I’m a big fan of 12 Monkeys — in my opinion, it’s Gilliam’s best work after Brazil — but I had never seen the film it was based on, La Jetee, until recently. I watched it on a double bill with San Soleil and I have to say that, while both films hold up as artistic endeavors, seeing them out of their element makes it hard for them to have the same impact they might have had if I had seen them during my film school days.
For one year, when I was seriously thinking about going into film, I spent every weekend at the Varsity Theater on Guadalupe conveniently located just across the street from the University of Texas campus. Swept Away, The Seduction of Mimi, Armarcord, Day For Night, The Bride Wore Black, Black Orpheus, The Seventh Seal… God, I must have been insufferable to be around when the subject of movies came up back then. Fellini, Wertmuller, Bergman, Truffaut. Yeah, I was probably pretty much awful. A Bieber, if you will.
But my point is that I saw these movies in a time that was thematically conjoined with their creation.
For instance, I saw A Clockwork Orange in a rep theater in 1977, six years after it had been released but still well within its place on the time space continuum, but I never had the courage to go see Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The commercials were just too fucking terrifying. And when I went back later (two weeks ago) and watched it in the comfort of my own home with the lights on and four decades between me and its natural time period, I was largely unimpressed because I have seen all the movies derived from it over the years. Everything from Halloween to Maniac to Silence of the Lambs to House of a Thousand Corpses. All of which had bigger budgets and more intricate stories to tell.
It’s the same thing with La Jetee. I see the genius of it, of course, but I see it academically. I get that it’s more performance art than narrative film, but for me at least, its narrative aims were so perfectly realized in the Gilliam film that the source material is pretty much inconsequential now.
[Here is where the purists start throwing tomatoes at my head]
I don’t know, maybe I’m being intellectually or creatively lazy. Maybe I should have seen it in a theater the way God and Chris Marker intended. Or maybe something like this is a life lesson that you need to get out and go see the movies in a theater in their time period and not put it off for a DVD session that happens decades after they’ve ceased to be relevant.
Clockwork still holds up for me. I can watch it at home on DVD with the lights on and still get the magnificence of it. I can feel Kubrick recoiling from the slick majesty of 2001: A Space Odyssey by throwing himself into the guerilla movie making style of Clockwork.
Kubrick and Van Gogh. How does one person make so many masterpieces?
Even though I’m a big noir fan, I don’t care much for The Killing and I’ve only ever seen parts of Paths of Glory, but starting with Spartacus and continuing through Lolita, Strangelove, Odyssey, Clockwork, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick doesn’t stumble until Eyes Wide Shut.
That’s a hell of a record.
I remember one night when I couldn’t sleep, this was back in the early 90s when I had little kids at home and we were under constant threat of drowning financially, and I got up from bed and went downstairs and turned on the television just to have something to do while I waited for morning. As luck would have it, I had left the cable box tuned to HBO when I went to bed and happened to catch the scene in Spartacus when the Romans are marching toward their big conflict with the slave army.
That scene is dumbfoundingly spectacular but it shouldn’t work at all. If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, it goes like this: Many dramatic shots of the slave rabble waiting as the Roman army marches into formation — for what feels like hours. They meet on a green plain of rolling hills. So the red of the Roman sashes is brilliant against the green heath and the precision of the Centurions is terrifying when contrasted against the loose configuration of women, children, criminals and old men in the slave army.
The scene goes on far too long. It even has an element of the Holy Grail scene where Lancelot continually approaches the castle for shot after shot, losing ground, gaining ground, until suddenly he’s there killing the guards. The Spartacus version should be laughable but the opposite is true.
Watching that war machine assemble itself is what gives weight to the threat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ridley Scott had this scene in mind when he choreographed the opening of Gladiator. In a similar way, he takes too much time in that movie to show us just how complex and overarching the Roman war machine is by having us watch as it gets itself ready.
I feel like I had a point to make when I started this post, but if I did, I can’t remember it now.
So let me take a moment to talk about Barry Lyndon before I sign off. I saw this movie when it came out in 1975 and it laid me low. I had always been a hardcore fan of movies before I saw Barry Lyndon, but I was transformed into someone who thought seriously about film after.
For me, Barry Lyndon did for movies what Dune had done for books. Where I had once indulged in tiny snippets of stories before them, I could conceive of and learned to enjoy great operatic swathes of drama after them.
If you do take my advice and decide to stream Barry Lyndon to complete your education after you finish reading this post, try to do it right. Watch it on the biggest TV in your house. Turn out the lights. Turn off your phones and put away your devices. And then sit there for three hours and four minutes and just drown in the beauty.