22nd 07 - 2016 | 5 comments »

The Time Machine (1960)

Director: George Pal


By Roderick Heath

The 1950s saw the first real boom in cinematic science fiction, and those genre halcyon days owed much to George Pal. The Hungarian-born filmmaker had made his name working in the German film industry before the Nazis came to power with a series of shorts linking music and a clever brand of animation he developed known as Puppetoons. After he moved to the U.S. and started working in Hollywood, he captured an Oscar for his shorts in 1943 before eventually turning to feature production with the 1950 fantasy film The Great Rupert, helmed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel. Pal and Pichel quickly followed it up with a more ambitious project extrapolating cutting-edge scientific concepts, most of which were still purely theoretical, about what space travel would be like and turning them into a movie titled Destination Moon (1950). Not the best of the scifi work of the era and not quite the first, Destination Moon nonetheless renewed the template for a brand of realistic science fiction first touched on by Fritz Lang two decades earlier with The Woman in the Moon (1929), and proved the catalyst for an eruption of interest in all things fantastical and futuristic that would cram movie screens for the next few years. Pal, who seemed to harbour ambitions to emulate his Paramount Pictures stablemate, Cecil B. DeMille, as a maker of grandiose entertainments, soon produced two more works still familiar to anyone who loves the genre: When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953), based on the H. G. Wells novel. His brand came to grief with Conquest of Space (1955), an attempt to return to Destination Moon’s template of hard scifi that was generally rejected as hokey and clumsy, although now its ambition and fumbling attempts at a poetic understanding of space flight now look far more prescient.


Pal didn’t make another film for three years, and when he did, it came as a straight fantasy for MGM, tom thumb (1958), with Pal himself directing for the first time. The film’s success allowed him to return to scifi with a second raid on the works of H. G. Wells, this time the 1895 novella The Time Machine. Wells’ role in shaping the very concept of science fiction is hard to overestimate. If his predecessors and fellow progenitors Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne opened up the strange new landscapes of speculative interest, the former pair as a psychic vista of strangeness and anxiety, and the latter with a grasp on the potential of machinery, Wells synthesised their approaches and used his real scientific learning to start writing stories that investigated a certain driving idea to a logical end, with his real dramatic and poetic gifts used to shade and guide. Wells was eventually frustrated by the way his early, short, sensational writings overshadowed his more literary and philosophical output even before his death in 1945. His most famous tales also defied easy filming, as they tend to be shaped more like travelogues through certain conceptual universes rather than as propulsive narratives. Pal, however, had no problem overseeing their conversion into forceful blood-and-thunder yarns.


Partly for this reason, Pal’s approach to scifi has often been divisive for genre fans in spite of his films’ iconic status, as he popularised the form by emphasising elements general audiences could grasp and relate to at the expense of more radical aspects: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds are littered with invocations of the biblical and parochial in contrast to the more difficult, sceptical, acidic impulses scifi in its literary form was just starting to contemplate. Yet Pal and his various stable directors had a grasp on the essence of scifi in the popular mindset as a place of vast frontiers, grand promise, and outsized threat: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds successfully visualised the new awareness of the Atomic Age as a place of both possibility and dread in fervent colours and big-type dramatic reflexes. By 1960, the zeitgeist was changing, and Pal took on The Time Machine with a mellower, more thoughtful palate, if also still happily leaping into adventure territory when the time came. Pal saw scifi through the eyes of a man whose life had been shaped by his love of constructing and manipulating his Puppetoons, a modern take on an old mechanistic craft with its roots based on middle Europe’s folk cultures as a new-age wing of the old fairy tale book; unsurprisingly, his next work as director was to be an exploration of the legacy of the Brothers Grimm. The Time Machine manages to be both thoughtful and wistful, but also childlike in its sense of the possible and glee in the process of the impossible.


The film’s prologue, a series of gently ticking, drifting clocks in the void giving way to the drumming thunder of Big Ben, has a beguilingly poetic quality that infuses the rest of the film, which looks both backwards and forwards with both youthful joie de vivre and an autumnal sweetness. In this regard, Pal’s visuals are inestimably aided by Russell Garcia’s scoring, with sound and image in deep accord in exploring the way the past and the future are another country. As later transposers of Wells’ art would also do, Pal and screenwriter David Duncan wove Wells himself and his ideas into his tale, essentially presenting the anonymous time traveller of the book as Wells himself, or the version of himself he presented through his writing—a thoughtful dreamer and pacifist out of step with the coldly pragmatic mindset of the late Victorian age. Pal also reset the story at the moment of a great pivot, in the last week of the 19th century, charged with intimations of a farewell and a new beginning attendant to every change of year with the special dimension of one world about to give way to another. The book’s recounted narrative is retained, as kindly Scots merchant Robert Filby (Alan Young) and other members of a circle of friends, gruff Dr. Hillyer (a glorious character turn by Sebastian Cabot), boozy Bridewell (Tom Helmore), and stuffy Kemp (Whit Bissell), await dinner with their inventor friend George Wells (Rod Taylor) in his house. Increasingly irked by George’s absence, the men sit down to dinner served up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd), only for George to appear, bloodied, shattered, and dishevelled.


George, fortified by wine and Filby’s assurances that he has “all the time in the world,” begins to recount the strange adventure he’s had since he last talked to them. A flashback takes them to their last meeting, on New Year’s Eve, during which George tried to thrill and impress his friends with a demonstration of a miniature version of a time machine he’s built. The small machine seemed to work perfectly, but his friends chose to dismiss it as a conjuring trick. Hillyer and Kemp instead prodded George to turn his efforts towards more practical ideas to serve military applications, whilst Filby feared the machine on a more fundamental level, warning his friend that it’s not a good idea to tempt the laws of providence. Frustrated by their lack of belief and understanding, and appalled by more grim news from the Boer War, George arranged for the dinner a week in the future before heading to his laboratory and climbing into the full-sized version of the time machine, determined to brave all dangers and explore the future in his conviction it will prove to be the place where his dreams become common reality.


The Time Machine chose to take on its source novel in the period during which it was written and employ the odd and fascinating spectacle of super-sophisticated machinery built in a Victorian fashion. In doing so, The Time Machine’s eponymous creation, a glorious thing of brass curves, plush red velvet and blinking multicoloured lights, became one prototype for the subgenre today called Steampunk. The Time Machine wasn’t the first work to render a scifi classic in period, as a handful of Verne adaptations in previous years—Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Byron Haskin’s From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and Henry Levin’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)—had already exploited the charm and colour of retro conceptualism. But that choice was more felicitous in making The Time Machine because of the nature of its narrative and its themes, and because although submarines and spaceships now existed, the idea of a time machine could still be illustrated in a charmingly vague way. George’s time travels didn’t have to be entirely imagined, and the contrast between his ideals and the reality of the new scientific age could be described, with an extra dimension of introspection from a 1960s perspective.


First and foremost, George’s plunge into what he calls “the fourth dimension” is both illustrated by and analogous with Pal’s own love of ingenious showmanship, visualising time travel through the basic building blocks of cinema itself—stop-motion and time-lapse photography—and replete with good-humoured flourishes, like the mannequin in Filby’s store window who becomes George’s unageing friend and barometer of shockingly changing tastes in fashion. George’s first stop in future time brings not just the chuffing oddness of a horseless carriage, but also a harsh taste of loss, as he sees Filby wearing a military uniform, only to learn to his sorrow that this is Filby’s grown son James (Young again), whose father has died in the trenches of World War I. George takes away one salve: Filby, who controlled George’s estate, refused to sell the house out of faith that one day George would “return.”


George despondently returns to his machine and presss on, experiencing his house’s destruction during the Blitz before stopping again presumably in the later 1960s, when atomic war has broken out. Again George is confronted by the sight of people fleeing to air raid shelters, and again meets James Filby in a military role, only this time he’s a silver-suited, white-haired air raid warden urging people to safety, astounded by George’s youthful appearance. The sight of an atomic missile drives Filby away even as Geroge begs him for conversation, and George barely survives the horror of an atomic explosion and the volcanic eruption it sets off. He climbs into his time machine and just manages to avoid being roasted by lava. Instead, he is walled inside a rock form for millennia.


When the rock wears away, he surveys a marvellously new green Earth where a sublime harmony seems to have evolved between human structures and the elements. He stops his machine suddenly, causing it to careen out of control, topple over and knock George out. He awakens to find himself close to a strange, Sphinxlike building, and when he begins to explore the landscape, finds it an Edenic place with apparently no one to share it, the huge, super-moderne buildings nearby uninhabited and run down. Finally, he does encounter other people, a bunch of wan, blonde, innocent and yet also almost pathologically indolent folk who call themselves the Eloi. George has to save one woman he sees close to drowning in a river under the blasé gaze of her friends. George makes the acquaintance of the woman, who says her name is Weena (Yvette Mimieux), and slowly begins to plumb the strangeness of the society he’s presented with.


The greatest qualities of The Time Machine become apparent in George’s headlong journey through time, experiencing his own erasure from history, the death of friends, and the calamities awaiting humankind thanks to our inability to learn lessons, all with steadily drooping enthusiasm. Pal grasps intuitively the action of time travel not just as discovery, but also as tragedy, as George finds himself doomed to witness looping events and scenes of loss and destruction, until finally, when the rock encasing him and his machine breaks apart, he seems to behold a gorgeous new future. But there are also peculiar proofs of faith, as when George finds that what was his old house has been turned into a park dedicated by James to his father’s love for his friend. There’s a striking intimacy and humanity to much of the film, for example, when George realises Filby has remained behind after his disappointing demonstration to talk, or George’s interactions with Weena, who gropes towards an understanding of him and the apple of necessary, but painful knowledge he brings to her Eden. When he arrives in the future he so dearly wants to see, his pleasure in what he sees is steadily worn down to a state of furious disillusion: the underlying truth about the Eloi and the strange beings that lurk in the darkness they call the Morlocks eventually proves utterly horrifying, but, in a way, less depressing to a man like George, who finds himself shocked and outraged when he finds the Eloi have allowed what’s left of the human intellectual inheritance to petrify and crumble away as they live happily in the sun eating the bounties provided to them without question or heed.


Wells set out with The Time Machine to disassemble the precious, barely questioned idealism of the high Victorian period, an idealism that had much in common with the 1950s variety—an official faith in the future with a vibrating anxiety over change and threat beneath it all. He took the still fresh and prickly notion of evolution, whose great proponent, Julian Huxley, had been one of Wells’ teachers, and applied it mirthlessly to the satirical idea that if allowed to continue, the stratification of society would eventually lead to two entirely different posthuman species, the Eloi, descendants of a leisure class, and the Morlocks, subterranean workers who, in a twist of brute sarcasm, have become farmers treating the Eloi as free-range cattle and living on their flesh. Pal and Duncan tweaked this concept to look squarely at the idea not just as a permutation of Victorian labour relations, but also as a distant echo of life in the 20th century: the Morlocks round up their flocks of Eloi by blasting out the sounds of air raid sirens that draw the Eloi underground. The Eloi have essentially become children, afraid of the dark and blithe about what supports their lifestyle, but George’s arrival quickly coaxes deeper reflexes from Weena. She braves the terrors of the night to warn him about the Morlocks as he searches for his machine, which he finds has been dragged within the Sphinx. George and Weena spend a night hunkered before a fire after one of the Morlocks has attacked her, but fortunately, the monsters prove vulnerable to bright light and a good right hook.


The Time Machine treads campy territory in trying to present the Eloi like a mob of listless, young Hollywood ingénues and beach bums (that Mimieux also starred in the same year’s Where the Boys Are amplifies the association), whilst also interestingly prescient on the oncoming age of the counterculture and its history-reboot philosophy, a movement which had much in common with the onset of many similar ideas in the Victorian age that Wells himself often espoused. There is stinging power in the moment when George, led to a collection of books kept by the Eloi by one of their number, realises the Eloi have let their cultural inheritance decay and literally turn to dust, and the previously idealistic and forward-looking savant is appalled and disillusioned to a crushing degree: “At least I can die amongst men!” he bellows in offense before abandoning his attempts to plumb the Eloi culture, because there is none. It’s also hard to deny that on at least one level, the film devolves into a Boy’s Own tale of two-fisted adventure and revolt as George proves the threat of the Morlocks is only as strong as they’re allowed to be. But the future sequences of the film have a similar mood of stripped-down mythos that would later sustain definitive genre TV works like Star Trek and early Doctor Who. In this regard and more, The Time Machine feels like a vital transitional moment in scifi cinema, mediating the chitinous forms of ’50s scifi and the brand that would dominate for the next 15 years or so in English-language scifi filmmaking—looking more closely at human society, its past and present, through the prisms of parable.


The soul-searching that often bubbled as subtext in ‘50s scifi films here hatches and becomes overt, contemplating the modern inheritance both as one of wonder, but also cringing fear of what terrors it had conjured. The Eloi living space has the quality of being at once futuristic and distantly mythical. The drama turns inward as it contemplates humanity’s fate with an early intimation of the idea of dystopia, a substrata of the genre that’s still powerful, often playing out in extrapolated versions of high modernist architectural environs and evoking common pasts as decayed and neglected memories, and plied with a dusting of fable as here, including the likes of THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974), Rollerball (1975), and Logan’s Run (1976). The headier, questioning aspect of the film seeds many more genre directions, not the least of which was the time travel idea itself, one barely tackled in cinema before this, but which has become an oft-iterated theme in works as diverse as Back to the Future (1985) and Primer (2004). The haunting quality Pal manages to invest in the film continues to recur, especially powerful and poignant in the sequence when Weena leads George to a place where the remains of human civilisation still persist, the voices of men in ages past recorded on spinning rings reporting tales of bleak decline and death; pointedly, both voices heard are Paul Frees, who had loaned his stentorian tones to War of the Worlds as the definitive voice of futurism, now reporting as the ghost of ages lost in a sublime distillation of the scifi creed in a totemic moment: “My name is no consequence. The important thing you should know is that I am the last who remembers when each of us, man and woman, made his own decision.”


The lingering shadow of the ’50s monster movie still pervades The Time Machine, as the glowing-eyed Morlocks try to snatch Weena. But Pal still manages to generate a weird and tense atmosphere, as when George witnesses the Eloi responding to the Morlock siren call and then descends into their underground works to rescue Weena and in a gleeful action climax as George battles the cannibalistic, humanoid Morlocks, having discovered the gruesome secret in a room littered with human bones by exploiting their great weakness, their fear of bright light. A particular likeness has long intrigued me about this sequence and the way it connects to Pal’s earlier career and background: Garcia’s music in places sounds awfully reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s score for his famous ballet The Firebird, suggesting Pal might well have taken inspiration from that work and its roots in Slavic and Hungarian mythology, and evoking Pal’s own musical reflexes from his Puppetoon days. Certainly Pal had long been fascinated with the classic battery of fairy tales and had adapted several as shorts. This connection makes perfect sense to me, as the story is essentially the same, with George cast as the pure hero descending into a stygian underground to fight the demons and steal back a captive princess, fending off evil with light, and the time machine itself cast as the firebird, the vessel of transformative power. And as silly as George’s battle with the Morlocks is in a way, it’s still a genuinely gripping sequence with a great physicality, particularly as Pal’s eye is strong here, with the nightmarish image of the Morlocks advancing on their penned-up intended meals. The film’s corniest moment is also a highlight—an effete Eloi mans up and wallops one of the Morlocks in the back as it throttles George, saving his life.


A few good socks to the jaw and some fiery brands fortunately prove enough to give the Morlocks hell, being as they are used to victims who don’t fight back. George is able to rescue Weena and some of the other Eloi, blowing up part of the underground city, and a new dawn seems at hand. But the Morlocks set a trap for George, luring him into the Sphinx with his time machine and then closing the doors, separating him from Weena and forcing him to fight for his life before he manages to escape in time, first travelling forward, witnessing the gruesome decomposition of a Morlock he killed, a surprisingly graphic and spectacular visual punch for 1960. George finally returns to his own time to keep his date with his friends. His only proof for his story is a flower given to him by Weena, and again he is disbelieved, taken by his friends as an attempt to break into the penny dreadful market. At the last, Filby hears the time machine revving up again after George has dragged it back in from the garden and repositioned it in the laboratory so he can reappear outside the Sphinx before Weena.

Time Machine drag

It’s appropriate that the last notes of The Time Machine return to that mood of wistful longing and questioning as Filby is left contemplating his friend’s resolve when he and Mrs. Watchett notice George took three books to the future with him, leaving it up to the audience to divine which three books they were. This provides a lovely little supernal flourish that closes off the film on just the right note, again nudging the fablelike with the tiniest signs of human nature—a flower in Filby’s hand, a space on a bookshelf, the lights switching off in a house whose owner will never return, and a man shuffling off in the snow back to his family—proffered as transcendental totems.

The cast of the film lived long and well. When Rod Taylor and more recently Alan Young died, I could not help but think, “You have all the time in the world.”

2nd 08 - 2011 | 27 comments »

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I am such a sucker! I haven’t liked a Woody Allen film in years, even after trying a couple that people whose opinions I respect have assured me I’d love. When I started reading the glowing pronouncements on Midnight in Paris, I was wary, but receptive. When the comments compared it favorably with Bullets Over Broadway (1994), my favorite Allen film, I decided to try my luck once again. Silly, silly, but something in me still seems to want to give Woody Allen the benefit of the doubt.

But, it’s no use. Midnight in Paris is a sketchy film by the 78-year-old director who really is whistling in the dark, trying to come to terms with the terrifying end of his life by escaping into the past. That he is upfront about his fear of death—allowing his stand-in in this film, screenwriter and aspiring novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), to exclaim it for him—and aware that he needs to live his life in the present, hoping things will turn out as well for him as he contrived for Gil, does not really make a for satisfying movie. Rather, we end up in another Allen therapy session, though certainly it is more fun to listen to the analysand relate his dreams than to listen to him complain about his sex life while laying on a couch.

Gil is in Paris playing the tourist with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). The dreamy, liberal Gil is a strange bedfellow for Inez, who, like her parents, is a staunch conservative who is interested in maintaining her luxurious lifestyle in Southern California. Her engagement to the rich and successful Gil is a means to this end; if love has entered into the pact, it all comes from Gil.

Inez is impatient with Gil’s fantasies about the romance of Paris, his attachment to the time in the 1920s when writers and artists flocked to the city to partake in its creative crucible, his regrets about not remaining in Paris when he was a young man visiting for the first time, and his desire to rectify that mistake now. Reconnecting with her friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda) by chance, Inez prefers to bask in Paul’s pedantic erudition—he’s apparently an expert on everything—and entertaining excursions to nightclubs and country retreats, to walking the streets of Paris with Gil.

One night, Inez goes off dancing with Paul and Carol, while Gil manages to get lost on his walk. He stops to reorient himself just as midnight strokes on a clock in the square. An ancient roadster pulls up, and he is invited by its occupants to drive with them back into the 1920s, where he spends the next few nights meeting Zelda (Alison Pill) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and other luminaries of the time. Most important, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), an art groupie currently involved with Picasso with whom he begins a romance that will take him even further back in time, to Adriana’s fantasy of Paris’ Golden Age, La Belle Époque.

Just in case we’ve forgotten that most of the films Allen makes are about himself, he has Wilson act as his doppelganger, complete with the cinched, slightly baggy-fronted pants Allen always wears in the wardrobe translation of his castration anxiety. Wilson channels the Woody Allen persona quite well—I know this because he had me gritting my teeth and suppressing my annoyance often enough. Inez and her parents are written with all the vehemence Allen can muster for rich neocon Republicans, including a speech John gives about the noble people in the Tea Party movement that is clearly meant to elicit hisses from the audience. Of course, Inez never wants to have sex with Gil, cheats on him with Paul, and answers the call of creaky plot device when Allen decides to have some “madcap fun” by having Gil try to conceal his theft of Inez’s pearl earrings as a present to Adriana when Inez looks for them for no apparent reason. The scene allows Allen to poke the Republicans again with Inez’s instant prosecution of the maid she suspects of stealing them, while Wilson delivers Allen’s trademark stammered lies.

Allen opens the film with a dozen or so picture-postcard shots of famous Paris landmarks. As I am planning a trip to Paris this fall, I found these of interest, but they make for some pretty static filmmaking. Gil is a gushing neophyte in the heady world of continental sophistication, meeting each famous person with a “gosh-oh-golly” enthusiasm, yet being accepted immediately by all of them without even a comment about his strange, inappropriate clothing. Gertrude Stein reads Gil’s novel and declares it an exceedingly good effort in need of only a little more imaginative flight. Allen should have taken that advice himself—it doesn’t take a genius to create atmosphere by shooting in Paris and putting his cast into beautiful period costumes. Paris is a mythological place to most people, so the work is more than halfway done already. And recycling his many patented obsessions about sex (unrequited here) and art in a downmarket version of Bullets Over Broadway makes this film tiresome and unoriginal.

Allen’s humor is the stuff of his early TV days. Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali gesticulates, seems fixated on drawing Gil as a rhinoceros, and calls himself “Dali” repeatedly, as though repeating words is in itself inexhaustibly funny. His best attempt at humor is writing dialogue for Hemingway that could win the International Imitation Hemingway Competition and that, I admit, had me laughing heartily, though it takes a familiarity with Hemingway to get the joke. One also must commend the casting of people who look remarkably like the famous folks they’re meant to imitate by Allen stalwart Juliet Taylor and her colleagues Stéphane Foenkinos and Patricia Kerrigan DiCerto. The Luis Buñuel look-alike, Adrien de Van, was a virtual double of the young director, but he came in for some mean-spirited humor when Gil suggests the plot of The Exterminating Angel (1962) to him and has to explain to the literal-minded Buñuel the intention of the film. Pulling out Marshall McLuhan to explain his theories to a cretinous man in a movie line in Annie Hall (1977) was a funny bit of literalizing the thoughts we all have, but having a hack screenwriter instructing a great filmmaker is an unfunny shot that suggests our hero Gil is more like Inez that anyone would care to admit.

Of course, we could assume that these episodes are entirely in Gil’s head, but Allen takes pains to create real-world artifacts, such as a book Gil buys at a flea market that turns out to be Adriana’s diary, to show that this time travel is real. It all has the feeling of It’s a Wonderful Life in teaching Gil that there is no true Golden Age in the past and that we have to live in the real world. Of course, he ditches Inez, a foregone conclusion from our first introduction to her greedy, snobbish attitudes, and walks off into the Paris rain with a radiantly beautiful young Frenchwoman (Léa Seydoux), the romance of Paris still holding him firmly in hand, his belief in his talent restored by Gertrude Stein herself, and the millions he made writing movies no impediment to his artistic integrity.

3rd 02 - 2008 | 11 comments »

La Jetée (1962)/12 Monkeys (1995)

Directors: Chris Marker/Terry Gilliam


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Director Terry Gilliam has sought inspiration from the world of fantasy for his choice of films—from the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm to the fictional adventures of Baron Munchausen to the absurdist-humanist epic of Don Quixote by Cervantes (an aborted project). His attraction to the science-fiction tragedy La Jetée might have signaled a more serious consideration of the dangers of scientific experimentation and the human capacity for cruelty. But in execution, 12 Monkeys is a totally different film from its poetic inspiration. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. 12 Monkeys is solidly, if sometimes annoyingly, entertaining. But if it sends audiences scurrying to see the source of its inspiration, it may do them a disservice; La Jetée is bound to confound the popcorn crowd to which Gilliam always plays. Nonetheless, both films share an important element beyond the outlines of their stories: the strategies people use to escape their lives. Unfortunately, while Marker illuminates the dark corners of human survival to powerful effect, Gilliam provides the escape itself, leaving audiences as unaware as ever of what they are doing.

Chris Marker is a French renaissance man with one of the most fertile, creative minds in cinema. At the age of 86, he is still creating art, unabashedly thrilled with the new technological advances available to him. La Jetée reflects both the horrors of World War II and the tensions of 1962, when he and the rest of the world stood on the precipice, as the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to break out into another world war, this time with nuclear bombs and missiles serving as the conventional weapons of the day. The horrible sense of déjà vu that must have enveloped Marker and his peers must have heightened his existing interest in memory and time. La Jetée uses a straightforward science-fiction device—time travel—to explore the paradoxes of the human mind that allow us to experience simultaneously the past, present, and future.


The film opens on a still photo of the observation deck (called la jetée, or pier, in French) of an airport. The sounds of jet planes are heard and then a swell of mournful choral music that quite reminded me of Jewish liturgical music accompanies the opening credits, which identify the film as a photo novel (the world’s first graphic novel?). Two title cards are shown that translate as: “This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene which upset him and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later happened on the main pier at Orly Paris airport sometime before the outbreak of World War III.” The entire film is told using this narrative voiceover (James Kirk in the English translation) and splendid and evocative black-and-white stills. We zero in on the memories of the man as a boy, at the airport with his parents to make a recreation out of watching the planes land and take off. He recalls the face of a woman, then a disturbance, realizing only slowly that he had just witnessed a man die on the pier. His memories move forward to the destruction of Paris in a nuclear bomb attack. Images of crumbled buildings end with a manufactured photo of the Arc de Triomphe with its top span missing. The human race must move underground to avoid the worldwide radioactivity contaminating the surface.


A group of scientists are conducting experiments. These experiments have killed some and made others go mad. The Man of our story (Davos Hanich) is chosen as the next guinea pig. He imagines confronting someone like Dr. Frankenstein, but instead meets a reasonable, rational man (Jacques Ledoux) who explains that they are trying to send a subject back in time to get supplies, food, and information that might help them return to the surface. The Man was chosen because he has an extraordinary attachment to a memory from before the war—the memory on the pier. They place large patches over his eyes and inject him with something. Whispers in German accompany this ritual.

La%20Jette%20pier.jpgHe goes back, viewing “real children, real birds.” He comes back. Says the narrator, “They begin again. The Man doesn’t die, nor does he go mad. He suffers. They continue.” The Man is sent on several forays into the past, where he meets the same woman (Hélène Chatelain) again and again. She comes to see him as her phantom, appearing and disappearing but always kind. The Man progresses through her world, walking with her in the park (“he remembers there were parks” at one time on Earth). They view a cross-section of a giant sequoia tree with different dates in history marked at the appropriate ring. The Man points somewhere outside the circle of the tree: “I come from here.”


He unfolds his story to her; she doesn’t laugh. She takes him to her home. We see a series of photos of the woman asleep on her bed. Then we are startled by the only moving images in the film—the Woman’s face, full front to the camera. The Man seems to have found an animated image of life by falling in love.

Abruptly, the experimenters tell the Man that his work in the past is finished. He is sent to the future, where he meets apparently mutated human beings living in a sterile sort of world we never see. He is brought back to his present, but learns that the beings of the future also time-travel. They return and invite him to stay with them. He says he would rather go back to the past, to be with the Woman. There he is sent and watches the memory of Orly that started it all, realizing that he was the man who died.


La Jetée uses a novel presentation to emphasize the snapshot nature of memory. But his images are extraordinarily beautiful and put together with great style, suggesting movement and emotion by allowing us to linger on them and fill them with our own experiences of nostalgia and déjà vu. The longing for the past, the sentimental simplicity of childhood, tugs at the Man—an escape from the lightless, seemingly lifeless present. But like all people who yearn for the past, the Man cannot truly live there. The scene at the sequoia tree pays homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart as Scottie has a similar scene with Kim Novak as his love Madeleine. When the Man considers the Woman, he realizes that in his time she is, in fact, dead. But he doesn’t make the mistake of trying to revive her as Scottie did with Madeleine. Life as we know it is a linear progression forward; without a present or a future, humanity must die. Echoes of the past—for example, Marker’s references to German experimentation on humans during World War II—are meant to inform and warn the present. Thus, the existence of all times at once—the timelessness of time, if you will—must be part of the project of living.

That’s a lot to pack into 28 minutes. The hubby and I watched this film three times in 48 hours. We could watch it three more times and still find more to ponder.

12 Monkeys is a long, dense 126 minutes that gives an onscreen credit to Chris Marker and La Jetée. But all Gilliam wants is the story, not the insights. The films starts with the Man transformed into James Cole (Bruce Willis), a criminal locked in a cage in the underground world of the future who is chosen to help the powers that be by going above ground to collect specimens of life forms that have survived the biological plague that has wiped out nearly the entire human race. He does well and is offered the opportunity to be sent into the past to retrieve a pure sample of the virus, before it mutated beyond a cure, and earn a pardon.


The scientists, an assortment of grotesque figures typical of Gilliam films, are not precise in targeting the time to which they send Cole. He ends up in 1990, where his assault on some cops lands him drugged up and restrained in a lunatic asylum. His psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), is unusually sympathetic and drawn to Cole. Once he is properly medicated to avoid addition outbursts, he is released into the day room of the asylum, where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a truly wild and woolly head case whose father (Christopher Plummer) is a microbiologist working on some sort of biological manipulation. When Cole attempts an escape, he is put in an isolation room and strapped to a gurney. He disappears, however, when his superiors call him back to his world.


Another attempt to send him back puts him on a World War I battlefield with his fellow time traveler Jose (Jon Seda). Both are wounded. Cole is quickly extricated and sent to the proper time, 1996, just before the virus first appeared. He kidnaps Kathryn and forces her to drive him to Philadelphia, where the outbreak first occurred. She’s terrified, but still drawn to him. When he shows sign of pain in his leg, she extracts the bullet he took on his previous “trip” and is surprised to find it looking antique. She tries to get him to turn himself in for psychiatric care, but once again, as capture seems imminent, he disappears. She becomes convinced that his story is true when she learns that he accurately predicted the outcome of a rescue attempt of a child who fell down a deep well. When he next returns, she does everything she can to help him avert disaster, even though Cole has warned her that he can’t change what happened in the past, only take back information to help in the future.


Gilliam creates a nice little mystery out of his story, as Cole and Kathryn piece together scraps of information to find out who the bioterrorist is. Their feelings of familiarity are explained and brought to a logical and poignant conclusion. In between, there are some great set pieces, particularly during the kidnapping sequence. At other times, the look of the film veers wildly into Gilliamland, with electronic surveillance a prominent feature—from Kathryn and Cole, now fugitives from justice, caught on multiple TV screens in a store window to an orb fixed with cameras moving intrusively into Cole’s space as he is interrogated by the scientists. Gilliam even trots out the transmitter in the tooth, now as old a bit as “take my wife, please.” Brad Pitt, the head of a band of guerrillas called the Army of the 12 Monkeys that is fighting for the environment in 1996, overacts to the point of disgust. Gilliam also seems to have fitted him with a contact lens to make him look goggle-eyed. It’s pure shtick that does absolutely nothing for this movie. Likewise, Madeleine Stowe lacks depth in her performance, and Gilliam seems to have directed the majority of the cast to create caricatures.

Only Bruce Willis comes near to approximating the anguish and longing of the Man in La Jetée. His concern for Kathryn, for the human race, for his own sanity are moving and painful to watch. The 1990s was a time of psychological malaise in which sarcasm became the dominant form of cultural discourse. It’s completely in keeping with this sensibility that Gilliam finds a way to tell us “don’t worry, be happy” about the end of humanity. He disobeys his movie’s internal logic by creating new evidence for the future that could help them to stop the spread of the virus, not just collect the specimen. This window out of the mess science has created lets the audience off the hook in terms of considering the real implications of biological tampering and getting up in arms to do something about it. It also plays into the primitivist fears of science and AIDS that fueled the religious fundamentalism of the time and its denunciation of homosexuality without critiquing these sentiments. 12 Monkeys really is nothing more than a disaster film.

Each film is a product of its time. Forgive me, please, if I prefer a time that was brave enough to care.

16th 03 - 2006 | no comment »

Primer (2004)

Producer/Director/Screenwriter/Star: Shane Carruth


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Have you ever seen a grown man gush? I did following the screening of Primer at Roger Ebert’s 2005 Overlooked Film Festival. During the Q&A session with first-time filmmaker Shane Carruth, Ebert said he felt privileged to be in on the beginning of a career he felt was destined to be as great as Martin Scorsese’s. W-O-W. A rightfully humble Carruth seemed bewildered and overwhelmed by this extravagant praise. That made him a lot like Aaron, the character he plays in Primer.

The transformation of Carruth from computer system designer to filmmaker parallels the journey of Aaron and his friend and business partner Abe (David Sullivan) from computer industry workers to inventors of the stuff that dreams (and many movies) have been made on. Abe, Aaron, and two other young men have been working for months on an invention around which they hope to set up their own company and make their fortune. The nature of the invention and the specific skills each man brings to the table are never specified. It’s not even clear how they hooked up. We simply enter their lives at what turns out to be a crucial stage.

Money is running short and the partners are starting to disagree about what the next step is. The team seems split into pairs, with Abe and Aaron the more intellectually and emotionally invested of the two pairs. They start working on their own and run a couple of tests. They’re not sure whether their machine is doing what it is designed to do, but their measurements seem promising. Curiously, a mossy substance appears on the machine after they run a few cycles. Reminiscent of the accidental way Sir Alexander Fleming discovered a secretion that we now call penicillin, this bit of flora reveals the true nature of Abe and Aaron’s invention and alters their lives forever.

After a short bit of soul-searching, Abe and Aaron decide to cut the other two inventors out of their work. They cover over the windows in Aaron’s garage/workshop and begin to experiment with their machine, first in predictable ways and then with the growing realization that they are in way over their heads. The characters speak in a shorthand that people who inhabit the same closed universe do, which leaves the audience on the outside a lot of the time. But it also lends the narrative an edgy excitement. What are they doing? What have they discovered? How are they going to deal with the consequences of their discovery?

Even though this film heads into fantastical territory, it seems so real, grounded as it is in chaos theory, that the suspension of disbelief almost doesn’t enter into the mix. The film is shot in an almost banal, flat way, but at the same time is given a look that seems hyperbolic in its use of color and contrast. There is no color coding, but the beautiful and evocative tinting in every scene puts this film into the landscape of the mind, of dreams. I can only call this near-genius in visualizing the themes of the film.

Trying to follow the plot gave me a headache (which did not improve on a repeat viewing), but not as much as the one Carruth experienced. He said that he had written and posted elaborate timelines for the story so he could keep each thread straight. The film was rigidly storyboarded to keep it within its austere $7,000 budget. Carruth said that his inspiration for the film was All the President’s Men (1976). The dark-haired Carruth resisted casting Sullivan, who is blond, to avoid making the homage too obvious, but the influence is subtle, in my estimation. Like that film, Primer leaves its main characters breathless at the magnitude of their discovery, and seems to turn a page for the audience in terms of what the future will bring. This is a film respectful of its heritage and bold in its execution. While it seems to follow in the tradition of scrambled narrative popularized by Memento (2000), it stakes out new territory in its examination of ordinary consciousness and goes further to examine the consciousness of the soul.

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