Essay: Time and Memory in La Jetée, 2001 and Solaris

Inspired by listening to Dan North’s podcast of an old blog post about 2001, I decided to pull up my own work about the SF-classic and rework an essay I wrote in 2005 while at Edinburgh University for this blog. Instead of a bibliography, I have included links to the sources I used.

La Jetée

The connection between science fiction narratives and the cheap pulp format in which they were originally published was never really broken. Science fiction is still regarded by ma­ny as either (like its closest relative, the fantasy genre) escapist fairy tale spectacle or as tech­no­phile gibberish for nerds. The perception of the genre is in se­veral ways still dominated by cheap productions of the thirties and forties like Flash Gordon (USA 1936) and its epigones, the big budget film franchises like Star Wars (USA 1977 – 2005) and Star Trek (USA 1979 – 2002).

However, behind the surface of weird-looking aliens and travel in fantastic space ships, some directors who usually do not tend too much towards the overtly fantastic in their films find the ideal ground to explore ideas not easily rea­lised in other settings. Science fiction, then, with its basic notion of travelling beyond the (so far) earthly possible, often becomes a scenic background for the exploration of philo­sophical and ideological ideas.

For the purpose of this essay, I wish to look at three of these films, Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée (F 1962), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (USA 1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972). I will explore their relationship with and concepts of time and memory, hoping to connect the films’ genre aspects with their philosophical reflections.

Rather then simply setting a story in a possible future, one of science fiction’s most important tropes has always been time travel. A scientist first journeyed into the future in H. G. Wells’s in­fluen­tial novel The Time Machine from 1895, only to find that the degradation of his planet, human­kind splitting into an aristocratic and a proletarian race and eventually disappearing com­pletely, is inevitable, because the seeds have long since been sown in his present day. And although time travel narratives are often about the attempt to temper with and eventually change time and causality, a good many of them end in the same conclusion as Wells’s novel: Even with time travel, human destiny is inevitable and fixed.

“There is no way out of time” is also one of the central statements in Chris Marker’s 1962 time travel short film La Jetée. In the film, a man in a postapocalyptic setting is haunted by an image from his childhood: The face of a woman opposite a dying man. Trying to re-capture this memory of peacetime, he travels back in time only to find that the man he saw as a child was his older self. Causality comes full circle, the human destiny is inevitable.
Gilbert Fulmer, in his excellent article about the “Cosmological Implications of Time Travel” explains, how these conclusions are necessarily connected to a certain idea of how time works, an idea that is different from the way it is presented in classic science fiction films like Back to the Future (USA 1984), but probably more realistic. In this view, time is both simultaneous and unalterable.

Bruce Kawin, in his 1982 article on La Jetée, uses the image of a reel of film to illustrate this notion: “On the reel, thousands of frames maintain their images of potential instants, all together and retrievable. As the film moves through the pro­jector, the images become ‘present’” (16). Time travel, then, would not change time, be­cause it does not “cause the past to be repeated” (Fulmer 33), i.e. the images on the reel of the film do not change when the film is rewound. In the same vein, causal loops, “in which the later event is cause by the earlier event and the earlier by the later” (ibid.), like the one in La Jetée, also become possible: It makes no difference that the dying man seen by the child is in fact his older self, because at the time of seeing him, the child has no recollection of the fu­ture, even though that future is existing at the same instant in time.

In his article, Fulmer draws interesting cosmological conclusions from these asser­tions, most importantly the one that intelligent life might be its own creator: “The time travel­ling hypothesis suggests that some intelligent being or beings, having presumably discovered the Big Bang from the same sort of evidence we did, perceived the necessity of bringing it about […] travelled backward in time and did whatever was necessary to initiate the Big Bang” (36).

Time and the human destiny are thus inseparably linked in science fiction, and the notion that “there is no way out of time” seems to resonate in all the films that are subject of this essay. In 2001, while there is no time travel as such, the destiny of humankind is influ­enced by an exterior force from the very “Dawn of Time” onwards.

The alien monolith, placed in the midst of the pre-human primates in a prehistoric age, will define man’s destiny for a very long time, as the most famous match cut of film history, from a simple manual weapon to a gigantic bomb circling earth’s orbit, clearly shows. Man cannot escape his own destiny in time; the path is set out before him like the reel of a film. And, just as in La Jetée, 2001 also ends with an image of causality coming full circle: Astronaut Dave Bowman, after having progressed “beyond the infinite” and after having aged many decades in a num­ber of minutes, regresses back into a child, the very image of innocence and impressiona­bi­lity. Man has, yet again, not succeeded in freeing him­self from the dictatorship of his own destiny. (NB: There are more optimistic interpretations of the enigmatic ending).

Chris Kelvin, at the end of Solaris, seemingly returns home and has a scene of mythi­cal atonement with his father. However, the final pullback reveals that the scene of atonement, just like Kelvin’s wife through the rest of the film, is nothing more than one of Solaris’s simulacra, an empty image re­crea­ted out of Kelvin’s inner desires. Ultimately, as in La Jetée, there is no return to the past; what has happened, has happened, the destiny of mankind was fixed since the beginning of time.

La Jetée probably utilizes the most poignant technique to visualize this notion of the destiny of mankind being trapped in time, as if on a reel of film. The film, called a “photo-roman” in the credits, consists almost exclusively of still frames, connected by cuts, dissolves and a continuous soundtrack. Time in La Jetée is not repre­sented by movement in space but by stasis. In consequence, La Jetée becomes a reflection on both “the stasis of the accessible instant” and “the ways consciousness trans­forms what it observes and presents” (Kawin 15).

Kawin explains, how the protagonist’s desire to break out of the prison of his captors can be equated with his desire to break out of the “overwhelming imagery of stasis” (17) in the film. At one point, in the middle of the film, he succeeds – albeit maybe only in a dream. The sequence shows his beloved in bed, sleeping. The first image dissolves into another, slight­ly different one, then into yet another. “Soon the dissolves are between stills that are very similar to each other, as if each dissolve bridged a painfully slight movement between still positions. […] It is as if she, or the film, wakes up. She opens her eyes and blinks” (Kawin 18). The movement lasts only an instant, then the images are stills again.

Kawin concludes that her moving may be a dream. It is a dream of escape from stasis, a dream of movement. To escape from time would be for him to join her in a world where they could move, or where their love would feel as transfigurative and transcendent and romantic as movement would be when compared to a world of stasis and doom. (18f.)

Following Kawin’s argument, it is interesting to note that while the protagonist suc­ceeds in escaping the visual prison of time in this moment by accelerating the dissolves from one still image to another until they become “regular” cinematic movement of 24 frames per second, he stays helpless in the finale of the film. Running towards his beloved down the Pier at Orly, the rhythm of the editing becomes faster, until there is “one still per leg movement, and shots’ durations are approximately those of actual running” (ibid). How­ever, the hero does not succeed. No dissolves bring the images close together, “the symbolic im­pres­sion is that he cannot break into continuous movement but is locked in a series of stills” (ibid.). At this moment, he is shot, and just as he was not able to escape his captors, he realises that “there is no way out of time.”

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick finds a very different possibility to investigate cinematic time and its rela­tionship to duration. The result is that 2001, to most spectators, still lingers, as Renata Adler, reviewing the film for the New York Times in 1968, put it, “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring”. A lot of actions in 2001 happen in real time – as opposed to cinematic time only focusing on movement progressing the narrative. Kubrick uses his re­pre­sentation of du­ra­tion to underline the fact that while man is on the verge of conquering space and going “beyond the infinite”, he is still subordinated to time.

After jumping 4 million years in a single cut as described above, the film needs more than five minutes to depict the docking of Heywood Floyd’s shuttle with the orbital station and keeps up this tempo for great parts of the re­maining film. Objects move with almost painful slowness, and while spatial direction has become arbitrary in the weightlessness of space (demonstrated by the many movements against traditional ideas of gravity), time and duration remain factors that man is still enslaved to.

All three films seem to make a point about the fact that man cannot escape the power that time has over him, La Jetée and 2001 support this fact in their spatial representations of time. However, all three films also suggest that there is one variable that allows every indi­vidual and humankind as a whole to conquer time, at least to a certain extent. It is something every­one possesses and it has a quality that makes us distinctly human: memory.

Memory is a feature of our physiology that we depend upon constantly, not just when we are conscious of it. It makes us retain information in almost every mental task we perform. But memory also plays a pivotal part in moulding the identity of all of mankind’s humanity. We are human beings because we remember that we are, and because we remember where we come from.

One of the central tasks of science fiction narratives has always been to question the na­ture of humanity, which is best achieved by contrasting a human being with some kind of Other. Since memory (and action derived from memory) is one of the factors that make us essentially human, it is also a key concept that connects the three selected films.

La Jetée, even in its opening lines, explains that it is “the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood.” The memory of the woman the protagonist has seen on the pier at Orly, a memory “whose meaning he was to grasp only years later” provides the key to the time travelling device the victors of the war have developed: they are using “men with very strong mental images.” “The hero is not sent into his memory; rather his memory is used as a force that helps him to re-enter the past” (Kawin 16), because, as it is explained in the film, “moments to remember are just like other moments.” And so the hero’s memories from peace­ful times become real: “a peacetime bedroom” becomes “a real bedroom.” He is able to travel through time, because he remembers his past.

Although the memory that haunts him ultimately leads to his death, this death is his destiny. It is only through this destiny that he can imprint the memory on his younger self, which essentially makes him save humanity. Just like the higher beings from the future, he cannot “refuse to [his] own past the means of [his] own survival.”

The importance of memory for the essence of humanity in 2001 is maybe a bit less evident, but it still plays an important role. In the first segment of the film, the monolith teaches one of the apes, called Moonwatcher in the original script for the film, how to use tools. When he uses them for the first time, hitting the skeleton of a tapir with one of its bones, images of ano­ther dying tapir are intercut, followed by shots of the apes eating meat. Moonwatcher has remembered the force of his tool and used it for hunting – taking an important step in the deve­lopment of the human race. Later, he remembers again, and uses his tool to defeat the lea­der of the enemy tribe, who, without the memory of the tool, appears naturally inferior and less human.

Subsequently, memory becomes an even more important element to distinguish humanity from its Others. The key figure in this case is the HAL 9000 computer, which, as the BBC interviewer in the film describes, “can reproduce, though some experts still prefer to use the word ‘mimic’, most of the activities of the human brain,” a fact that prompts astronaut Frank Poole to describe him as “a sixth member of the crew.” Thus, HAL seems to be able to act exactly like a human being, and, just like a human being, he apparently starts developing human emotions: pride, defiance, jealousy, and fear.

Consequently, when HAL starts acting irratio­nally and kills the members of the crew, Dave Bowman has to deactivate HAL’s humanity. He does so by entering the computer’s “Logic Memory Center” and unplugging, one by one, HAL’s memory circuits, reducing him to his basic functions of monitoring the ship. HAL, accordingly, begs Dave to stop: “Dave, my mind is going.” Unable to remember anything, the pseudo-humanity the computer had established, vanishes. Only Dave, the single re­maining human in the orbit of Jupiter, may conquer time and travel through the space-gate beyond the infinite.

Solaris

It is in Solaris that the connection between humanity and memory reveals itself in the most immediate way. Psychologist Chris Kelvin travels to the space station hovering above the ocean Solaris, which sends the inhabitants of the station ‘visitors’, beings it extracts from their memories. These beings, however, are not humans. They are “simulacra made not of ordinary matter but of neutrinos […]. They are a physical embodiment of all the temptations, desires and suppressed guilt that torment the human mind”, as Maya Turovskaya put it in her essential book on Tarkovsky (51).

Chris’s visitor is his ex-wife Hari, who committed suicide ten years before his space voyage. The Hari who visits Chris is conscious, but she has no memories: “Who am I?” she says as she looks into a mirror. “As soon as I close my eyes I can’t recall what my face looks like.” Because she is just an image extracted from her husband’s mind, without a recollection of anything that came be­fore, she is essentially inhuman: “One cannot be a human being without knowing ‘love for the graves of our ancestors’” (Turovskaya 56).

When Hari asks Chris if he knows who he is, he answers: “Yes, all humans do.” However, it is difficult enough for the human inhabitants of the space station to remember who they are. The station is “filled with memories of Earth, with the fruits of its culture as well as the perfect mechanisms that are the fruits of its technology,” as Turovskaya notes (55). We are “graphically reminded of how limited [the lives of the inhabitants] are by the rustle of strips of paper on the station, reminding the space scientists of the rustling of leaves in the same distant way that a page of shorthand reminds us of living speech” (ibid.).

Hence, Hari has to learn how to become human by recalling memories step by step, in the same way that Chris has to regain his humanity by rediscovering his feelings for her. It is the seemingly inhuman Hari, who stands up for humanity and defends Chris in front of his cyni­cal colleagues: “I think Chris is more logical than both of you. In these inhuman con­di­tions, he alone acted human. […] Your visitors are part of you, they are your conscience.” In Turovskaya’s words:

In spite of being born out of nothing, [Hari] comes to know, together with Chris, the strange and detailed world of the ‘Winter Morning’ which Brueghel’s picture spreads over the convex surface of the earth. A short piece of film from Earth preserves something both intimate and unrepeatable, but which belongs to the whole of humanity. (56)

In the end, Chris “puts all that is most human in him at the disposal of science, and agrees to an experiment whereby his inner world is projected down on to the Ocean” (ibid.). The next morning, the visitors are gone. Hari has fulfilled her destiny which has always been to sacrifice herself and Chris’s memories have broken the infinite loop of time and memory.

All three films, then, use science fiction tropes such as time travel, alien intelligences and supercomputers to illustrate at least one common point: Man may be trapped in time, but his memory of the past allows him to retain humanity, and thus something like freedom, even in a deterministic universe. By remembering what they know of their own past, the characters become distinctly human and can fulfil their human destinies.

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