Friday, November 28, 2014

Monkeying With 12 Monkeys

We watched 12 Monkeys the other night, one of Terry Gilliam's more successful entertainments, in which Bruce Willis time-travels back to current (1990) Manhattan to head off a triggered apocalypse. In the process he has to persuade an overworked hospital psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) that he is who he says he is.

It's been a while, but I've seen the movie two or three times before. Once my memory of it started tracking I switched to Thought Experiment Mode and did a little time-travelling of my own, getting Willis and Stowe to switch roles, just for kicks.

"Wait, are you sure about this?"
To my surprise, with only very little tweaking, the experiment was a success — a smashing one, even. I say “surprised” for a couple of reasons. First of all, I'm not the Gender-Neutral sort — a similar experiment with Gone With The Wind proved to be a laughable disaster. But secondly, and more significantly, I can't think of another filmmaker who's applied his energies and intelligence more doggedly to carrying Joseph Campbell's torch than Terry Gilliam. Gilliam's entire ouevre is devoted to The Hero's Journey, and while the hero may have a thousand faces, 99% of those are masculine.

Not only that, but the feminine occupies a definitive space in Gilliam's work as muse and liege, in the Romantic tradition — again, very much in line with Campbell's narrative apparatus. But where other Hollywood filmmakers take a Cliff's Notes approach to these sorts of women's roles, reducing the gals to eye-candy or emasculating harpies, Gilliam's is more nuanced and mischievous. His women are frequently more actualized than his hapless masculine heroes. In Brazil, Sam Lowry's muse Jill is a trash collector who is physically stronger and more adept than the scrawny, balding protagonist. Or think of Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King, portraying a long-suffering woman who can no longer wait for her “boy”friend to become a man.

For Gilliam, non-actualized women are girls who voluntarily fall in line with the expectations of a stunted/immature masculine perspective.

Gilliam's is, I think, a shrewd POV that performs a necessary mischief. Currently there is justified hue and cry over what an infantilized masculine sausage-factory Hollywood has become. The now-famous Bechdel Test highlights the problem, but too much critical energy is devoted to changing the numbers. Sure, a Disney blockbuster meets the numbers (and rakes in the $$$), but really it only passes the Bechdel Test by 51%. There remains an untouched, very rich vein of narrative ore sitting right in front of our faces, just waiting to mined.

For a glimpse of that glitter, a writer could do a lot worse than monkey with one of Gilliam's scripts. Lemme tell you, the version of 12 Monkeys I “watched” the other night is one hell of a show.

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