Previous Entry: Back to the Future
Connection: subject (films about time travel)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by David Peoples & Janet Peoples
Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, and David Morse
129 minutes, rated R
Of all the physical pain that I have ever endured, the weeks-long agony that accompanied scratching the cornea of my right eye in February of 1996 is way up there on the list. I’m talking top two or three here. There’s the excruciating pain of passing a kidney stone just over one year later, tripping over a dropped prop on a raked stage and busting the hell out of my knee in the spring of 2001, and scratching my cornea because I forgot to wash my hands. The only thing that gives that final one an edge over the other two is the fact that said injury was a direct result of my own stupidity.
I was in a production of Fiddler on the Roof when it happened, playing Motel for about the fourth time in my career. I was running very late for the third performance on our opening weekend and hurriedly dashed through the application of my make-up before inserting my contact lenses. Time was of the essence, so I neglected to wash my hands between these two tasks. I didn’t realize until I took my contacts out later that night that an errant crumble of make-up had been lodged under the lens. Believe me when I say that there was no confusion about what had happened within the most minute microsecond of it happening: as I slid my contact lens across the surface of my eyeball, that concealed glob of foundation dug what felt at the moment to be a deep trench in my seconds-before pristine cornea. And it hurt. Badly.
Let’s not forget that tears are salty, okay? It was quite literally salt in an open wound. After about four hours of being unable to neither keep my right eye open nor keep it closed for any extended period of time, I had to concede that sitting in total darkness until I could go ten minutes without crying was not a viable option, so I admitted defeat and asked my roommate to drive me to the emergency room for medical intervention. In this case, “medical intervention” consisted of anti-biotic eye drops to prevent infection and an eye patch to prevent going insane. It was a very uncomfortable week, to say the least, but, in time, the pain subsided and I was able to make it through the second weekend of performances without tripping over any furniture. My inability to wear my contacts forced me to do the performances just about blind, and I considered this my penance for disobeying the Gods of Theatre Etiquette. I have never missed a call-time since.
A “call-time”– for those with no knowledge of theatre vernacular– is exactly what it sounds like: the time that you are called. In other words, it is the latest possible time that actors are expected to arrive and still have the time necessary to warm-up and prepare. For this particular performance, our call-time was 6:00 pm for a 7:30 performance. I didn’t waltz in until just before 7:00 pm. It was rude and unprofessional. In my defense, I was young and 12 Monkeys turned out to be a much longer movie than newspaper listings for the Beverly Cinema were advertising. That was why I was late: because I could not possibly wait one more day to see 12 Monkeys. I would like to think that I would have waited one more day had I known that the movie was as long as it was, but I cannot say that for certain because there was a girl involved– an adorable and talented actress named Kim, whose company I enjoyed, but who annoyed me enough that I never officially asked her to be my girlfriend.
So, yes . . . on the day that I saw 12 Monkeys, one of the best movies in the catalog of one of my favorite directors, I ended up in the emergency room. This is an amusing anecdote, I suppose, but it’s not really enough to carry the entire entry. I couldn’t even really fill in page space with stories about Kim, our “relationship” was that short-lived. I almost cheated and tried to replace this film with something else that might be easier to write about, but that was only going to inevitably screw up my trajectory for the entire blog (and I have future installments already written). I knew a few weeks ago that the only way that I was going to be able to effectively write about this film was to watch it again. There has to be something more there than just the reason I had to wear an eye patch for a couple of weeks, right? The trouble is that I had no interest in watching this film at this particular point in my life. Because I already know what it is about.
As I write this, the residents of Illinois, the state in which I live, are nearing the fourth month of a statewide shelter-in-place order, our governor’s response to the nationwide pandemic due to the novel virus COVID-19. Businesses have been closed. Social-distancing recommendations have been instituted. Face masks are required to enter public facilities in some jurisdictions. We have been, essentially, quarantined and advised to not leave our homes unless it is absolutely vital. 12 Monkeys is a film about a future where the entire world has been so decimated by a novel virus that people have taken to living underground to avoid getting sick. Wild animals– lions, tigers, and bears– are roaming free through the streets of Philadelphia. Obviously, there’s a lot more to the film than just that, but you can see why the very idea of watching it right now is enough to make one sick to their stomach.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe for a second that COVID-19 is going to leave destruction of such Biblical proportions in its wake, but I have grown weary of shelter-in-place. I miss sitting at Starbucks to write entries like this one. I miss just wandering around Barnes & Noble with no idea whatsoever what I had initially gone in there to purchase. I miss going to movies with Matt and Ashley, talking comic books and theatre with David, reading a magazine as my children play computer games at the library. I miss being able to grocery shop without a sense of panic. I miss getting new comic books on Wednesday. I miss live theatre. I miss being able to spend less than eight dollars on a pound and a half of hamburger. I want to go to a restaurant and eat Mexican food, go into a bar and try a new oatmeal stout, take two books into a coffee shop in case I finish one while I’m there. I want to finish plans I started with already-established friendships. I want to cultivate the friendships that grew stronger during wellness-check text messaging. And I want to hug the everlovin’ hell out of so many people, people that it had never occurred to me to even attempt to hug before.
And that’s the inherent issue of watching a movie like 12 Monkeys right now. Yes, it’s exaggerated. No, our current society is not heading toward the future depicted therein so vividly. But the film is about a pandemic, and while it might have been amusing to watch Outbreak in the first few days of this nonsense, as we progress into week number . . . what week are we on now? . . . is it July yet? . . . week number whatever, it becomes harder and harder to not spend every minute of free time not already immersed in fears and frustrations about the pandemic. I want to actively not think about it during the time that I have free.
In the end, I gave in and re-watched it. It was difficult at first because it’s such a bleak and dark film. This is not a movie that even pretends that viewers will be rewarded with a happy ending. In fact, it starts in the year 2035, almost forty years after the novel virus wiped out the world. It is made explicitly clear in the first twenty minutes of the movie that the plan at the narrative’s center– to travel back in time to the virus’s beginnings in 1996– is not to cure the virus, but to “capture it” and bring it back to 2035, in the hopes that future scientists can create a vaccine and rebuild civilization. Time is not elastic in this film. It is a straight line and nothing that has happened can be changed.
The main character of the film is James Cole (played by Bruce Willis– and, I gotta tell you, he is really damn good in this film), a man imprisoned for a crime unclear, who has “volunteered” to go to the surface and look for clues as to the virus’ origins. Decked out in a contamination-free plastic bubble, he wanders the empty, abandoned streets of Philadelphia until he catches wind of a reference to something called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys. The first recorded historical reference to this is in 1996, so James is whisked back thirty-nine years to investigate, only they accidentally send him to 1990, six years before The Army existed. Naturally, the people of 1990 think he’s crazy, and they lock him in a sanitarium where he becomes acquainted with a certain Jeffrey Goines (played by Brad Pitt, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in this film), who seems to be able to foretell the coming plague. At the very least, there are references to it in his incessant psycho-babbling. Cole decides to stay in 1990 and track Jeffrey, believing that he may be responsible for the coming plague. He is aided in his quest by Dr. Kathryn Railly (played by Madeleine Stowe, a woman upon whom I have a crush that has no boundaries), but is Railly helping him or protecting polite society from him? Is it possible that Cole is insane?
The plot is far more convoluted than I just described, but I’m not horribly interested in bogging down this entry with the depressing details of a movie that too closely resembles our collective states of mind. Suffice it to say that this move pulls no punches in reminding us that time cannot be changed and that society will remain at the ending as it was in the beginning. There are frequent Easter eggs throughout the film to earlier moments in the narrative, reminders that you’ve seen this part already and that nothing is different. Sequences are repeated, sometime from different perspectives, to punch home that the situation remains the same even from a different point of view. Cole even utters numerous times throughout the movie some variation of the following line: “All of you are already dead. I can’t save you.” This is not a hopeful film.
Or is it?
I have seen this film so many times that I can just about quote it from beginning to end. I have been a huge fan of this movie since I saw it for the first time in 1996. I know what to expect when I watch it and I know ahead of time what I should be preparing myself to feel. But this re-watch surprised me, because there are two sequences that struck me differently than they ever have before. Maybe I desperately, in my own mind, needed to make watching this movie about a pandemic that destroys civilization more palatable during quarantine, but these two sequences, for the first time ever, made me think about whether or not this film is truly one of desperation. Maybe it’s also the pandemic film that we need right now.
The first sequence in prior viewings was somewhat of a throwaway, one line of dialogue that never meant much until now. Cole and Railly are driving in her car. The radio is playing “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. Cole turns it up louder and sings along. With tears about to bloom in his eyes, he shouts, “I love the music of the 20th century!” It’s a beautiful moment, one that has stuck with me over the days that have passed since I watched this movie for the umpteenth time. With the world on the verge of collapse, the apocalypse nigh, Cole is still finding joy in little things. Small things that days before would have meant nothing. Small things that days from now might mean even less. But right then, in that moment, Fats Domino was the most glorious song he had ever heard. In that moment, Cole is reminded that joy is not an enemy.
The second sequence is the ending. In particular, the film’s final line. I have changed my mind about what it means. I have changed my mind about the filmmaker’s intent. As presented, it appears to be a note of extremely cautious optimism, an anomaly in a film that has been fairly grim until now. In the final moments of the movie, the virologist (played by David Morse) sits down in his seat on a packed airplane (this is mere minutes after he accidentally releases the virus into a crowded airport–it’s complicated) to find that the seat next to his is already taken. We immediately see that the seat’s occupant is the scientist that sent Cole back to 1996 from 2035. She introduces herself, and says that she is in insurance. I have always read this as her being sent back to prevent the further spread of the disease. She is there to assure us that everything Cole went through in the film were not actions for naught. But, now, in 2020, immersed in a pandemic of our own, I am seeing it differently. I mean, I see those things I’ve mentioned as well, but a grander real-world implication occurred to me: It is too late to avert the catastrophe. There is, however, no reason that we should accept that the catastrophe is the end of our story. There is, obviously, a future beyond the first few terrible months of 2020. That future may be difficult to live in. I believe that it is our responsibility to preserve what needs preserving to make the coming existence more bearable.
Maybe it’s just a little thing, like “Blueberry Hill” or reruns of Six Feet Under. Maybe it’s rereading your favorite book because you haven’t done it in a while. Maybe it’s taking one of your favorite films and reassessing so that it can be meaningful to you no matter what circumstances you are in. But it’s also the larger things . . . nurturing the friendships that you’ve let slide by, cultivating the friendships that you’ve made or expanded on. You can be grateful that you’ve remained employed during a pandemic when so many others have not. You can tell those who checked in on you during your lockdown loneliness how much their friendship means to you and maybe you can thank them when this is all over with a hug instead of a handshake.
This catastrophe is not the end of our story. I owe a couple of hugs.