“Once you find a hidden picture, it seems always to have been there staring you in the face”
D.A. Miller (1)

“One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it”
Ariella Azoulay (2)

This essay chases an extraordinary image from Chris Marker’s 1962 film/photo roman La Jetée — an image found, lost, and found again, but that somehow always catches me unawares. Revisiting a series of talks that have themselves become part of my story, this version traverses the more recent occasion of Marker’s death and ultimately reconsiders how we share the experience of art over time. No less than its inspiration, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), La Jetée demands equal attention to the elusive image and to the dilemmas and rewards of its pursuit—dilemmas and rewards that circle the stubborn problem of authorship and the limits of narrative surprise. La Jetée’s great theme of the transporting power of images finds striking form in the film’s concatenation of still shots, but the voice-over narration never fully prepares for these shots, which therefore always verge on surprise encounters. My own encounter adds a new and unsettling image to the film at the very moment when we receive a final narrative twist, a twist that it both enhances and ultimately upstages. As the priority of plot recedes, so does the stability of the film as an object, releasing not just local analysis but the general critical scene from the fantasy of the author in various guises. Whether in the kind of experience I am about to relate or in the social management of those more commonly discussed, author figures loom over the beginning of things, blocking our view of the surprises of time.

The image I saw haunts the end of La Jetée, an apparition that weirdly doubles the film’s fatalistic narrative. Recall the looping plot: a boy witnesses the death of a strange man on an airport observation deck. After an apocalyptic war, he grows up in a prison camp where, due to his strong attachment to this scene, his captors select him for involuntary time travel. What he remembers vividly is the face of a woman who also witnessed the death at the airport, a woman who for that reason becomes his tether to the past. After many visits with her, interrupted by a world-saving trip to the future, he eventually goes back to the moment at the airport he witnessed as a boy, only to realize that he himself was the strange man and is now going to die. It is with this narrative twist that my image surprised me: as the man died, I saw the grim reaper facing me on the observation deck, or so I thought. And for years I carried a memory of this figure so vivid that it served as the memory of the film, a kind of emblem in my mind of the experience of seeing La Jetée for the first time. (3)

But when I finally had a chance to watch the film again years later, the reaper failed to appear, and at the prospect of losing my image, panic mounted. It is a feeling that viewers of Vertigo or Blade Runner (1982) know well: to lose something that was never there, like one’s madeleine or one’s implanted memory of a mother, is to lose not only an attachment, but all confidence in the ability to attach. (4) And if my minor private embarrassment couldn’t match the humiliations heaped upon Scottie the dupe or Rachel the replicant, embarrassment it remained. When I went back for a closer look, I was quickly able to figure out what I must have seen. What I thought was the grim reaper facing me I could now see to be the time traveler facing away—an image of death, yes, but one suffered by the traveler, not claimed by the reaper (the small figure is the woman). (5)

La Jetée film analysis

Identifying the source of the mistake relieved the panic, though at the cost of the sense of loss settling in. Knowing now what the image certainly was (the traveler), I seemed forced to accept that I also knew what it was not (the reaper). Yet the very fact that I could pinpoint the mistake meant that my lost image remained available in some way, and it was this thought that led me to put the question to a series of public tests. At a similar point in those presentations, I announced that I would attempt a sort of group recovery. Against this image’s cruel specificity, I would muster the combined powers of suggestion and squinting, in the hopes that my audience could see what I had seen. Here is the description I gave them: “taken as a figure facing toward us, the time traveler’s nose and chin do almost double as the point of a hood, turning his dark hair into a shrouded face. The thumb of a left hand facing away provides no distinction from the thumb of a right hand facing toward us, and the absence of a scythe may not dispel the impression of a formidable arm raised for reaping.” What I had not quite reckoned on was how well this description would work—that is, if the mere suggestion hadn’t worked already, as it may have for you. My audiences said they too now saw the grim reaper, and what remained to be considered was what that perception could mean. In a further twist, it gradually became clear that in fact a small but regular minority of viewers see the reaper unprompted, as I did, and struggle to see the time traveler at all. (6) With my own vision no longer filtered through the fear of lonely error, I cannot now avoid seeing the reaper as vividly as ever, and presumably for keeps. Thus emboldened, I aim to pursue this now strangely viable image, to raise the questions of what it is, where it comes from, and where it might be going.

To begin with, seeing the reaper combines aspects of spotting Jesus on a fishstick with vacillating before the famous duck-rabbit.

La Jetée film analysis

La Jetée film analysis

Like fishstick Jesus, the reaper raises the obvious problem of psychological projection, of the tendency to see what one wants or fears in images, especially the kinds of significance that support one’s prevailing beliefs. And like the duck-rabbit, the reaper cannot appear apart from its counterpart. Seeing it is not a choice between something and nothing, signal and noise, but between something and something more, something improbably co-existent. If habitual vision refuses the reaper on grounds of mutual exclusiveness—it’s the time traveler, so it can’t be the reaper—the existence of duck-rabbits and their ilk provides a well-established corrective. It is possible for both to be there, even if we only see one at a time. To wager on the duck-rabbit, as I have, is not to discount the fishstick, but simply to dwell on the more interesting possibility, while still acknowledging the fear of error and its social consequences. In truth, I am not sure which idea perplexes me more, that Marker and Co. could have designed such an image, or that they could not have and it exists anyway, another incredible entry in photography’s vast portfolio of chance. (7)

On the side of chance was a further coincidence that disturbed my fitful attempts to think about my discovery. In the routine course of scholarly life, I turned to page 232 of a book called (naturally) The Uncanny, to see that author Nicholas Royle, with no mention of La Jetée, reproduces a Hugo Simberg painting from 1899 with the title Dancing on the Jetty, in which black-robed skeletons cavort upon a pier with living partners. I was apparently not going to get away from haunted jetties anytime soon. To be sure, given the abiding association between death and departure that Royle considers, it is a wonder that reapers do not turn up on jetties more often. But no recourse to probability should occlude how the coincidence transmits a certain force, if only for how it compounds the contingency of the singular observer. On one hand, it underscores a basic but rarely noted aspect of cultural experience: the fact that we routinely encounter art not just across time but, in relation to similar works and even known influences, out of historical sequence. Newer to me than La Jetée, Dancing on the Jetty can only supplement what it historically preceded. On the other hand, in the way it draws upon the cultural repertoire of death, Dancing on the Jetty manages at once to date itself and stage my own mortal limits. Indeed, if memento mori seem obsolete, from a time when people still worried about vanity, they retain a curious temporality as injunctions to remember the future. As I turned the page in Royle’s book, my future, though certain as ever in its finitude, now coursed through an increasingly tangled past.

Competing then are two sequences, the personal and the historical, each littered with reminders of death, and each therefore pointing out of sequence to a future moment different for every observer. These gestures, and their corresponding itineraries, are what compel attention, and there are more to come as the story continues. Even if we agree with Walter Benn Michaels, who argues repeatedly that unintended features of art are inherently meaningless, there seems no going back to a time when the reaper could be simply set aside. (8) A chance reaper gets us going as well as a deliberate one, remaining a point of departure and frame of reference for other encounters, and even conferring a certain advantage. As we will see, the appeal to intention does not so much secure interpretive evidence as skew the social field that springs up around a film, subordinating the actual exchange among viewers to an imagined relationship with the author. Thus my two chance encounters with reapers have left me in a fortuitously doubtful position to explore the fantasy that Marker authored his image — a fantasy in play regardless of whether authorship actually occurred. (9)

My Own Private Marker

Taken as the deliberate, artful touch of Marker, the reaper leads me first to D.A. Miller’s recent essays on Hitchcock, which find in Strangers on a Train and Rope a delightful collection of directorial “touches” hiding in plain sight, “visible but not apparent” (emphasis in original). (10) These “hidden pictures” range from rogue cameos in Strangers on a Train (including covert appearances of Hitchcock’s literary anthologies) to a maddeningly crooked candle in Rope, and accumulate in Miller’s account into an excessive “understyle” that mocks both the would-be ordinary viewer, complacent beneficiary of Hitchcock’s otherwise too-clear style, and the critic who would secure deeper significance through obsessive close reading. But these discoveries leave Miller in a predicament: to stay silent, undisturbed in the knowledge and fantasy of his own private Hitchcock, or to publish the information that spoils his secret, but requires the rest of us to accommodate his observations. That he has chosen the latter course makes his essays useful precedents for my own. Of special value is his commitment to charting every turn of a double movement: first of the experience of familiar films changing before his eyes, and second of the resulting recalibration, moment-to-moment, of his ambivalent position in the community of viewers.

Worth lingering over is one particular example from Strangers on a Train, in which a minor character can be seen to act out an unsung lyric from the tune playing on the soundtrack, a performance of course visible only to a viewer, such as Miller, who knows the words. The terms of his account help clarify how my reaper might fit into his catalogue of hidden pictures:

And with my recognition of this fact, the image itself altered, doubled into the old familiar host-image that had just vanished and the fantastic new charade-image that had now taken its place. For even though the new image was identical to the old, it did not look like it. I had just found another kind of hidden picture; or, rather, as I had done no searching, it had found me. (124)

I never had an old familiar host-image, not in the sense of what is commonly seen. My fantastic image preceded my awareness of what most people see, the back-bending time traveler, which was for me a new, hostile host-image that, however fantastic in its own right, threatened to expel my prior vision. At the very least, this accident of timing altered the feeling of discovery and the socializing trajectory toward other viewers, whom I could only rejoin, or so it seemed at first, by sacrificing the reaper. Moreover, the question of timing allows us to put pressure on Miller’s somewhat casual reversal — he found it; no, it found him — which seems an imprecise way of describing a coincidence waiting to be found but hardly knocking on the door. (11) His lack of searching lends suddenness to his discovery, but only in his mind when he instantly became aware and in ours when he shows us. My case is different, for I have known about the reaper much longer than I have known that it has not been widely seen by others. I had to discover my discovery, discover that the reaper was a discovery. As I have detailed, this process has been slow and complicated. But the image itself partakes of a double suddenness unlike what Miller finds in Hitchcock.

The first aspect of this suddenness is externalized and generally available: it is the suddenness of the cinematic cut. But a cut to the Grim Reaper also presents a special kind of suddenness, for when it happens it is already too late. Someone is about to be — or already is — dead. This is the speed of the uncanny, so fast that time rushes backward to meet what will have been the case all along. The temporal paradox of this “back to the future” formulation performs something of the ambiguity that Mark Currie finds in the future perfect, “the tense that refers to something that lies ahead and yet which is already complete.” (12) In this way the reaper’s message reinforces much of the poignancy of the time traveler’s story, who even as he dies, merely catches up to the death he has died already at the beginning of the film. Late for his own death, our hero is for us long gone. At most we can chase him back to the beginning of the film and lose him all over again. Meanwhile, we should not fail to notice that the falling body and the reaping body talk across each other. The reaper does not belong to the traveler, the traveler belongs to it, for the initial assumption that the reaper presides over the traveler’s untimely death does not fully describe its mission. On the contrary, it seems equally necessary to acknowledge that the reaper, inhabiting and redirecting the traveler’s body, thereby appears through him to address us.

Herein lies the final comparison with Miller’s hidden pictures, which prod the “Too Close Reader” away from the socializing energies of plot and toward a thrillingly unsafe intimacy with Hitchcock, one that for Miller may even culminate in touching the ample director. Marker’s hidden picture, if that is what it is, could not be more intimate, anti-social, or unsafe. It bursts out of the plot to make a claim on my life just when I would be most concerned about someone else. In the fantasy world of hidden pictures, the chosen viewer thus prevails as doubly special, distinguished not only from the less perceptive viewers who fail to love the director as fully, but from the characters whose story gives way to the film’s true subject. (13) But Miller’s purchase on this fantasy remains more secure than mine, since the phenomenon of fishstick Jesus does not haunt his findings. For all that he anticipates charges of going a bit crazy (“touched,” as he says, in the other sense of the word), there is rarely a question of his simply “seeing things.” Once you know where to look, most of his hidden pictures are unmistakably there, right where Hitchcock and his cronies put them. My reaper’s uncertain provenance threatens the fantasy of intimacy more than any other stake, leaving me with two unsatisfying options: to languish in private doubt, trying to savor a possible intimacy, or to take my reaper public, as I chose to do. What I could never have had was a fantasy of intimacy with Marker both private and certain.

Nor could I have permitted myself to ask Marker. This is not just because we cannot trust artists to know, remember, and disclose the truth about their work, not just because the creative agency behind a film exceeds the director, and not even because I was too shy to have made the attempt, though all of these difficulties are real enough. (14) It is because to do so would short-circuit the work of the film, however understood. From the standpoint of the fantasy of intimacy, a revealing interview with Marker would in fact be—and I mean this in the sense of monogamy—a form of cheating, cheating on the director figure with the flesh-and-blood man. From the standpoint of the film work I am more interested in, work that might simply be called time travel, any direct testimony of Marker’s would also interfere, collapsing the time of engagement into a banal present that the reaper could not reach. It would, in a word, spoil things, and more thoroughly than any indiscreet divulgence of plot, for what makes the surprise of art inexhaustible is the democracy of information—with no external authority to impose hierarchy, details endlessly re-present themselves to reward new viewings. Only the idea of the author can threaten this. Unfortunately, as Walter Benn Michaels has shown (though perhaps without agreeing that it is unfortunate), a widespread culture of narrative twists re-routes surprise back toward authorial intention.

Spoiler Alert

For Michaels, a surprise ending illuminates retrospectively the intended form that was unevenly visible in the plot all along. False expectations give way to a richer sense of patterning, causality, significance, though all predicated on our having played a bit dumb along the way. (15) This dynamic invites, even demands, a second viewing, as Marker himself notes in his comments on Vertigo in his CD-ROM work, Immemory, and for Michaels it is at that point that the impression of intention becomes inescapable. Watching, for example, Memento (2000) for the second time, we cannot be surprised by its final twist — unless, as Michaels points out, our memories are as poor as that of its main character—rather, we can only be aware that we were meant to be surprised. We feel the intention rather than the effect, and thus the surprise ending locks us in the author’s embrace more tightly than other forms.

But Michaels’ account generates an unexpected conclusion quite instructive for our purposes, for it renders the time of all viewing out of joint. Shimmering between a mechanically deferred future and an irretrievable past, “the work of art is never available to a first reading [and] it’s never exactly available to a second reading either” (16). Calling a first viewing of a film “experience” and a second “understanding,” Michaels argues that it is only through the second that we truly apprehend form (17). But in his eagerness to confirm form and through it intention, Michaels seems to underestimate a serious cost to this arrangement, which is that as soon as we are cut off from a formal effect like a plot twist, we must recognize that form now as addressed to someone else. It is in the grip of the surprise ending then that we lose something that was never there: form understood as a set of intentions for our experience and, therefore, as a means of attachment to an author.

What is always present, but buried in Michaels’ account, is a certain model of sociability. The important point here is that, like the audience of a magic trick, we collude in the surprise ending, and that this collusion establishes a relationship, an imagined bond with the artist—weaker, perhaps, than the effect of hidden pictures, but often strong enough for a lifetime’s loyalty. Why? Because what gets twisted in these twists is not just plot but time, which had been indifferently passing us by, until the surprise reveals in a flash that all of this has been arranged for us. More powerful than the grim reaper, such intention reads as love, and waves of sociability surge outward as members of the audience compare their appreciation of the stable form that would seem to guarantee it. Indeed, there is no greater sign of this sociability than the now ubiquitous “spoiler alert” that preserves the experience for the next round of viewers, but this warning always discounts the loss of present conversation. The good behavior of all parties may even start to feel rather coerced, (18) and the triangle of new viewer, old viewer, and artist riddled with envy. I would bet that, all-too often, the new viewer wants to hurry up and experience the surprise ending, the old viewer wishes she could go back and see the film for the first time, and the artist, burdened with knowing, wishes that someone else had made the film so she could discover it as a viewer. (19) But if I am right about this dissatisfaction, it is not so much goodwill that is lacking as the idea of surprise.

Look Again

What then if we were less invested in the twist ending, in the logic of the spoiler? Why not cultivate forms that demand we play smart from the beginning and address us anew upon further viewings? Why not a form that never spoils? We can detect an echo of this plea in Vivian Sobchack’s account of “a peculiar sense of ‘suddenly’ — one that speaks more to surprise at an unexpected and radical shift in the ontological status of the image and our relation to it than to a more superficial narrative or formal surprise.” (20) What occasions this thought is none other than one of La Jetée’s most celebrated surprises, the moment when we see the woman sleeping, and the montage accelerates until suddenly she wakes up into the film’s sole instance of cinematic motion. In Sobchack’s words:

everything radically changes, and we and the image are reoriented in relation to each other. The space between the camera’s (and the spectator’s) gaze and the woman becomes suddenly habitable, informed with the real possibility of bodily movement and engagement, informed with lived temporality rather than eternal timelessness…. In sum, what in the film has been previously a mounting accumulation of nostalgic moments achieves substantial and present presence in its sudden and brief accession to momentum and the consequent potential for effective action. (21)

If the reaper threatens to achieve the opposite, canceling the lived presence of viewing, then the work of the present essay—to restore habitable space with other viewers, let’s say — becomes first one of self-reanimation. La Jetée stages this whole choice. Like me, the time traveler can be taken for a lonely lunatic, seeing things that are not there. Perhaps neither of us really gets anywhere. But if I am interested in securing a common viewing on new terms, that interest merely follows the film’s strongest cues. After all, why does he remember the woman to begin with? Because they saw something together. She was there on the jetty when he was a boy and a man died. When he finds her in his time travels, the basis of their relationship does not change: they look at things, tourists of a frozen world. What they see reminds us of the value of looking at this film again.

What they do not see, at the end on the observation deck, complicates the relation between story and image that might otherwise feel so binding. The narrator tells us that the time traveler realizes that the boy must be there, but this claim is only a logical deduction, for, as Janet Harbord has noted, he is not in the visual field. (22) Indeed, some viewer memories of this scene may be overwritten by Terry Gilliam’s treatment of it in 12 Monkeys, where the woman relays a knowing gaze from the man to the clearly and repeatedly visible boy, the better to cinch the noose of male tragedy. (23) In La Jetée, there are children scattered among the crowd, but none is singled out for recognition—none except, oddly, a girl who appears right before we are reminded of the boy, preceding the hero up the stairs to the platform.

La Jetée film analysis

Thus we might wonder whether the pseudo-surprise ending, as old as Oedipus, that the object of the man’s quest is himself, does not yield its narcissistic fatalism to the boy’s truly surprising absence. Instead, it is the girl’s appearance that haunts us. As the boy’s substitute, the girl short-circuits the plot, opening up the past for non-repetition. As the reaper’s partner, she restores the end of the film to our viewing present — not, as in Sobchack, by way of the transition from photography to cinema, but as a startling excess to the fiction. In the suddenly un-impoverished moment, we face the deeper mysteries of photographic sociability and address.

Surely Miller, like Roland Barthes before him, is right that one of these mysteries is the inescapable sense of being touched or even pierced by a medium that would seem to bar precisely that. (24) La Jetée abounds with such opportunities. In the shot of the girl, the time traveler’s prior rediscovery of “glass, plastic, terry cloth” returns as the tactility of metal, concrete, fabric, hair. Our surrogate hands in this image are busy as well, though the time traveler’s grip on this world seems aptly uncertain, as his right hand has not quite reached the supportive railing, and his left holds — what? The girl’s sleeve blocks our view. Obstruction is at issue in this conversation, both the kind to respect and the kind to remove. As an adult hand clasps hers, she in turn clutches a purse, the insides of which pose a metaphysical conundrum about the limits of seeing things in films: the purse is in the film, but what is in the purse is not. It is a hole not just in the diegesis but in our experience, and it reticulates mystery itself. Impervious to investigation, it will not surrender its contents to any amount of rummaging through this film, just as, in rehearsing the story, we will only ever encounter the girl’s non-assimilation.

Harbord’s impressive book on the film also comes to rest on the girl as its final detail: “The child gazes directly into the camera, breaking the spell of the story with her unremitting, lacerating stare. But perhaps I am also at the stage of image hallucination.” (25) If with the benefit or burden of the reaper I have taken the hallucination further, then it is finally to consider this stare that, precisely because it is already frozen, escapes the stilling power of photography to watch us watching it, and watch us look away. When photographic eyes hold our gaze, it is not just that they fail to see us; it is that, raising their sights to the future, they see that we see their failure to see us. They know that their gaze will journey blindly across time to confront sighted eyes, and they appeal to those eyes with their gaze. This staggered encounter is a form of telepathy, a meeting of minds closed tight as any purse, for what’s shared is an awareness of photography as such, in all its fundamental asymmetry. If a young girl’s awareness remains relatively vague, prompting a look of troubled concentration, that look must perfectly mirror my own as I consider what she is doing in this film. Absent from the jetty the first time around only to burst on the scene for the second, her inconsistent appearances dance in step with the reaper’s.

Beyond sharing her elusiveness, what the reaper has in common with the girl is this posture of direct address, facing into the camera and out at us. But the intensity of a frontal stance is indeed a formal matter, and therefore, as any good reaper might say, it’s not personal. On this level, all photographs look beyond us. But in the same way, the most skeptical attitude — that no reaper means no address, that I’ve beheld a figment meant by and for no one — fails to suspend that figure’s service, which is to help us get past ourselves. If there is no difference between seeing death and seeing nothing because death and nothing are the same thing, then all the difference resides in the way we translate the experience of something into conversation. Such is the opportunity of any challenging image, a chance to chase the unexpected together. Ariella Azoulay offers this situation’s best description: it “takes into account all the participants in photographic acts — camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator — approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of these. None of these have the capacity to seal off this effect and determine its sole meaning.” (26) Thus we can have the reaper or not, but the question is ultimately social, not so different from deciding which films to watch together. And if we do choose to keep watching La Jetée, it is well worth attending to the claims of this girl. If all went well, she would be in her fifties now, a bit older than I am, and yet in every viewing she has remained a child, poised to veer off into unknown futures. Replacing not just the boy in the plot, or the reaper in the image, but the now dead director in the world, the girl thus carries the surprise of the film that she endlessly exceeds.

This article has been peer reviewed.

The author would like to thank to the generous, sharp-eyed readers who have helped coax this essay, and with it perhaps the reaper, into fuller existence: Hilary Schor, John Bruns, Lindsay Holmgren, Michael Parrish Lee, Casey McCormick, Anne Thorpe.


  1. “Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Autumn 2010), p. 118.
  2. The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), p. 14.
  3. That La Jetée also features in Victor Burgin’s book The Remembered Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2004) says much about the conceptual wealth it brings to bear on this essay, which begins with this memory. But I will counter Burgin, who, against the fear that film culture could colonize viewer memory, claims that “the film we saw is never the film I remember” (110, emphasis in original). True enough, no doubt, but my interest goes beyond a recalcitrant subject taking shelter in his own private movies, however much that subject might remind us of the hero of La Jetée. Indeed, if we can take Burgin’s point as read, then it may be possible to move in the other direction back toward a different kind of shared viewing.
  4. Marker attunes to the echo of “madeleine” from Hitchcock back to Proust in his CD-Rom Immemory.
  5. This image happens also to be one of the most reproduced. See for instance the textbook A Short History of the Movies, Abridged 9th edition, Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin, eds. (New York: Pearson, 2007), p. 287, or the cover image of Senses of Cinema 64 (September 2012).
  6. Two references to the reaper have appeared since I embarked on this essay. In the first, blogger Matthias Wivel describes the reaper enthusiastically and gestures toward its strange status: “it takes longer than the still remains on screen quite to figure out what one sees. A take on the Grim Reaper, it’s a shocking representation of the event of death the like of which I do not recall having seen in any other film. Forget The Seventh Seal.” www.metabunker.dk/?p=4668, August 5th, 2012. Meanwhile, Tom Conley refers in passing to the reaper as part of the significance of Orly Airport for the cinephilic imagination. See “La Peau douce: A Psychogeography of Silky Cinephilia” in A Companion to François Truffaut, Dudley Andrew and Anne Gillain, eds. (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), eBook, p. 458. In a private email, Conley lent support to the idea that Marker could have designed the image: “Marker clearly knew well his visual icons” (9 August 2014).
  7. Atom Egoyan discusses an interesting third possibility in the DVD commentary on his film Felicia’s Journey. Just at the moment when villain Bob Hoskins revealed his evil, an accident of lighting gave the unmistakable impression of a pointed right ear: “We were all completely freaked out when we looked at the rushes and we saw that we had actually inadvertently created Satan.” In this anecdote, intention appears out of sequence, not in what was planned and carried out in advance, but in what was retroactively authorized.
  8. See for instance “Against Theory” (written with Steven Knapp), Critical Inquiry 8:4 (Summer 1982), pp. 723-742, and “The Death of a Beautiful Woman” electronic book review, November 2007, 01. Web. 02 August 2013.
  9. Marker’s authorship of this image receives a different sort of challenge from the claim that it was based on Robert Capa’s photograph “Falling Soldier.” (See Patrick Ffrench, “The Memory of the Image in Chris Marker’s La Jetée,” French Studies LIX:I, pp. 31-37). But while Capa’s solider might model the time traveler, he does not model the reaper, since the soldier is in profile.
  10. “Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Autumn 2010), p. 115. See also “Hitchcock’s Understyle: A Too-Close View of Rope,” Representations 121 (Winter 2013), pp. 1-30.
  11. Better perhaps is Miller’s idea of a hidden picture as “planted there like a land mine to lie inert and invisible… until someone should trip over it and explode it into visibility” (Hidden Pictures, 124).
  12. The Unexpected (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), p. 1.
  13. This point qualifies Frances Ferguson’s assessment of Miller’s sociable posture: “By contrast with Harold Bloom who imagined that writers and critics struggle to evade the influences that have been progenitive for them, Miller is repeatedly surprised and pleased to find himself in company” (539). Even if we are prepared to ignore the slippage from Bloom’s idea to Miller’s experience, we should not accept a friendly attitude toward progenitors as the primary test of critical sociability. See Critical Inquiry 41 (Spring 2015), pp. 521-540. The occasion of a hidden picture is more fully served by Sarah L. Wasserman’s formulation: “Taking apparitions seriously, then, is a matter of attending not just to the images themselves, but also to the groups that spring up around them” (1042). See Journal of American Studies 48:4 (November 2014), pp. 1041-1067.
  14. When an interviewer did ask Marker questions about his older films, the director replied that “If I were to speak in the name of the person who made these movies, it would no longer be an interview but a séance.” Quoted in Janet Harbord, Chris Marker La Jetée (London: Afterall Books, 2009), p. 95.
  15. This playing dumb does not mean that, given the limitations of human cognitive processing, some surprise endings are not extremely difficult to anticipate during a first viewing, as Daniel Barratt has shown with respect to The Sixth Sense (1999). See “Twist Blindness,” Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, Warren Buckland, ed. (West Sussex: Blackwell, 2009), pp. 62-86. Rather, this difficulty is doubled by the structural tendency that, as Michaels quotes Christopher Nolan as saying, “you want to be fooled” (“Death,” 7).
  16. Michaels, “Death,” p. 12.
  17. Ibid., p. 10
  18. This coercion could be summed up by the following three cultural imperatives: to write twists, to orient one’s entire understanding toward the twist, and, knowing the twist, to shut up.
  19. In a study of fans who deliberately seek out spoilers, Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell consider a range of motivations that often confirm the force of this triangle. For instance, some spoiler fans seek the gossip’s social advantage of “accumulating narrative capital,” while others may embrace “a clever way… to short-circuit the out-of-control experience of being taken for a narrative ride and go directly to the pleasures of repeated viewings on the first go round” (7, 12). Gray and Mittell conclude that “a well-told tale lives and thrives after its telling, and in the gaps within its telling” (21, emphasis in original). See “Speculations on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption and Rethinking Textuality,” Participations 4:1 (May 2007): pp. 1-31. For a challenge to the culture of spoilers see Laura Carroll, “Cruel Spoiler, the Embosom’d Foe,” The Valve: A Literary Organ (9 October 2005):  www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/cruel_spoiler_that_embosomd_foe.
  20. Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 145.
  21. Ibid., p. 146.
  22. Harbord, Chris Marker, p. 1.
  23. The other main difference is that Gilliam returns to the scene again and again, so that when we arrive at the airport in 12 Monkeys a much sharper sense of anticipation replaces La Jetée’s half-forgetful openness to surprise. It may be worth noting that, in anticipating the reaper, my own experience of return was closer to the 12 Monkeys version until the girl I discuss took over.
  24. Barthes’ famous term for this impression is the punctum, that “accident which pricks me” in certain photographs. See Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 27. If my reaper has something prickly about it, that quality emerges in the teeth of its status as a generic reaper image from the “always coded” “Image-Repertoire” that Barthes calls, in opposition to the punctum, the studium (51, 75). And if, again, “to recognize the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions,” any prickliness here would puncture the fantasy of Marker’s authorship at its origin (27, italics in original).
  25. Harboard, p. 99.
  26. Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), p. 23.

About The Author

Ned Schantz teaches cultural studies and cinema at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Film and Literature (Oxford UP, 2008).

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