I’ve told the story more than once about the first time I saw 12 Monkeys, which is when it came out in 1995. I can no longer recall exactly when I started getting this feeling that I’d somehow seen the movie before, which was both silly (since it had just come out) and fitting (because Bruce Willis’ character, James Cole, spends a lot of time thinking about things that had happened before). Nor can I recall the exact moment when I made the connection with La Jetée, which I had seen twenty or so years earlier. It probably happened in the closing scene in the airport (I don’t recall seeing the line in the opening credits that read “Inspired by the film "La Jetée" written by Chris Marker”).
The closest I’ve come to that feeling in the years since 12 Monkeys was released is when “All Along the Watchtower” snuck into Battlestar Galactica. Apparently, some people weren’t very fond of that, but my experience as the scene unfolded was nothing short of psychedelic awe over the inexplicable presence of Dylan in the Battlestar world.
I watched these two movies as a double bill this time around. I had intended to just watch La Jetée as part of the “By Request” series, since it was #64 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list, and one of the first requests I got was to write about the movies that made it all the way to the final cut on that list. But since it’s just shy of half an hour long, I thought I’d just follow it up with 12 Monkeys.
La Jetée is a short film by the late Chris Marker, which was released in 1962 (four years after Vertigo, which inspired Marker greatly). It consists almost entirely of still photos, telling a story of the world after nuclear war. The story revolves around time travel experiments, and the circular nature of the story adds a haunting feeling to the conclusion. The absence of movement (for the most part … there is one brief moment of “action”, and the camera pans over some photos) means you can’t look away for a second. Although there is spoken narration, the photos are the key, and each one feels crucial, so you stare at the screen, absorbing every still. La Jetée is not a movie you can half-watch while doing something else.
12 Monkeys borrows much from La Jetée (although director Terry Gilliam may not have even seen the earlier movie … he was brought in after the script had been written). There is the post-apocalypse setting, the time travel, and the circular nature of the narrative. To be honest, it’s close enough to be considered a remake, albeit one that is four times longer than the original. Bruce Willis is excellent in the lead role (is it passé to call him “underrated”?). Brad Pitt does the kind of overacting, playing a madman, that wins awards (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, losing to Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects). Madeleine Stowe has the tricky role of a psychiatrist, Doctor Railly, who gradually realizes James Cole is telling the truth. The audience knows Cole isn’t crazy, and Stowe has to project intelligence when her character is still a step or two behind the viewers.
Meanwhile, Terry Gilliam turns out to be just as obsessed with Vertigo as was Chris Marker. Late in 12 Monkeys, Cole and Railly hide from their pursuers by ducking into a movie theater which is showing Vertigo. Cole remembers seeing it on television when he was a kid. We see James Stewart and Kim Novak looking at a redwood, talking about how the rings denote events from the past. Shortly after this, as Cole and Railly talk, the music from Vertigo rises gently on the soundtrack. (This scene is reenacted in La Jetée, as well.)
And I’m watching these movies, back to back, in an attempt to re-create my experience watching 12 Monkeys in 1995. It can’t be done … the pleasure of 1995 derived from the gradual realization that, just like James Cole, I had seen this before, but in 2013, I already have that realization. It’s the reason I’m watching the two movies together.
12 Monkeys was generally well-received by critics, but La Jetée is considered a masterpiece, coming in at #95 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Twelve Monkeys: 8/10. La Jetée: 10/10.