19 August 2012

Autoerotica: The glittering wreckage of "Crash"

David Cronenberg's "Crash," winner of a jury prize for "audacity" at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is a fine translation of the singular character of J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel. In burnished, ornate, painfully specific prose, Ballard suggests a linkage between sexuality and the modern machine, between the unspeakable thrill of danger in our imaginative lives and the deadly potential of the automobile and its propulsive motion. James Ballard (James Spader) is a film producer whose dispassionate liaisons with his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), a sculpture-boned beauty, are heightened through exchanging stories of their mutual, promiscuous adventures outside their marriage. After an accident in which the other driver is killed, Ballard meets the surviving passenger, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), along with Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a sexually polymorphous crash fanatic who has become obsessed with the meeting of flesh and technology in what he believes can be "benevolent psychopathology." Wreckage, physical scarring, sexual encounters heightened by the proximity to danger—these are all esteemed. Yet Cronenberg has managed to make a stunningly beautiful film, one of perversely satisfying passion. Equal parts astonishing and horrifying, "Crash" is concise, keenly imaginative and deeply, darkly satisfying.
The events of the story begin thrillingly cold, with dialogue delivered in a hush of exaltation, mimicking the just-plain-wrong whispers of the dreamer's brain. While shooting in contemporary Toronto, Cronenberg has made a bit of timeless futurism of his hometown, the wet, wintry landscape sere and depopulated, a landscape emptied of all but forward motion.
Cronenberg's uncompromised intelligence is preserved in its current, uncut NC-17 form, despite the interference of Ted Turner, the Time-Warner vice president and former owner of distributor Fine Line features, who believes "Crash" may persuade teenagers to have sex while crashing their cars. In fact, Cronenberg's movie is an exquisitely calibrated metaphor for how fetish and obsessive behavior exclude the outside world and occlude perception of the rest of the world. "Are there more cars out there now?" the crash victims ask one another. The world is divided into those who have crashed and those who have not.
"The sex at the beginning is pretty dispassionate but it starts to fill with meaning," Cronenberg says, "which is really what they're looking for. They've already got sex, and they've even got kinky sex, so it's not that that's absent. It's meaning. Even though people think the movie is cold, I don't think it's cold. It begins cold but it gradually fills with emotion. It is subtle and it's not delivered the normal way it's delivered in movies." Besides an unusual narrative structure—for instance, opening with three sex scenes in a row that serve as characterization and plot—the characters are not normal audience identification figures. " With obsessives, those who are not obsessed are of no consequence," he says. "They're at best a minor irritation. The only reason Catherine counts, even though she's not had a crash, is that there is a desire there for them to reconnect and Ballard feels he's found the key. But until she's had her crash, she can't be part of the structure of the group or of him. She must find her crash." Without her initiation, their shared experience is meaningless. She remains outside his fantasy life. "It's absolutely faces in the crowd. People who you can't quite see behind the wheel of cars are not the people you are concerned with. There is a small circle of people who understand, the crash epiphany allows them to relate to each other. Everyone else is irrelevant. That's what the movie does as well. The rest of the world is just little shadows in the corners of the frame."
Sensation fills most of the frames. The mood and choice of details in "Crash" is as heightened as foreplay—touch, tactile—not only sex, but the way characters strain toward each other. "The whole movie is foreplay leading to the final scene," Cronenberg says. "Even Vaughn tracking Catherine with his car and touching her, nudging her car with his car is, in the context of the movie, even more intimate, really, than physically touching her. It's a real violation of the marriage."
Cronenberg's unnerving film has met much criticism, including the plaint that a series of sex scenes is not a plot.
He laughs. "First of all, how limited one must be to make rules like that. And how educated we have been into the Hollywood understanding of what narrative is and how it should be delivered. My answer was, 'Why not? Why can't it be?' A journalist said that the scariest thing about the movie was the lack of a moral stance. That was, I felt, also very indicative of what one expects from a Hollywood movie, but not necessarily what one expects from art. It was like a plot device that was demanded had been excluded and he was outraged! `Well, I'm glad you noticed,' I said, but it's really the subject of the film. There is no moral stance that you can take. That is the subject of the film. And if I impose my own artificial standards, then I'm completely spoiling my experiment, which is to let these creatures have their head and try to reinvent all of these things they're trying to reinvent. And I think that's the situation we really all are in as humans, That's the existential contract that we signed on birth, which we later look at and say, 'I can't believe I signed that!' That's all these people are doing. They say, 'OK, reality, meaning, morality, all of these things are our responsibility to invent and to force ourselves to believe in.' And if we don't? They aren't there."

Originally published in a slightly different form in Newcity, March 20, 1997.

22 July 2012

At the Apple Store: Fall 2003

Michigan Avenue, once prized worldwide for its architecture, is prized now by multinationals as a runway for corporate iconography. Check out the citadels to logo love, the inflated cartons of corporate faith, behemoths like Niketown, Gap, Disney, Virgin Megastore, Eddie Bauer, American Girl Store, even the recently truncated Sony store.

Watching figures eddying along the Boulevard prompts the thought: are we taking more away than brand identity, retailed cool in an oversized sack? How essential are brands in and of themselves? The most compelling manifestation may be the new Apple store. Are its disciples after a sensation of cool or an efficient tool that happens to be lovingly designed? The Friday night it opened at the end of June, Mac devotees had been lined up in lawn chairs for a day and a half—Maccies? On a steaming evening in late August a few days before the introduction of the super-souped up Apple G5, a different rhythm’s been established. Outside, it’s over ninety degrees, the doors are wide-open, a/c and iTunes music blasting out onto the sidewalk like stores in tropical, humid Hong Kong. The pale cement-paneled façade has only a story-high cutout of the Apple logo looking onto the store’s second floor. There are oversized graphics of the inside of the yet-to-be-adopted G5 box, and passersby seem to be walking inside its very innards.

On the store’s Huron cross street, horse-drawn carriages queue, up to five at a time, and from this perspective, like the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art, the building looks as much like a box computer equipment—or even another building—might be shipped inside. (It once housed a Gap store.) The circulating crowds inside, working with a computer platform that boasts only a relatiavely small market share, may see themselves like the buggy drivers, twenty-first century Luddites, intrigued by the most advanced technology that seems to simplify one’s work and play. But what about the other possible buyers, who may think Mac seems too pricey, too precious, too pretentious?

More than a dozen sales associates circulate among the customers. The place buzzes, constantly. On the ground floor of this two-story sales area, beneath a Citizen Kane-like skylight, light floods the airy space, furnished with a chrome and blonde birds’-eye maple and translucent glass. It would resemble an ooh-and-aww-worthy San Francisco wine bar if not for all the traffic. There’s the same attentive glee on the faces of customers and employees, and taking in the entire floor, you notice that as much if not more than the over seventy computers rigged to demonstrate different applications and interfaces with different products and gizmos. The employees stand out from the crowd with their black shirts with a Terminator sequel-like G5 logo on the back, some wearing Birkenstocks, or khaki shorts and Adidas without socks. The t-shirts seem the only dress code, which is also striking. In virtually any other business, even in a head shop or Abercrombie & Fitch, it seem to be more sartorial rules. Here? The Apple-flecked t-shirt rules

A day earlier, a PC-native worm on the Internet had slowed traffic worldwide, and Canadian aviation had shut down. There’s a murmur among the aficionados as well as the fascinated walk-ins: do these things get viruses? The fact that they seldom do becomes more than a selling point, but an essential difference. (It could turn out that this viral aspect will make Mac market share leap.)

In the second-floor auditorium between free demonstrations by employees and guests, promos loop at the moment; Bono is on the big screen in the back, clutching an iPod to his chest, praising iTunes. (There’s also a third-floor training studio upstairs where you can take cheap application-specific courses.)

More than loving Mac, it seems the employees love the job, as if it’s an ongoing conversation all shift long with people who share interests. Gray Rothkopf, the Service Business Manager, says with a therapeutically reassuring smile that he loves the work for many reasons, including the fact he’s “a nosy kind of guy, interested in all kinds of people, learning about them from learning about the way they use our products.”

June 2007.
Scott, tall with a smudge of a goatee, is greeting customers as they enter. I ask how many Columbia grads or students he knows at the store, and he tells me “This place is just filled with Columbia people!” His store gig is usually teaching digital moviemaking in the private studio classes on the third floor, and intends to return to Columbia’s TV department. Like most of the employees, he has a colorful and diverse background beyond computers, including working three years as a paramedic before finding his way to Apple. It’s part of the company’s interview process: finding employees who are multiply motivated, who have lives beyond their laptop. “You don’t want to have to manage people,” Rothkopf says. “The way not to manage people is to insure that you’ve got quality people to begin with. Most managers spend 80% of their time managing 20% of their staff, the ones having problems. Our team? Awesome. Makes your job a lot easier.”

Talking to the sales associates, their enthusiasm seems less cultish than from genuine surprise. If it makes you work better, why does happiness with a workplace or a product have to be such a rarity? One associate told me, “A customer today asked how to download images from his video camera to his computer. I showed him, and he said, ‘But there’s a trick, right? Show me how to make it work at home.’ He couldn’t believe it was that simple. It’s not difficult to demonstrate the virtues of products like that.”

Along with the auditorium on the second floor, there’s Apple’s free Internet section, for customers who just want to drop in and get a fix on one of the fourteen stations. Here’s where the store seems more like a tourist Mecca, with Russian, Italian and Polish being spoken by potential customers, the Safari browser pulldown menus revealing histories in several languages. (Including tracks left by the Italian visitor interested in “sex” “Chicago” and “stripers.”)

There’s a kid’s zone, peopled by intent, bright-eyed little gamers with acute posture. Then there’s the Genius Bar, the largest in any of Apple’s stores, 42 feet long with almost 20 stools for customers to bring their beefs. A quartet of 16x9 screens loop tips and quotations, such as “Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth,” by Isaac Newton. And “I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them,” attributed to Isaac Asimov. Brushed aluminum nuclei ring the words “Genius Bar.” It’s essentially a customer service counter, with the kind of post-jet set décor rife in chic new restos. There’s almost always someone on duty who knows what the customer’s going to need.              “It makes it easier for the customer,” Scott observes, which seems true in the interactions I observed over several weeks. You’re routed to a specialist instead of having to describe your problems like a hypochondriac to a nurse. There’s also an ambiance of quiet reassurance. It’s like the old retail adage, look busy and people come to you: they think you’re the one with the expertise.

Problem diagnoses are free, and eavesdropping on interactions, the therapy metaphor seems to hold. Scoot, a petite New Orleans native with a wild background, describes an almost Socratic technique of helping the customer stumble through the problem, not necessarily letting on how much they know, letting them work their way through it. “I think that’s how computers are designed,” she says. “Finding your own path through them.” She laughs. “That may be a little Zen,” she says.

June 2007.
While the staff is mostly younger, the customers are of all ages and pursuits. A small, older woman hikes her emerald iMac that matches her linen pantsuit up onto the sleek counter. A sailor sets a shiny white iBook next to his starched white cap. A tall cop in sturdy bulletproof asks how to get the Final Cut Pro upgrade for video editing, even though he still hasn’t taken the old version out of the shrink-wrap. A kid in a stroller looks up at Dad in awe as he spews specs to a sales associate. The way that each problem finds its own Mr. or Ms. Fix-it reminds me of neighborhood hardware stores, where the guy in the back could tell you how to repair, nail down or grease up anything. Or like the corner tavern: the way that people trade across the surface of a bar that serves liquor and life knowledge here is instead necessary bits and bytes of computer know-how.

“People who work on the Genius Bar all have different talents and each person focuses on one thing,” Scott tells me. Most of the sales associates have always been Apple owners, but his employment came from a critical insight. “I was basically waling down Michigan Avenue, and I said to myself, they’re opening a store? They’ll need employees.”

Dave finished Columbia's film program in August. (“All finished!” he says, smiling.) He’s perfecting a cuddly Jesus look, with curly hair and beard, khaki shorts and Adidas without socks under the black T. “You can just end up talking to a customer about what matters to both of you. You discover things. People walk in here, they’re in awe, if they’re PC people, they’re amazed at how different Macs are, and Mac people find out new applications.” Dave lived in the suburbs, and came into the city to work on promotional campaigns, mostly for Truth, the anti-smoking crusade. As a kid, he thought PCs were cool, since all his friends were gamers with games he couldn’t play. But now that he needs tools, he can’t complain. Apple also gives him latitude, such as to take an upcoming freelance editing gig coming in Montreal—he says, “they’re supportive” about letting employees shift schedules. And the customers? He thinks for a long moment. There are no tales to tell: “I haven’t seen too many unhappy customers.

 “We try to make a solution, the store is about making solutions for people that respond to their needs,” Scott says. “Not every question is about hardware. Some are about very special forms of software or a new application, a new use, that the customer has discovered for themselves.” Still, he continues, “The majority of problems are single answer questions that require expertise, but it’s straightforward.”

 Scoot’s background is anything but straightforward, and seems to be emblematic of an idealized Mac sales associate or user. She’s wearing two-tone hair, and flame-licked black bikers boots. She worked for UPN and NBC as a news editor, doing graphic design as well, trained as a sushi chef, “full-fledged, fully-trained by Japanese men,” she says. She moved to Chicago two years ago to do improv, but also had a job in cellular and molecular biology, which she has her degree in, as well as a stint at a comics store as well. “I did biomed research for a millisecond, “ she says, but “when even a glimmer of hope to work at Apple came up, I jumped on it.” I joke, is that because of the discount? “Honestly, that’s what most of us probably say.” No one’s said that, actually. “I’ve been here two years. I said if I stayed in Chicago one more year with the cold and whatnot, being from the South, y’know, Apple would be a good reason to get out in the cold. It wasn’t science, it wasn’t microcellular biology that made me stay.”

What is it about working here? “Being part of something big without losing anything little,” she says, surprising herself at how readily that answer came. “Music’s a good example. I use my iPod every single day. I mean, something as big as how it changed the way I listen to music? Music is huge!” When she was between jobs, her Mac kept her going, too, cutting wedding videos on her desktop “But working here, it’s all about the people.” She’s an adept at Final Cut Pro, loves comics, but she says the Apple store job “allows me to express myself without being a real artist!"

Marge, a slightly older employee with a background in graphic production, observes that the intense handholding is part of the brand identity. “It doesn’t help us if you’re unhappy.” She likes it best when she can demonstrate products to several customers at once: “It’s great when you have couples or families come in, all the questions get answered at once. Everyone has different questions, and then they don’t have to go home and discuss it.”

Rothkopf has a history as a computer entrepreneur, but says that he’s learned immensely from the few months the store’s been open. “What’s most gratifying about working with this staff and seeing them work with customers.” There’s a cool pause. “I think what’s most surprising is the outpouring of love,” he says without awkwardness. “The people who like Apple, there’s always an enormous response.” Even when their problems are confusing, “they give us a lot of leeway.”

Part of it is a matter of listening. “We ask open-ended questions. We try to understand how they’re using our computers, it’s a conversation, rather than just selling something. We learn a lot about a lot of different people. I think what surprises me most about my job as service manager is that I expected to have to deal with a lot of angry customers, because that’s the business I’m in, of ‘the buck stops here.’ I don’t think I’ve run across a customer so far that I’ve felt like I couldn’t understand where they were coming from.”

[Originally published in a slightly different form in Gravity, a now-defunct magazine published by Columbia College, September 2003. All photographs © Ray Pride.]

Public, Thessaloniki, Greece, November 2011.

18 May 2012

Always at the crossroads: Listening to crickets as modern media evolves

Prompted by reading a few skeins of Twitter abuse hurled toward film crickets who are tweeting from Cannes 2012, I went looking for the phrase "pecked to death by ducks." I found this article, originally published in Newcity in a slightly different form in February 2007 (and not online), and I almost cringe at the thought of re-reading this snapshot of a moment that passed over five years ago.

MEDIA AND MARKETING STRATEGIES SHIFT BY THE DAY: a prime example that affects how one writes about movies has been the increase in Tuesday night screenings for the bulk of Chicago film critics of movies like Breach and David Fincher’s Zodiac. (Paramount was kind enough to send out a creepy reproduction of “an authentic Zodiac letter scanned directly from evidence.”)

Are the films bad? In these cases, no. (The Thursday night screenings of Reno: 911: Miami may tell another story.) What it changes is the ability for a reviewer to be part of the conversation on the opening weekend. The critic Robin Wood made a simple distinction last year between a reviewer and a critic: "The reviewer writes for those who haven't seen a film, telling readers whether they shouldn't and offering a fairly clear idea of what the film is and does; the critic assumes the reader has seen it, making a plot synopsis superfluous, and attempts to engage him or her in an imaginary dialogue about its content, its degree of success, its value. The great literary critic F. R. Leavis summed up very succinctly the ideal critical exchange: 'This is so, isn't it? ' 'Yes, but...'"
Inadvertently, the role of the writer who covers the movie beat to champion a small or strange film and have an impact on its opening week attendance could tail off to nothing if these practices were to become widespread, and yet without the commercial consideration, a fresher form of “criticism” could emerge. But that’s Pollyannish, leaving out as it does what’s happening to print media, where dailies and weeklies alike are cutting space and migrating extended content to the Internet. (Still, I have to admire the Toronto critic who left a Thursday night screening of Ghost Rider and immediately composed his notice on his BlackBerry.)

Even a couple of hours with your trigger finger working the keyboard can convince you, via the internet, of the death of many things large and small, and that would encourage the genre of aware and worldly film criticism. "Suicide by paying attention," a colleague called it, after sharing a barrage of blogs that held a heavy baggage of contempt, contumely and cultural discontinuity. Read the comments section of any site with 4,000 hits a day and it’s the sort of slow death that the journalist Tim Cahill memorably describes as being "pecked to death by ducks."

To pick one shining, contrary example, the great film analysts David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson do exemplary, extensive work describing the elements of filmmaking they’re fixed upon. Yet two pieces shone for me while considering this subject. The first is a passage from the poet Mark Doty’s “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon,” after three separate friends in one day reported their astonishment with Children of Men (each wholly unaware of the myriad forms of spite piled upon Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece online): “The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away… Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, it’s handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refused perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time… [S]omething of the imperfect, the quickly passing, the morning meal with its immediate pleasures has been imported into the realm of perfection, into the long, impersonal light of centuries.”
There is a thrilling analogue to what I love about the potential of filmmaking for the transporting moment; of the practice of criticism, a fourteen-page interview with the exceptionally insightful Australian writer Adrian Martin recently appeared online, entitled “Responsibility and Criticism.” It's the most lucid and bracing exploration I've read in some time about what ought to be going on before and after the lights go down on the professional film cricket. "[W]riting about film is always about capturing fugitive sensibilities as they form and die, at a very rapid rate, within the cultural sphere… [N]o film is truly old, or in the past! Every cinephile should have the experience of watching a silent film. I had this experience watching some Jean Epstein films recently-and suddenly feeling confronted with something that is still, today, newer and more modern than we ourselves are as spectators. There is a good, simple reason for this: the cinema is always a laboratory, a field of experimentation: experimentation with image, sound, performance, gesture, light, colour, music, rhythm, storytelling, etc. No experiment is ever exhausted, and no aesthetic or cultural problem is solved for all time. So, when we return to old films, we therefore see that they are completely contemporary to us and our concerns, if we are open to the traces of experimentation in them-there are always new ideas in old films. I do not regard the 'cinema of the past' as something neat, clean, classical, canonical. Cinema is always 'at the crossroads', at every moment of its existence, and so are we.”

And in breaking news, Ron Howard intends to remake Michael Haneke’s serenely savage critique of representation and the bourgeoise, Cache. And so on and so forth, and so on and so forth, Et Cetera, Et Cetera. Death comes slowly.

[Here's the PDF of the Adrian Martin article.]

09 February 2012

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (17 May 1999)

What if it had been good

What if it had been a movie? 

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is the product placement of all time, the runestone, the grail, the altar upon which billions of dollars of cash will be placed in the next few weeks, and its surge of activity in the economy, coursing from fan-hand to Hasbro or Galoob bank, from T-shirt sweatshop to Lucasfilm coffers, may be more instrumental in lubricating the economy than any amount of e-commerce day-trading in Internet stock ever could. The Force is money. The movie is crap. That is, unless you're about 5 years old, and still enjoy hearing lines like, "Aw, Jar Jar Binks, you in deep doo-doo now!"

The bigs have weighed in—Rolling Stone, USA Today, the New York Daily News, Time, Newsweek, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter—mostly conceding that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is platinum-hearted, product-pandering childsploitation of a low and monotonous order. (One hopes the small voices will pipe up against the dark side of the Force, as well.) One could criticize Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace for the obvious that's there for all with eyes to see—that it's a feature-length animated cartoon with humans dropped in (for modest adult identification), poorly acted, lurchingly paced, and with dialogue on a level a notch or two above "Teletubbies."

But that misses the point. The movie doesn't matter. The jam-packed style of the film serves only to motor a merchandising blowout that has already outgrossed many small nations and most religions. But who needs to start a religion when you've got a billion-and-a-half dollars in merchandising revenue banked before a single ticket was sold? If we cannot find faith, we can at least download directions to the mall, and find Star Wars products to fill the emptiness in our lives and basements.

In a new biography of the late French film director François Truffaut, his once-friend and fellow director Jean-Luc Godard snipes at him with a put-down along the lines of, "Ah, François. Businessman in the morning, poet in the afternoon." On the evidence of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the one-time director of THX-1138 and American Graffiti no longer has poetry on his mind, only the merch: another cavil toward the notion that Lucas, the man, is a storytelling "genius."

In finding products to peddle, Lucas signs works the origins of which are more convoluted than the usual film production or the workshops of antiquity where painters would sign the work of their students. With immense resources at his disposal, Lucas can dragoon vast numbers of young and gifted talents to conceive of creatures, vistas and machinery that can then be absorbed into the Lucas corporate—sorry, story—structure as surely as Microsoft shovels up "intellectual property."

As with the appropriation of religious iconography, including the confounding suggestion that Annakin Skywalker is a parallel creature to Jesus Christ, this opportunistic mulching of style results in no style, only a very remunerative corporate compost that is little more than mush-mouthed New Age wishy-washiness. Instead of a sense of wonder, we're offered a sense of bewilderment.

What about the video game-style structure? Not only the obvious, the long, dodge-the-obstacles pod race across the desert, but the condescending, puzzle-piece pseudo-educational story structure that mimics Lucasarts video games with titles like "Monkey Island." A Jedi Knight's spaceship fails, so a part must be found. The junk dealer won't take Federation money, so a barter must be made. The barter introduces the Knight to Annakin, and another barter and a bet set up the pod race. Worse than the diagramming of a sentence, this structure follows the format of game "interactivity" to a dulling degree.

The casual racism is shocking as well. Samuel L. Jackson is shown as the only visible human in a Council meeting amid rubber puppets and computer-generated creatures. What's more exotic in the universe than a powerful black man? Or what about Watto, the junk dealer, a hook-nosed and vaguely Middle Eastern Shylock who owns the young Annakin? Or the fish-headed bad-guy ambassadors who speak in Charlie Chan cadences; or the film's central character, Jar Jar Binks, who speaks in motor-mouthed Jamaican-patois Stepin Fetchit "me no there go" voice. There's a line where a creature calls Annakin "a credit to [his] race"; with a glimmer of wit, the nasty line of yore would have been revised to "a credit to your species."

There's another racial element to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace: As our eyes scan the Big Daddy Roth-style rat finks that litter the crowd scenes, we have to wonder about the first Force-ful intergalactic ethnic cleansing: Where are the Ewoks, those gentle, fun-loving little characters. Banished to the back of the merchandising shelf?

What if it had been good? No chance.

That happened somewhere else, in some galaxy, far, far away.

[Appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity, 17 May 1999.]

02 January 2012

The Same River Twice: Terry Gilliam and 12 MONKEYS

Terry Gilliam travels between modern worlds in 12 Monkeys

Snow flocks the rotten gray sky. Every airline's flights have been canceled or rearranged, and Terry Gilliam, urgently required in a distant city this evening, once again feels dislocated. We'll have to talk in his car on a rush to O'Hare. Gilliam, armed with his violently infectious giggle, seizes on the stretch limo as a metaphor for time travel's meaning in 12 Monkeys, his marvelously rich, complex new movie, easily one of the best of 1995.
The 55-year-old Gilliam is as manic as a child. "We've got a premiere tonight in L.A. This weekend in New York, I did over seventy-five interviews. It's bizarre. Technology just makes us more confused, since it opens up so many more doors." The car reminds Gilliam of how Cole, Bruce Willis' time traveler, is shunted from the desolate future, where a virus has killed ninety-nine percent of mankind, to 1996 where he searches for a renegade animal rights group that calls itself "The Army of the 12 Monkeys." "We get in the chrysalis, then we get in the steel tube! Which is the point! That world is all around us, but why don't people recognize it?"
Terry Gilliam prestige
The script, written by David and Janet Peoples (David wrote Unforgiven and co-wrote Blade Runner, is inspired by Chris Marker's melancholy 1964 SF short, La jetee, and draws its central imagery from it. Like Gilliam's other films, the world of 12 Monkeys is simultaneously retro and futurist, a documentary of the universe of found objects clattering in Gilliam's sensibility. There's a lovely interlude using clips from Hitchcock's Vertigo, with Cole astutely observing to sympathetic psychologist Kathryn Reilly (Madeleine Stowe) how strange it is that "movies stay the same, but you  change." I bring up the Southern aphorism about never being able to step in the same river twice, and Gilliam nods. "Yeah. It's like being asked to compare my work with Python to what I do now. I suppose there's still a certain sur—surreality—well,  surrealness about it, using the same kind of juxtapositions, of scale, time, space. I think the foot at the beginning shows the same kind of fatalism. Whatever you do, there's something you're not going to escape from." He pauses, then mutters, "It seems a very long time ago that guy did those animations."
Cole's a convict whose reprieve will come only if he allows himself to be flung back and forth in time. He eventually agrees with those who think he's mad, and decides it's best to stay in 1996 with Kathryn. Again, Gilliam works the parallels to his life. "After Fisher King, I was spending a lot of time back and forth between the States and London. I have a lot of memories of New York and other places, and I go back to them, it's almost as if the intervening years had never happened. Just at the moment I think I'm one person and I have this life worked out! I used to go on holiday, Morocco, Greece, anywhere, and throw myself into those worlds. Then I'd come home and there was this awful feeling as I walked up the stairs to my apartment, that the apartment just started, with each step, clunk, another bit of the apartment, clonk,  another piece blotted a bit of Morocco. by the time I had opened that door, Greece or Morocco had vanished forever and the apartment had taken me over again. It's always been like that, and it drives me crazy."
Taken for being crazy, Cole is incarcerated in a mental hospital, where he meets Stowe and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a loony rich kid escaped from a Tex Avery cartoon. Pitt's astonishing, practically bouncing off the walls in all his scenes. "I met Brad and I really like him, his earnestness and determination. Then as soon as I did that, I realized we had made a huge mistake and we were doomed! But months later, Brad worked his ass off and it shows. He's fantastic. We were the beneficiaries of being on the rebound of him being the sexiest man in American, which he hates. All those twitches and mannerisms? He really worked for it."
Gilliam also admires Willis' work. "I've seen the film, what, fifty or sixty times? The more I watch, the more impressed I am with Bruce. He's so understated. There's a lot of people who don't like Bruce because of all the macho, smart-ass films he does. My big fear was that I thought people who would really like this film won't go because it's got Bruce and Brad in it, they'll think it's that kind of film. And the people who go to see Bruce and Brad will be disappointed because it's this kind of film. I'm dying for it to open and see what the reality is!" Gilliam giggles, then resumes his earlier train of thought. "We're just surrounded by this stuff. Of all this information that surrounds us, what bits are important, what applies to me, which can I ignore? And nobody's really certain, so you're kind of nervous the whole time. That key bit, the answer, the meaning of life might have—fweep!—gone by when you weren't looking. I think instead of informing us it's turned us into even more neurotic people. Mobile phones! In the past, when you rented a car, you couldn't contact the known world from that car. So what you wind up doing, of course, is calling friends, whatever, then the phone conversation is constantly interrupted by bad connections or you're under a bridge. So then you become more neurotic wondering what you lost in the conversation. Before, driving a car was just one of the great things, you were free."
On the median, an O'Hare-bound train thunders past. I mention how Gilliam's use of contemporary, rundown Philadelphia locations is reminiscent of Godard's Alphaville. "Christ! Alphaville is so simple," Gilliam says. "But Godard caught an atmosphere with no money. I admire that film tremendously. I wish I could be that restrained and restricted." But 12 Monkeys is a more complex film. "Not that you would know it from the questions I get. 'Is it a hopeful ending, Terry?' I get asked. What I think it is, is a transcendent ending, it's very beautiful. I get teary, it just gets me, there's something very beautiful that happens there. Oh it's a downer, oh it's a happy ending, that's the choice? That's how films have to end, it's binary, it's on or off? That's nonsense. That's the vocabulary you have to deal with in most stages of filmmaking, from studios to critics and interviews. It's so limited. I've got this whole world [we've constructed] to deal with and it's down to this? There are interviews where you talk about Brad and Bruce's butt. After all that effort, that's what we talk about?"
I suggest, "Ambiguity—is it good or evil?"
"Each one of us who makes movies has some kind of impact. Isn't that what It's a Wonderful Life is about?" Gilliam giggles. "There's something about the human spirit that seems so irrepressible no matter what you throw at it, that always astounds me, so in that sense, yeah, it's there. An awful lot of the time I get very depressed, but it doesn't matter. Life's a pretty good ride to go on, however bad or silly it gets," he says as the car pulls up to the curb. 

Published in another form in Newcity, 4 January 1996.