HER GHOST: remixing Marker’s SF classic

30 Nov

A trio of contemporary artists have found a new perspective on Chris Marker’s time-travel film La jetée. By Tim Maughan

Brunel and Banksy both have works on show within a few minutes’ walk of Bristol’s Arnolfini arts centre. It’s a pretty place. Well: prettified. The Victorian harbour is a damned sight better maintained than the brutalist tower blocks that lie a few minutes’ drive behind them: structures that have come to symbolise troubled British inner city life. Put this lot under a dark shroud of perma-drizzle (Bristol’s most science-fictional asset) – and you have the perfect setting for a performance of Her Ghost, a homage-slash-remix-slash-retelling of Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction short La jetée

La jetée, for the uninitiated, is an time travel film unlike any other you’re likely to have seen. It’s a 28-minute succession of monochrome photographs, punctuated only by a single brief moment of motion. A lone, unseen narrator describes the fate of its central character over a hauntingly minimal soundtrack. It’s an uncompromising but laser-precise piece of storytelling that uses its stark form to create both an ultra-tight narrative and an ambiguous, emotionally-laden memory collage.

Fifty years after its release, Marker’s film remains effective and still feels vital, having become a key reference work for generations of filmmakers. It was remade, Hollywood-style, as the Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt vehicle Twelve Monkeys, and its influence is evident in more arty takes such as Shane Carruth’s Primer (analysed in Arc 1.1). Even deciding how to approach the reimagining of such a monumental work must have been formidable.

“Initially the idea was to do a new soundtrack to the film, which from my point of view was a very exciting prospect,” says Steve Goodman, who, under the alias Kode9, is one of modern electronic music’s most respected producers. (He’s also the author of a book on sonic weaponry.) “It soon became clear that the film didn’t need a new soundtrack. In its original state it was just perfect.”

Rather, Goodman worked with German filmmaking duo MFO and vocalist/writer Ms Haptic to reassemble the film from scratch. The result is meant to be performed live rather than played. Goodman manipulates the sound and MFO the imagery, while Haptic delivers her new and enigmatic narrative track over the top.

Kode9’s thunderous soundscape and MFO’s glitchy visuals both build predominately from the original source, with the original’s petrified imagery distorted and manipulated in real time throughout the performance.

But it’s Ms Haptic’s narration that wreaks the most radical changes. While Marker’s film was centred on a post-apocalyptic time traveller, falling in love with a woman he meets in the past, Her Ghost turns it around, showing the same events from the woman’s perspective. The result is a radically different experience. The woman has only vague, fleeting memories of the time traveller – “her ghost”, in the words of the original film. That makes the viewer question the original’s depiction of events, and indeed whether what it portrayed can even be described as a real relationship.

For devotees of La jetée, it’s a slightly jarring departure at first, with the original’s tight narrative being replaced by a vaguer and more liquid exploration of emotion and memory. But on reflection, it’s arguably the only direction Her Ghost could really have taken. Any attempt to better or re-write Marker’s storytelling would have been foolish. The team’s decision to make a more emotional, abstract work out of the events described in La Jetée is a triumph of multimedia performance.

It’s one that especially fits well with Goodman’s Kode 9 alter ego, and the back catalogue of his influential record label, Hyperdub. Their works lack obvious narrative structure, but they nonetheless very much qualify as intelligent, emotional science fiction – in fact, some of the most important science fiction of the last decade, gloriously capturing urban environments and atmospheres and looking to the future while referencing the past.

Her Ghost sits under this umbrella perfectly: a work of SF that retains La jetée’s timeless emotional resonance, and embraces technology and remix culture without getting lost in the gimmicks of either.

Her Ghost will next be performed at London’s BFI Southbank on Friday 7th December. For more information, and details of future performances, visit https://herghost.wordpress.com/

Read Tim Maughan’s short story “Limited edition” in Afterparty Overdrive, out now for iPads and iPhones
for Android devices, Windows and Mac computers
as a collectible print edition
and for Kindle

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