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La Jétee: The Novelization

Pete Segall

Chapter 1: Real Children

“I have no hopes and no nostalgia.”
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet


y grandfather teetered close to death for months, long enough that when my mother called to tell me he had finally died, I briefly thought it had already happened. I remembered a humid morning at a cemetery with old rain dripping from tree branches. A dog on the sidewalk stopping to watch the Kaddish. A gravedigger leaning on his shovel, picking his nose. It was May of 2000. I hastily booked a flight from New York (LGA) to Chicago (ORD) for the funeral. My father’s father had been a lawyer for labor unions. He once argued a case before the Supreme Court (he lost). He was round and severe. His moods shifted from jocular to thunderous without warning. I remember him amusedly describing how he once left his briefcase of legal documents on the train home and not worrying about it because anyone who found it after he got off (meaning anyone going further south than where he lived in Hyde Park, meaning anyone Black), would not have known what to do with a briefcase of legal documents. I remember him forcing me out of the bathroom while I was on the toilet because he needed to use it more urgently than me. When I was very young he and my step-grandmother (his first wife, my father’s mother, died when my father was seventeen, thirteen years before I was born) lived in a high rise on Lake Shore Drive, looking down onto the sublime, unyielding expanse of Lake Michigan. Then they moved to Palm Springs, where it was warm and they could golf. When we visited he would let me drive his golf cart if I didn’t irritate him. He declined. He was sent to a hospice in Wisconsin where his wife’s family lived. He died swaddled in full dementia, cheerful and delighted as a toddler.

Last minute trips purposed by death used to have slightly discounted tickets called bereavement fares. I had to send United Airlines a letter from the funeral company confirming that I deserved their generosity. “If we haven’t received verification within two weeks of your flight, you will be charged for the full fare of the ticket plus a penalty of $150,” the ticketing agent warned me over the phone. Death is serious. Death is not an excuse to cheat. I’d intended on finishing The Plague on the flight. I was at the very end of the book, near the moment when Dr Rieux acknowledges that he has been the book’s narrator. The revelation has always struck me as quietly and delicately devastating, even within the broader context of the book. Rieux, who has been presented (by himself, we now know), as a selfless character now becomes self-less. He uses his objectivity as the story’s recorder to erase himself as an individual worthy of feeling. “What he personally had to say, his own waiting, his trials, these he had to pass over in silence,” Rieux says of himself (the second person narration is like listening to a séance). Instead of reading, though, I spent the flight talking to the woman sitting beside me. She was sprightly and enthusiastic, not terribly older than me, a physician like Dr Rieux but in the emergency room at Bellevue rather than the Algerian hinterland. When she spoke she moved her hands in slow flowing gestures. Every conversation was a condition to be explained. She described a how a fragment of a bullet had entered a man’s body near the clavicle and traveled through his arterial system and lodged near his groin. She traced the entire path in the air. It was like she was showing me how she had once walked from Les Invalides to Père Lachaise. We never told each other why we were going to Chicago. By the time we began to descend we had stopped talking. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I’ve never been good at bereavement. I could have sworn I had already done this. The humid day at the cemetery. The cabin lights dimmed. Everything went shapeless. When we deplaned my sister was waiting for me at the gate. The doctor embraced her husband.

My grandfather and both of his wives are buried in Westlawn Cemetery. From there, it’s a ten minute drive through a county forest preserve to O’Hare Airport.

Chapter 2: Real Birds

“At times we’re reminded of the future.”
—Yoel Hoffmann, Moods


a Jétee: man has image so brilliant lodged in his memory that it may save humanity.

If you were going to make a film about memory as salvation, there is no good reason not to tether it to the far southeastern suburbs of Paris. Anything that can truly redeem, that has the strength to stand against oblivion, is going to be found somewhere indistinct and out of the way. A memory standing out against the unbroken blur of memories. It’s got to be searched for. Plumbed, dredged. Check your directions. Check them again. Keep your eyes peeled. I can’t tell you exactly what you’re looking for but you’ll know it when you see it.

(While I was writing this, a stranger tried to let himself into my house.)

Man (Davos Heinich) gets image of woman (Hélène Châtelain) on the viewing platform at Orly stuck so vividly in his head while still a boy that scientists after World War III think he has the mental stamina to withstand time travel and prevent the war from happening in the first place.

Chris Power wrote and directed La Jétee. “To each his madeline,” writes Chris Power.

I’ve never been to Orly (ORY), only De Gaulle (CDG). I remember zigzagging mechanical walkways at De Gaulle, like a corkscrewed escalator. I remember drinking tepid coffee at dawn in the airport train station, waiting for the train to Lyon. I remember a woman approaching my family in the departures hall asking us, in American English, if we would take a package for her son to America. It was box about the size of a basketball, wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. She seemed desperate. When my parents started to turn her down she hurried off to find someone else to ask before they could finish. The only planes seen clearly from the viewing platform in La Jétee belong to Pan Am and TWA. Things going home to sons in America. Pan Am disappeared in 1991. TWA became financially unviable after September 11, 2001, and was taken over by American Airlines. I was a bored and irascible kid and a few times my father drove me out to O’Hare. As a thing to do, as an outing (“les parents mènent leurs enfants voir les avions en partance,” in the film). This was before September 11, 2001. O’Hare didn’t have a jetty for watching takeoffs and landings like Orly. I always wanted to go to Terminal 1. We would eat at one of the wretched airport restaurants. Look at the flight boards. My father asked me where I would want to go. I didn’t say anything. I was happy. Because I was happy I didn’t say anything. My father could not have known that, though, and he was left with a boy he had driven to the airport (to the airport!) just for fun and now would not even speak.

Man gets image of woman.

I have seen tomorrow. I do not know what it looks like. But I do know that it is silent.

Chapter 3: Real Cats

“To secure an ideal, surround it with a moat of forgetfulness.”
—Lewis Hyde, A Primer for Forgetting


a Jétee was remade by Terry Gilliam as 12 Monkeys. It seems Marker agreed to let his film be redone by Hollywood after Francis Ford Coppola asked him nicely, possibly after Chinese food, probably at the Château Marmont. (“Such anecdotes make my week:” Chris Marker.) Rather than World War III, civilization has been wiped out by a virus. It isn’t geopolitical superpowers who drive life underground but ecoterrorists. The film was released in 1996, the gut of the Clinton years, after the End of History (©1992 Francis Fukuyama). The mood was endemic quietism. I saw 12 Monkeys with my father while I was home for winter vacation. It was my freshman year of college in Philadelphia (PHL). The movie was partly set in Philadelphia. We went to the old Old Orchard multiplex in Skokie, soon to be demolished. It was a dismal night, hard blowing snow, the deep and heaved darkness that covers midwinter in the midwest. My younger brother was quite sick then. He had been released from the hospital just days before I got home. When we hugged I was shocked at how insubstantial he had turned. His body seemed to be receding into itself. His eyes searched me, probably looking for signs of how college had changed me. “You look like a Muppet fucked a melted candle,” he said. I’d said something similar to him the previous summer, just before my parents took him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota (RST) to see another specialist in a long procession of specialists. Northwest Airlines discounted tickets for clinic patients. My brother called them unfares. Driving out to the movie, my father seemed tired. He asked about school; most were questions he had asked already. I may have offered him the chance to turn around and go home. I know I thought about it, and worried that it might seem like I was trying to avoid spending time with him, but don’t recall if I pulled the trigger. He dropped me off to buy tickets while he trawled the parking lot. I hated the night. I hated the battering wind and the cold mass of people who believed they had business seeing the movie too and the girl who I knew would not be waiting for me when I got back to Philadelphia and my brother’s withering form and my father’s fatigue. It would be more appropriate to say the movie is inspired by La Jétee rather than a remake of it. The connection doesn’t extend much beyond premise. But Marker’s movie is so singular that anything using it as a starting point can only be said to be building with used materials. 12 Monkeys is bleak and baffling and wonderfully hopeless. Two executives at Universal Studios lost their jobs for scheduling it for a Christmas release. I remember people leaving the theatre looking like they had just seen an automobile accident. Multiplex hallways and airport corridors are close relations. They are places of anonymous shared purpose, arrivers bumping the shoulders of departers, oddly lit passages of transit. What’s more human than coming and going? If I could remain in place forever, I would be God’s mystery to Herself. My father offered his thoughts — the acting was generally strong, the ending was good, I think it could have been shorter don’t you think — but I only wanted to talk about La Jétee, which he wasn’t familiar with. He was tired again in the car. I offered to drive but he said something to the effect of What’s the matter with you or What’s the matter with me. I hated the night. My brother was sleeping when we got home. I’d hoped to talk with him but instead I went to the family’s computer and logged into America Online so I could see if I had any email. (“Coincidences are the pen names of grace for those who wouldn’t recognize it otherwise:” Chris Marker.)

Chapter 4: Real Graves

“Hamlet, remember me.”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet


e skeptical of a narrative that begins with a trip home for a funeral. It’s a cheap spark and flaccid magnet. The dead have better things to do and should not be treated this way. “She calls him her ghost.” So thinks the woman of the man who cannot forget the sight of her. He knows she is dead. He knows he is dead (sorta). We all lurch about with the vague sub-intention of finding the memory that will withstand annihilation. Many of us are also somebody’s ghost. It’s a role to be taken seriously. Bring gravitas, maybe elegance or grotesquery. Humanity depends on how striking you are. I’m at a bar in Toronto Pearson (YYZ) after flying my son up for summer camp. You have to clear customs before entering this terminal so even though I am in Ontario I am also technically in the United States. You’re going to see me at that bar. Wistful (I’ve just left my son), weary (up to Canada and back in a day is a lot), eyeing the runway (Air Canada, Air Canada Express, Air Canada Rouge), two transnational, transdimensional, transtemporal Petes. Take it or leave it. The ghost economy is booming. The dead and the dead-while-still-living are waiting for you to call. Waiting for you to think of us one day far from now, maybe not that far, sometime fractured and inexhaustable, when your throat is filled with distances, when the weather calls for debris.

Epilogue: Ten Thousand Incomprehensible Streets

“Noon on the busy airplane
and besides this may never happen”

—John Ashbery, “The Art of Finger Dexterity”

In April 2020, Hélène Châtelain died of a virus nearly no one had heard of two months earlier.

Much of the preceding is not true.


Pete Segall