Back in 2006, for the Yale Architecture Film Society, I showed a double feature: Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Here’s what I wrote then [slight cringe]:
La Jetée (1962), 28 minutes
“The perfect science fiction piece.” – Georges Sadoul.
“The greatest science fiction movie I’ve ever seen.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker.
“Science fiction is too reductive a phrase for the formal miracle of La Jetée.” – Stephen Garrett, Time Out New York.
It is hard to believe the impact that this short film has had (it runs just under half an hour), but a cursory search on the internet will point you to countless essays, dissertations, devoted chapters in film theory texts, and the like. Though it is composed entirely of still images by the Parisian director Chris Marker, it still somehow manages to capture the rapt attention of notoriously hard to please critics like Pauline Kael. La Jetée is a story of a man who travels through time to clarify his memory of an event and is a poignant study on the impact of image, memory, and time. It is also a perennial mainstay on architectural film series.
12 Monkeys (1995), 129 minutes
“Equal parts mystery, tragedy, psychological thriller, and apocalyptic drama, 12 Monkeys ranks as one of the best science fiction films of the ’90s, boosted by Gilliam’s visual ingenuity and one of the finest performances of Willis’s career.” –Jeff Shannon, Amazon.com
“I’ve always used architecture as if it was a character. . . Philadelphia has an amazing mixture of architecture, nice nineteenth-century stuff and 20s power stations which are now disused. A series of civilisations lived and died there.” –Terry Gilliam in an interview with Sight and Sound
12 Monkeys is Terry Gilliam’s interpretation of Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée (Chris Marker receives the head writing credit), made box-office friendly with the casting of Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt and expanded to 2 hours. Terry Gilliam made his name early on as part of the comedic troupe Monty Python, then went on to film a number of noir-ish interpretation of cityscapes and dystopic futures, most notably Brazil, but also The Fisher King, Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and this movie. 12 Monkeys begins with an odd politico-environmental warning—the plague that destroys all but a small percentage of humanity in the year 2035 is unleashed by a well-meaning environmental activist group. The rest of the movie follows Bruce Willis through apocalyptic visions of Philadelphia and the eastern seaboard as he travels through time, meeting Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt (in a MTV Award winning performance). 12 Monkeys was filmed in Philadelphia and Baltimore and boasts some interesting interpretations of prison space and the underground habitations where humanity was forced into to avoid the doomsday plague. Interestingly enough, Terry Gilliam was sued by an architect named Lebbeus Woods (who worked for Eero Saarinen and has held teaching positions at Harvard GSD and Columbia) over some of the prison scenes shown in the movie, which allegedly came from an architectural project of Woods’ called “Centricity: Upper Chamber, Neomechanical Tower (1987).” The suit was settled out of court (after the judge ruled against Gilliam).