The Zero Theorem
Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)
The release of The Zero Theorem provides yet another opportunity to appreciate Terry Gilliam’s untrammelled genius. Yet some would prefer his towering talents were cut down to size.
Terry Gilliam doesn’t get the credit he deserves. In other news, dogs are fond of bones and the sky is predominately blue.
Over the course of 40 years, Gilliam has made more truly great films than Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg. He has moved the medium of cinema forwards in ways not yet fully appreciated. ‘Cult favourite’ does not cut it. It shouldn’t need to be said, but it always does.
To put it another way, the fact that one of the most important filmmakers of the past half-century is routinely and perversely marginalised is, even by those who recognise his talents, wearily accepted rather than argued against. At this stage, we can barely imagine what it would be like if Gilliam actually got what he was due.
His latest film, The Zero Theorem, a philosophical drama wrapped in dystopian sci-fi, has just been released, with early reviews fulfilling a now-familiar trend when it comes to Gilliam’s output: praise for the intellectual ambition, imaginative scope and brilliantly realised design, simultaneously accompanied by scorn for those nebulous qualities deemed ‘Gilliam-esque’. It is an inherently contradictory position, but one that few critics have any problem occupying.
Such detractors will confidently tell you that Gilliam’s ‘one man against the world’ schtick is getting old, that his rhapsodies to the imagination are growing stale, and that really, he should knock it off. Which he presumably will, the very day imagination stops redeeming humanity, and life ceases to be a battle between the individual and a cruel, absurd universe. Personally, I won’t hold my breath.
This kind of irritated disdain for Gilliam was given fresh articulation recently, when Zack Snyder, Hollywood’s dual-function shill and workhorse, made fresh attempts to defend his 2009 film Watchmen, a two hour-plus perfume commercial that happened to share a name with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ ground-breaking graphic novel. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Synder described the movie as “a labor of love. And I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway and they would have made it crazy. So, finally I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.”
It was an interesting insight into what passes for Snyder’s mind: the creeping suspicion that out there, in the wide world of cinema that does not concern itself with crypto-fascist Spartan fantasies and masturbation material disgused as speculative fiction, there exists a terrifying army of creators like Gilliam: uncontrollable, inarguable, dedicated to their own insane visions, and utterly incapable of making films aimed at white teenage boys. We should be so lucky.
One does not need to be well-versed in the ongoing discourse over ‘privilege’ to recognise the phenomenon at play. Snyder is a hack who brings in the bucks. The very idea that someone like Gilliam might have filled his shoes, bringing all his crazy notions with him, is enough to make him feel jittery and oppressed, even five years after the fact. He’s keen for us all to know how narrowly the cinema-going public avoided this grand injustice. The fact that such a ham-fisted assassination attempt on Gilliam’s reputation was made just weeks before The Zero Theorem‘s release is also telling. This is Syder’s version of subtlety.
A master in the art of failing upwards, Snyder may prove to be the next James Cameron: an aggressively terrible director whose comic-opera ego demands endless acclaim, and is incapable of recognising reality when it isn’t delivered (ironic, considering similar accusations are often thrown groundlessly at Gilliam). With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Snyder believes he can rehabilitate Watchmen, now that its critical stink and financial disappointment are fading memories. Casting the film as some kind of success is the only way Snyder can win the argument that it should have been made at all, despite Alan Moore’s well-known objections.
Gilliam, by contrast, has no need to cling to dreams of what might have been. Snyder is a man with no ideas, while Gilliam will never run out of them.
In a recent interview with Total Film, Gilliam graciously made clear that, despite Synder’s provocations, he was “not going to rise to it.” He’s obviously a better man than me. Nevertheless, Gilliam could also not resist asking the obvious question: Just who exactly are the Terry Gilliams of the world? For now, there is only one of him, more’s the pity.
So in this world, to which Gilliam has given so much, where exactly does he stand?
“You love me as a loser… But now you’re worried that I just might win.”
—Leonard Cohen, ‘First We Take Manhattan’
As a figure of influence, his stature is huge and undeniable. Game of Thrones is Jabberwocky without the jokes. For the past 20 years, there has been a running battle between Brazil and Blade Runner over which film is more shamelessly plagiarised by the booming trade in cinematic dystopia. And whenever directors seek a shorthand for the Bizarre, it is often Gilliam from whom they crib.
His aesthetic may prove to the most enduring aspect of his filmography: a glorious, career-spanning collage of hyperrealism and cartoonishness made solid, chimerical and childlike, played out through a succession of fiendishly detailed phantasmagorias. Yet as a filmmaker, it is perhaps in structure that Gilliam is most revolutionary. Typically, Gilliam’s detractors mention his disregard for linear storytelling is one of his chief faults. But In an age where the ‘beats’ in most films’ screenplay come almost automatically (and always predictably), Gilliam tells his stories freestyle. Every summer blockbuster promises to transport you to another world (arms inside the ride at all times), but Gilliam understands the defining characteristic of Wonderland: it’s a place where you get lost.
Indeed, the only one who knows his way around Wonderland is Gilliam, which may be why he seems so lost out here in the real world. The last of the auteurs, Gilliam is living proof that filmmaking, a collaborative medium, may still be personal in its mission. But the drive to make his films personal also isolates him, critically and professionally. As a result, the critics—not to mention the so-called ‘independent’ film community—that should praise and support Gilliam at every turn have, far too often, turned their backs on him, reflecting the apparently permanent unease he provokes.
Why, they wonder, does such an obviously noncomformist filmmaker not conduct himself like one? Why does he not do small, interesting and crucially, low-budget work, in the vein of Derek Jarman or Alejandro Jodorowsky? Why does he keep launching these Hindenburg-style productions that require more than the world can possibly deliver in order to get off the ground? And so, when life deals Gilliam yet more injustice, his would-be peers and allies offer the same response: very unfortunate, but really, he brought it on himself.
This kind of perception is unfair in so many ways, it’s difficult to know where to start. We might begin by pointing out that Gilliam has never been the financial black hole that some made him out to be. Though he has always been a stronger filmmaker artistically than commercially, the facts remain that Time Bandits was an undeniable smash, The Fisher King a sleeper hit, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has paid for itself many times over from its time-honoured place on the dormroom DVD-shelf.
Furthermore, Gilliam’s budgets are not by any means earth-shattering, just larger than most other arthouse directors might typically expect. As a result, Gilliam is actually quite skilled at squeezing every penny. Yet the reputation as a money-burning maniac endures. It’s enough to make you wonder why.
I once, rather ungracefully, referred to Guillermo del Toro as a smarter, less principled version of Gilliam, who earns the money and good graces he needs from studios for his prized personal projects, such as Pan’s Labyrinth, by punctuating them with profitable blockbusters, albeit delivered with his signature visual flair. Such an opinion is, in retrospect, glib and unjustified: while I may rate some of his films higher than others, I have no reason to believe that del Toro doesn’t care about his giant-smashy-robot-monster movie any more or less than his acclaimed Spanish Civil War fairy tale. Still, everyone I shared this arrogant assessment with agreed with it, and that’s what disturbed me: del Toro had been smarter career-wise, they would nod, and if Gilliam got off his high horse he could do a lot better. After a lifetime spent following his career, I don’t believe that’s true.
That Gilliam’s productions almost inevitably self-destruct is one of two central myths that have dogged his career for several decades; the other, no less insidious, is that he simply suffers from extraordinarily bad luck. True, some of his films became subject to fate’s cruel sport: Heath Ledger’s tragic death came midway through filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, still unrealised, was the victim of storms, flooding and a leading man plagued with ill health. But such disasters have offered cover to those who would prefer Gilliam was dealt with, and like all such criminals, they would prefer it looked like an accident.
To his credit, Gilliam himself has never used the ‘bad luck’ myth as an excuse for self-pity: if he ever truly believed the gods had it in for him, then few have ever faced divine torment with such cheerfulness and indefatigability. But Gilliam, I suspect, after a lifetime of battle, knows that it’s not the disasters which kill movies, but those unscupulous characters who would take advantage of them.
To spell it out? Gilliam has enemies. And they never go away.
“It was also, post-Brazil, Terry getting his comeuppance. It was Magnificent Ambersons time: he got away with it once, but now the little bastard is going to be seen for what he is.”
—Terry Gilliam, from Gilliam on Gilliam by Ian Christie.
Terry Gilliam sitting in the torture chair on the set of Brazil
Stories of filmmakers that have suffered abuse at the hands of paymasters and moneylenders are part of both the history and mythology of cinema. The mythological component is that such abuses are inevtiably acknowledged and accounted for, that the truth will out, and justice will be done. Call it the Citizen Kane Fallacy.
The ‘Battle for Brazil’ is one such oft-told controversy. Books have been written about the intricacies of Gilliam’s legendary dispute with Universal (and executive Sidney Sheinberg, in particular) over their scissorhanded cuts and a studio-imposed ‘happy ending’ to his 1984 satire of oppressive bureaucracy. Film students are now taught this behind-the-scenes narrative, along with its supposed implications for their future careers. Many would have us believe that the argument has been settled. They are wrong.
The American film industy has never stopped making Gilliam pay for Brazil, or for questioning the Hollywood consensus that final cut and, by extension, creative control, is a gift studios occasionally bestow, not a right to be demanded by impertinent directors. Such efforts have only increased every time Gilliam finds a new way of circumventing the obstacles in his way.
I can almost hear the counter-argument already: Am I suggesting a nefarious conspiracy exists to exclude a genius with the temerity to demand a means of expression? Not in so many words. I doubt any plan was hatched, in the days after Brazil, in a smoke-filled roomed filled with the Hollywood Illuminati. But the strategy of deliberately ignoring Gilliam’s talent, which everyone recognises, but few champion, because he was seen as being too troublesome hardened quickly, and soon became the prevailing norm.
Speaking of conspiracy theories, I once hypothesised that the black cloud of bad publicity which accompanied The Adventures of Baron Munchausen pretty much ended the ‘80s boom in immersive fantasy movies. Pan’s Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, Legend... For a while, Hollywood adored the idea of creating vast, lovingly constructed alternate worlds. After the much-exaggerated budget fiasco of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen however, the studios reined themselves in, favouring instead the E.T. model (take one extraordinary plot device and plonk it down in the middle of everyday reality—American suburbia for preference). Mainstream Western cinema wouldn’t develop a taste for immersive fantasy again until CGI became cost-effective, and lumbering box office behemoths like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter changed the rules once more.
It’s not a perfect theory, as I discovered when I tried to apply it to Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Though that film was quite spectacularly flawed, like a gorgeous sports car with 19 wheels and no brakes, I remember thinking how glad I was that we lived in a world where such a movie could be made. But then, remembering The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I realised we probably didn’t live in that world any longer. For the next five or ten years, I was sure, producers would hold up Southland Tales, just as they had with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and say “This is what happens when we give directors too much freedom, when we give them all the money they want, let them write the script, and allow them to convince us that uncommercial prospects are worth a shot: a self-indulgent mess. Never again.”
Thankfully, that prophecy hasn’t quite come true. Which makes the continued persecution of Gilliam all the more sadistic.
“Studio-less filmmaker - Family to support - Will direct for food.”
—sign held by Gilliam during the release of Tideland (2006)
The story was once related to me of a dinner party at the Edinburgh Film Festival where Gilliam was in attendance. It was the late ‘80s, and the budget problems of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen were now public and notorious. Someone broached the subject, and Gilliam shrugged. “It’s only money.” If ever you needed proof that good art is not made by accountants, here it was.
In the following years, the image of Gilliam that emerged—a man who didn’t recognise the importance of the almighty Dollar, who would throw away other people’s money in pursuit of his own dreams—perhaps enhanced his countercultural appeal, but was never really accurate. Gilliam isn’t above doing things for the money—he’s shot a commercial in his time, and has been quite candid about the less-than-romantic reasons for the latest Python reunion (some courtroom shenanigans concerning Spamalot royalties)—but he is above producing bad art in order to get it. That principle alone is considered dangerous, even now.
Despite my obvious enthusiasm, I don’t seek to feed any further legends: it’s entirely possible that there are some movies made better by the intervention of producers and financiers; certainly, there are directors who are nothing more than bloated egos that may be fed or starved according to the industry’s whims. Gilliam’s ego, such as it is, has never been an end in itself, instead serving as a cushion for an endless stream of ideas, ferrying them his world into ours.
While those independent artists making headlines right now are the ones who have had the most success in exploiting crowdsourcing and the online medium generally, the novelty of those phenomena will die out. It is the artists who use these modern environments to produce great work that will endure. Gilliam’s great work will endure, though it must not be forgotten that, on far too many occasions, there have been those who would adulterate it, or wipe it from history altogether.
Raging about a lack of regard for an artist is always a fool’s errand. There is no scoreboard, nor an quantifiable measure of genius by which it might be decided (the Academy Awards have just demonstrated as much). Yet obvious discrepancies provoke us still, because it feels like a critical failure. For the world to show Gilliam such disrespect, someone has not done their job correctly. it certainly isn’t Gilliam. It might just be us.
I mentioned earlier that there are those who find Gilliam’s movies repetitive, with their tendency to return to signature themes: the individual against society, the power of the imagination, the connection between reality and the unreal. Unsurprisingly, I take a dim view of such criticism: these are not small ideas, and the idea that one can say all that needs to be said about them in a single film is laughable. Still, Gilliam has admitted his films tend to mirror the circumstances surrounding them: as he said in Ian Christie’s book Gilliam on Gilliam, “The making of the film is the film.”
And so, both on and off camera, Brazil was a battle against oppressive authority, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a triumph against impossible odds. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a mad high-speed rampage and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was a magical journey touched by tragedy.
The Zero Theorem is a film which explores the question: ‘Is there any point to this? Why do we bother to continue?’ It may presume too much to speculate if this mirrors Gilliam’s own present uncertainty, after years of struggle and frustration. It’s up to us to provide him with an answer: to demonstrate that an artist, however unjustly maligned or sidelined, may find appreciation and understanding. Because when the day comes that Snyder can sleep soundly, with no more Gilliams in the world to trouble him or his bosses, we shall all be poorer for it.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.