William Scott Williams

Fiction by William Scott Williams

Janus, Kindergarten, Rorty, and Orly – Marker’s La Jetée

Recently, I stumbled on the following passage in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch: “THE same thing happens to everybody, the statue of Janus is a useless waste, the truth is that after forty years of age we have our real face on the back of our heads, looking desperately backwards. It is what in all truth is called a commonplace. You can’t do anything about it, that’s about the strength of it, with the words that come twisting out from between the bored lips of one-faced adolescents. Surrounded by boys in baggy sweaters and delightfully funky girls in the smoke of the café-crèmes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés who read Durrell, Beauvoir, Duras, Douassot, Queneau, Sarraute, here I am a Frenchified Argentinian (horror of horrors), already beyond the adolescent vogue, the cool with an Etes-vous fous?”

I include that last line primarily because it’s fun–in the pre-autumn of a college town with students just returning–to think of baggy sweaters and funky girls and a long list of nouveau romans to tunnel through. I include the last sentence here as well because of the way that Cortázar so simply and elegantly goes back in time with nothing to mark the transition other than the single period.

I quote from Cortázar at length, after having just turned forty, and after having involuntarily begun the process of looking backwards. In the process of looking forwards, I have also become obsessed with time travel and with memory.

This evening I took our three children to a kindergarten orientation that our oldest had experienced exactly four years ago. I watched her as she was overwhelmed by the memories storming over her. I was shocked at how specific they were, how full of details. She reveled in seeing the courtyard and the playground and rattled off how this and that happened here and here and there. She did not recall, it is worth noting, how terrified she was of time machines back then, half a lifetime ago.

Coincidentally, this evening I also met an old friend (a woman I hadn’t seen in some time) who had gone to the same school and who had just enrolled her oldest child in the same kindergarten. As she stood there in the courtyard, she was blessedly, divinely overcome with déjà vu.

Standing on the blacktop, I recalled my own kindergarten experience (remarkably well-preserved at least in the sense of narrative truth) and also the long expanse, the grainy vista, of the jetty at Orly airport in Chris Marker’s La Jetée. The little boy standing on the railing of the airport observation platform, watching the planes arriving and taking off. The sight of a woman’s smile. The time before the war.

I first saw Marker’s masterpiece, the basis for Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (and probably half a dozen other films, short stories, etc.), in a French class in Dey Hall, perhaps on a chilly autumn morning with the bright ting of wood smoke and burning leaves in the air. Or perhaps it was on a warm spring afternoon. Who can say for sure?

The whole script for La Jetée is fifteen hundred words, give or take, but in that limited amount of space he captures so succinctly the desire to transcend memory and time to return to our childhood and to our memories even if they might not be our own. It is an incredibly powerful film, shot entirely with stills, that stretches to get to the twenty-eight minute mark.

I love this line quite near the end, “Once again the main jetty at Orly, in the middle of this warm pre-war Sunday afternoon where he could not stay, he though in a confused way that the child he had been was due to be there too, watching the planes.”

A warm pre-war Sunday afternoon where he could not stay, watching the planes.

I held enraptured by Rorty’s passage in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” so I will quote it here once more. He is discussing the philosopher’s purpose as he writes, “[…]we philosophy professors are people who have a certain familiarity with a certain intellectual tradition, as chemists have a certain familiarity with what happens when you mix various substances together. We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments. By doing so, we may be able to help you hold your time in thought. But we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is ‘rational and objective’ rather than ‘just’ a result of how you were brought up.”

To hold our time in thought.

That seems to me to be an awfully difficult task, but one that is perhaps achievable by applying intellectual rigor to the creative process. It seems to me also an imperative.

You can purchase La Jetée at Amazon or stream it online though the quality is rather poor. The entire script can be found here: http://www.godamongdirectors.com/scripts/lajette.shtml

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