Six Damn Fine Degrees #115: Chronicle of a death foretold

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

“Somewhere in here I was born… and here I died. It was only a moment for you… You took no notice.”

Even just reading those words gives me goose bumps. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that’s not light on ominous, eerie moments, it is probably the one scene that most gets under my skin, even after I’ve seen the film a half-dozen times. It is strange and uncanny (even if it is actually part of an extended con), but also, and perhaps most of all, it is sad, as many of my favourite ghost stories are. The woman in front of you pointing at the tree rings, pointing out where she was born, first, and then where she died.

Died. Past tense.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Terry Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys. Proceed at your own peril.

I used to think that I was a Terry Gilliam fan. Brazil was one of my favourite films for a long time, and like so many teenagers of my generation I was very much into Monty Python, loving Gilliam’s weird, wonderfully anarchic animations. It took me a while to realise that, no, I wasn’t a Gilliam fan, I was just a fan of Brazil and 12 Monkeys and the silly animations. There were things about most of Gilliam’s films that I liked, even loved, but at the same time I found a lot that was grating, thematically repetitive (yes, we get it – imagination über alles!) and simply not all that enjoyable to me. Except for Brazil – and 12 Monkeys.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t parts of 12 Monkeys (and yes, Brazil, but that’s material for another post) that I’m not a big fan of. Gilliam’s time-travel headscratcher/Greek tragedy has a script that could charitably be called “messy”. Its structure is baffling at times, suggesting that the film doesn’t quite know what story it wants to tell. (The point at which 12 Monkeys raises the issue of whether Cole, the protagonist played by Bruce Willis, is actually insane and has imagined his time-travelling tale, comes after an extended intro set in the future that makes it almost impossible for us, the audience, not to accept what we’ve seen as Cole’s reality.) It has a great, cartoonish performance by Brad Pitt, but the plot strand relating to Pitt’s character turns out to be an utter red herring, and Pitt’s character almost throws the film out of balance. Moreover, 12 Monkeys seems afraid of pathos, so it undermines several of its more (melo-?)dramatic scenes with clunky jokes that aren’t particularly funny: Looney Tunes sound effects, romantic scenes deflated by snoring doormen, craaaazy side characters. At times Gilliam almost seems embarrassed of the material he’s working with, at least when it veers away from the Gilliam-brand lunacy.

Which is strange, because to me it’s those aspects that constitute the film’s heart. Cole’s wish to save a world that, in his time, has already come to an end, his doomed romance with Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), all of this encapsulated in the scene that the film begins with: a boy watches as a man is gunned down in an airport. The man is Cole. As is the boy watching his death: young Cole sees his older self, who has travelled back in time to save the world, die. The beginning of the story and its ending, they’re the same. The struggle against fate may define Cole, but it’s an unfair struggle: fate always wins. The future is history.

Here I was born, and here I died.

I am sympathetic to Gilliam’s distrust of sentimentality, and I understand his urge to try and subvert it when it pops up in his films. But methinks the director doth protest too much at time. Without pathos, 12 Monkeys would be an entirely different film. Cole is a character right out of Greek tragedy, in quite a literal sense: it is his actions that bring about his fate. Take away the tragedy and he’s Wyle E Coyote. It’s when 12 Monkeys accepts the pathos at its core that everything falls into place. And, arguably, it’s some of Bruce Willis’ finest work: not as a gun-wielding hero, but as a vulnerable, confused, lost little boy in a man’s body. He is not so far removed from the boy at the airport that will soon witness his death.

Late in the film, Dr Railly and Cole hide in a cinema. They still believe that they have a chance of saving the world from the virus that wipes out almost all of humanity in 1996. The cinema is just a convenient hiding spot, but it’s showing Vertigo, and specifically the scene in Muir Woods, in which Kim Novak points to the tree rings and tells James Stewart where in time she was born and where she died. In Vertigo, it’s all part of a ploy: Novak’s character Judy is pretending to be someone else, the wife of a man plotting to kill his wife. She isn’t dead and she isn’t supposed to die – but Vertigo being what it is, it is her fate to die the same death as the woman she impersonated. In a sense she is already dead as the film begins, she just doesn’t know it yet. She’s just waiting for her clock to run down and for her death to catch up with her life. And Scottie, the character played by Stewart, who is obsessed with saving her, is fated to fail from the first, much like Cole. The end is inscribed in the beginning. Everything is scripted, the final scene has already been filmed.

Here I was born, and here I died.

The theme is not too dissimilar from that of Arrival (which I wrote about here), except in Arrival the main character comes to an understanding of the limitations of her agency. Her future, too, is already history. There are also echoes of Dr. Manhattan on Mars: another being who can see time for what it is, but who is powerless to change it. In Vertigo, Scottie and Judy cannot see the tragedy they’re locked into, but the script prepared for Judy-as-Madeleine already hints at her eventual fate as she points to the circles on the tree trunk in Muir Woods, in one of the saddest instances of dramatic irony in cinema. Cole knows his fate, having witnessed it as a child, but he doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t know what it means. He doesn’t know that here, in this airport, he will die – that, in a sense, he already died a long time ago.

Again, there are scenes towards the end of 12 Monkeys that undermine what the film does. There are hints that Cole’s mission may have been at least a partial success, even if he didn’t survive to see it. It’s like the director and/or the screenwriters didn’t quite trust the story as the sci-fi tragedy it so clearly wants to be. I can imagine a version of 12 Monkeys that is more focused, sharper, and that delivers its grim punchline without the need to equivocate. But even in the version we have, the conclusion lands. At some point during the film, it dawns on us what Cole’s oft-repeated dream – the sad, strange death of a man at an airport – means. He’s a dead man walking. And even with the time travel shenanigans and the Gilliamisms, even with Bruce “John McClane” Willis playing the lead and a luminous Madeleine Stowe as his love interest, the fatalistic pathos of that feels oddly relatable – even before global pandemics started to be a thing outside of the Dark Ages and sci-fi dystopias.

As another time-travelling Bruce Willis character said in another film, I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws. But the time-travel stories that resonate most with me aren’t the ones where a hero changes history, or even the ones where someone dooms the world because they step on a butterfly. All of these believe that we have the power, for better or for worse, to fundamentally change things. That’s a nice idea, but it’s a fantasy.

I have my doubts that we’ll see another film by Gilliam that’s as strong as his work in the ’80s and ’90s – and that’s supposing that we’ll see him direct another film at all. I definitely don’t expect him to capture the melancholy tone of 12 Monkeys ever again. And Bruce Willis’ health makes it unlikely that he’ll deliver another performance such as Cole. In both cases, the future’s already inscribed onto the present, it feels, for various reasons. We can return to the past, to their best films, including 12 Monkeys. We can replay those scenes, and like Cole’s repeated dream they may seem different each time because we are different.

But in most ways that matter, the future is history. Here I was born, and here I died.

Note: The excerpt of the 12 Monkeys script is taken from

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