2 November 2012

12 Monkeys by Gilliam, 1995

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:42 am

“I’ve seen this movie before.”



  1. To be explicit, for those who haven’t seen or who don’t remember… Gilliam explicitly cites Hitchcock’s Vertigo by having his two main characters sit in a theater watching it on the screen (image 2). Image 1 is the scene in Vertigo where Madeleine Elster and Scottie Ferguson are looking at the rings in a cross-section of a sequoia trunk. This is where I was born, Madeleine tells Scottie, pointing to a ring from the 1800s, and this is where I died. Madeleine poses as a time traveler from the past. I’ve seen this movie before, the Bruce Willis character says. He too is a time traveler, but from 30 years in the future. Now it’s just prior to image 3 and Bruce, looking confused in his fake mustache, gets out of his seat and heads up the aisle to the lobby. The music swells — it’s the theme from Vertigo. The woman, a brunette, steps out of the shadows next to the Hitchcock film posters wearing a blond wig. Now Bruce realizes: she’s the woman from his dreams, or from his memories of the past — just like Scottie in Vertigo when the shop girl dons the blond wig and he knows that she really is Madeleine.

    But image 4 comes from a different movie, La Jetee. These fingers too are pointing at the rings of a cross-sectioned sequoia trunk, the gloved woman from the past, the man from the present — or is she from the present and he from the future? La Jetee was released in 1962, 4 years after Vertigo, so it’s a direct reference to the Hitchcock rather than vice versa. In the opening credits Gilliam acknowledges that La Jetee was the inspiration for 12 Monkeys. And now in a theater near you we have Loopers, in which Bruce Willis again plays a time traveler from 30 years in the future.

    At some point in 12 Monkeys Bruce Willis speaks the line, “I only see dead people.” So which came first: 12 Monkeys or The Sixth Sense, in which Bruce is the therapist for a troubled kid who eventually and famously tells him “I see dead people”? 12 Monkeys is 1995, Sixth Sense is 1999 — the same 4-year spread as that between Vertigo and La Jetee.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 November 2012 @ 7:32 am

  2. In La Jetee you have the aim of the experiment – ‘Dream another time, perhaps live in it’. That is significant as the time between waking and dreaming is the most likely occasion that one can dart forward in consciousness to the future. Consciousness is there but without bodily anchoring in a present space/time.

    Perhaps only the planting of an idea from the future is possible but no direct manipulation.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 3 November 2012 @ 5:12 pm

  3. All I remember from this film, which impressed me at the time of its release, but I would now probably find it dated, and I am a bit annoyed by Terry Gilliam’s anarchic style as well, is that it was an early instance of the Moebius strip (which is also the central figure of Vertigo, as represented by the geometric shapes of Saul Bass’s design). I also remember how hot Bruce Willis looked in his forties, whereas now he looks like a shrivelled condom.


    Comment by cpc — 3 November 2012 @ 5:19 pm

  4. A. I think Bruce Willis is still hot. B. Wow, props to you for finding all of those overlaps and numerical similarities. Really cool. Those are the little things that I wonder if directors and writers ever think about and wonder if anyone will pick up on.


    Comment by Jennifer Stuart — 3 November 2012 @ 9:18 pm

  5. As I recall, I thought when it came out that 12 Monkeys was entertaining but not remarkable, and that’s how it still seems to me. There are moments when Bruce thinks he might be imagining things, that he might be crazy, and the woman who accompanies him on his adventures is a shrink. But really nothing is made of the psych angle; neither Bruce nor the audience ever doubts that he’s come from the future. The event in the past which he’s been sent to prevent is the outbreak of a devastating virus, but we see no real motivation for the character who looses this plague on the world. Bruce Willis is always a distinct presence, and Brad Pitt is sort of amusing as a crazy environmentalist trust-funder, but what’s the point of making him a loony? Given Gilliam’s tendency for hectic and chaotic filmmaking the story is surprisingly linear. When I first watched it I don’t think I noticed the link to Vertigo.

    And I hadn’t seen La Jetee, which really is remarkable both in story and in execution. Instead of a virus it’s a war that brings on the apocalypse, and the scientists have no real idea how to prevent it even if they can return to the past. The past can serve only as a refuge from a catastrophic present. Chris Marker’s use of photo montage rather than film captures something about memory retrieval, where discrete moments can stand out from the flux so starkly that even long time intervals between them can collapse almost to zero. It’s notable that for the hero of La Jetee the past was comforting and compelling but fatal: he should have gone to the future when he had the chance. Is Marker sneaking in a bit of modernist optimism about progress here? Not really: there is a future only because some people happened to survive, who knows why. The narrator tells us that the people from the future are more adept at traveling into the past: are they less likely to get stuck there, better able to visit the past without it killing them? I wrote a post awhile back about The Invention of Morel by Bioy, which inspired both Marker’s La Jetee and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, another great time-travel movie.

    Okay, so I realize that many critics regard Vertigo as the greatest movie of all time, and I too think it’s great, but I want to explore an alternate ending. In Hitchcock’s version it eventually becomes clear that Madeleine did not fall off the tower the first time, that she was an accomplice in an intricate ruse. But what if it never is clarified? Madeleine is dead, Scottie mourns, eventually he sees a shopgirl who looks a lot like Madeleine, he gives her a makeover, lo and behold she is Madeleine, seemingly back from the dead. How could it be? Earlier she seemed to be channeling a woman from the 18th century. Maybe it’s true; maybe this woman is some sort of time traveler who seems to die but who always comes back. Scottie might have suspicions that he’s been duped, but what if it’s never confirmed? He chases the latest incarnation back up the tower, again she falls to her death, and Scottie never knows for sure whether her earlier death was real or faked. He’s devastated of course, but now he can’t help but always wonder, always remain obsessed: when will she come back again, where will I see her, how will I kill her next time? Hitchcock rarely goes in for this sort of ambiguity though; the main exception that comes to mind is The Birds, whose sudden appearance and disappearance remain anomalous.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 November 2012 @ 10:57 pm

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