A Conversation With Sundance Filmmaker Tayarisha Poe on “La Jetée”
Director of the upcoming Sundance premiere “Selah and the Spades” discusses the influence of Chris Marker’s seminal short film on her career.
“It’s hard to relax when you’re watching a movie.” — Tayarisha Poe
It’s also hard to relax when making one. Philadelphia filmmaker Tayarisha Poe knows this all too well. She’s about to premiere her debut feature at the Sundance Film Festival. The days, weeks, months and years of writing, prepping, shooting and editing have come to that moment at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah when the lights fade, the audience settles into their seats and the film begins. Her premiere is called Selah and the Spades, but this wasn’t the first iteration of the project.
This highly-anticipated film started out as the multi-media Selah and the Spades: an overture. Poe combined booklets with playlists with photographs and more to create a “film”: to create cinema. The first piece of art to show her that such a work was possible? Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Largely considered one of the greatest short films of all time, this 1962 science fiction mini-epic is a story of a man tasked with saving humanity by traveling through time by way of his memories. Along the way though, the film becomes a profound meditation on time, memory and fate. Told almost entirely in still images, La Jetée was for Tayarisha as much a revelation in form as it was in narrative:
“…It was my first introduction to this idea of short form content, but it was also a first to be watching something that I was being told was a film but with my own eyes I could tell were a bunch of photographs…I just love that we all collectively agreed that this thing in front of us would be called a film, and yet it was so clearly not what we were used to seeing when we said the word ‘film’. We all agreed that this thing was a film because that’s how it presented itself.”
La Jetée still presents itself with the same power and immediacy over an audience that it did over 50 years ago. How? Is it in the effortless sense of momentum and movement built into the connection of these still frames? Is it the striking black and white compositions each frame holds? Could it be the timeless themes? Yes, all reasons are valid. However, for Tayarisha, it was the sound that first caught her attention. Whether it was the soothing lilt of the detached narrator, the “hushed whispers of scientists”, the beating heart or the stomping shoes of an impending army we never see, the aural experience provided her the comfort of a “storybook.”
That may seem like a strange way to talk about a semi-experimental film set in a harsh post-apocalyptic world. But Tayarisha has always been much more comfortable (and much more comforted by) the uneasy truths and the revelations most hard to swallow. Even the film’s tragic ending brings her surprising solace.
“…think about it. You have this image ever since you were a child, of a man dying in front of you. You can’t figure out why you’re obsessed with it. You never forget it. You keep being drawn to that moment in your memory. Then you get to that age when you realize that you are that man and that it was your own death that you were witnessing. You have to be thinking to yourself “God, thankfully that’s over and that you finally figured out the truth of that moment.” I understand the tragedy of it, but I found the tragedy so comforting and so human because the tragedy ultimately was more about finding out the truth of that image. I like to believe that even though it was something that haunted him throughout life…the comfort of finding out the truth of all things in that moment had to be worth it….”
Though Selah and the Spades, a film about divided factions within the student body of a Philadelphia area boarding school, is a much different story than La Jetée, both deal in the human drama of uncovering such truths, especially as they relate to the past, and our memories of it.
“This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood.” — The opening line of La Jetée.
Later in the film, when the nuclear holocaust has made French citizens live underground and they look for someone with the ability to go back and forth in time through memory, they pick that same man “among a thousand for his obsession with an image from the past.” Who better to identify with such a character than a filmmaker? A filmmaker’s very reason for choosing the cinematic form is in a certain intoxication with an image…or with the idea that an image contains. The filmmaker is drawn in by something once experienced or witnessed that cannot be escaped. Or, as Tayarisha puts it, “you see things through the haze of the image you can’t forget.”
Like The Man in La Jetée, the filmmaker attempts to go back in time with cinema, attempts to recreate pivotal moments, no matter how loosely, from the past still being reckoned with. Yet, even when the film is made and released to the world, the uncomfortable truth remains: there is no escape from the image. It still haunts.
…you can’t escape your brain. You can’t escape everything you’ve been through in life and pretend that the things you create are somehow separated from that…that idea makes it all the more important that as many different types of people as possible are able to make films, because that means we’ll have as many types of pasts and images as possible.”
In this reflection, the director of Selah and the Spades offers us a saving grace: a transcendent way out of the cyclical. La Jetée itself ends at its starting point. The film loops back, only, we suppose, to begin again. But is Tayarisha right? Can the invariable number of possible experiences provided by movies create a certain transcendentalism?
“One of the moments that always really stands out to me, and the one that always comes up whenever I’m convincing someone younger than me to watch La Jetée, is the feeling of watching images of the woman who is laying on the bed, sleeping, and how that becomes a moving image. I just remember the first time that I saw that — I hate to be so dramatic as to say it changed my life but it really did change my life! Because it was so unexpected. And I can’t remember the last time that I wasn’t expecting something to happen so completely that I felt transformed… I’m so amazed by how just changing the format from one frame to 24 per second could do that.”
This pivotal scene from La Jetée begs a crucial question: when a film built of still, fragmented images suddenly beget motion, and when the entire visual language the film set up for us suddenly breaks down, what else can we attribute to witnessing but the transcendent incarnating itself into the moving image?
It’s what Chris Marker taught Tayarisha when she first saw La Jetée at the age of 15, and what this film taught the rest of movie history: cinema saves us. It saves us, somehow, each time we get access to another person’s vision of the world through cinema. So what better destination for Selah and the Spadesthan the Sundance Film Festival — a place devoted to sharing as many possible experiences, and images, as possible.
In true La Jetée fashion, we must circle back to where we began: Marker understood how hard it is to relax making a movie, no matter the sophistication of the technology. In one of the few recorded interviews we have, he was asked to comment on the advent of digital moviemaking, and the relative ease and cheapness of making a movie compared to past generations. His response? “You can miniaturize as much as you want, but a film will always require a great deal of work — and a reason to do it.” When confronted with this quote, Tayarisha had this to say:
“I first got into film in 2005…and when I think about how much technology has changed in those 14 years…I don’t think any of that makes the act of filmmaking any easier. I haven’t felt like telling stories has gotten any easier, because it’s still the same amount of emotional labor. It requires the same amount of communication to others…. When you’re thinking about film collaboratively, or when you’re thinking about it in terms of people, and what it takes from people to make something true, then it’s going to be the same amount of work forever.”
So, yes; it’s hard to relax while watching a movie. It’s hard to relax while making one. But the pursuit is always worth it.
Click here to see the Sundance showings of Selah and the Spades.
To see more of Tayarisha’s work, go to: http://www.tayarishapoe.com/
Watch the full version of La Jetée here.