Film & Television, On Media & Design

Understanding Dramatic Structure: “La Jetée” by Chris Marker (1962)

Notes: Thinking About Dramatic Structure

When it comes to thinking about the dramatic structure of a story, Aristotle nailed it: “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.” The medium in which the story is told doesn’t really matter — plays, films, novels, short stories, and oral traditions all take on a basic three-part dramatic structure to tell a story.

Essentially, we need to know the set-up (the characters, the time and place, the cultural and/or historical backdrop) in order to understand how the characters acted each time that they had to confront these conflict(s), and we want to know how the problems were solved (or left unresolved). Understanding the “hows” will lead us to speculate about the “whys” of the events. Analyzing the reasons behind how certain events happened can ultimately help us understand the “whys” of life and offer insight into human nature.

The beginning (aka, “Act I”) contains the set-up. We have our cast of characters: the protagonist, supporting characters in the protagonist’s life, and perhaps there’s even an antagonist who just wants somethnig  We learn about when and where they lived, as well as a basic grasp of what drives/motivates them toward achieving their goals. Something happens that incites them (i.e. the “inciting incident,” or the first plot point) to go on a journey to solve a problem. Whether it’s finding a way out, finding a way home, finding a place of belonging, finding closure, or finding a way to save the world, something happens that reverses the character’s circumstances and compels him/her to tackle the problem.

The middle (aka, “Act II”) leads us to the midpoint — the moment when the protagonist comes so close to achieving their goal, but they fall short. There are hurdles that they have to jump over in order to get to the finish line. These challenges will test the strength and integrity of their character; their actions/reactions in the midst of these challenges will define ultimately define who they are as a person. There may be another low point in which the character has probably hit rock bottom, but somehow manages to find a glimmer of hope (another reversal… plot point #2); they see the proverbial light shining at the end of the tunnel.

By the end (aka, “Act III”) portion of the story, we are catapulted into the escalation of the conflict. We can feel that something’s about to change. Something crazy is about to happen that will forever change the course of the story, and ultimately, the characters. We usually get a sense of this from the rising action, the preceding event that leads us to the climax, the highest point of emotional tension when everything is at stake. Once we have reached that threshold and cut that cord, the thread has to fall somewhere — the denouement, or the falling action then brings us to the last moments of the story, when we finally learn whether the conflict(s) was left unresolved or reached a definitive conclusion. We feel relieved at the end (or frustrated, or flabbergasted), but at long last we now know how the story ends. Some end with happy ever-afters. Others… not so much. Sometimes, even with squeaky-clean resolutions in which all corners are squared off, we might still be left with more questions than answers. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to keep future generations of audiences interested in the re-telling or the re-interpretation of a story.

Narrative Analysis of “La Jetée”

As a Whovian (a fan of “Doctor Who”) it’s interesting to note that Chris Marker’s short film “La Jetée” uses the concept of time-travel in a similar fashion: time is non-linear and is always in a state of flux. The difference here is that the [mad] scientist/antagonist in “La Jetée” is not a time-traveling alien. The scientist does not have an actual TARDIS to transport him to different places and points in time. (The TARDIS is the Doctor’s time machine, abbreviated as “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space,” which is disguised as a police call-box for us mugg— I mean, humans). What the scientist does have, however, is memory.

Memories are the most accessible form of time-travel, and the scientist has the technology to leverage memory as a gateway to saving humanity from post-apocalyptic oblivion.

“Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image.” —Susan Sontag

So with this in mind, here is my brief film analysis of the dramatic structure of “La Jetée”. Granted, I admit that I could be wrong in my interpretation. This was such an odd and creepy film to watch, and I don’t always gravitate toward these old sci-fi films. However, I have to admire the artistry behind Chris Marker’s production choices and creative process in weaving the story together through this particular medium. The series of still photography combined with the narrator’s ominous tone, the man’s heavy racing heartbeats, the sharp whispers of the scientist and his team, and the old orchestral music created an overall suspenseful mood for the story.

Act I — The Set-up

It’s right after Paris was bombed in World War III. People have retreated underground to survive, since the surface is poisoned with radiation. To overcome this problem, a group of scientific experts come together to leverage EEG technology that would allow them to zoom in on the test subject’s memory and follow the subject in delving into those memories as moving around inside of those memories as though they were reliving that day in their life.

The main characters are the man (protagonist) and the scientist (antagonist). The woman, whom the man first sees as a boy on the pier at Orly Airport and whom he then meets later on in his life, would be a supporting character. Within that childhood memory, the boy had witnessed a man die. The advent of World War III and the bombing of Paris years later would be considered as the inciting incident.

Both the man and the scientist are faced with the problem of trying to save humanity from destruction. The man is a prisoner, selected by the scientists specifically for the purpose of harnessing his memory for their time-travel experiments because he was “glued to an image of his past.” His selection as a test subject may be considered as the first reversal, or the first plot point. The scientist wants to safely transport the survivors and the prisoners to another place and time, before the war, so that they can start over with their lives. The man, however, is trying to save his own humanity through the preservation of his childhood memory — a memory that he fell in love with as a child, one that perhaps represents hope for him.

(Side note: Sometimes memories are false, however. They can sometimes be constructed, as we learn in studies of psychology. But that’s another critique to save for the end.)

Act II — The Confrontation

After getting hooked up to the EEG machine and other apparatuses that the scientists are using to facilitate time-travel, the man is transported back to his memory of the day when he first meets the woman. However, this first time, he gets distracted by the sensations of the world around him, after being entrenched underground for survival for so long. He takes notice of “the glass, the plastics, the terry cloths…” but once he gets out of this fascination, he loses sight of the woman. This distraction presents a challenge to the man in his quest to find the woman, and his distraction can be seen as part of the first culmination of the midpoint. After thirty days of experimental trials, he finally meets the woman on the 30th day.

When he gets transported back to the past via his memories, the man faces the obstacle of not having any concept of time during the dreaming state. He never knows whether a moment is real, or whether it is a reconstructed dream. He can’t feel himself moving forward or backward, and he can’t tell if he feels or senses anything tactile. In one instance, while sitting on a park bench, he couldn’t even tell if the woman he’s been seeing was sleeping or dead. He’s disoriented each time he travels between the past and the present, between the memories of a once-beautiful pre-war Paris and the immediacy of being hovered over by strange men and scientists whispering in hushed tones over the test results. The man faces the physical and mental repercussions of time-travel; his disorientation presents an obstacle in his mission to meet with the woman and explore different places.

The man meets the woman again “on the 50th day of experimentation”… but this time they’re at a totally different place and time. They’re at a museum of “ageless animals,” which could also be seen as a metaphor. Memory has a place. It has a time. Seemingly, it has a depth and dimension as well, which the scientist is hoping exists. The man feels free, able to move around and seemingly create new memories by being with the woman. This stroll through the museum feels more real to him than ever before. This could be viewed as another reversal, or second plot point.

The man spends the day strolling through this museum with the woman from his memories, but he had no idea while in this dream state that it would be the last time.

Act III — The Resolution

The obstacles contribute to the rising action, in which the scientist and his team decide to have the man undergo another experimental trial, this time as an attempt to “ship him to the future.” The man is excited to be part of this, since the entire point was to make contact with the future and dwell in it.

When the man wakes up, he finds himself in unfamiliar territory: Paris has been rebuilt, with “10,000 incomprehensible streets.” He’s been successfully transported to the future. The man then encounters a group of people who inhabit this future, and they provide him with a “power unit” to be able to regenerate and revitalize society from the ashes of destruction. The people of the future warn the man about the scientist and the lab team’s plan to execute him once the team finds a way to access the power unit. But rather than letting them help him with getting away, the man requests to be sent back to his past, where he can see the woman from his memories again, on the airport jetty during his childhood. It occurred to him that he might see the boy version of himself on the pier looking out at the woman in awe. However, the man was so focused on reaching out and running toward the woman of his dreams that he didn’t realize that someone from the lab team had followed him. It wasn’t until he fell down after being shot, between those last breaths before death would grip him, that he realized he would witness his own death.

Climax: Meeting the people of the future and realizing that he would die soon at the hands of the scientist’s agent, then choosing to go back to his past memory of the woman instead of accepting help from the people of the future. He runs toward the woman, not really caring that his younger self would see him run toward the woman.

Denouement: The man gets shot, falls down (literally, the falling action), and realizes in his last moments that he saw himself die all those years ago when he was a child.

Talk about being mind-blown. In this man’s case, destiny is depressing. The adoration that he had for this mysterious woman becomes his downfall.

Fin. 

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