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January 1996, Week 2


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"Edward R. O'Neill" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 11 Jan 1996 00:10:51 -0800
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        I was glad to see that Mark Pizzato (of Univ. of St. Thomas)
initiated a discussion of *12 Monkeys*.  As another fan of the director, I
found it enormously satisfying, but I've also encountered people who found
it awful--which I can't at all understand.  It's an interesting film on a
number of counts.
        First, and probably foremost, there's its relationship to other film
texts.  As a 'remake' of or hommage to Chris Marker's *La Jetee*, it's both
part of the trend of the last ten years to make big budget American films
from much smaller budget French films.  Usually, though, the French films
are popular gentle comedies.  As a 30-some minute black-and-white
experimental film with very few actual moving images, it's an odd candidate
for the remake syndrome, to say the least.
        In another way, it's a remake of *Brazil*--the director is back at
Universal on *12 Monkeys*, the studio on which he had such well-publicized
problems with *Brazil*.  In this sense, *12 Monkeys* is a remake of
*Brazil*--another dystopic future composed of broken-down gimcracks run amok.
        But in a way most importantly, *12 Monkeys* seems to be an important
reflection in cinema.  It's not so much a film about *particular* films (the
texts it cites--*La Jetee*, *Vertigo*, *The Simpsons*, old cartoons, etc.),
as much as it's about film itself.  The film's use of Hitchcock's *Vertigo*
points in this direction, especially in the sense in which the fatalistic
repetition of both films is quite explicitly compared in *12 Monkeys* to the
experience of watching a film.
        As for the other counts on which the film's interesting, I will only
mention its social commentary (which is really more dystopic, the future or
the present composed of homeless people and crowded and violent prisons and
hospitals?) and its remarkable narrative complexity:  it's really a case
study in the hermeneutic code or repetition-and-difference or
*nachtraglichkeit* working overtime.
        Also quite importantly, the film both participates in and criticizes
our contemporary "nostalgia for the present."  That is:  in our millennial
state of mind, we seem to be nostalgic not only for an invented past (the
1970's when everything was so "simple"--except for a huge recession which no
one remembers) but also nostalgic for the present as something under
threat--and our relationship to the environment would be a central example.
        The narrative structure of looking  back to the present from a
future time has been mobilized before (notably in the novel *Looking
Backward*), but recent uses of it--since *Planet of the Apes* (?) and
including *Terminator*--use an apocalyptic historical scenario in order to
position the present as an ideal past.  The strategy is interesting inasmuch
as one can infer that the present must be particularly horrible to be in
need of such drastic contrasts to make it appear (comparatively) pleasant.
*12 Monkeys* does something similar, while also refusing such nostalgic
sentiment by presenting a notably ugly and unhappy present.
Edward R. O'Neill
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