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Depth of Field: The Tragedy of Terry Gilliam

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Wednesday, Dec 20, 2006


It’s the biggest crime in all of cinema. Bigger than Uwe Boll’s continued presence behind a camera. Bigger than the super-sized paychecks being given to shoddy screenwriters like Akiva Goldsman. Back at the beginning of the ‘70s, this astounding American ex-patriot set the stage – and the anarchic design – for the seminal sketch comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Along with the troop he helped guide their famous first film Monty Python and the Holy Grail to comedy classic status. At that moment, Terry Gilliam was a director, and from 1977’s Jabberwocky on, he has carved out a unique and artistically important oeuvre. But now it seems those days are over. Thanks to a couple of incomplete efforts, and the still lingering doubts about his moviemaking skills, Gilliam has become a kind of motion picture pariah, dismissed before he even has a chance to defend himself visually.


The most recent example of this automatic disregard came with the release of his “adult fairytale” Tideland. An adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s much talked about novel, the story centers on a young girl, Jeliza-Rose, whose parents die from their drug addictions. Left all alone to fend for herself, her grip on reality starts to fade. Soon, she’s communicating with inanimate objects and re-establishing her family ties with a pair of mysterious, menacing neighbors. When it premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, it was greeted with unanimous jeers. Many felt it to be the worst movie of the year, and Gilliam had a hard time finding wide distribution for his effort. As 2006 started, the film still had no planned release in the US, and the director took the drastic step of advertising his effort with an unusual bit of street beat publicity. Wandering around outside a taping of The Daily Show, Gilliam did a meet and greet with fans, all the while wearing a cardboard sign proclaiming “Will Direct for Food”.


Such a stunt is not the tragedy at hand. In fact, it’s an incredibly clever way for the director to drum up his fanbase while advertising the fact that, thanks to Thinkfilm, Tideland was getting a minor, limited number of play dates in America. No, the real creative calamity comes on the Oscar screener for the film. Since Tideland barely played around the country, critics groups have been sent a DVD offering the film, and a one minute intro by the director. Sullen, cloaked in a backlit monochrome setting, Gilliam defends his film, making it very clear that ‘some will love it, others will hate, and many will wonder just what the Hell is going on here’. At 66, he is reduced to an apologist and a symbol, a shill for his own work that should require no such salesmanship. In a year which saw Darren Aronofsky offer up a narratively arcane approach to the concept of mortality, and Christopher Nolan reestablish the power of storytelling twists, having to argue for one’s “difficult” film should instill audience outrage.


But that’s the point – no one cares. Tideland has not topped the box office charts. In fact, it’s come and gone from theaters so quickly that many of Gilliam’s most fervent followers never had a chance to see it. But more importantly, it continues a terrible trend in the media, one that seems to readily dismiss Gilliam the minute he steps behind the lens. Ever since Jabberwocky, which critics found to be light on Python pithiness and overflowing with grimy, gross-out gags, he has a two pronged attack to overcome. First, he is constantly being compared to what he’s done before – in particular, his groundbreaking animation work for the TV comedy classic. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he must live down a reputation for being a producer’s nightmare, a production’s problem, and a budget buster, among other things.


To hear the rumors and rumblings, Terry Gilliam is Michael Cimino without the attitude, ego or Oscar. That famous filmmaker, responsible for both the well-regarded Deer Hunter and the notorious studio killer Heaven’s Gate, has learned the very hard way that Hollywood never forgets a fiscal hand unbound. Though he tried to make up for his much publicized debacle, Cimino still sits on the outside of Tinsel Town, destined perhaps to always look in. To Gilliam’s credit, he has avoided such entertainment exile…until now. Prior to the last film in his “Age of Reason” dreamers trilogy, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the filmmaker was seen as an idiosyncratic, eccentric artist, a man uncompromising in his vision and resolute in his ability to create compelling cinema. Time Bandits was a massive hit, and Brazil broke through to critics, allowing them a chance to celebrate a man whose battle with his studio (Universal) over final cut and distribution became the stuff of legitimate legend.


But right around the time of Baron Munchausen, things started to change. A massive epic revolving around a mythical German hero, his tendency toward lies, and the grand spectacle that resulted from such fibs, it was a fairy story come to life, a chance to visit the fiery furnaces of the Underworld and to commune with the gods and goddesses of the ancients. In his behind the scenes book on the subject, Andrew Yule describes a filmmaker driven by a desire to realize his ambitious, sometimes impossible goals, a producer mired in incompetence, and a studio already nervous over reports of overspending and massive production delays. Though the final result was a masterpiece of unbridled motion picture imagination, the lingering financial fall out was the first of what would become two destructive albatrosses around Gilliam’s neck.


To his credit, the director fought back. He desperately wanted to prove his ability to make a movie on budget and on time. Taking the helm of a far more urban entity, Gilliam delivered The Fisher King. Hugely popular, respected by both the public and the film community (who nominated it for five Oscars), it was verification that, as a filmmaker, he could play by the mainstream rules. His next effort confirmed it even further. Matching up rising superstar Brad Pitt with reigning big wig Bruce Willis, Gilliam fashioned a fabulous piece of time travel trickery entitled 12 Monkeys. Though it took him four years to find a project after King’s commercial success, Monkey’s confirmed that given the proper support and subject matter, Gilliam was capable of very great things.


But it was his next gig in the director’s chair that started the downfall. When Sid and Nancy helmer Alex Cox was kicked off his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic tome Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam was brought in as a “hired gun”.  Under incredibly difficult circumstances (he only had weeks to draft a new script) and a desire to stay true to Thompson’s hallucinogenic writing style, he took actors Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro on a whirlwind ride through the adventures of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Sadly, the film was misunderstood by many, lambasted by those who found it self-indulgent and delusional, and before he knew it, Gilliam was back wearing his troublemaker tag. No matter the previous big screen success of The Fisher King or 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing repainted the man as a disaster waiting to happen.


Unfortunately, his next effort seemed to confirm it. Having long wanted to bring his take on Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra’s classic to the screen, Gilliam began The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Depp again in the lead, and famed French actor Jean Rochefort as the fabled windmill chaser. Mixing modern with ancient approaches, the movie was to be both an adaptation and a comment on Cervantes’ symbolic story. Unfortunately, it never got off the ground. Rochefort was suffering from back pain, and after only a couple of days shooting, had to be flown from the set in Spain back to Paris, where he was diagnosed with a double herniated disc. Then a flash flood wiped out most of the production. Military planes constantly marred takes, and with one of his leads out of commission, Gilliam had no choice but to close down production and hope to restart sometime in the future. That day has yet to come.


Now, all of this wouldn’t have mattered had filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe not been making a documentary on the movie’s progress. Having created a similar making-of for 12 Monkeys, Gilliam had given them free reign, allowing the duo to keep their cameras in close as problems mounted and tempers flared. The resulting tell-all, Lost in La Mancha, was viewed by many as a searing indictment of Gilliam. Everything that books and buzz had hinted at regarding the director’s somewhat demented style were visible for all to see. While praised for his openness, Gilliam was again labeled a troubled, volatile artist, and the years of rebuilding post-Munchausen were gone. Sadly, things have only gotten worse. His blatant attempt at a big studio commercial hit – the Matt Damon/ Heath Ledger starring The Brothers Grimm faced post-production fiddling from Miramax, and its steadfast studio head Harvey Weinstein. Considered a failure by many, the lack of respect for Tideland now acts like icing on a very sour and bitter cake.


Frankly, Gilliam deserves better. A lot better. As a filmmaker, he is responsible for several outstanding efforts, and his so-called flops fare much better in comparison to other infamous bad movies. Perhaps the venom of his reproach stems from such artistry. Indeed, the more ambitious they are, the harder they are humiliated. That seems to be a nice paraphrasing of the popular comeuppance maxim, and no one aims higher than Gilliam. All throughout Brazil and Baron Munchausen, his vision is unlimited, his flights of fancy so fantastic that you can’t begin to broach them in your own sense of scale. He is given over to excess, wallows in wild abandon, and never once apologizes for the lengths he goes to give himself over to the medium’s inherent art. Though some have dismissed his later works as weak in comparison to his past, a few have simply stated that Gilliam has always been an overrated rebel.


And he’s never been his own best friend, film wise. He turned down chances to director Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Enemy Mine and Forrest Gump. He’s been known to reject potential deals over the slimmest of aesthetic compromises. He is incredibly devoted to specific cast and crewmembers, and will abandon projects if they express reservations. And, let’s face it, Gilliam wants to make movies where the visual is more important than the pragmatic. That doesn’t seem unreasonable, especially in a day and age where CGI spectacle rules over the slimmest of storytelling skill. But Gilliam is an artist at heart, a man who made his living with his wits, his pens, and a piece of paper. To ask him to reign in that inner ideal is really requesting too much.


But the bigger issue is, why Gilliam? After all, Darren Aronofksy’s The Fountain won’t be clogging up the countdown of Top Ten moneymakers of 2006, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water was as incomplete an adult fairytale as one can find. The answer may be perspective. Tideland is Gilliam’s 11th film in three decades as a director. For Shyamalan, it’s seven in 14 years. Aronofsky, on the other hand, has only made three in eight. Call it the ‘old enough to know better’ or the ‘too young to completely discount’ school of thought, but Gilliam just isn’t cut the same cinematic slack as his creative youngers. Worse, aside from that misguided book project the Sixth Sense creator agreed to, neither newbie has the kind of ballyhooed baggage that Mr. Monty Python does. In essence, the great tragedy that has befallen this amazing moviemaker is that, somehow, his onscreen unpredictability has become his offscreen persona. His name should rightly be at the top of every list when studios consider filmmakers for outrageous, imaginative movies. Regrettably, it’s possible that Tideland will become his involuntary swan song. Disastrous, indeed. 

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