Wednesday, 23 January 2008

This Is A Post About Terry Gilliam

In all my time on the internet tube system, I've never seen a flurry of horror, speculation, rumour, sadness, recrimination, spite, misinformation, grief, and bad taste jokes as last night at 23:15 GMT, when we finished watching Julie Delpy's sour but funny culture-clash movie Two Days In Paris and logged on to find a maelstrom of news surrounding the tragic death of Heath Ledger. Though obviously we don't know him personally, our reaction was one of total shock and disbelief, followed by much sadness. Lots of holier-than-thou jerks on AICN and AV Club took people to task for grieving for someone as lowly as a mere actor when no one laments the millions who die every day of disease, famine, warfare, terrorism, crime, and meteor landings.

They are all tragic losses too, but those people often have no name, and have not made an impression on my life. I can have a detached feeling of sadness for all deaths, but someone whose personality, face, voice, and talent has impinged upon my consciousness is going to feel more real than any of those people, and it's pointless to apologise for that. The news of a deadly plane crash horrifies me. Seeing Ledger's face on the Guardian homepage last night did something more visceral; it made me freeze in my seat, made me ill, made me hope it was a hoax gone wrong. That was Ennis Del Mar. I cried for him once. It's a connection. It might not be as real as that between me and my friends, and family, or even my legion of enemies who plot against me in their dungeon lair every Thursday night, but it's still a connection.

The other thing it made me do is despair for Terry Gilliam. Not on the same scale I felt for Michelle Williams and her daughter Miranda, obviously, but it did cross my mind that yet again his career is scuppered by events beyond his control. Which inspired me to write a post about Terry Gilliam, a man I idolised when I was young, and then kinda gave up on.

At first I fell in love with his magnificent Monty Python animations, but it was when he became a live-action director that I fell in love to the point of obsession with his vision. I remember making one of my beloved lists when I was a kid, of my all-time favourite movies. It was about as unimaginative and as typical a list as you can imagine. All the Star Wars movies to that point, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jaws: you get the point. The only film that wasn't by Lucas or Spielberg was Time Bandits, a film that had given me nightmares and freaked me out but fascinated and delighted me nonetheless. I had no reason to think that admiration would grow until he became my favourite director, but seeing Brazil (which made it to the UK pretty much intact) sealed the deal. It upset me so profoundly that I could barely cope with it, but just like you poke at a painful tooth, I went back over and over again.

One of the things I loved most was his imaginative use of the frame. The Crimson Permanent Assurance, the short film before Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, is usually dismissed as a frivolity, but for a one-joke short, it not only pushes that joke as far as it can, it also shows off his distorted compositions and command of movement. Not just the beautifully sculpted progression of the action, but the movement of the characters from the beginning of a shot to the end. Check it out, in two parts.

Now, I love fast editing too, especially when it's done well, but old school control of pace within a single shot prior to being added to other equally well-designed shots is lovely too. I'm no film scholar (can you tell?), but I know what I like, and Gilliam had that in spades. And that's before we get to his prodigious imagination, his outrageous flights of fantasy, his angry humour.

Unfortunately, he also has the shittiest luck of any major filmmaker. Not to mention the best chronicled. If you've seen the Criterion Collection DVD of Brazil or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or seen Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys or Lost in La Mancha, or read Andrew Yule's upsetting chronicle of the Munchausen debacle (Losing The Light, which is highly recommended), then you know what I'm talking about. For years I despaired as his vision was compromised by the foolish choices of producers and moneymen, and ignored by the imagination-deprived masses. Why was his genius not recognised? Why did he have to toil so hard for so little attention and praise? It made me unhappy, and just as rooting for the underdog makes you associate with them more, I almost felt his failures as if they were my failures too.

And then came The Brothers Grimm, and I suddenly stopped watching his movies. I'm still not sure why. I will see it eventually, and Tideland as well, which seems to have split opinion right down the middle. It's not even like Fear and Loathing put me off him. I loved the damn thing, and think it's due some serious critical reappraisal. I just suddenly thought, "You know what? All this time, thinking Gilliam was the victim of the financial shortsightedness of robotic accountants, thinking his vision was just too pure and radical to be appreciated by the blinkered peoples of the world, and yet now I find myself wondering if he's just a bit of a dick and cannot even be bothered to try to get on with anyone. No one is that unlucky. There has to be something else at play." It was a weird epiphany, coming without warning.

It meant that for once I sided with the Weinsteins (enemies of cinema that they are, and oh yes, Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures is approaching the top of my to-read pile). From what I gather from the single Amazon review of Bob McCabe's Dreams and Nightmares: Terry Gilliam, The Brothers Grimm, & Other Cautionary Tales of Hollywood, Gilliam certainly didn't approach the making of this movie in the most professional manner. Apparently he didn't even want to make the movie, but did it because he had nothing else going on.

I'm kinda torn. He has so much difficulty getting his own work going that I understand him wanting to get some work, any work, especially something that might have been a success. However, acting like it was a hardship to make it is a dick move. And so I started to look back at his career and think, perhaps these villains who have compromised his work are not as bad as I thought. Perhaps they were pushed into being careful with their money because he was so unhinged! Oh my God, what have I done with my life? Why couldn't I idolise Ron Howard instead of this difficult maniac?

And then last night, when the shock of hearing about Ledger's death had subsided and my heart had relaxed to its usual beat, I thought, "Damn, Gilliam isn't a dick. He's just jinxed." It's not him, it's what happens when you make films. People die (and some die way too soon), floods ruin sets, producers get cold feet and cut the budget, studio heads think they know better than artists and impose their own ideas on the director; it happens to every filmmaker, but it happens to Gilliam more than most. I should have kept giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Who knows what will happen to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus now that Ledger is dead. Will it be dropped altogether? Was enough footage filmed to be able to salvage the movie? Will the insurance pay for the film to be reshot with a new actor? I'm sure people will tut-tut at me for thinking about this when someone has just died, but, you know, I can have two thoughts at the same time. The mind is a complex thing. Yes, even mine.

Okay, I've rambled. The short version of all of this is that I have exorcised myself of my sudden distrust of Gilliam for entirely irrational reasons, and will now go and find The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, even if they are as bad as people have said. I will continue to support him and his career, because even if he never recaptures his old mojo (or finishes another movie, which always seems possible), his work was important to me during my formative years and is partially responsible for who I am and what I think. Hopefully this tragedy won't be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and he gets back on his feet soon.

One last thing, apropos of nothing. An actor I think would work well in Gilliam's movies is King of Charisma Sam Rockwell. Today I found this picture, that made me smile while flicking from gossip site to gossip site looking for news of Ledger's death.

Enjoy this gratuitously goofy image, my lovely readers.

ETA: It's not looking good for Dr. Parnassus. From that article, it's interesting to note that Ledger was planning a chess movie, starring Ellen Page. Yet more sadness that we would never get to see that film.

ETA again: IMDb and AICN are running this rumour, that Gilliam is going to have many actors playing Ledger's character. The character passes from world to world and could conceivably be played by different actors each time. Sounds great to me. The alternative is we never get to see Ledger's final performance, and that's not something anyone wants.


Dawn said...

Thank you Admiral Neck. We too, were so saddened to hear of the loss of such a great artist...who had so many more expressions of his art within him. But, in my usual way of trying to accept these things, as we were walking Ginny back from the park today, we saw the elementary school's flag at half-mast, and both Sung and I immediately thought it was hanging that way in honor of Heath. And then I felt the wind on my face and I knew he was there, and in the sun and in the long branches of the trees against the blue sky...he was in the dry leaves Ginny kept chasing ... he's dispersed now into the great nothing. Well, he is until Ginny hunts him down and chases him back anyway...

Santanico said...

Are you sure I can't talk you out of Brothers Grimm, Neck? I'm honestly not exaggerating when I opine that it is, quite possibly, one of the worst films I have ever seen. In a way I'm relieved Gilliam hated it too, as that tells me that he hasn't completely lost his mind and/or talent; in another way, I'm pissed off that he chose to waste everyone's time on what he knew from the start to be a total dud.

As for Tideland: I haven't seen that, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the Mitch Cullin novel upon which it's based. It's dreamlike and disturbing, sort of an odd hybrid of Flannery O'Connor, The Wasp Factory and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it's beautifully written and so very interior that God only knows how Gilliam managed to transfer it to the screen (and the attempt itself seems doomed from the start; it's one thing to read, in completely non-explicit first-person POV, about a preteen girl making out with a mentally disabled young man, quite another to actually see it. This is the sort of thing unlikely to endear oneself to audiences - or potential investors).

Admiral Neck said...

Glad you appreciated it, dawn. We're still astonished by it here, as well as put off by much of the media attention and speculation.

I'm afraid I'll be watching The Brothers Grimm no matter how strenuously you object, santanico. Though I have been informed by many reliable sources that it stinks of the poo, I now realise I have to see this through. It's like I'm karmically supporting Gilliam now that the cosmos has decided he's not supposed to make movies. And Tideland (the book) sounds great. I'll add it to the colossal, teetering pile of books to read.