Movies for the Resistance: 12 Monkeys

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer and John Seda
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Running time: 130 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1995


(Spoiler Alert: a number of the film’s twists are revealed here.)

I’ve tried to shy away from dystopian science fiction as a general rule with these columns, simply because they tend to be so on-the-nose that to do more than dabble in them represents the worst sort of overkill. (I’ve been eyeing They Live since Trump’s Inauguration, but have refrained thus far because there’s not much to say beyond “yup, we’re here…”)

But Terry Gilliam always had a unique spin on dystopian fantasy, and in the case of 12 Monkeys, it makes for an interesting variation on the basic “we’re all fucked” theme. In this case, it’s a Cassandra story, and as a template for those of us who have watched the last 18 months with horror and disgust, it makes as strong a statement on our current situation as we’re likely to find.

Gilliam (and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples) based the movie on an experimental French short called La Jetee, which consists almost entirely of still images. It tells the tale of a man who goes back in time and witnesses his own death, which Gilliam translates into one of his more inspired flights of fanciful despair. In his world, a virus has wiped out most of the human population, forcing the survivors to live underground. What little of it we see comes from the POV of James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who “volunteers” for a series of scientific experiments in exchange for a reduced sentence.

That sends him back in time to before the virus took hold, in an attempt to pinpoint its source and thus devise a cure. Our present (or the film’s present of the mid-1990s) becomes his past – a past he cannot alter or undo – and in his journey, he comes to realize with horror that he himself may have contributed to this catastrophic turn of events.

What makes the film especially relevant in the age of Trump (and for dystopian sci-fi in particular) is less the time-travel element, but in Cole’s purpose and understanding of reality. When he arrives in the present, no one believes him, of course. His ravings about a doomed world and a contagion that returns the Earth to a state of nature feel like the stuff of fiction. Naturally, he ends up in a mental ward.

In many ways, that differs little from his life in the future: helpless, brutalized, caged like an animal and literally dragged from place to place at times. No one listens or cares or even addresses him as a human being sometimes. Cameras ogle him from every angle. Bars block his path. Even in those moments of freedom, he feels persecuted and hunted. The only difference between his present and ours is an emphasis on Gilliam’s patently absurd landscapes in the future. No matter what the time, our capacity to dehumanize each other remains unchanged.

His helplessness further feeds into his status as a Cassandra figure. He sees what’s coming, he knows we’re doomed, and yet every protestation brings not just dismissal but active violence sometimes. The few who listen to him either join him as a fugitive (such as Madeleine Stowe’s sympathetic psychiatrist) or use him for their own sinister ends (such as Brad Pitt’s crazy-like-a-fox fellow inmate). His helplessness remains enforced. He’s a pawn from beginning to end, and the knowledge he holds acts only to torment him.

But there’s a second tragedy to Cole’s miserable existence, one that does change as the movie goes on. He comes to doubt the information he holds, and actively wonder if he really comes from the future or not. 12 Monkeys muddies the water with an opening narrative card suggesting that he might actually be insane, and that his conviction stems not from certainty but from genuine dementia. Gilliam coyly teases the question by keeping us firmly in Cole’s shoes… wondering if what we see is reality or just the visions of his broken mind.

Ironically, as the notion sinks in, it becomes a kind of liberation. If he’s insane, the cataclysm that befalls humanity won’t actually happen. Billions won’t actually die. The world will go on spinning and the dire future he thinks is so certain won’t affect anyone beyond himself. He’s just a lunatic! It’s elegantly seductive, in part because it means he can stay in the 1990s with fresh air and blue sky, but also because he doesn’t have to grapple with the terrible certainty of an impending cataclysm.

We’re seeing that attempted seduction play out in real time, largely as a means of hiding the extent of the damage the President has inflicted. The far-right media often speaks of “Trump Derangement Syndrome”: a term used to dismiss the fears of the rest of us as hysterical overreaction to obvious and alarming development. The hope is to convince 45’s opponents to stand down. If he’s a master strategist playing 3D chess, or even just a harmless businessman with a flair for the dramatic, then things can’t really be so bad, can they?

Their insistence stems from the fact that they drank the Kool-Aid early in the process – years ago in more than a few cases – and it sadly isn’t limited to Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart. The mainstream media stubbornly clings to the concept of Trump “pivoting,” while praising any event that passes without incident as a sign of the long-awaited display of “maturity.” Staff members like John Kelly become the adults in the room ready to steer him back to normality. Twitter-based kerfuffles are reported with a “there he goes again” derision. And a significant portion of the country still supports him, despite the fresh horrors that emerge from his hateful coterie every day.

Beneath it all lies the siren song that seduced Cole: things aren’t so bad. It’s all in your head. There’s no disaster coming. And it lingers in our national consciousness despite the Himalayan mountain of evidence to the contrary, a mountain that gains new foothills with disturbing regularity.

Because to reject the notion is to acknowledge that we’re in the hands of a lunatic.

Because to reject the notion means that the disaster that the rest of us have been shouting about for almost two years now may just be getting started.

Because to reject the notion suggests that fascism and fascist ideals have been walking among us for quite some time.

Insanity becomes the preferable alternative in the face of that. Not theirs, of course – not Trump and his supporters – but ours, since we’re the ones doing all the shouting. And while many of us have clear facts to keep us grounded (and hopefully friends and colleagues who can remind us that yeah, we’re WAY past the red line on this one), not everyone is so fortunate. So for those out there who might read this and feel alone in the fight – those told by friends, family and community that there’s no way this man could possibly be as hateful, incompetent and dangerous as he seems – we’ll tell you what Cole learned too late. You’re not crazy. This isn’t normal. And while the future of 12 Monkeys was set in stone, ours remains unwritten.

If we hold fast and fight hard, we can still change it for the better.

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