Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Twelve Monkeys

On monday night I was flicking through the digital TV channels, and I ran into a broadcast of Terry Gilliam's film Twelve Monkeys on BBC4. This is a favourite film of mine for a variety of reasons. I like Gilliam's visual style and the quality of the art direction. I like the score, with its interesting mixture of strings and an accordian. I quite like the acting. Bruce Willis is good playing slightly against type (something that he has done a fair bit in his career, to his credit). I love Madeleine Stowe as the psychiatrist who initially believes that Willis' character is insane and who becomes steadily more intense and stressed as the movie goes along and she realises that he is indeed a visitor from future and that the world is indeed about to end. (Of the actors in the film, Brad Pitt was the one who received an Oscar nomination, but his is the least interesting performance. He just hams it up, basically). I like the run down Philadelphia locations that we see both in the present and the future.

Mostly, though, the mood of the film is interesting. It is full of a sense that the world is a wonderful and extraordinary place, but also a messy place, and that somehow we are spiraling towards a (possibly terrible) destiny that we cannot control. This mood comes from the various things I have described above, but more than that it comes from the intriguing way the screenplay was constructed by screenwriter David Peoples (who also wrote Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and was one of two screenwriters who gave us Blade Runner.).

Most Hollywood films, particularly science fiction films, are these days a mass of overfamiliar and uncredited cliches that have been ripped off and merged together, usually not very intelligently. Twelve Monkeys on the other hand has been constructed by taking source material from two or three extremely famous places, grafting it together, and making it explicitly clear exactly what the source material was. The largest of these sources is Chris Marker's French new wave short La Jetée, which is responsible for the overall plot of the film. Man time travels back from a post apocalyptic world to attempt to learn or do something to help the future. The man who does this is haunted by a memory from his childhood before the apocalypse, in which he saw a man being murdered in an airport. Upon going back to the time and place of the memory, we find out that it was his future self he saw as a child.

I will have to confess that I have never actually seen La Jetée, so I cannot really talk about the film's mood. However, it only contains enough plot for about 30 minutes, which was the length of the original short. In order to make their film more long and complex, Gilliam and Peoples have added a Hitchcockian dimension. In particular the film is a reworking of Vertigo. This is more about mood than plot. 12 Monkeys copies the earlier film in being about a damaged character with a fixation on particular images and memories of the past that may or may not be real, and about desperately attempting to somehow freeze time and cling to those fragments of the past before everything collapses, and the question of whether this effort leads to or results from insanity. 12 Monkeys is once again is very explicit about what is its source material. The film contains similar shots, similar costumes, and towards the end the separation between the two films breaks down almost completely. Willis and Stowe actually spend some time in a theatre showing Vertigo, and then the film sort of flows into a recration of perhaps the most famous scene from Vertigo, with the same lighting, the same rotating camera, and accompanied by the actual music from Vertigo. I do wonder how much of the Vertigo theme was Peoples and how much was Gilliam. Gilliam's films have an ability to look at things from unexpected directions, and the flow into Vertigo feels like him, certainly in terms of the lighting and music.

I am not sure I have done as good a job of describing the Vertigo references as well as I might have. These are as much about mood as about plot, making them in some ways hard to describe. They are, however, very obvious, if you know the earlier film. (Virginia Vitzthum of Salon made a good stab at discussing them here).

But, however, there is a third source that to me seems fairly obvious. One thing that has changed between La Jetée and 12 Monkeys is the nature of the apocalypse from beyond which the central character is sent back in time. In 12 Monkeys it has been changed from nuclear to biological. A deadly virus has been released somehow, and has spread throughout the world and killed much of the human population. At the end of the film we discover that the virus was released deliberately by a socially awkward scientist who believes that mankind is a sickness destroying the natural environment of the earth, and that mankind must be destroyed to save the earth. The scientist is consequently seen checking in at an airport with a lengthy itinerary of destinations, to head off on a long zig-zagging journey around the world to release the virus in as many locations as possible.

Now, this plot is quite familiar to people who are well read in rather literary 1970s science fiction.

One of the finest writers to ever write in the science fiction genre wrote under the name James Tiptree Jr. Tiptree wrote fiction that is in some ways extraordinary dark, but in others very humanistic. Humanity and the world is extraordinary and amazing, but at the same time humans (and the sexes) find it impossible to genuinely connect with one another. Tiptree's stories tended to be about people connecting or at least trying to connect across the void, and about the few moments or great wonder and beauty they would sometimes find as they slowly continued on the spiral towards death. There is something extraordinarily beautiful about the way Tiptree's writing tells us we are all doomed, but that there is somehow something poetic that can briefly passed through on the way to that doom.

One of Tiptree's more famous stories is called The last flight of Dr. Ain, which chronicles the zigzagging journey around the world of a socially awkward but brilliant geneticist, who is appalled at what humanity has done to the world. The story chronicles his journey as he travels around the world to release a deadly virus in as many places as possible so the destruction of humanity will be as effective as possible and the earth will be saved. Twelve Monkeys captures the character and the plot (and the mood, not just of this one story but of Tiptree's writing in general), and it fits with La Jetée and Vertigo in a way that is somehow perfect.

It was revealed in 1976 that James Tiptree Jr. was in fact Alice Sheldon, a sixtysomething woman who had seen a great deal of the world as a child, and who had been both a CIA agent and a clinical psychologist in the decades to 1970. She killed herself in 1987, the downwards spiral having apparently become too much for her. Which is a terrible shame, as she wrote some extraordinary fiction.

I have never heard David Peoples of Terry Gilliam admit that Tiptree was an influence for Twelve Monkeys but I feel it must have been. The correspondence is too close, and the mood has been copied too well. (Interestingly enough, a Usenet search reveals that there are other people who have seen the same thing. The world of film criticism seems to have missed it entirely, however). There is nothing wrong with this: it is simply intelligent use of source material. And for someone who loves Tiptree's work (which is scandalously hard to find given its quality) it is actually a pleasant thing to see. And the way in which the quirky sensibilities of Gilliam and Peoples were able see the similarities between apparently disparate material has resulted in a quite extraordinary film. I have seen it a few times since it was released in 1995, and to me it seems better every time.

1 comment:

pbietila said...

Nice analysis of Twelve Monkeys!
Five minutes ago I finished reading Tiptree's "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain," and said to myself, "This was part of "Twelve Monkeys." Then I had to see what Web postings there were on this. Your post was at the top of the list of results.

I hadn't seen the Vertigo influence earlier.
Paul Bietila

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