Terry Gilliam has probably as warped a take on the contemporary world as any director. This truly original filmmaker started off running in the Monty Python crew and has made films such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). One of the clear inspirations upon the worldview Gilliam conveys in his films is Chris Marker. Gilliam essentially remade one of Marker’s shorts into his film Twelve Monkeys (1995). So let’s check out the short, and also an example of Gilliam’s own strange, strange view of things.
The film that so inspired Gilliam he remade it is Chris Marker’s avant-garde sci-fi short La Jetee (1961). The film is set in the future, in the immediate aftermath of WWIII. The surviving humans appear to be eking out a subterranean existence. In this subterranean environment, those with the power (and the Nazi overtones) are conducting time travel experiments on prisoners of war. The film’s protagonist is one of these POWs and eventually it is his turn to be experimented upon. Through these terrifying experiments, we learn that the only hope for humanity is the mastery of time travel. Our ‘hero’ (I’m pretty sure we never get his name) is forced to seek out an image from his past. As the waves of time begin to wash over him, the boundaries between the present & the past; and between dreams & reality begin to blur. Here, in the past, our hero through the stark comparison of the future world he finds himself in, can plainly see the affluence and unnecessariness of the contemporary world (contemporary being early 60s, but really this point still holds today). Narratively speaking this is also a romance of sorts, the strangest romance you’ve ever seen as the hero begins to build up a strange relationship with a beautiful woman he repeatedly meets in the past. The whole thing utilises such strong imagery, and the story builds to the truly shocking twist that it ends with. Twists are generally so contrived these days, but this one blew me away.
For a film that only runs about 25 minutes, this is a thematically dense one. The film investigates memory, and the “scars” of memory. What happens when a memory is broken, can it repair itself? There is also an examination of the manner in which humans use their memories to protect themselves. Unsurprisingly, given the horrifying post-war apocalyptic setting and atmosphere, the futility of war is also a core concern here. This is also unsurprising given that the film was made 15 years after the end of WWII, during the Cold War and in this way serves as a warning of nuclear war. As the voiceover states, perfectly encapsulating the futility of war that clearly reigned then (and I think reigns now), “The outcome [of the war] was a disappointment for some – death for others. For others, madness.” And really what can hoped to be gained from war besides those three things. There is a note of optimism when our hero, having mastered the past, travels forward in time to the future to attain a power source. Here he is welcomed, a brief respite from his exploitation in the situation he finds himself in. There is a distinct correlation between the experiments rendered upon him, and today’s animal testing that Marker makes plain. There is also a distinct suggestion that, hopefully, people in the future will be kinder.
This film in many ways requires the viewer to reconsider what constitutes a film. Can a film be solely made up of still images? Well this one is. Marker manages to infuse the images with movement by panning across them and also through his use of the soundtrack. The measure of Marker’s brilliance here is that after a very short time, your brain ceases to realise that what you are seeing are stills. It flows like a normal film. The aforementioned camera movement, and the editing trick your brain. The fact that you don’t notice the stills, makes this I think the most brilliant utilisation of editing I have ever seen in a film. In order to make this work the selection of stills also needed to be astute. The images selected are arresting, even more so when put alongside each other like Marker does. There are horrific images of wartime, and scenes of citywide destruction which I assume are genuine WWII shots.
This is a cracking, brilliant film that blew me away, as I have little doubt it will blow you away. In every way this it is a triumph of originality and a truly unmissable film experience, no matter what kind of films you generally are drawn to. Watch it. In fact, watch it below, right now.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Gilliam’s feature Brazil (1984) was made in that most Orwellian of years, and it definitely shows. The film takes place “somewhere in the 20th Century”, presumably somewhere futuristic. The environment is a dystopia, but in some ways it is a gentle one. The authoritarian overlords are at times almost comedic in their bumbling rather than overtly malevolent. Like a lot of sci-fi, this film is extremely topical, exploring notions around the use of surveillance by the government and limits that should be put on it. This aspect of the film is so well rendered, it got me to wondering if George W. Bush had maybe watched it before instigating the controversial Patriot Act.
Whilst it is not a remake of Marker’s short in the same way the Twelve Monkeys is, the influence of La Jetee is plain to see in this film. Just like that film, the mundanity of everyday life and obsession with physical appearance is a thematic concern here. The mundanity is shattered almost immediately though when a terrorist attack rips through the city. Perhaps the predominant thematic concern of this film though is the exploration of the minutiae of beaurocracy, the cold unfeelingness of it and above all its sheer unimportance and inefficiency. In many ways this is the ultimate Canberra film. If you live in a public service town and you have not seen this film, you are doing yourself a great disservice. It will make you cringe at the recognition that this absurdist, science-fiction film is scarily close to reality when it comes to the inner workings of the public service. The film is especially adept at hilariously skewering inane public service speak.
For some reason, the range of influences on this film kept cropping up for me. Which is not to say it is not original – it is incredibly so. Rather, it just incorporates various concepts and ‘feels’ from other sources, and adapts them wonderfully to this new tale. The obvious one is La Jetee, and with that film it shares the concern regarding the future, and specifically whether it will actually be better. There was for a long time the assumption that the future, driven by continued technological advance, would obviously be better than the present. We see that simplistic notion begin to unravel in the film, as to some degree it continues to do in contemporary life. Just like La Jettee, Brazil is also a love story of the strangest kind. Another clear influence on this film (and perhaps every late 20th Century sci-fi film) is the work of Philip K. Dick. There is a lot of focus on the use of electronics and also forms of escapism in this dystopian future. Also, the ‘everyman’ character at the centre of this film could almost have been lifted straight out of a Dick novel.
The characters in the film have an obsession with old movies. I get it. They have rigged up the computer system at their mundane workplace so that when the boss is not looking they can watch old black and white classics. I wish I could do the same in my office. I can’t even get onto Youtube. This is a very clever film that generically fits, somewhat surprisingly, into the comedy genre. It is definitely not your standard comedic picture though. It is a black comedy that is more focused upon ramping up the intrigue rather than the slapstick. The performances are all ace. Jonathan Pryce, who is best known to me as the villain in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), is wonderful in the protagonist role. He manages to perfectly balance the character’s numerous both strengths and weaknesses. Robert De Niro is truly magnificent in a small, slightly comedic role. In fact even though it is a small role in terms of screen time, it reminds you why he is considered one of the best actors in history. And his performance is enhanced by being able to play off Bob Hoskins who with this nice turn goes some way toward redeeming himself for ever having been in the Mario Bros (1993) movie. The look of the film is also very interesting. The visual aesthetic is brilliant. It is futuristic, but not showy and distracting, choosing to value set design over special effects. And this is coupled with an extremely clever soundtrack which assists in creating this all encompassing world for the viewer to lose themself in.
This film scores high on both the intrigue and originality fronts. It does confront a problem that is a non-entity in a short film such as La Jetee in that it does dither quite badly for some of its running time, before rising to a conclusion that becomes more and more oblique. But in the end this warped, funny vision of the future is one you are going to want to check out.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny