Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You

Since records began, 215,673 people have sworn that the world is going to end. It only takes one of them to be right…” promotion for the 1995 film Twelve Monkeys cautioned. In this installment I shall explore Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic time-travel story in relation to the issues raised in previous sections (space constraints decreeing that the film in its complex entirety cannot be dealt with here). As a result, I shall focus on the inherent dangers of postmodern attitudes to consumerism and technology, and their impact on perceptions of reality as Gilliam lays them before us. It will become apparent that both the societal breakdown of Fight Club and the technological dependence of The Matrix are prevalent in contemporary American society- and lead directly to its future underground.

[3:1]Any discussion of Twelve Monkeys must be aware of the possibility that rather than a time-loop paradox the entire narrative may simply be a prolonged psychotic episode. This is a possibility that the director deliberately kept to the fore by keeping the details of the future vague enough to have them simply be the product of James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) deranged mind (McCabe 167). That Cole’s psychiatrist in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who is our anchor in the world of the film as she shares the ‘present’ with us (McMahon 148) comes to believe in Cole may prove only that madness is contagious. However, it may suggest he is telling the truth, since the first reminder of this contagion comes from mental patient Jeffery Goines (Brad Pitt), who imagines insanity “…oozing into the ears of all these poor sane people, infecting them- wackos everywhere, plague of madness! We are once again in the realm of uncertainty fostered by the breakdown of the cinematic reality already dealt with in Videodrome (and which has been Gilliam’s stock in trade since his Monty Python days).

The ceaseless linking of the post-apocalyptic world with contemporary society is problematic as a result of this breakdown of cinematic reality. The visual themes used to link the various temporal plains of the film- most notably the chicken wire that seems to cover every surface- serve to complicate matters further. For instance, is Cole imagining imprisonment in a wire cage in 2035 because he is already in an asylum with wire-coated windows? We are asked to question the likelihood of a time-traveller experiencing virtually the same sequence of events across the divide of forty-five years (Cole is roughly scrubbed down prior to facing a panel of scientists in both 2035 and 1990). As we are never at ease in any of Twelve Monkeys‘s realities, perhaps we are the monkeys that are being experimented upon. This is heightened by the allusions to Vertigo, which foreground the possibility the whole story is merely an elaborate deception (Strick Monkeys 46)i.

As a result of the problems in dealing with the time-loop paradox, let us focus merely on the 1990s as depicted in the film as an accurate depiction of postmodern society. Here we see the director “…zestfully at home in another derelict city, another garbage world, another labyrinth of cumbersome cobbled together machinery” in terms of his dystopic future projection of 2035, yet quite ill at ease in the more realistic present (Strick Monkeys 57). Awash with his characteristic concerns of madness and disease, Gilliam here questions the sanity of the consumerist mentality by meshing the two. Although they do not know it, the denizens of this Philadelphia are in the shadow of the apocalypse, one whose sins are “…rampant consumerism, animal exploitation, and environmental devastation” (Dailey 11). Cole ‘volunteered’ to travel to 1996 (a process that involved him been lifted up by large metal hook) in a scene remarkably similar to Neo’s ascension into the Nebuchadnezzer- here too, we have an unwitting volunteer into the desert of the real.

Consumerism is first explored in the Baltimore of 1990, where Goines introduces a bemused Cole to the television in the corner of their ward. This scene takes place in a sterile white room with three passages leading off it-representing the trifurcation of Cole’s mind- and with the television at its epicentre (McCabe 169). Goines introduces Cole to the world of commercials, stating that society defines a good citizen as one who buys “ a lot of stuff” and categorises those who choose not to as mentally ill. The opposite scenario is explained to Dr. Railly by the eventual harbinger of the apocalypse, who believes that in light of the stress that the planet is under (“Proliferation of atomic devices, uncontrolled breeding habits, pollution of land, sea and air, the rape of the environment…”) the familiar call to go shopping is “the cry of the true lunatic”. Gilliam problematises our response to postmodern consumption by placing the pleas for consumer sanity into the mouths of obvious lunatics.

[3:2]Gilliam has always been preoccupied with the ubiquitous nature of advertisements, something shown to best effect in the billboards of Brazil, which call They Live strongly to mind as they declare They Toil That We May Dream, or, Through Dreamland Through Industry. The entire apparatus of Brazil’s totalitarian society is geared towards turning its citizens into fully utilised cogs in the state machine, leaving flights of fancy as the only means of escape. Here, optimistic fantasises clash continuously with pessimistic scenes of modern ‘functioning’: although the multitudes of malfunctioning gadgets and crucial errors in the bureaucratic machinations that drive the plot show the inconvenience lurking in modern convenience items (Hamel 2). While Nineteen Eighty Four depicts a commodity-free universe, Brazil shows us that even a society so harshly regimented as this is not adverse to allowing the homogenised freedoms of consumerism. If Big Brother is watching you in Brazil, he is doing so from an advertising billboard. Much like Blade Runner’s oft documented failure to envision a post-capitalistic future (in its debris-ridden, smog-infested LA, a giant neon Coca-Cola sign becomes something beautiful), advertisements in Brazil tend to “…cheerfully prescribe feel-good messages amidst destitute or condemned surroundings” (Morgan 8).

It is no accident that Gilliam refers us to the omnipresence of advertisements in Brazil, and builds upon this through Cole’s emotional responses to them in Twelve Monkeys: unfortunately for us the only universal work shared by postmodern society is the epic poem of consumption. If DeBord is correct and “[o]f arms and the man the spectacle does not sing, but rather of passions and the commodity” (#66), then advertising appears to be singing its song. The Frankfurt School of sociology, most especially Adorno and Marcuse, suggest that capitalism has progressed to a point where workers now consume under the same conditions that they produce: standardised cultural commodities are being sold through advertising, and ensure that the denial of autonomous creativity spills over from paid employment into leisure time as well. The juxtaposition of the standardised work of production, and the standardised act of consumption has created a generation continually told to diet and to eat, to spend and to save, to work hard and play hard until they “…are understandably confused and lined up for therapy”(White & Hellerick 16). Only through advertisements legitimising the minute differences between the signifiers appropriated by commodities can consumption be made to seem less standardised: hence advertising’s strong link with hyper-reality and its suitability for Gilliam’s flights of fancy (and apocalyptic imagination).ii

It is possible that we can choose to ignore the environmental devastation caused by our attitude to consumption because of the ‘perpetual present’ caused by the postmodern collapse of time. Advertising revels in both nostalgia and deferment, but has no real present- time has become the ultimate sales pitch. We are continuously dwelling in a perpetual present of hyperreality, where we are encouraged to look at everything (and everywhere), other than our present position, and to consume continuously (Williamson). As already mentioned, Blade Runner provides us with a future vision in which a Coca-Cola sign becomes an aesthetic treasure in a grime-filled metropolis, and so it is an appropriate example of the dangers inherent to advertising. If this seemingly omnipresent soft drink once wished the world would have a big sing-song, it has now proclaimed itself the only item outside the postmodern simulacrum: it is The Real Thing. There is no ‘real thing’ in hyperreality, which is why advertising glories in it- only in hyperreality could CGI animals (who are hunter and hunted in actuality) bond over a sugary carbonated drink, and only in hyperreality could this be sold as ‘real’.

Advertisements are an inevitable part of everyone’s lives “…pervading all media, but limited to none, advertising forms a vast superstructure with an apparently autonomous existence and an immense influence” (Williamson 11). They are selling us far more than mere products, they are also selling us an ideology of consumerism- the promise of the good life, good feeling, good selfhood. As Williamson’s seminal study of the impact of advertisements points out, legitimation advertising holds the potential for a product to set bounds for a feeling and the two could come to be interpreted as the same. The result is “…not only thinking, but feeling, in clichés. Happiness is shampooed hair, joy is a drink of champagne” (37). Turning to Coke for an example of when this turns exceptionally sinister: by summer 2001 it was no longer enough to be the real thing in a world of fakery, now it has become everything *Life tastes good…Coca-Cola*

[3:3] James Cole, the childlike central protagonist of Twelve Monkeys, is doomed by his own innocence: coming to the media-saturated world of 1990s America without any of our latent cynicism, he actually believes in advertisements. All the other characters in the film do not attempt to live the dream as portrayed in commercials- they understand that their role in the society of the spectacle is as a spectator. Cole, however, wants to play a part: a contagious madness that infects Goines to such an extent he forms the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Unlike the media-savvy Jack’s breakthrough in Fight Club, Cole’s belief that he is not merely a spectator stems from media ignorance. He is the antithesis of Baudrillard’s natural cyborgs- instead of passive spectatorship, he interprets advertisements as a “personal message to [him]” and acts upon them. After all, if he has been ‘asked’ to, why should he not “Fly to Paradise“? The link between consumerism and madness is very strong here: Kathryn chastises the mental illness ‘exposed’ by Cole’s utter acceptance of advertisements, while Goines insists (“Fact, Jim, Fact!“) that the rejection of advertisements will also result in the label of mental illness.

The impression created is that we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t: Gilliam never fully decides what is the “cry of the true lunatic“. If Goines is correct, and those who refuse such postmodern niceties as “Toilet paper, new cars, computerised blenders…” etc are those labelled as mentally ill, why is it that the frenzied purchase and sale of fictional stock shares is the only thing that shakes them out of their stupor? Conversely, Kathryn becomes victim to the mentality she scoffed at in Cole, and coming to believe in the sales pitch for the Florida Keys, she too attempts to “Fly to Paradise“. Of course, if they had not tried to appropriate paradise for themselves, Cole and Kathryn would not have been at the airport that day- and Cole would not have been shot. It is worth noting that Kathryn is well aware of the apocalyptic threat before being kidnapped by James Cole. She has just written a book on ‘Madness and Apocalyptic Visions’, and yet she still believes herself perfectly safe, dismissing such threats as mania. It is just possible that she, and by implication society, deserves her diagnosis of Cole: “[we have] been living in a meticulously constructed fantasy world, and that world is starting to disintegrate“. It is becoming ever harder to ignore the threat that we ourselves pose to our own existence. Even if, Matrix-like, we imprison ourselves in virtual panoptic cocoons, we are likely to find societal, and/or ecosystem collapse, impossible to ignore (Crawford 78).

[3:4]The virus which wipes out 99% of the world’s inhabitants cannot fail to bring to mind our previous discussion of the media as virus. If we were to assume that the media-contracted virus of consumerism is what leads to this particular apocalypse, it then becomes obvious that Cole has survived because of his immunity working on two levels. Indeed, the crucial plot point of the plight of nine-year old Ricky Newman (allegedly trapped down a well when he was actually hiding in a barn), does more than explain how Kathryn comes to believe Cole is from the future. It also explains a lot about Cole, who had been riveted to the news footage of rescue attempts when he was a boy, and devastated when it was revealed to be a prank. The disparity between the media-reality and the real-reality young Cole was exposed to here may have acted as a vaccine against the media virus.

If Cole is media-immune, why then his unquestioning acceptance of advertisements? The answer lies in his heavily fragmented sense of self, which shares something of the nature of commercials- he is “…unable to experience the persistence of ‘I’ over time” (Heaney 185). Cole is always obsessing over either the past or the future, but he is never very sure of his status in the present. His attempts to verify the perpetual present of advertisements in the 1990s are symptomatic of his broader attempts to ground himself temporally. Cole craves ignorance of the dangers of consumerism, he “want[s] the future to be unknown“. His desire to make Philadelphia 1996 his concrete location, his statement “I want this to be the present. I want to stay here, in this time…“, is echoed by the newly apocalyptic aware Kathryn. She may have realised the error of society’s ways, yet expresses no wish to change them for a better future. Instead, she wishes the future would not come, so that she could slide into a perpetual present of “…football games and traffic jams, tv shows and armed robberies…

[3:5]Subtly interweaving with the criticism of consumerism is a less blatant implication of technology in this particular apocalypse. Once again, it is television that takes the brunt of anti-media aggression- an unsurprising choice of cinematic villain. More intriguing, however, is the networked subjectivity of the post-apocalypse scientists who interrogate Cole using a video-ball. These scientists are strikingly reminiscent of the Borg from Star Trek, with “…the single electronic eyeball that contains all of their staring faces” providing the visual clue to their single mentality (McMahon 155). Both science and technology are damned by Gilliam’s depiction of these interrogation scenes. The microphone is passed from one sour-faced scientist to another: they greedily snatch the end of each others sentences away, even though they are all striving towards the same point. The video-ball sequences illustrate the not only the distancing effect that technology may have (the elaborate device is wholly unnecessary as Cole is mere feet away), but also the self-serving nature of the scientists. Just as Kathryn shows concern only with her own present, it is clear that no attempt shall be made to avert the apocalypse. Instead, the scientists will focus on returning themselves- and the humans they obviously control- to surface domination of the earth.

Many discussions of cyberspace speak of the “…mediating barrier of technology’s prophylactic interface” in some form or other, praising technology as the palpable limit protecting the future from reproducing the sins of the past (Kirby 20). Baudrillard counters that these “…prophylactic measures” are the cause of the metamorphoses of destruction into “…all the viral and terroristic forms that obsess us” (Transparency 81). Segueing nicely between the two views, Gilliam spoke of the technology of Twelve Monkeys as a method of separation between people that acted as “…an electronic condom” (McCabe 169). There is a striking similarity between the grid of television screens on which Cole and Kathryn are inadvertently displayed and the video-ball of the scientists: suggesting that the prophylactic interface failed to stop the transmission of the media-virus, yet succeeded in limiting the reproduction of the pasts mistakes (humans).

[3:6]The lethal cocktail of voracious consumption, technological mediation, and denial of future consequences presented as the major features of 1990s American reality form an organic backdrop to the underground dwellers of 2035. There is no comforting suggestion that this is a nihilistic apocalypse-for-the-sake-of-apocalypse entertainment vehicle. Instead, we are placed firmly within the realm of the critical dystopia and must observe the blame for a depressing future being laid at our feet (Penley 210). In direct contrast to The Matrix, where the dystopian future is imposed upon the hapless remnants of humanity, the apocalypse of Twelve Monkeys is shown to be the richly deserved fruit of environmental pillage. Cole, who has been raised underground, is enamoured of such simple pleasures as fresh air, informing Kathryn, and by implication society: “You live in a beautiful world, but you don’t know it.” It is hardly surprising that the apocalypse strikes at the carnival of consumerism that is Christmas-time, or that stucco angels observe the havoc with seeming satisfaction (Dailey 9). Looking up at the television set depicting rabbits and monkeys being experimented upon, Cole begins to believe it is a justified apocalypse: “They’re asking for it. Maybe the human race deserves to be wiped out“. Despite the flimsiness to the divide between the real and the fake, between lunacy and sanity, there is a concrete assertion that we are all monkeys, and will be experimented upon in time.

i Naturally, the most blatant reference to Vertigo occurs when we actually see a clip from the film. This is followed by a scene shot almost identically to one in Vertigo, as the male protagonists gaze upon a newly transformed leading lady, whom they suddenly ‘recognise’ for the first time. The strongest allusions, however, centre on mood. In Vertigo, Scottie (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with Madeleine (Kim Novak) to the point he tries to remake another woman (Judy) in her image- unwittingly uncovering that ‘Madeleine’ never really existed. Apart from one flashback from Judy’s perspective, the narrative is woven around what Scottie sees or fails to see. Hence we follow the growth of his erotic obsession and consequent despair precisely from his point of view. The slow pace of both plot and cinematography gives the impression of dreamlike pursuit- but it is a pursuit which, which of its obsessive and vertiginous nature, becomes suffocating and nightmarish. In Twelve Monkeys, we are reliant on Cole’s vision, a point driven home by the primacy of his eyes to the opening and closing sequences. Even if we cannot be certain that he is indeed a time-traveller, the inevitability of the apocalypse remains one of the few constants in the film. Vertigo shows us the memory of the dead invading the living, as Scottie’s memory of Madeleine and his obsession over her death make her more alive than he is. Twelve Monkeys shows the impact of death and memory through Cole, proving that “…when we look back we see ourselves dying- over and over again” (Rascaroli 235).

iiOf course, what advertising attempts to sell and what people choose to buy into are two very different things. While the Frankfurt school makes some interesting points that are doubtless applicable to many consumers, I take exception to their ceaseless references to the mindless ‘masses’. Postmodern consumption has many disturbing features, true, but they require a more complex solution than the damning of little elves and mind control.


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