|the man who fell to earth
hangovers, the code for public masturbation & the underrated moth. Also, time travel, the weird vs the eerie, Austerlitz, Interstellar, La Jetée. A death in the family. And writers and cat love.
I stopped smoking last December eighth, without a single relapse so far. Each night, as another day goes down without one single puff, this success story appears from my view worthy of a victory parade. Don’t I deserve to be shouldered from today’s field of play, a hoard of supportive team-mates cheering?
On the subject of appetite and self denial – or a failure of self denial – a colleague at work tells me he was out last night and got so drunk, and so angry for being drunk, that he threw his keys in the river.
We’re standing at the coffee point. Max gives off residual alcohol fumes and keeps jangling the loose change in his trouser pockets. He’s very actively jangling the loose change.
He says he threw the keys away as punishment. That he hadn’t planned to go to the pub at all and then had intended only to stay for one. Instead he went all the way through till closing time, then a late bar, amounting to ‘a skinful, with chasers.’ Chucking the keys was as a short, sharp shock in the moment. Instant hurt. But their disposal is also to serve as a future warning. Next time Max feels tempted to drink loads, he says he’ll think of the keys, and the sound rattling in his brain will keep him out of the boozer.
A female colleague joins us and Max repeats his story. He keeps jangling his coins. I watch Martina’s eyes dart to and from Max’s lap and the scene of the jangling. The front of Max’s trousers are dancing.
He says he couldn’t find a cab after the pub and staggered some of the way home on foot, then night bus. He didn’t deserve a cab anyway, he barks at himself. He says he knew inside his alcoholic mist that he must punish himself for drinking, ‘for drinking like a whale. And worse, on a school night!’ This, having first told his wife he’d be home by six and that he’d cook dinner. And then, a while after, that he’d be home by eight at the latest. Then it was ten. And finally, he made it home somewhere past one am.
He crossed the river at Lambeth Bridge, where the water was slow and almost flat and dark as oil and tar as he pitched his keys over the parapet with an angry heave. They made a soft plop. He said it felt good ditching them and meant a lot knowing he would never drink to excess or let his wife down again. In the short term, however, Max immediately let his wife down again, waking her up to let him in by repeatedly ringing the front doorbell.
Max is heading off to have new keys cut. He says he’s going to the kiosk in the station and is thinking of getting donuts.
Max is convinced, but I’m not so sure, that his magical thinking is a solid proposition – that having to get new keys, he recaps, is inconvenient and therefore the sort of ‘punishment’ that will keep him from getting lashed from now on. That’s something to be tested, suggests Martina, and Max frowns. Martina can say sceptical things. From me it would sound depressing. And currently I’m more concerned with Max’s over-active hands, digging around in those trouser pockets.
At first I took the jangling coins as unconsciously representing the lost keys. But then I remember an article by the academic Laura Kipnis, concerning her experience at a sexual harassment workshop. The workshop took place in 2014 at Northwestern University, Illinois, where Kipnis teaches filmmaking; and was convened to educate the educators on campus policy for ‘safe conduct’.*
The session was jointly hosted by a man and a woman, who kicked off by issuing the classroom of academics with a long list of dos and don’ts, as a sort of ice breaker. The dos and don’ts applied both for conduct between colleagues, but especially relating to students. Do not make unwanted sexual advances, was the first on the list. Kipnis piped up from the back of the room: ‘But how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?’
At this, the male half of the workshop leadership tensed. He sensed rebellion and perhaps he was right. He became noticeably rattled, stumbling over his words. But he also dug his hands in his pants – as they confusingly call trousers in the US – and started rustling.
He stood there in front of the anthropologists, linguists, film theorists and cultural historians, jangling his loose change. Imagine it: two post-structuralists, one leading expert on Adorno, a logical positivist and a pair of Lacanians – jangling and jangling, but also declining to answer the academics’ various questions. Because Kipnis had started an interrogative flow. ‘What about smoldering glances?’ asked one woman. ‘What about telling your colleague you liked their new hair style?’ wondered a gay male teacher, who was worried that not to have complimented a female colleague’s new look this morning might in itself be grounds for offence.
The workshop convenor’s coin jangling became more pronounced. ‘David was jangling his change so frantically that it was hard to keep your eyes off his groin,’ writes Kipnis. ‘I recalled a long-forgotten pop-psychology guide to body language that identified change-jangling as an unconscious masturbation substitute.’
I glance at Max, jangling furiously at the coffee point.
‘If the leader of our sexual-harassment workshop was engaging in public masturbatory-like behavior,’ continues Kipnis, ’seizing his private pleasure in the midst of the very institutional mechanism designed to clamp such delinquent urges, what hope for the rest of us?’
Max is describing to Martina the intense blackness of the river when the moon’s not out. I imagine saying, Max, you’re wanking. I recite the words in my head, Stop wanking, Max!
What was the likely fall out if I actually said this out loud? The gossamer-thin membrane between thought and speech rudely puntured. It would be sort of funny but also cruel and probably end with me getting the sack.
I think it’s unlikely Max appreciates that his jangling suggests a rampant, libidinous hangover and that his unconscious, turbo-strength urge to masturbate has semi-leaked into the public space. He simply asks if either of us would like a donut from outside? Martina shakes her head. I say, no thanks. And certainly not frosted, mutters the delinquent voice in my head.
Max walks away. He’s finally stopped jangling. Martina smiles neutrally, shakes her head and prepares an instant coffee.
This is not immediately, obviously connected to above, but in a former life, four of us lived together as a family and had a stupid cat who died.
The cat was a beautiful ragdoll with piercing blue eyes. The eyes were in part the product of over-breeding. Other side effects from this over-breeding included stupidity, sudden neurotic outbursts, and a tendency towards extreme grumpiness. There was a sweet Hot Chip song at the time, Alley Cats: ‘We have an unhappy cat/He is restless, needs attention/Loses patience, seeks affection.’
Gitty would often demand our attention, assertive and regal. Last thing at night, he would go for a final tour around the back garden, checking on his domain, then return to us at the top of the house – loudly calling out as he galumped and gdunked his way up the stairs, ‘mac mao, mac mao’ – his version of don’t you forget about me.
On arrival into the bedroom, he would stroll around a bit, then climb up onto the bed and plonk himself between us, curled up heavily on the duvet, where he’d mostly sleep through till breakfast.
Most nights at some point I would wake – often from a dream of gushing mountain streams, breached river banks, broken water pipes, flooded basements; or perhaps geysers in Iceland spouting in the darkness; wake from some variety of an urgent event featuring heavy liquid flow that couldn’t just be ignored, to realise that my dream (the guardian of sleep, as Freud called dreams) was calling to me, telling me, time to go take a pee. That only after this toilet break would I be able to plunge properly into the deeper, fuller, restorative sleep that the nagging bladder was keeping me from.
By the time I returned to the bed, Gitty would already have stolen my place, curled up on my pillow, yawning. (It’s like a jungle sometimes.) I’d lift him and dump him on the carpet. (See, I’m the one in charge around here. Okay?)
In the morning, drinking coffee in bed, looking out the French windows and onto the field attached to the park directly beyond our garden, we would laugh at the Gitster yawning at us, or yowling, or leaping around perhaps at the rain on the window, a weather event which he always found challenging. I would sometimes gather Gitty up in my arms and hold him with his face close to mine, eye to eye, and slowly say the word moths. But say it long, mothssssss. I don’t know why this started. But saying mothsssss softly, enunciating a long sibilant tail, mothssssss; reciting it repeatedly, mothssssss, somehow calmed the anxious cat. Your moths have magic powers said Vela (Ex No2).
|young Jacques Austerlitz
There are moths in WG Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. (How’s that for a transition?) The eponymous emigre orphan moves to coastal Wales in the early years of World War Two. He’s still very young, only four years old. He is adopted by a strict religious couple. He cannot remember anything about his continental birth family or why he has come to live in the UK. His new parents are old, distant, taciturn and austere.
|the catastrophes of war
The young Jacques Austerlitz has a chilly upbringing – physically cold and dank, with numerous, endless days spent shut up indoors, in a largely silent, grey house, where many of the windows were closed all year round.
Jacques Austerlitz finds colour and excitement in books, but also outdoors in nature. One summer’s night, aged eight or nine, the boy takes part in a expedition: ‘up the hill behind the house on a still, moonless night… looking into the mysterious world of moths.‘
Mostly we think of moths as annoying things that eat holes in your jumper – creatures we’d like to kill in large numbers when the holes are first discovered. But for one night, the young Austerlitz regards moths in a state of bliss. Sat on a promontory high above his home, ‘behind us the higher slopes and before us the immense darkness out at sea’ – with the aid of an incandescent lamp, lit in a shallow hollow surrounded by heather, all types of moths emerge ‘as if from nowhere, describing thousands of different arcs and spirals and loops, until like snowflakes they formed a silent storm around the light, while others, wings whirring, crawled over the sheet spread under the lamp…’
Austerlitz recalls being stunned with amazement ‘at the endless variety of these invertebrates… China-Marks, Dark Porcelains and Marbled Beauties, Scarce Silverlines or Burnished Brass, Green Foresters and Green Adelas, White Plumes, Light Arches, Old Ladies and Ghost Moths…
’Some had collars and cloaks…. some had a plain basic hue, but when they moved their wings showed a fantastic lining underneath, with oblique and wavy lines, shadows, crescent markings and lighter patches, freckles, zigzag bands, fringes and veining and colours…‘
And what colours, ‘moss green shot with blue, fox brown, saffron, lime yellow, satiny white, and a metallic gleam as of powdered brass or gold.’
It would be lovely to report that Austerlitz grows up to be a botanist, and happy. Instead, he becomes a melancholy art academic, a loner preoccupied with obscure aspects of the history of buildings and cities, who is rather lost in his life.
Sebald’s Austerlitz is a dense and puzzling work of fake biography about a man who loves architecture and doesn’t know himself very well. The prose style is ornamental, digressive and overwrought, but also simmers with a sense of dread. Almost every sentence is haunted by the eerie traces of some vital but elusive revelation. This absent or missing ‘thing’, this lost information, that is close, but not quite there, feels fundamental, existential, and almost supernatural.
In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher’s critical essay on haunted fiction, the author outlines the differences between these two different but connected states. He marks out the Weird to be that which does not belong. In art this could be the cross cuts of Surrealism, a perplexing montage such as this by John Stezaker.
|the unconscious drive
The Weird can disrupt our expectations about what and how the world fits together; while the Eerie often sits in opposition to the Weird as something not there, but strongly felt.
An example of the eerie is the trace photo. In a wood with a small clearing in the trees, you stumble upon a patch of grass with a picnic blanket laid out, a picnic basket, plates, glasses, food, wine, napkins, leftovers… But nobody’s sitting there. Where did the daytrippers go? A human event has been emptied out of humans.
(The eerie could also be a strange abandoned ruin. Or, lest we forget, the howl of a unidentified hound-like beast late one night as we cross the desolate moor.)
‘The feeling of the eerie is very different from that of the weird,’ writes Fisher, whose underlying thesis pitches the two states as diametrically opposed, as presence versus absence. ‘The weird is constituted by a presence of that which does not belong… The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by… something present where there should be nothing, or when nothing is present when there should be something.’ Like the missing daytrippers at the picnic.
Throughout Austerlitz, a fog of misunderstanding hangs over the protagonist’s life. The misunderstanding becomes a question of absence: why is there nothing here for me when it feels as though there ought to be? What is the missing item looming over my life?
Not that Austerlitz directly asks such questions. Despite being a erudite, loquacious man, Jacques seems incapable of identifying the obvious reality that he is haunted and has been for years.
|alone again, naturally
Austerlitz’s strange life story, from orphan to scholar to wandering lost soul, is seeded with clues about something out of reach from the past – that if only decoded, might make the present intelligible and bring meaning to a life that has incrementally, through the decades, become exhausted by inauthenticity.
In this sense the story of Austerlitz has the reverse chronology of the film Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). Both narratives share similar themes as well as plot lines that depend upon an essential message, sent out of time, that the lead characters must decipher in order to survive. The message, both in Austerlitz and Interstellar, consumes a large chunk of a lifespan before revealing its full meaning.
Interstellar’s mind-bending story of global entropy, approaching apocalypse, and interplanetary travel through a rent in the space-time continuum, features a father and daughter, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Murphy (Anne Hathaway) – long separated and both stranded and in trouble in galaxies that are far, far apart.
In a future where Earth is burning up and the wheat is growing thin, a perplexing pattern of dust on the floor at Murphy’s family’s Midwestern home is at first mistaken for the eerie creation of a ghost. It is in fact the product of gravity variations, a sign of the providential intervention of a mystery group of seemingly benevolent beings operating within the fifth dimension. (I had to look up a definition for the fifth dimension – apparently it is a physical space, or loop, beyond time).
These mystery beings are nudging Murphy (and indirectly human kind) towards a viable future on another distant planet. This distant planet, located after much searching, is the only one identified as fit for human settlement. (Let’s not call it colonisation.)
The mystery beings it turns out are time-travelling humans, calling out from the distant future – basically saying, Here, over here! (And let’s not ask how they travelled to Here. It’s complicated) These future humans include Murphy’s father catapulted years ahead. Cooper is a retired astronaut who pilots the first mission sent from Earth to seek out a replacement planet as the impact of climate change really starts to bite. It is a mission that his daughter will complete in time.
There is no ghost in Cooper and Murphy’s house after all. That inexplicable poltergeist moving objects around the place is in fact dad, from the future. The books that shift and tumble out of the bookshelves, apparently of their own accord, are being manipulated by Cooper via a wormhole – with the content and titles of the spooky volumes (plus the broken hand off her dad’s heirloom wrist watch) amounting to a coded communique containing the quantum data Murphy requires to fix the time travel problem.
|who’d have thought it was me who threw them books there from within a tesseract on the other side accessed via a wormhole from the fifth dimension way off in the future?
Cooper’s advance mission is inevitably extremely high risk. He travels to a distant planet via the previously-referenced wormhole where, due to an unexpected distorting effect, one hour is equivalent to seven years of Earth time. In a desperate scene, Cooper watches his children’s lives pass into adulthood over the course of just a few minutes
Later, Cooper will be reunited with his daughter. But by now she is an elderly woman nearing death, while he is still quite limber, having aged at a different pace. (Again, we will not be lingering over the science as it’s too complicated. The physicist Richard Feynman once argued modern physics defies understanding and can only be observed.) Father and daughter have missed most of each other’s lives. But their affective connection has proved a vital engine driving the experiments in time travelling onwards. ‘Part of the power of Interstellar,’ suggests Fisher, ‘is the possibility of an eerie love… Love is unknown, a mysterious force, with its own occult powers and capacities.’
|spirals, ovals, secrets
For much of his adult life Jacques Austerlitz, like Murphy, spends his days figuring out a message from another time zone – in his case, the past. For all his intellect, his search is quite broad and haphazard. Austerlitz studies architectural history – all kinds of monumental military fortifications and labyrinthine public buildings – law courts, offices, libraries, prisons, railway stations and Victorian asylums.
Austerlitz is fascinated by fortifications and the human folly of believing in the impregnable. His assertion is that the years it takes to construct better defences are roughly matched by the time it takes to develop new assault weaponry – thus cancelling any advances in protective fortification. The better the bulwarks, bolsters and battlements, the more piercing the weapons of attack.
In an early exchange with the novel’s narrator, during a chance meeting in Belgium, Austerlitz elaborates: ‘… it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance – and Antwerp was an outstanding example of that craft – clearly showed how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defences, built in successive phases as a precaution against any incursion by enemy powers…’
‘… it had been forgotten that the largest fortifications will naturally attract the largest enemy forces, and that the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive…. that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically inviting the enemy to attack it…’
Notions of defence and the weakest point plainly also apply to the complex constructions we make in our own lives, hoping to keep ourselves safe not only from physical, but emotional and psychic harm. In this way, the intricate old forts and buildings serve as a clue to Austerlitz’s mysterious past and personal vulnerability.
But what is the clue?
Austerlitz is a voluble and authoritative polymath of huge intellect and self sufficiency, who overtime starts to falter, then dramatically crumble, as his long journey studying structures and cities brings him to the threshold of personal crisis.
All his life, Austerlitz has been time travelling. He has obsessed over old buildings during meandering research trips in France, Belgium and round London. Austerlitz thought he was an architectural master theorist, but when the time arrives to write his great work on the subject, he cannot find the words. He gazes at his piles of research notes and drawings with disgust.
Austerlitz turns against the buildings that gave his life purpose as his sense of self splinters. The personal crisis forces him out of the house, on longer and longer walks – random, extended and exhausting trips across London all through the early hours – night after night after night.
|twin piers supporting ceiling vaults in grey mystery light
Jacques Austerlitz is having a nervous breakdown, reaching his Zabriskie Point early on a Sunday morning at Liverpool Street station during the 1980s. At this time, the original Victorian station was being refashioned, with a new split-level concourse attached to the head of the station platforms.
Austerlitz’s fevered aimless walks have rendered him nearly delirious. But delirium, with our defences weakened, can open up our receptivity, where previously we were closed. Worn to the bone, Jacques is ready to go beyond the buildings and masonry, to disinter the truth of his origins that are enfolded beneath the architecture.
‘…one quiet Sunday morning I was sitting on a bench on the particularly gloomy platform where the boat trains from Harwich came in, watching a man who wore a snow-white turban with his shabby porter’s uniform as he wielded a broom, sweeping up the rubbish scattered on the paving…‘
Shortly, the sweeper crosses to the other side of the temporary stockade enclosing the construction site, squeezing through a loose panel of plywood. Austerlitz shuffles along and through the same gap, but the man has disappeared. Austerlitz continues and plunges deeper inside the old train station. ‘To this day, I cannot explain what made me… I suddenly found myself facing the entrance to the Ladies’ Waiting-Room, the existence of which, in this remote part of the station, had been quite unknown to me.’
Austerlitz gazes upon an empty waiting room he’s never seen before, yet recognises from his past. It is from here that Austerlitz’s life story resumes, as he realises that he came here as a child in the late 1930s. ‘Memories like this came back to me in the disused Ladies’ Waiting-Room of Liverpool Street station, memories behind and within which many things much further back in the past seemed to lie, all interlocking like the labyrinthine vaults I saw in the dusty grey light, and which seemed to go on and on for ever. In fact I felt… that the waiting-room where I stood as if dazzled contained all the hours of my past life, all the suppressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained.’
Austerlitz the historian is already familiar with the Kindertransport (children’s transport) story – the organised rescue effort that took place in the last few months before the outbreak of the World War Two. In total, the United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia, Poland Germany and Austria. But until now Austerlitz had no inkling that he was part of this history as one of the rescued orphan kids.
The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels and families – spread across the country, including west Wales. Often these young children were the only members of their birth families to survive the Holocaust. Austerlitz had been sent ahead to Britain by his Jewish parents, both of whom perish separately in the Nazi death camps.
Austerlitz understood that his Welsh family were not his biological parents, but he had inexplicably suppressed all recollection of his origins and ancestry, including his native tongue: ‘… certainly the words I had forgotten in a short space of time, and all that went with them, would have remained buried in the depths of my mind had I not, through a series of coincidences, entered the old waiting-room in Liverpool Street station that Sunday morning, a few weeks at the most before it vanished for ever in the rebuilding.’
The elided memories from decades far back start to flow, ‘I saw the boy… He was sitting by himself on a bench over to one side. … when I saw the boy sitting on the bench I became aware… that I had never really been alive, or was only now being born, almost on the eve of my death.’
Shortly, Jacques Austerlitz travels to Prague, to return to his birth place and gather up whatever family remnants he can find as patches to weave into the larger tapestry of a life misunderstood.
Sebald’s fiction, both its themes and its digressive patterns, has been compared to the films of Chris Marker. Perhaps Marker was an influence.
La Jetée (The Pier, 1962) is Marker’s most celebrated, best known work. The short film tells the story of a man who travels back in time to make sense of a mysterious event from his childhood. The event, which has haunted him all of his life, concerns a visit to Orly airport, the face of a mysterious woman, and a man’s death.
La Jetée is not a regular dramatic film. The thirty minute fable is composed almost entirely of still photographs. Marker described La Jetée as a cine roman, or essay film. The cine roman’s photo assembly is enhanced by various means: a sonorous poetic voice-over and a lush, romantic orchestral score; the occasional use of text; and a broad foley of sound effects – jet planes, footsteps, public address systems, the echo of water dripping underground.**
The film opens in darkness. A block of writing rises up on screen, to be recited in voice-over:
‘This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood. The violent scene which upset him, and whose meaning he would grasp only years later, happened on the main pier at Orly, Paris airport, some time before the outbreak of World War Three.’
The elegant, intriguing first line dissolves to the screen opening upon a misty bright morning at Orly. The sun glows behind a communication tower. Air traffic control. The sound of airplane engines. Cement catwalks and a passenger observation platform. Tarmac approaches leading to the main runway. Aerial shots of jet planes parked at angles from the pier. Distant chimes and inaudible flight announcements in the background.
The narrator continues: ‘Orly, Sunday. There the parents used to bring their children to watch the departing planes. Of this particular Sunday, the child whose story we are going to tell, was bound to remember the sight of the frozen sun, of a stage setting at the end of the pier, and of a woman’s face…
‘That face, that was to be a unique image of peacetime to carry with him through the whole wartime, he often wondered if he had ever seen it, or if he had dreamed a lovely moment to catch up with the crazy moment that came next. A sudden roar. The woman’s gesture. The fall of a body. Shrieking people. Only later did he realise he’d seen a man dying.’
|the woman at the end of the pier
The photomontage switches from images of planes in the sky to a panicked cluster of people confused by a moment of violence. But the boy’s attention is drawn to the woman’s shocked face. Her expression indicates an unstated involvement with the dead man.
The screen fades to darkness. The silent black screen lingers a while. Finally the voice-over resumes: ‘And soon afterwards, Paris was blown up.’
|these people do bad things
Melancholy washes across the film. The leftovers from the nuclear holocaust retreat underground – escaping a flattened radioactive Paris for ‘the kingdom of rats’.
‘The human race was cut off from space, and the only hope for survival lay in time, a hole in time through which to send food, energy, supplies.’
The local survivors of the nuclear attack are experimented on by the victors, as they seek an escape hatch from the nuclear winter. The doctors, these human vivisectionists lurking in the dark catacombs, ‘began selecting subjects given to strong mental images.’ They go to work on the hero, now a man of about 30, still transfixed by what he saw at Orly as a child. The image of the woman from the airport had haunted the boy with an extraordinary power, a power that draws him back across the decades, an emissary inside time, dispatched ‘to summon the past and future to the aid of the present‘.
|when a woman loves a man who is out of time
The man returns to Paris before the nuclear attack. He wanders along the streets and among the crowds. He meets the woman from Orly. They fall in love. But their relationship is tinged with sadness, caused perhaps by the man’s out-of-timeness. As if trying to place himself deeper in the continuum of moments, he goes with the woman to museums with plants, fossils and dinosaur skeletons. ‘Time builds around them’. They visit Orly, inevitably, and on this day, the man decides that he will not return to the future, but remain here and ‘now’ with his lover.
It is at this moment that an agent from the future appears on the pier, a policemen of the time-ways tasked with preventing any further interference with time’s arrow. The hero realises he is about to die and is in fact the falling man that he glimpsed as a child. Only at this last instant, flat out of time, does the man figure it out: ‘He knew that this haunted moment he had been granted to see as a child, was the moment of his own death.’
La Jetée is the source material and inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys – a film that makes me think of the colour red, digital wildlife on the loose, and Brad Pitt acting his socks off – raving on wordily, expostulating about this, and that – and THAT too! – as a crazy man knee deep in urban chaos in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
|yeah, can you dial it down just a fraction, Brad?
Over five decades, La Jetée has accrued numerous high profile admirers outspoken in their praise. Of course it has – La Jetée is an amazing, hypnotic work of cult cinema. ‘A strange and poetic film,’ wrote JG Ballard. ’in my experience, the only convincing time travel in the whole of science fiction… Creating its own conventions from scratch, it triumphantly succeeds where science fiction invariably fails.’
About his first viewing of La Jetée, writes William Gibson, ‘As I experienced it, I think, it drove me, as RD Laing had it, out of my wretched mind.’ ***
What is it about La Jetée? What make this short, fifty-five-year-old film so special?
La Jetée is a tale of romance that pivots on a message from the past not acted upon in time. At another level it’s an unsettling preview of life during wartime, of political resistance and oppression in a post-catastrophe hell, featuring torture, bad scientists and swift assassins.
Marker’s use of staged photographic stills is partly an aesthetic determined by a limited budget.**** But there is also some weird magic going on before our eyes, in which the photomontage and the film’s soundtrack, the visual and the aural, are simultaneously discrete but also locked together as something richer than the sum of their parts.
(Should I have said ‘richer than the sum of its parts?’ It’s half a cliche, really. I could just have gone flat out and written symbiotic. But symbiotic sounds a bit flash, even though it’s dictionary perfect for what I’m aiming for. It’s hard to know these days which is the smarter move – the clever word, or the humble cliche that may resonate perfectly, or just sound deadly? It’s a dilemma, for real.)
In total, La Jetée is a work of hauntology, a seductive blending of premonitions, spectres, eerie disjunctions and romance. A leading theme through the narrative is the embrace of love in the face of tragedy. Exactly as with Nolan’s Interstellar, and likewise Seebald’s Austerlitz, it is love (yes love, you soppy idiot, love!) that’s the cargo cult, the connective, redemptive code threaded through time. Not just the mighty weeds, not just the cockroaches, not just those stale Mars bars survive the nuclear cataclysm, but our dreams and hopes and the flowers of romance – of the woman at the airport and the man who can’t forget about her, the hero who ventures backwards, through the eerie unfamiliar of time travel, on the hope of meeting her again.
During his life Chris Marker worked as a photographer, film-maker, cine essayist and artist. He claimed to have been born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. But it may have been Belleville, Paris. He fought for the French resistance and was a political activist and, in time, a public intellectual. But, despite all the cultural exposure, Marker resisted publicity and mostly succeeded in concealing his face from the public gaze. The camera-shy photographer (I know, the irony) often used a cat for his stand-in. He even had a cartoon version generated as his digital avatar. The animation was quite orange and called Guillaume-en-Egypte.
(I can’t decide if Chris Marker hiding in full view as an orange cat, makes him present or absent, weird or eerie?)
Marker certainly loved cats, claiming ‘a cat is never on the side of power’. I don’t know about that, our Gitty could be a right bully.
In Agnès Varda’s documentary The Beaches of Agnès (2008), Varda marches up a regular rue in Paris alongside Marker. But Marker’s body and face remain out of sight, concealed behind a large cardboard Guillaume fixed onto a porter’s trolley. Marker’s voice has also been electronically altered. ‘The orange cat represents the man who wants to hide his face,’ announces the film.
Varda was one of only five people to attend Jim Morrison’s burial in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1971. But we haven’t got time for that now. Following their walk around Paris, Varda and Marker head for his work studio, which is in a terrible state, an utter tip – a dense, overwhelming clutterbug’s tangle of photographs, stacked-up books, tapes, crates, papers, discs, computer monitors, TV screens and pictures of cats.*****
What is it about creatives and cats? Writers especially. Is the attraction mutual, or just the one-sided neediness of authors who can’t ever get enough love back, because they probably got a lot of rejection when they first started out, and probably still get a lot rejection even now, one way or another, what with taunting critics, flakey agents, exacting publishers, demanding readers?
Long question. But first, let’s talk about a dead cat.
|oh, you’ve got blue eyes
The day our cat died years ago was a hot day. The kind of hot day you think maybe air con really does have a future in Britain, when you know that by noon the most comfortable place is going to be the deep end of the public swimming pool.
I was working from home. I remember waving to The Annoying Son from the top bedroom, out of the wide-open French windows. The morning light penetrated everywhere as he headed across the field and the park on his way to the bus, then school.
The Annoying Son always walked so slowly, head in the clouds. At this time in his life he was definitely a hedgehog, usually absorbed with one big idea at any given moment, and not a bit like the fox he later turned into, taken by twenty lesser ideas simultaneously. I watched him dawdle across the field’s sloping grass which was already singed and pale. I texted him to hurry. Get a move on, you’ll be late for school. Again!
I watched him receive my text and ignore it. He couldn’t be hurried along. He just swung his school bag up and down and lolloped towards the centre of the field; where he briefly stopped and slowly spun round on the spot. Then he looked about for something, and down at his feet. He shuffled a bit to the left; forwards a few paces; stopped again and shouted out his name.
He often did this going to and from school. He told me he’d discovered an echo in the centre of the field. It didn’t make any sense – not in such a wide open space with minimal tree cover, with the rows of houses flanking the park set way back from the railings. An echo bouncing off where? But he insisted.
He once pointed from the top bedroom to the echo-space in the middle of the field. He said he knew almost exactly where to stand and shout his name and wait one or two seconds for the shout to loop back round at him. Five feet out either way and the sonic trick, or quirk, wouldn’t work. (Although ‘sonic trick, or ‘quirk’ were not his actual words.)
But tell me why, I said, if this is so, why don’t I hear the echo when I watch and hear you shout out in the first place? He laughed at my stupid question. You just don’t. Don’t you understand? You can’t. You only hear it standing where you sent it.
You believe me, dad, don’t you? I said I believed him. But did I really?
This echo – you’re wondering, where is it leading? Was it one of those half-finished ideas I should’ve followed through? Was there something eerie in the middle of the sloping field at the edge of the park next to our house? Something present but also absent? If it’s a book by Alan Garner, or occurs in a film by David Lynch (or Chrisopher Nolan), then for sure the Annoying Son’s stumbled upon not just an auditory event, but a portal. In fact, this haunted echo-space could be enough to spring a ten part season on Netflix or HBO, squeezed between Westworld and The Leftovers
But I didn’t follow the thought. And the Annoying Son carried on walking.
I watched him walk and then turn and wave back at me. And walk and turn and wave again. Letting go now as he started to blur and diminish. Then one last wave. And once he’d gone from view, not even visible through the binoculars, not even a speck of him left to see, I lit a cigarette and lingered at the balcony railing, taking in the heat and letting my mind wander in the hope that it might land upon something interesting to think about.
But then it was time that I went downstairs and settled in my chair at the kitchen table with another coffee – ready to log-in remotely to the office for another day of paid labour.
The soon-to-be-ex emailed me from work late morning asking how was her cat? I shrugged digitally. She wrote back, is he sitting in the sun? I said, not sure, maybe, don’t know, I don’t think so. That come to think of it, I hadn’t see him all morning. I said he was probably curled up somewhere out of the direct light. The soon-to-be-ex agreed.
I was tempted to write her again and ask why she’d decided to email me now? We hadn’t emailed or spoken all week. That’s the stage we were at in the break-up – long silences, brief spats, occasional cordial calm spells before the next burst of gunfire. But I didn’t write this to her, or anything at all. Didn’t want to provoke. I just returned to silence and my work.
Although not an adventurous animal, Gitty would sometimes go missing for a whole day and then show up round dinner time demanding his feed. Or maybe he’d eat round at the neighbour’s – help himself to whatever was in their cat’s bowl. Or possibly the same at the next property down. Or even the next house after that.
We lived at this time on an Edwardian terrace in south London, with half a dozen cats sharing gardens and often each other’s homes and food. The neighbour’s cat Arthur sometimes slept over in the storage drawer under the Annoying Son’s bed. You’d go looking for a shoe and find a pair of yellow eyes peeping out from among the trainers.
As the afternoon heat began to ease, as the boys returned from school and with it the chance of getting any decent work done faded, at last I started to focus on Gitty and his whereabouts.
I went to the top of the house, peered out from the open French windows, looking for that familiar flash of white and grey fur – perhaps sticking out of a hedge, or curled up under a bush in a flower bed. But nothing doing. I called out his name.
The boys were outside playing basketball. They looked up at me. I could spit at you from here, I said, right on your head. They moved away. But I won’t, obviously.
They looked at each other and back up to me, but said nothing. I knew what they were thinking: Why such a stupid name for a cat? Why must he shout out the stupid name and everybody hears it – ‘Gitty! Gitty!’ Not to mention the endless dumb variations down the years that were too embarrassing for them to ever mention – Gits; Gitster; Gittykins; Gutty, on account of his fat tummy; Schnicky; SchnickSchnacks; Gitty MacMichael; The Gitmesiter; Schnicky Doo….
|I forget, am I the wrong way up?
I shouted Gitty again. Waited for him to emerge. Nothing. Now I was a little concerned. This wasn’t our cat’s style to be out of sight for so long. But then he had been acting out of character lately, a bit off pattern – lolling around on the wet grass, when he usually hated the rain; going for additional late-night mooches; or sitting on top of the fencepost, which could barely contain his bulk, watching the birds fly past in the early evening, looking like any second he might topple over.
Winter had dragged on that year and spring came late and soon after, suddenly, it was baking hot, and he never really caught up. Only the day before, he’d wandered into the room and exploded into a full bore crazy spell, while I was cooking dinner, charging around the kitchen for no reason, miaowing wildly. The madness escalated. He started bouncing off the skirting boards. I put down the spatula to watch Gitty whirl round and round, then attack random chair legs, before climbing onto the red seat under the near window. Then falling straight off it again, landing heavily on his side upon the stripped floor.
He was a strange creature. But he had to be somewhere. We needed to ask around. I went downstairs and sent the boys to go knock at the next few houses along – check with the neighbours if they’d seen our ragdoll.
It was a stupid move. I should have gone and done the asking myself. I just didn’t see heartbreak coming. But five minutes later I saw it, when the boys returned in silence.
Well, anyone seen him?
The boys didn’t reply. And then I caught sight of the Annoying Son’s face. It didn’t look good. His step-brother said the woman at No 83 saw a dead cat in the park this morning and she thinks maybe, it might, could’ve been Gitty.
In the park? Forget it. Couldn’t be our cat, Gitty never goes in the park. He probably doesn’t even understand what a park is, I said, and pointed at the ceiling. I don’t know why the ceiling. The woman, she told you maybe, okay?
I marched straight out and down the road to speak to the woman in person. She opened the door. She was pretty. (Yes, I did notice in the middle of the crisis moment.) We’d never met or spoken before. She didn’t hedge with me like she’d hedged with the boys – she just came out and said it – Dead. I showed her my phone and Gitty’s picture. She said that was the dead cat she saw out jogging early this morning. She said she saw him laid out on the grass about forty, fifty meters from the path. Almost into the middle of the field.
But Gitty never goes in the park, I said weakly, not once in his life.
I’m sorry, she replied. She said his corpse had been removed by late this afternoon when she crossed the field again with her kids. She said she’d been looking out for his body because she didn’t want her youngest to see a dead cat. She said the park keeper must have cleared it away. They’re quite early and prompt at the park.
I listened carefully and heard what she said. But I still went directly from her house through the small gate and into the park. I walked over to where she had described. I looked around. The grass was low and parched. I kicked at the stubbly ground. I stood there and looked in all directions from the middle of the field and then called out Gitty’s name.
I shouted out. And as I did this, I realised I was standing in the alleged echo-space. I called out Gitty’s name three times. But no cat and no echo.
The soon-to-be-ex had just arrived home. She came to the park to search around with me. She said she’d heard a big fight in the night; it could’ve been Gitty and another cat. Or maybe a fox, she said. She always worried Gitty would be killed by a fox, even though everyone said foxes stay away from cats. It was Wednesday and our first real-life conversation since Saturday.
As she mentioned the fight, I remembered hearing it myself. I’d briefly opened my eyes and turned around and gone back to sleep. The soon-to-be-ex said she did the same. We both turned around in our separate beds, in our different quarters of the house. That’s what we’d become – the seven-year couple breaking up, sleeping apart, not talking much, waiting for someone to buy the sodding house so we could escape our current state of limbo.
I pictured me turning over and going back to sleep while Gitty was fighting, losing and dying. Being savaged by a fox possibly. After all, the vet could be wrong – some foxes might actually be evil to fat, stupid ragdolls. How else could he have died and ended up in the park? The fox probably carried Gitty’s dead body in his mouth, over the fence, and then dumped it in the middle of the field.
Really, does any of that sound plausible?
But how else did he get there? Cats don’t suffer mortal wounds, to then crawl to open ground in their last moments – just to make it easier for the refuse collectors to locate their corpse. And what about if the collectors had done their rounds later this morning, after the Annoying Son crossed the park? I didn’t want to think about that horror scenario. I’d watched him stand on the same patch of grass and lingered afterwards smoking and hadn’t thought of the cat through any of this. Didn’t look around for a sight of his fur. Just totally forgot about him.
But that’s what family cats do, even the headcase cats will often blend into the background of daily life, getting on with their own stuff – eat, sleep, miaow; eat, sleep, miaow. Some days you don’t give them any thought. Sadly, even if they’ve just died.
I still felt this guilt rising up, of having failed our big stupid ragdoll. I should have looked after him, protected him, he knew no better, he was stupid. I went outside for a ciggie.
Soon the Annoying Son followed. I always tried not to smoke in front of him. He saw the cigarette and with death on the agenda he popped the question he asked a lot at that time: When are you going to stop smoking?
As soon as we’ve moved house, darling.
He nodded, satisfied with the answer.
It was 75% to 100% a lie. I knew full well fags would be needed through the final winding up of the relationship and the relocating to a new home. Those kind of life upheavals work better with crutches. Anyway, I put the cigarette out and looked at my son, who wanted to ask a question.
Is Gitty definitely dead?
Yes, I think so. But we need to find out for sure.
I called the council while the-soon-to-be-ex microwaved dinner. I used the out-of-hours emergency helpline. But is the death of a pet an emergency? Had I crossed the line – a distraught pet owner now residing in mad land? I assumed they’d tell me off for inappropriate use. But the man was sympathetic and agreed to look into it. He called back and said I’d have to speak to the day shift in the morning.
At bedtime The Annoying Son showed me a small plastic case he’d placed under his pillow. He opened it to show me a small clump of Gitty’s fur that he’d found earlier on in the back garden attached to a bush.
The next day, I worked from home again and rang the company that maintains the park. They said they had a dead cat at their depot in the fridge. They said they’d bring it round. Fifteen minutes later, a man arrived in a big truck. I wasn’t looking forward to this. The bed of the truck was empty except for a green double strength rubbish sack. The man nodded for me to look inside the sack.
Is this your cat?
I pulled back the plastic. Yes… I replied. Yes, it is.
There was Gitty, curled up and dead, his face squashed and still and quiet. His eyes were open and his lips curled back. Because he’d been in pain? There were spatters of blood around the tip of his nose.
The man handed me the sack and I gathered up Gitty’s heavy lifeless body in my arms and went back inside the house – where I walked around just holding him, and then on out into the garden and round on the grass for a while. I couldn’t settle, or put him down. I didn’t know what to do.
Only four years old. You stupid cat. What made you think you were supposed to die so soon?
I couldn’t believe this moment was happening, but also that I felt so bad. I was born on a farm. We had animals dying all the time. But it was like carrying your dead baby. And immediately I said this in my head, I felt guilty for my inappropriate thoughts. Because it’s a cat, stupid, pull yourself together. And yet this dead animal, this furball thing – his sad lifeless face, the dead body in my arms – he was gone.
I texted the-soon-to-be-ex. She replied and said on my way. Does he have bite marks? But I couldn’t look at his face again.
It transpired he didn’t have bite marks. We never found out exactly what happened. The vet said Gitty died from a ruptured aorta – possibly caused by a fall. Maybe he fell off the neighbour’s shed and into the park; jumping out of the way of a rival cat perhaps, or ambitiously attempting to take out a bird.
He was stupid like that. On rainy days he would sit indoors and chase raindrops down the window with his paw, apparently unable to figure out that the drops were on the other side of the glass. Sometimes he forgot how to work his own cat flap and we had to give him a push. I once saw him walk into a perspex coffee table and keel over. And then there were all the times he fell off the bed, or chair or sofa, lying too close to the edge while sleeping. Cats always land on their feet. But not Gitty.
For several days I felt our dead cat’s absence throughout the house. Whenever a floorboard creaked, it sounded like Gitty coming up the stairs. In the bright early mornings I saw a flash of his white fur in the garden, when it was just a trick of the sunlight. As the writer Elizabeth Young wrote concerning the death of her own cat, ‘I see him everywhere – a little blonde ghost.’
The sorrow was puzzling both in its size and duration. While the boys seemed to quickly get past it, both me and the soon-to-be-ex continued to be shocked and sad. There is a shame attached to feeling this way. It seems disproportionate, a bit ridiculous. He was just a cat. I knew people would be thinking this. And so the next day back into the office, I didn’t mention it. After all, what if I got visibly upset? I didn’t want to do that in front of colleagues ever, but especially over a dead animal.
|the old man and his pussy cat
I googled websites with information on pet grief out of curiosity. The writing was often gushy. But there are experts for everything, I guess, and the experts on pet grief emphasise how strong the animal-human bond can get. A lot of owners cite their pet as closer than many family members; while 38% of them ranked their pet as closest of all.
Sandra Barker, the director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, who counsels grieving pet owners, explains to the Washington Post that many clients experience a sense of ‘surprise and even shame that they’re grieving more for their pet than for a sibling or parent… But when they realise that the difference is the pet gave them constant companionship.. then they start to realise that’s why they’re grieving so intensely.’ To mourn the death of a sister less than your dog seemed out of control and skewiff to me.
Of course, one way of containing emotion is to intellectualise the problem, to wrap your head round it and maybe get some back-up too. I searched writers and cats and found an alarming number of sites. Apparently Lord Byron was so devastated by the death of his dog Boatswain, he wrote a poem to mark the pet’s passing: But the poor dog, in life the firmest friend/ The first to welcome, the foremost to defend.
|the order of things, the cat as object of affection
At Brain Pickings there’s a long list, with photographic evidence, demonstrating the bond between writer and cat. Of course there’s TS Eliot – well, he did write Cats. But also we find Borges, Cocteau, George Bernard Shaw. And there’s Hemingway, and Sartre, which was less expected. While the brooding, chilly French philosopher Michel Foucault cuddling up with his kitty was a big surprise. Even tough-nut literary outlaws like Bukowski and Burroughs loved their cats and didn’t mind showing it. Maybe I wasn’t so soppy or sappy after all. Maybe the love between man and pet is enriching and ennobling.
|Lydia Davis and large black cat
Seeing an author with their cat can make you feel differently about their work. I’ve always found Lydia Davis a bit detached, but now I’ve seen her cuddling a moggy in her arms, I’m tempted to go back for another read.
I suppose writers and cats makes sense. If you think about all that solitary time, those long hours trying to string a few sentences together – it must make a furry animal a bit of a lifesaver. Plus cats are often quite sparing and capricious with their affections, which no doubt fits well with the masochistic tendencies of writers.
|George Perec with cat and great hair
There’s a great author photo of George Perec with his cat on his shoulder. I first read Perec in my twenties, around this time I also was into Milan Kundera. The romantic leads in The Unbearable Lightness of Being achieve a deeper connection via their shared affection for their pet – actually a dog in this instance. Later, the lovers fall out, but are reconciled after their dog dies. Well, Gitty kicking the bucket didn’t achieve the same with me and the soon-to-be-ex.
Gradually the sadness eased, as it usually will, and I moved on from reading about furry pets and writers. We cleared out the cat gear and donated his remaining food to the neighbours. The day Gitty died, the Annoying Son changed the screensaver on his phone to a photo of the deceased. But a week later he changed it to something else.
The soon-to-be-ex had Gitty’s body cremated at the vet’s and brought the ashes home. I was surprised. Why did you do that? She replied, I thought that’s what you wanted! The ashes came in a tasteful green box with a flower and sympathy card attached – also a factsheet on pet bereavement and the number for a support phone line.
Two weeks later, on another hot night, the soon-to-be-ex got out a bottle of wine and two glasses (not an un-common event) and said it was time to dispose of Gitty and raise a few to his departure. Both our boys were with the other parents that night. We took the dead cat’s ashes out of the box and scattered handfuls across the garden – the garden Gitty once ruled over, the garden that was his downfall.
I stood on the grass with the wine to my lips and looked at the ashes coating the curled leaves of a bush. I turned around and looked back towards the house. I loved that house. And now we were selling it, winding up the relationship and the family we’d joined together. The property viewings had been going on for some while, with a serious offer still to materialise. But several early wouldbe buyers said what a lovely, beautiful cat.
When the estate agent told me this, it made me proud. Now what though? Should we let on that the cat expired and was currently composting the flowerbeds? Maybe people would think the house is cursed. After all, dead relationship, dead family, dead cat.
|weird place for a hospital
Later that summer, I walked across the park with the Annoying Son and got him to show me the echo-space. I’d been meaning to do this for weeks. I said is it here? And he thought about it carefully and looked around and said No. So, here? No. There? No. I smiled. Where? He smiled. He shifted on the spot, stared at the ground, scratched his nose. He seemed uncertain. He also looked like he was about to own up to something.
But then he started walking purposefully in a zig zag. Carefully, slowly, half steps left, then right, then centre. He stopped at a blob of slightly darker grass and bellowed out his name. And a second later, the name came right back at him. He got me to do the same. It worked. The echo had landed.
|the spaceman who fell to the carpet
* Laura Kipnis’ initial account of her experience at the sexual harassment workshop (which is available to download), her views on ‘safe conduct’ policies, and her support for a colleague accused of harassment, had a long tail of consequences. Kipnis got into trouble with the faculty and some students. There were demos on campus; some legal action; several write-ups in national newspapers and magazines; and ultimately a book deal.
** La Jetée is not entirely comprised of still photographs. There is a brief three-second sequence of moving imagery as the mysterious woman smiles at her lover. The shot is only there because Marker managed to loan a film camera for a single afternoon during production. Nevertheless the brief, unexpected smile adds another layer of uncanny to the film’s eerie atmosphere.
*** You could spend a lot of time tracing the after ripples of La Jetée, the films, film-makers and writers inspired by Marker’s vanguard effort. The list would be long – and that might get a bit boring. Let’s just say Godard’s film essays, likewise Agnes Varda, Patrick Keillor, Chantal Akerman, Iain Sinclair and Adam Curtis.
**** La Jetée, the cine roman, the film essay built out of still photography is art that is relatively cheap to make. The literary voice over. The mix of sound effects and lush music. Even with all his acolytes, Marker’s approach continues to feels aesthetically satisfying, fifty years later, a formal route not yet fully explored or entirely exhausted. You people with your Canons, your Photoshop, InDesign, Sony Vegas, Garageband – you should get to work.
***** Chris Marker’s messy studio. Agnes Varda describes the chaos as a ‘magnificent mess’. Over the years Marker has been critically evaluated and looked at from all sides: his films, his books, his camera work, his gaze, his curiosities, his politics, his selection of words, his use of sound, the importance of silence, the music, the style of montage, his monochromes, his colours, his travels, his notebooks, his unfinished projects, his anonymity, his cat love. And then his studio. After he died, Marker’s studio became the object of much curiosity. Smart people have been known to drool over images of the great man’s work space. A whole book has been written about it, featuring an introduction by Ben Lerner.
There’s a long piece about Marker’s studio, also by Lerner, for the Paris Review.