La Jetée (1963) and the Big Reveal

JETEE, LA (1962)

One of my favorite sci-fi movies of the last year was the Oscar nominated Arrival(2016). When I watched it, I was reminded how much the big reveal has become a part of modern science fiction. Being a big fan of science fiction, I also took in last year’s Westworld, the TV series, and was again struck by how much the big reveal plays into its story structure. Big reveals, also known as twist endings, though I don’t know if they’re necessarily interchangeable, are when key plot elements are revealed near the conclusion that were initially kept hidden. They aren’t necessarily fooling you, the viewer, just keeping vital information from you, while showing you everything else at the same time. La Jetée (1963), the short photomontage movie made by Chris Marker, relies almost entirely on the big reveal for its story to have any meaning at all. But is that a good thing?

(Be warned: SPOILERS FOLLOW!)

Increasingly with science fiction, the big reveal is a big deal. In the last five years, some of the best sci-fi movies, from Looper (2012) to Predestination (2014), rely upon revealing who certain characters are and what their situation really is at the end to force the audience to rethink everything that preceded it. In a way, it both spoils the suspense in rewatching but also encourages rewatching by revealing details of the plot. So when I watch Arrival again (I have seen it only the one time so far), I will know what those flashbacks are really all about, something I didn’t know going in. I will also know that I’m not necessarily watching things in the order I thought I was, which was kept from me the first time. Westworld does the same thing, only with more intensity. In fact, Westworld manages to have two completely different timelines happening concurrently without alerting the viewer that they are watching two different timelines until the very end of the first season. The two main stories running in the show in fact take place decades apart from each other!

Big reveals weren’t always standard. Science fiction envisioned futures, like Metropolis (1927) or Things to Come (1936), new technologies, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), or good old alien invasion, like The War of the Worlds (1953) or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) without any big twists at the end. Even when there were cool secrets to be given up, like the fact that in Forbidden Planet (1956) it’s Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) creating the monster inadvertently from his id while he sleeps, it’s revealed pretty early on when Morbius wakes up after the first visible ship attack and the monster disappears. But then came The Twilight Zone in late 1959 and the big reveal/twist ending never had a better friend.

So by 1963, La Jetée had a target audience built in (if a movie done almost exclusively with still photos can have a target audience, that is). For those not in the know, the story of La Jetée takes place in a future Paris devastated and unlivable after a third world war in which the city became irradiated. A prisoner is sent back in time to encounter life before the war, and then to the future, to  hopefully resolve the present day situation by using key technologies from the future.

SPOILER START  -  The one thing that will not leave his mind is a haunting image of something happening on a platform (the jetty) at the airport when he was a boy, something revolving around a man’s death. Actually, it’s a man’s murder. After traveling back to the past and forward to the future, he acquires the knowledge and technology necessary to fix the present only to find out he is now on a hit list and escapes to the past, where he runs towards the woman he fell in love with during his travels, only to be  killed in front of his younger self. And so now we know, it was him the whole time. He was seeing his own murder and it wouldn’t leave his head – SPOILER END

JETEE, LA (1962)

Okay, so how does that help us out the next time we watch it? Well, for starters, it puts us inside a time loop much like the character himself. We can watch it all happen again and again but we can’t change it. Just as he cannot change the circumstances of his own death. If he could, that image would have never been there. Since it was, he seems destined to die in a very specific and concrete way.

But without the reveal, is the story worth telling? Could it have simply been the same story, minus the image and memory, and at the end he gets away by escaping to the past? Yes, but it may not have had any real dramatic impact. At the same time, maybe it would. There is no point in Blade Runner (1982), shortly before the climax, where it is finally revealed to the audience that Harrison Ford’s character is a replicant. There has been much speculation (okay, let’s be honest: rampant) but never a conclusive set of shots establishing that. So, in the end, the movie is what it is: a story taking place in the future in which the lead character escapes to a new life at the conclusion (well, in at least one of the 487 versions). The story doesn’t need a twist, but that doesn’t mean it might not have worked better with one.

Other big reveals, like the jaw dropper in Predestination (and if you haven’t seen it, I will not only not spoil it for you, I don’t think I could – it would take too long and be too unbelievable – you just have to see it for yourself) absolutely invite reviewings and expand the story far beyond its basic plot elements. But even if it didn’t, even if the ending spoiled any reason to ever watch it again, so what? When people complain that movies or TV shows with twist endings don’t work once you know the ending, I ask myself, “why does anything have to be rewatched in the first place?” I mean, I love rewatching certain movies but can’t a movie be created with the sole purpose of providing a one time only experience?  I don’t judge a movie based on whether I’ll watch it again but if I thought it was good when I did watch it.

The Twilight Zone and La Jetée both made the big reveal a big deal. It was around before but in the early 1960s, it really took off. When the internet came around, La Jetée got a lot more attention as it was now easy to view it streaming (including FilmStruck’s offering under the Directed by Chris Marker theme and on The Criterion Channel). Before, there were few outlets for a 26 minute short film. And now the big reveal is with us for good. Is that a bad thing? No. If a movie deriving its whole meaning from a big reveal at the end ruins a second watching for some people, so be it. Sometimes, with the movies, it’s best to only live once.

Greg Ferrara

17 Responses La Jetée (1963) and the Big Reveal
Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 24, 2017 12:46 am

In none of the 487 versions of Blade Runner is it “revealed” that Deckard is a replicant. It’s only implied in the later versions, and the dream scene that implies it isn’t in the original cut. But I’d seen it at least a dozen times before any of the reworks, and that scene always bugs me, which is why I still prefer the original version, bad narration and all (which isn’t even as bad as some people claim it to be, as it gives it even more of film-noir detective feel). And that scene bugs me even more now that I know Ridley Scott was talked out of making Deckard a replicant during production, because it was seen as a pointless twist (and a self-indulgent one, since in the book the implication that Deckard is an android is a red-herring).

Posted By Doug : February 24, 2017 6:10 am

A story is a story is a story-a big reveal is great, and if it works, there’s no need for it to hinder re-watching a film or reading a book. Beautiful example: “The Music Box”-we will watch Stan and Ollie struggle with that piano again and again. Because sometimes it’s just about the experience.
Greg, you mentioned “Metropolis” in passing-no idea where it came from, but I have a Latvian magazine issue from 1927 which has an ad for “Metropolis” along side “La Bohème” starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 24, 2017 10:26 am

Ed, I’m not saying it was ever revealed, I’m saying it is always speculated but that no set of shots has ever existed that give solid proof of any kind to such speculation.

And like you, I prefer the original with the narration, quite frankly. It’s a point of contention with a lot of fans but I agree it gives it more of a noir feel.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 24, 2017 10:29 am

Doug,

It’s really true that every movie, whether it has a twist or not, has an ending that, hopefully, you didn’t see coming. Thus, the second time you watch, you know it’s coming and still you watch it. I’ve seen Casablanca dozens of times and never once thought to myself, “Nah, I know how it ends.” It’s the storytelling mastery of it that draws you back in.

I have a Latvian magazine issue from 1927 which has an ad for “Metropolis” along side “La Bohème” starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert.

That’s really cool. I love old magazines and programs. I used to collect them, from old Broadway programs to old movie mags.

Posted By Doug : February 24, 2017 4:14 pm

“never once thought to myself, “Nah, I know how it ends.” It’s the storytelling mastery of it that draws you back in.”
I agree with one exception-if the only interesting thing in the film or book IS the twist…I may not bother to go back. In both film and print, some haven’t mastered storytelling.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : February 24, 2017 11:05 pm

Sometimes the movie is actually better the second time around because I can see all the clues laid out – The Sixth Sense.

Sometimes it’s just fun – The original Planet of the Apes

Sometimes it’s useless – Tim Burton’s remake of the Planet of the Apes

Sometimes it ruins the movie because it doesn’t make sense (Haute Tension/High Tension/Swithblade Romance)

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 25, 2017 5:07 am

Doug, great point. which is why I’ve never rewatched The Sixth Sense.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 25, 2017 5:38 am

Greg, the scene at the end of Blade Runner when Gaff says to Deckard “You’ve done a man’s job” was filmed with Gaff asking “but are you a man?” which was wisely left on the cutting-room floor, even in the reworks. Both Ford and Hauer strenuously objected to Scott wanting the Deckard-is-a-replicant twist throughout filming, but no one has ever said if they convinced Scott against it, or if that was taken out of his hands when the producers took over the final cut. Obviously Scott couldn’t let it go, and at the first opportunity, the 1992 “director’s cut” inserted the implication, but probably didn’t dare make it explicit. Some fans claim they ALWAYS had that impression, but I’d never heard or read that theory until after the ’92 re-edit, so I’ve always figured those people claiming that just want to pretend they’re smarter than everyone else by seeing something that wasn’t there.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 25, 2017 5:44 am

Ed, I didn’t know about the “but are you a man?” line. When I saw cut with the unicorn in it for the first time, I honestly didn’t know what the hell it even meant.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 25, 2017 5:49 am

I enjoy The Sting more, I think, actually knowing they’re setting everything up. And really, the audience is aware that Shaw is being stung the whole time. The only reveal is that the G-men were actors too to make sure Shaw and Dunning think Redford and Newman are dead so they never try to get them again. Basically they clue the audience in on everything except the last detail that Redford and Newman will fake their deaths to be in the clear.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 25, 2017 6:40 am

When I first saw the unicorn dream it took a second viewing for it to sink in what was being implied, and when it did I figured it was an idea Scott had after the fact, something he’d wished he had thought of at the time. It was years before I found out he’d wanted to do that all along, after the advent of the internet, which was also when I first started hearing that anyone had ever even considered the possibility. And like I said, I’d read the book, where an entire chapter is about the possibility that Deckard is an android, but because that turns out to be an attempt by the androids to get Deckard off their backs, and the original film didn’t reference it at all, I just figured that there was no question that Deckard was human. I still have a hard time believing anyone thought otherwise before the 1992 re-edit. (I do wish someone [HBO, Netflix, Amazon] would make a faithful adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. For everything the film used from it, what it changed and didn’t use at all makes it an entirely different story.)

Posted By Stephen White : February 26, 2017 2:45 am

My head is spinning at the apparent contradictions. In the text of your article, you say, “shortly before the climax” of Blade Runner “it is finally revealed that Harrison Ford’s character is a replicant”. Then your response to Ed you say “I’m not saying it was ever revealed”. Yes, you did. You used the word revealed! This feels very Trump-speak. Are you going to accuse Ed of being fake news?

Posted By George : February 26, 2017 4:04 pm

On the subject of Trump-speak, have to share this tweet from Slate film critic Dana Stevens:

https://twitter.com/thehighsign/status/832719553343811585/photo/1

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 28, 2017 12:42 pm

My head is spinning at the apparent contradictions. In the text of your article, you say, “shortly before the climax” of Blade Runner “it is finally revealed that Harrison Ford’s character is a replicant”. Then your response to Ed you say “I’m not saying it was ever revealed”.

What?!?!?!!

Here is the text from the post:

There is no point in Blade Runner (1982), shortly before the climax, where it is finally revealed to the audience that Harrison Ford’s character is a replicant. There has been much speculation (okay, let’s be honest: rampant) but never a conclusive set of shots establishing that.

Let me highlight the important part:

There is no point in Blade Runner

And again:

There is no point

And one last time:

is no point

Look, I’m happy to converse with everyone but when someone willfully ignores the very first four words in a sentence to manipulate it into something else, I’m done.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 28, 2017 12:50 pm

Also, for goodness sakes, if you take out the subordinate clause “shortly before the climax” the sentence literally reads “there is no point in Blade Runner where it is finally revealed to the audience that Harrison Ford’s character is a replicant.” I don’t know how you can get much more concrete than that.

I’m talking about big reveals at the ends of movies so I’m saying that Blade Runner doesn’t have a scene shortly before the climax revealing anything about Ford.

Posted By Doug : February 28, 2017 6:30 pm

If I were an android from “Blade Runner” I would have dreamt of Sean Young, NOT electric sheep. I might have been wires and chemicals, but I’d still be a guy.
Greg, I’m with you-the ‘idea’ that Ford was a replicant has arisen from theorists rather than the actual film. As if anyone could clearly understand what PKD had going on in his mind. Sometimes a unicorn is just a unicorn.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 1, 2017 10:34 am

Doug, I think we’re all on the same page of the replicant theory coming later, it’s just that my phrasing was misunderstood. I have to focus more on clarity in my writing, something I don’t always do.

Did I mention the time I saw Blade Runner on the ultra-huge screen at the Uptown in DC and was disappointed? I’ve written about it before. It was odd. The visuals, naturally, looked great but the movie worked better for me on the average sized screen I saw it on in its first run. It is, after all, a very personal, intimate film and the oversize screen distracted from that a little bit. I think because of the sci-fi aspects and visual splendor people often forget what a small, personal film this really is.

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