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On references

May 24, 2021

When the film La Jetée was released in 1962, Chris Marker found himself confronted with a very different world than Terry Gilliam little over 30 years later, when his adaptation 12 Monkeys premiered in 1995.

My first encounter with these films dates a few years back to my fourth semester in university. While discussing the formal qualities of La Jetée, we watched a clip of 12 Monkeys because it came up during our simultaneous research. Back then I noticed some differences, but didn’t find time to delve deeper into their implications and effects. For what I’m concerned, the stories told don’t matter at all for the point I’m trying to make here. If you’re interested in a summary, review or comprehensive analysis of these films then this is a good starting point. There are plenty of differences – both stylistically and in content – but for now, I want to focus on one divergence in particular: the antagonists outfits.

If film is a mirror to society, then its antagonists are reflections of society’s fears. Here, in both instances, this position is held by scientists, i.e. doctors.

This is in itself a paradox and taunting proposition, considering that the sole purpose of a doctor should be ones well-being. Here, those expected to do the healing are the ones that do the hurting: military officers in La Jetée, and white-collar workers in 12 Monkeys. In La Jetée, the scientists are wearing coarse camouflage-print overalls with an attached hood and optical glasses that feature switchable lenses. Another scientist can be seen wearing a strict, but slightly oversized, light grey turtleneck. A similar set scene from 12 Monkeys, with a group of doctors surrounding the patient, lends itself best for this comparison: Underneath a white lab coat covered in transparent plastic, the scientists are wearing a white shirt and tie tucked under a dark grey sweater. Three of them are wearing sunglasses with dark red-brown shades. All have medical white rubber gloves on.

It’s hard to imagine that the costume choices made are a mere coincidence or arbitrary, considering the depth of the subject matter and artistic vision of both directors. For this distinct change to make sense and be understood, it helps to briefly reflect on major events predating the conception and making of these films:

France, 1950s: Amid the post-World War II traumata, it was the global ordeal of the Cold War (1947–1991) and the Algerian War (1954–1962) with its disastrous offshoot that later came to be known as the Massacre of Paris (October 17, 1961) 11. All served as depressing reminders of the ongoing injustices, aggressions and hurting committed by national military forces. What started as a peaceful event to bring awareness to exploitation, ghettoisation and the hardships experienced by French-Algerians was met with brutal force: “French security forces quickly descended on the crowds in a murderous rampage, even throwing bodies into the River Seine when they had finished their work.” 33 The “dirty domestic secrets of a France that had used torture during the Algerian War and then ruthlessly censored public knowledge of the fact” 22 were slowly unraveling and turning out rotten, revealing the horrors and injustices that are so inseparable from war. This shift transformed the military (uniform) into a symbol of distrust and false prophets, a tool Chris Marker would apply later when making his film. For a further examination of the Algerian War’s impact on the French, Jean-Luc Godard offers an evenly sharp and controversial take with his 1963 film Le Petit Soldat.

USA, 1980s: On October 19, 1987 – the day that became known as Black Monday – the stock market crashed “as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged […] 22.6 percent in value, its largest single-day percentage drop” 55 to date, marking the first contemporary global financial crisis 44. One possible explanation is that “the crash was exacerbated by computer programs designed to sell stocks that dropped below a certain price.” 55 Reflecting on these out-of-control financial systems and processes which were happening seemingly unforeseeable and followed in awe by the very powers responsible for their existence, Terry Gilliam channeled the growing distrust, angst and dulled expectations put into Wall Street capitalism by the American public – manifested in the tainted icon of the business suit.

These very medium-specific examples offer a universally applicable insight: The value of a reference lies not in the reference itself, but rather in the changes made. By doing so (with artistic intent), one not only helps better understand the past in relation to the present and future, but also showcases sensitivity and acknowledgment of the current human condition – only through which a truly contemporary expression can be achieved. This gives way to reworking present-day preconceptions and impressions (i.e. the image) of a certain thing, which I would argue is not only a big part of film but the arts and design work in general.