Thursday, February 12, 2015

Guest Post--Returning to Terry Gilliam and "Twelve Monkeys"

Today features a guest post from Beth Kelly. In it, Beth examines one of my favorite films, Twelve Monkeys.

Returning to Terry Gilliam and “Twelve Monkeys”

Terry Gilliam's legacy is a strange and beautiful one. His reputation as one of the most prolific members of the absurdist comedy collective “Monty Python's Flying Circus” and his career history as one of the most notable surrealist animators of all time almost turn into a footnote against the influence he has had over modern cinema. Within his almost half-century of directorship over deeply weird and strikingly beautiful films, he has achieved mainstream recognition without sacrificing his artistic ideals, giving the world a glimpse into his bizarre imagination.

Terry Gilliam's early career focused on animation and cartoons, and several of his earliest animations featured other Pythons that he would go on to work extensively with. His flair for animation and all things cartoonish can be felt in all of his films, even his slightly more realistic endeavors like Twelve Monkeys (1995). Outlandish set designs, unusual camera angles and larger than life characters give his feature films the same whimsical and surreal element that breathes life into his cartoons. His hyperbolic approach to everything from basic dialog to cinematography can take his scenes from breathtakingly lovely to painfully claustrophobic within seconds. His films pack an emotional sucker punch underneath their dream-like layers, and his dark sense of humor smacks of Roadrunner and Coyote-ish nihilism. The result is a mood that’s both cartoonishly comic and deeply dramatic.

This strange juxtaposition of gleeful imaginative comedy and dark foreboding drama is particularly effective in Gilliam's famous sci-fi thriller, Twelve Monkeys. Underneath the dizzying time travel conceit and blackly slapstick humor of this film is a Hitchcockian drama about a man losing his grip on reality and watching it slowly and inexorably drift away from him. Gilliam tells this pathos-laden story with plenty of his signature flair, sharing a message that, while not exactly hopeful, celebrates beauty within chaos.

In contrast to the high fantasy motif in some of his other films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) or The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen (1988), Twelve Monkeys takes place in one of the highly dystopic future worlds that sealed his reputation as the godfather of dystopian cinema. This film's visuals are no less lush for its urban setting, and Gilliam's favorite trick of juxtaposing the very large with the very tiny through architecture, set design and shot composition adds to the fatalistic struggle of the plot, relating us to the main character's plight and wondering with him if he really has gone insane.

While the final scenes of this film weigh heavy on the viewer’s subconscious, the story allows for moments of comedy, beauty, and genuine human emotion to shine through the chaos of time travel and terrorism. The plot and characters of this film iterate many times that the final outcome of events cannot be changed and there is no escape out of time.
But even on their way towards certain doom in the final moments of the film, the characters experience a moment of stunning, absurd and incomprehensible beauty in the form of a mob of freed zoo animals running wild through the streets of the city. This moment, existing somewhere outside time, is a powerful symbol of the theme of Twelve Monkeys and a core part of Gilliam's cinematic language; although we may not be able to change our futures, we can appreciate the strange and wonderful places the journey takes us, even as we hurtle towards our ultimate fate.

This past year, the Syfy channel went ahead with a television adaptation of the film, following Cole’s journey into the present past. He is now tracking down Dr. Goines with the intent to kill him, and prevent the plague from infecting future humans. The TV program also establishes Dr. Railly as a more impactful character, and the Twelve Monkeys gang as an actual threat. With episodes from this season streaming on both DTV and Hulu, there’s no need to travel back in time in order to get caught up on the plot.

In the present, Terry Gilliam shows no signs of slowing his creative output. He continues to write, direct and produce comedic and dramatic endeavors set in the gilded past and the dystopian future, occasionally exploring both at the same time. His next film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is slated for 2016 and promises to be another creative foray into the furthest reaches of the human imagination with a master storyteller at the helm.

You can contact Beth Kelly at Twitter:  @bkelly_88

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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