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Faunce, B.K. (1997). Paranoia and Spectatorship in 12 Monkeys. Psychoanal. Rev., 84(3):453-459.

(1997). Psychoanalytic Review, 84(3):453-459

Film Notes

Paranoia and Spectatorship in 12 Monkeys

B. K. Faunce

In a recent interview, director Terry Gilliam was asked to compare his “vision of the future” in an earlier film, Brazil, with that in his latest release, 12 Monkeys. The response is telling: “Brazil didn't take place in the future. It took place on the opposite side of now, [whereas] in 12 Monkeys … the future may be only the constructs of the demented mind of James Cole [Bruce Willis]“1 The film opens with a typed statement that appears to point in a similar direction: Five billion people have been killed by a mysterious virus, the surface of the planet is ruled by animals, humans have been forced underground, and various mental disorders are the fallout.

Gilliam's twenty-first century reveals an enclosed fantasyscape of darkness and impending dangers, the ghastly aftermath of an industrial apocalypse in which helpless prisoners are manipulated by hostile forces. In that respect, his futuristic “reality” has all the markings of a paranoid panorama. In “Notes on a Case of Paranoia,” Freud points out that fears of world-catastrophe are frequently reported in such cases and denote the subject's externalization of a “profound internal change” (1911, p. 69).2 Insofar as paranoiacs endeavor to protect themselves against perceptions or feelings that are considered threatening to the ego, the “contents” of these auditory/sensory impressions, “after undergoing a degree of distortion, enter consciousness in the form of an external perception” (p. 66). A transformation of affect occurs whereby what is pleasurable is first repressed and then expelled through a process of projection, the expelled material often manifesting itself as a persecution complex.2 From this perspective, the dehumanizing environment of 2025 might well be understood as the product of the troubled mind of James Cole, a position that would seem to account for both the mysterious virus and the mise-en-scène gone mad: The former represents the fantasized wish, the latter its rejection, or what Kaja Silverman describes as “relocating unwanted qualities from inside to outside” (1988, p. 317).3


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