Film Acoustic
Will Butler
12 Monkeys

Will Butler

I am not one of those people who know something about film. They are an erudite and occasionally intimidating group. But you might say I know something about the heart and a gut punch, they are one in the same.

Night before last, I felt both, at the Film Acoustic series at the Carolina Theatre. I attended a screening of Terry Gilliam’s powerhouse cult-classic, “12 Monkeys.”

twelve monkeys

Film Acoustic is a fascinating concept, curated by the Modern School of Film and founder Robert Milazzo. They find a musician, last night, Arcade Fire’s Will Butler and ask them what they want to show. Previously, Frank Black of The Pixies showed Gilliam’s film, “Brazil” and then discussed it with Milazzo. Coming soon, My Morning Jacket is showing “The Dark Crystal” and hanging out to talk about it. The Modern School of Film’s series happens not only in Durham, but in Rio de Janiero and Nashville, among other locales that appreciate the conjuncture between music film.

Naturally, with great musicians and a venue like the historic Carolina Theatre, some music is interspersed into the post-film discussions. The whole series, inherently, takes an inter-disciplinarian, multifarious approach to art. Musicians talk about movies that hold meaning for them. In his introduction, Milazzo told us, asking someone what film they love is no trivial question. It speaks deeply to the heart of the person.

Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, a Northwestern grad, is described by those who know him best as kind, serious, and thoughtful. His undergraduate degree is in Poetry and Slavic Languages, and even though by his senior year at Evanston, he was on the cover of Rolling Stone and missing classes to appear on Conan O’Brien, he finished school and, from all appearances, retained his humility.

Afterwards, from the Chicago area, he decamped to Montreal full-time, where Arcade Fire, on the Durham based label, Merge Records, has gone on to thunderous critical acclaim, like Grammy’s and inclusion on “Best of the Decade” album lists, as well as sold millions of copies of their discs and songs.

At the Carolina Theatre the staging for the Film Acoustic talkback was minimalist, Butler sat in simple folding chair across from Milazzo, also in a basic black chair, both behind a mic, Butler’s guitar resting in a stand.

But before that ever happened, we all saw “12 Monkeys.”

Are spoiler alerts necessary for fifteen year-old movies? If so, SPOILER ALERT.

“12 Monkeys” is a powerfully moving film that has been described as everything from cartoonish to cinematic to operatic. It stars Bruce Willis at his best (don’t let nobody* tell you about “Pulp Fiction”) and Brad Pitt fresh off “Thelma and Louise” when we all still thought he was an amazing character actor rather than a leading man. Madeline Stowe plays the psychiatrist who specializes in the Cassandra complex and doomsayers, who’s interest in Willis goes from clinical, to personal, to paranormal in a descent that is gripping. Her stately beauty, even under a wig, contrasts sharply with the youthful, blonde, James Cole (Willis) who is doomed to eternally watch her hold his hand while he dies.1

Milazzo got David Morse of “The Hurt Locker” and “The Green Mile” to deliver an introduction via web cam that set the stage. I had forgotten this film was made before 9/11. He reminded us and warned us that things that were doomsday scenarios then might feel much more threateningly real and dark now.

Willis lives in an entirely subterranean society. Life has been wiped out on the surface of the Earth in 1997 by the release of biological warfare weapon that killed 5 billon or 90% of the population in a matter of weeks. The survivors moved below ground, the apocalyptic event gave rise to an autocracy (of necessity?) to manage the wake.2

Butler saw this movie in high school and recalled for us in the talkback afterward that it had been passed around hand-to-hand on VHS tape, its reputation spreading via word of mouth. As Butler noted, “Google was still in beta” when he was first watching this movie. He referenced the power of samizdat, which must feel intensely personally relevant given Arcade Fire’s off the grid rise to fame. Samizdat demonstrates the power of communication through community, the force multiplier that Gladwell notes when six degrees of separation become two degrees; things change exponentially.

When I asked Butler, how “12 Monkeys” made him feel now, watching it again, he immediately referred to the emotional intensity. He said that he tear’d up on the first flashback of Cole’s tragic death, and every subsequent one, along with the first time you hear “Blueberry Hill” in the movie, and then again when Bruce Willis says he loves the music of the 20th Century.

They say you are affected by great films and great books differently at different points in your life. It is one of the hallmarks of a canonical classic, that it is effecting, yet resonates differently on second (and third) approach. For me “12 Monkeys” had been so bad ass, so crazy, so exciting, so energizingly trippy and cool, if scary and sketchy, when I was a kid. Before I had an experience with hallucinogens, it hinted at what those mind bends might be like.

Later when I saw it again in my late twenties, it still retained that feel of “right on the money.” If you have every brushed up against the doorway that leads through the portal to insanity,3 you know from a very personal place Gilliam and Willis (and Pitt) got it right.

This time through, for me, it was a tragedy. “12 Monkeys” wasn’t cool. Oh yeah, it was still trippy. But it hurt way more and from the beginning because it was so desperately real. All this shit is happening to James Cole/Bruce Willis. He isn’t imagining any of it. And like all of us living the tragi-comic, samsaric, opera of life, he eventually feels like; wouldn’t it be easier if this were all a dream? A light and malleable reality where we could travel back to any time and any place within our world that we wanted and start again.

Who hasn’t felt the wish to start anew? The, if I could only go back until… Fill in your own personal blank.

Like James Cole, we will not be getting any do-overs.

It reminded me of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Reading it again, we know the story and no matter how much we wish they would, Esmeralda and Quasimodo will not survive. The novel, the movie, they remain the same, it is us, individuals and societies, that change around them. They eternally return, we shoot forward through our personal stories.

Gilliam’s movie is painted with detail. Humor mimics the real. The cartoons in the background tell the reality of the story in the foreground. The joke is often made so we don’t cry. Is travelling to the Florida Keys to get away a bullshit, marketing laden, commercial fantasy or a real dream that is just beyond our reach?

Butler talked about his memories of “12 Monkeys” and his memories of watching the film previously–what those times were like, his recollections of being the high schooler in New Hampshire who had watched this film. In a metaphysical way, screening the film again through those layers of his personal tapestry almost mimics the “12 Monkeys” story itself.

The Modern School of Film’s Milazzo led an amazing conversation and discussion that ranged through more than a handful of fascinating topics with Butler. One of the ones that most revved my mental engine was when he probed with Butler the difference between performance and acting. How does a musician who has done so much thinking about film transform themselves to perform (music) and is it acting?

Butler played “Brazil” a tune from a Gilliam-Tom Stoppard film for us and was indeed transformed. He was yet again transmogrified when he played a track off of his new solo album, “Take my Side” with a rock and roll rollick that was far from the haunting, lilting “Brazil.”

How does a musician who has done so much thinking about film transform themselves to perform (music) and is it acting?

Butler’s eloquence deserted him momentarily. He gave one of his dazzling and still boyish smiles as he tried to explain to Milazzo, clearly hanging on his every word, out of a deeply personal desire to imbibe the answer… “performance is not exactly acting,” he could sarcastically joke, shuck and jive like it was, before admitting with an essentialist, shoulder shrug, “it (performance) was life.”

Innately constituted of who he is and was, an expression of self, fired only forward.4

Film Acoustic

Film Acoustic 2


*or anybody either.


1 Begs the question of Nietzche and Kundera’s Eternal Lightness of Being. Is this event, this death all the more tragic when it happens over and over again? Is that why we tear-up (those of us who had already seen the movie once) when they show the flashback the very first time? First time viewers can’t, of course, identify it then as Cole’s death.

2 Echoes of The Hunger Games District 13.

3 What artist hasn’t?

4 He gave a parallel answer to an early question where he discussed how much time goes into perfecting a craft and admitted that he knew he only had so much time and would only master certain things.

Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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