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I also really enjoyed watching _12 Monkeys_ through much of it,
particularly for the narrative pleasures Edward O'Neill details. But
something he wrote --
 
>        The narrative structure of looking  back to the present from a
>future time has been mobilized before ... but recent uses of it ...
>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.
 
-- reminds me of a problem I had with the film that made my pleasure more
problematic and left me wondering.
 
One of the particularly striking and disturbing aspects of the "ugly"
present in the film involves two utterly gratuitous and irrelevant
characterizations that stem from ubiquitous racist figurations of black men
and women. Specifically, when James (Bruce Willis) calls a wrong number,
the film cuts to the apartment of what can only be described as a "welfare
queen": we see a sizable black woman in a disheveled kitchen with several
children running around screaming and throwing things; she yells a few
things into the phone b/c she can't understand the man's request and then
slams the phone down. Later in the film, when James and Dr. Railly
(Madeleine [?] Stowe) are being attacked by a pair of street people, one
black and one white man, the white fellow seems content to beat up the two,
whereas, as a low-angle shot presents looming over us, the black man has
been transformed into "the black rapist," unzipping his fly in anticipating
of his violation of the white woman Railly. Of course, James saves Railly's
virtue by killing the man viciously.
 
As you can tell, these scenes themselves are barely relevant to he film's
plot -- I have given away not a whit of it -- and the characterizations as
seemingly irrelevant as they are crude. Yet they are so forceful and
blatantly stereotypical that I left the theater wondering what it was all
about. Instead of trying to read these as aberrations (one could ask, for
example, why someone along the production line simply point this out and
encourage Gilliam to make minor changes), I'd like to try to read them back
into the film.
 
Is it simply impossible for the white imagination to conceive of "ugly and
unhappy" urbanity w/o reference to figures of threatening racial others?
One of the minor themes of the film is that in the 1990s humans strive to
live in a world of culture yet they cannot really rise above their
"natural," animalistic drives; do "blacks" figure here (as they so so
frequently elsewhere) as the apotheosis of that theme, as "urban animals"?
 
Or, is the film offering a far more sinister racial formulation, one that
(perhaps unwittingly) picks up where _Dr. Strangelove_ leaves off by
offering a pre- and post-apolcalyptic speculation on just who should and
who should not be included and thus "saved" in the category of "the human
race"?
 
I'd be interested to know what people think.
 
Chris Amirault.........................Dept. of American Civilization
Chris_Amirault@brown.edu...................Brown University  Box 1892
.................................................Providence RI  02912
 
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