Suddenly Moving Pictures: “Up” and “La Jetee”

March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two movie moments I know of are remarkable and surprising for the same graceful mechanical device. Both Pixar’s “Up” and the 1962 short sci-fi film “La Jetee” feature moments where a slight, sudden bit of physical motion from a character adds a delicate wobble to the storytelling. These are two examples of those great frivolous passing moments in a movie that define them, like Michael dropping the gun at the Italian restaurant in “The Godfather”.

The first is already famous. In the “Married Life” montage of Pixar’s “Up,” Carl and Ellie go through a rapid highlight reel of their life together. The emotional core of the scene is the revelation of Ellie’s infertility, and the crucial moment comes after that, when Carl is watching her sitting outside in their yard. First comes Carl’s still gaze. From the slight shifting of the shadows of leaves around him we cut to the slight shifting of Ellie’s bright red hair. The curtains of her hair move in the slightest flutter, and for a moment they are the only sign of life in the frame:

This is the most alive moment in the film, this flutter. Most of the movie is hijinks, and even most of this montage is typical ups and typical downs, but the one moment it takes to linger on a dreaming Ellie is magic. (This reminds me of an interview with someone from Pixar I remember hearing once, where he described how in computer animation, blowing up an entire city is cheap, but animating the ripples of one character tugging on another’s shirt is painfully expensive.)

From that we go to “La Jetee”, Chris Marker’s stark and also dreamy sci-fi slideshow. This film is also about memory and the passage of time. (Aren’t they all? Yes, they are.) A time traveler sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic future is, crucially, tethered to the past by his memory of a woman, of himself as a child, of the jetty at Orly airport… The story is told almost entirely in still images. Almost. Here’s his last memory of her:

There it is again, at the end there, the little flutter imparting an unexpected motion, even in a motion picture. This one, like the other, illuminates the texture of a passage of memory, hangs on its odd corners like all memories do. This bit of motion is the film’s offhand way of confirming the ascendancy of the protagonist’s memories, and his enthrallment to them.

Really good wobbles like these are rare in any medium. Most movies assume their strength comes from the typical staples of bluster like action and conflict or whatever, so they don’t have any non-typical strengths, and the resulting product is leaden and workmanlike, and sucks. The fact is, such wobbles like these two are actually the bedrock, the staple, of great movies or great whatevers. Nabokov once described a work of Gogol’s as “a grotesque and grim nightmare making black holes in the dim pattern of life”. When Ellie’s hair shifts in the breeze or that dim heroine in “La Jetee” bats her eyelids, the dim pattern of typical storytelling is fatally punctured.

That’s all I wanted to share. I remind myself of an Onion article.

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