Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 8, 2009
My thoughts keep revisiting the recent past like a dog chasing its own tail. It’s the whole “would’a-could’a-should’a” game. Number of players: one. Winners: none. Results so far: disorientation and nausea. In a way, these thought experiments are attempts at going back in time to right that which is wrong. But if the films I saw this week taught me anything at all it is this: even time machines can’t help you avert tragedies and, if anything, they just compound the problem. The three films in question are La Jetée (by Chris Marker, 1962), Twelve Monkeys (by Terry Gilliam, 1995), and Timecrimes (aka: Los Cronocrimenes, by Nacho Vigalondo, 2007).
The present: After World War III a handful of survivors live underground and beneath the decimated remains of a radiation-poisoned Paris. Time-travel experiments are conducted on human guinea pigs in an effort to find a solution, but most find the experience so disorienting that upon being brought back they are no longer fully functioning human beings. The ability to move fluidly between time zones is assisted by concrete memories. Our “Man” (we never hear his name) is thus selected because he is still haunted by an image he has retained since childhood of something disturbing he witnessed at the airport.
The past: La Jetée is a short film (27 minutes long) that threads together its story using still photographs (shot with a Pentax 24 X 36 camera) – with one notable exception that shows the “woman” blinking (shot with an Arriflex 35mm film camera that Marker borrowed and only had one hour to use). The Cuban Missile Crises was unfolding as Marker was working on the film, and several other ugly political realities (prison camp experiments, torture) infuse the narrative.
The future: This film has aged well. I first saw it twenty years ago and it still fires on all cylinders. The black and white photography is beautiful, the narration remains enigmatic and timeless, and the overall effect is a poem on the nature of time.
Fun side note: The booklet within the Criterion dvd release of La Jetée includes a rare interview with the director where he says: “But to tell the truth, I no longer watch many films, only those by friends or curiosities that an American acquaintance tapes for me on TCM.” He’s also a fan of Deadwood, Firefly, and The Wire.
The present: It’s 2035 and James Cole (Bruce Willis) lives in an underground colony below the surface of Philadelphia. This is the result of a virus that was released in 1996 that then killed five billion people. The germ warfare is attributed to a group known as “The Army of 12 Monkeys,” and Cole is sent back into the past by his overseers to find out more information about this group. Cole, who is treated like a lab rat and gets beaten around by several time-traveling mishaps, is haunted by the image of a man killed at the airport.
The past: In many ways the production of this film provides an antithesis to La Jetée, for here we have a film that sprawls out past the two-hour mark and had about $30 million dollars behind it. Instead of still shots of “the man” and “the woman,” we have the recognizable faces of Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe sharing a lot of screen time with Brad Pitt at his most manic. The cultural bugaboos that set things up are not the cold war or radioactive fallout but rather science gone amuck coupled with eco-terrorism.
The future: Not so kind, but still full of highlights. Gilliam overplays his hand in many ways. There are too many scenes with a drugged-out Bruce Willis drooling all over the place. Brad Pitt is an explosion of googly eyes and hand gestures that both amuse and entertain, but when wed to Mickey-Mousing sound-effects careen towards silliness. Also: pegging the virus release to 1996 means that watching this 13 years past that expiration date gives the viewer a false sense of comfort. However, the film does have some nice surprises, including one violently strange scene where Bruce Willis scares the crap out of a pimp he’s just pummeled into the bathroom before using a knife on himself to carve out “bugged” teeth (leading the pimp to later scream out: “Is that the cops? I’m an innocent victim in here! I was attacked by a coked up whore and a – a f-ckin’ crazy dentist!”).
My favorite scene in the movie takes place in a dilapidated film theater where most of the seats seem to be held together by duct-tape. It’s a 24-hour Hitchcock marathon, and scratched-up prints of his can be seen on the screen while Willis and Stowe put on disguises that they hope will enable them to get past airport security. Here they (and we) witness that sublime moment in Vertigo where Kim Novak points to how time can be seen in the rings within a slice of a sequoia trunk. 12 Monkeys thus uses cinema within its own construct to go back in time and show us a masterpiece that echoes several things going on within its own narrative. It works on many levels, and it works beautifully
The present: Hector (Karra Elejalde) and his wife are moving into a new house in a nicely wooded area. The setting is contemporary. There are no allusions to wars, radiation, or germ-warfare. But there is a naked woman in the woods. And also a weird man with a bandaged face. Hector is soon being chased by the bandaged man and, in desperation, he stumbles into a lab where he finds a young man operating a time machine – and he gets in.
The past: This is an entertaining film that had an extensive run on the festival circuit (including last year’s Sundance Film Festival). Vigalondo is a young Spanish director who also wrote and stars in the film (he’s the man operating the time machine) . Timecrimes was put together with a modest budget somewhere past the $2 million mark and Magnolia recently gave it a limited release.
The future: Bright for Vigalondo, but bleak for Timecrimes. While the film is utterly engaging from beginning to end, it didn’t find an audience at my theater and I’m guessing it’s modest scale and Spanish origins have hampered its ability to connect with American audiences. Also: Timecrimes lacks the poetry of La Jetée or the sheer spectacle of Twelve Monkeys. Still, it does have some similarities to those films insofar as it shows us a man who keeps traveling in time in an effort to fix things, but with every step he takes he only brings himself closer to that which he has already seen: death.
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