It’s twenty-five years since Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis hit Philly.
This might be an offbeat bit of recollection on a day where the President may get his ass handed to him for reals… But, as of January 2021, it is 25 years since Monty Python-member-turned-director Terry Gilliam turned 12 Monkeys, his dark surreal vision to the subjects of neuroses, insurrection, imprisonment, misinformation and plagues set to exterminate the earth’s population.
Sound familiar? Prescient?
Based on Chris Marker’s 1962 short film, La Jetée, and shot, nonlinearly, in Philly (and Baltimore, a bit, but fuck that), during the bitter winter of 1995 into spring, 12 Monkeys was probably one of the first big-budget films shot in this city to show off its stark, eccentric qualities. Beyond its historicity and old-world neighborhood dynamic indigenous to, say, South Philly and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise.
Surely, hometown auteur M. Night Shyamalan, who shot his neo-Gothic, suspense-filled The Sixth Sense in town five years later, was inspired by Gilliam’s eerie, epic grandeur, a Philadelphia’s wrecked cosmopolitan elan. David Lynch – a one-time local during his time in the 1960s at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts – alluded to Philly’s uneasy tattered glory in interviews surrounding Eraserhead. Could Shyamalan and Gilliam have both benefitted from Lynch’s opinion? Certainly, Gilliam’s use of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Reading Terminal, and (as a stand-in for a psychiatric hospital Eastern State Penitentiary and Girard College says as much in terms of a Philly in the ruins. Abandoned motels in Camden, New Jersey were also a big part of 12 Monkeys.
Plus, along with local actor David Morse and the use of Willis – Gilliam’s film truly made him a local hero, just in time for Sixth Sense. This was Brad Pitt at the start of his career. All before Interview with the Vampire, Legends of the Fall and Se7en. And all before the big money.
Going back to that time, as a journalist for City Paper, I can remember tracking Pitt’s every movement. From bars in the Art Museum area to buying cookies on South Stree. And it just seems a blur, many many lifetimes ago.
Thankfully, 12 Monkeys holds up as a film with vision and originality. Watch it and point out your favorite hot spots dressed for the apocalypse. It’s bracing.