to listen to Lokai’s grievances and reconcile their factions, Spock says, “Change is the essential process of all existence” (timestamp 37:20).

In both instances, Kirk and Spock are reacting against Bele and Lokai’s violent pursuit of social change. Both Bele and Lokai invoke the word “utopia” when they first reunite in the Enterprise’s sickbay, but Kirk and Spock’s responses seem to say, “That’s not how you do utopia; this is how you do utopia.” However, the writers of Star Trek are SF writers, not Utopian writers, as described by Edward James in “Utopias and Anti-Utopias”; they reject the “largely static society” of traditional Utopian writing, because exciting story-telling cannot be reconciled with “a denial of adventure, of risk-taking, of the expanding of spatial or technological horizons” (p. 222).

Instead, the world of Star Trek envisions a dynamic utopia, in which “change is the essential process of all existence” but in which our protagonists have, in many ways, completed the evolutionary progression “from the lower levels to the more advanced stages” (as Spock describes evolution at 37:58). The social structures of the Enterprise are well-established and incredibly static; when Bele changes the ship’s course, his disruption of the status quo is considered such a threat that Kirk threatens to destroy the ship and everyone on it. However, the universe in which the Enterprise moves is anything but static, and the goal of the Enterprise is to constantly change position in order to sow change.

Thus, we have a utopia in which the universe is struggling to advance towards a better future, but our main characters are able to live in a stable world in which racial conflict is something they heard of in history class once. We are made aware, through the day’s adventure in each episode, of an imperfect world, but that is not where we live.

Or at least, that’s what the story tells us– the interesting questions come in when we compare what we’re told with what we observe. To what extent can Star Trek’s vision of a dynamic utopia really be seen as utopic? There are serious concerns both in the Federation’s definition of equality (in which serious questions can be raised about the characterization of women and people of color, and from which LGBT individuals seem to have been excluded entirely) and in the ever-expanding quest to spread this utopia (which is often unhelpful or insensitive to the people they encounter, and which has more than a whiff of colonialism about it). Was it really best for Kirk to refuse to take sides on Bele and Lokai’s conflict? Is life on the Enterprise really so perfect that nothing else can be considered?

What do you guys think?

(crossposted from Writing the Future.)

Blog Note: more class papers to come!

January 24, 2010

Hey, folks! A new semester’s started, so once again you’re being treated to my classwork, in lieu of more independent posting!

This semester, I’m taking two film classes, Cinematography and Editing the TV Documentary. They’re not theory-type classes so there’ll be less writing, but there will be at least some in the Cinematography class, so I’ll put that up. Anything generated in either of these classes will re-use the “film studies” tag.

I’m also taking a class called Writing The Future, about science fiction explorations of utopia. Some of these might be films, but not the majority, so I’m creating the tag “utopia studies.” This is actually a writing class first and everything else second, so expect a lot of stuff here!

I’m posting everything here partially in the desperate hope someone will be interested in my academic writing, but more in the desperate hope that it will prompt me to write at greater length about the things I watch, and otherwise grow back into the habit of posting here at GG. I miss alla y’all!

So, coming up next: Star Trek!!