[11 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Something must be terribly wrong with Terry Gilliam. Either that, or he drank the Kool-aid on his own hype a few films ago. Back in 2005, the director was desperate. The Toronto Film Festival trounced all over his latest effort, a queer adult fable based on the book Tideland, and no distributor was willing to take on the impossible task of marketing the movie. With a narrative that focused on a little girl lost in a fatalistic fantasy world of her own making, and disturbing elements that included nods to underage sexuality, brutal drug use, and human fallibility, it appeared as if no one would be willing to stand up for the stranded artist. Gilliam even took to the streets, following the film around during its limited theatrical release to pony up publicity for his orphaned effort.
Now, a mere three weeks after THINKFilm’s released the title on DVD, Gilliam is fuming. Strike that – he’s uncharacteristically livid. The controversy doesn’t center on censorship, or some manner of mandated cuts to the content of the story. No, the ex-pat Python is upset over how the film was transferred over to the digital medium. It’s a gloriously geeky mess, the kind of nerd obsessive nonsense that gives the Internet and its struggling journalistic reputation a wonderfully weird wedgie. You see, Tideland was filmed in Super 35mm, and the resulting image was framed and composed for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio release. But beginning with its pitch for Oscar attention, THINK has purposefully reconfigured the film. The reports vary, from a 1.78:1 Academy screener, to the 1.85:1 version that hit stores 23, February.
Now, if you believe Gilliam, his cinematographer (and good friend) Nicola Pecorini and the investigators over at film ick (your basic UK blog) THINKFilm deceived the auteur. They prepared the DVD version without his consent, ported over most of the bonus material from the Region 2 release (which supposedly maintains the 2.35:1 aspect ratio) and made it appear that the director approved of the new pictorial proportions. In a pair of press releases, Gilliam has gone on record as renouncing the Region 1 DVD, and has even gone so far as to tell his American fans to boycott the disc. Pecorini goes a little further, stating that “nothing” about the THINKFilm release warrants consumer consideration. It all seems so very odd.
Remember, this was a man who, up until the mid-part of last year, couldn’t get a single significant studio to release his fractured fable. Listening to the audio commentary as part of the DVD (as well as his discussion of the post-production problems as part of another bonus feature), you hear a man mad as his status as a cinematic pariah. In truth, almost NONE of the reasons Gilliam is given over to a reputation as “difficult, demanding, excessive and eccentric” have to do with his own actions. Aside from bragging on Brazil (his 1982 masterwork) to the point of pissing off Universal, the rest of his problems stem directly from acts of God, location and forces outside his filmmaking. Indeed, he mentions that his last dust-up – a battle with the Weinsteins over his poorly received Brothers Grimm – had nothing to do with what happened on screen. It was merely part of the package of being in the motion picture business.
But the issue with THINKFilm is different, at least from these rumored reports. This is a matter of principle, pure and simple. Gilliam agreed to have the company release his movie, remembering that they should abide by his creative and aesthetic wishes. Basically, they couldn’t take Tideland and re-edit it, recolor the sky or brighten the darker moments. Back when The Descent hit DVD, fans were flummoxed by the ability to see more of the action in New Line’s remastered transfer. Cries of filmic foul were raised, since many believed director Neil Marshall’s hide and seek suspense conceit was being purposefully played with for a home theater audience. Turns out they were wrong. Marshall always had his visuals lit for ease of visibility. It was the crappy theaters and under-trained projectionists around the country that failed to fully illuminate the film’s many underground fights.
For Tideland, it appears that the only real concern is over aspect ratio. Listen to any of the ardent defenders of Gilliam’s “original vision” and they will tell you that the difference between 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 is top to bottom, as well as side to side. Mathematically speaking, taking a narrower image and broadening it means more information is revealed above and below. In addition, in order to avoid some technical elements that may have existed outside the frame (boom mic, crew or camera shadows, etc.) some companies zoom in on the image, losing a little of the compositional information on all four sides. In the opinion of the fanatical, such a situation undermines Gilliam’s original intent. It also destroys all of the carefully controlled creative strides made by cinematographer Pecorini. What many wondered prior to the recent reports was (a) was 2.35:1 the original aspect ratio?, and (b) was Gilliam aware/did he approve of the change?.
The answers are now obviously “yes” and “Hell No!”. From a purely practical standpoint, THINKFilm’s DVD release of Tideland in Region 1 is incorrect. It offers a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that’s absolutely stunning, but does indeed represent a retrofitting of the film’s OAR. Since it is so based in the symbolic and visual, relying on images to explore many of Mitch Cullin’s more disturbing ideas, fans of the film feel betrayed by such a situation. In fact, some are even suggesting that potential viewers will be put off of the film because, while viewing its complex and occasionally corrupt storyline, they will be missing many of Gilliam’s lush optical nuances. Such a stance fails to take into account the movie’s resounding dismissal at the hands of critics during its THEATRICAL run, or the praise this particular DVD has received from those unaware of the OAR scandal.
In reality, Tideland is a difficult movie to champion or chastise. It sits somewhere between a failed masterpiece and a brilliant bomb. It contains elements both personal and peripheral that threaten to undermine its acceptability (including a Tennessee Williams type turn by Jodelle Freland as an underage antebellum Southern surrogate) and really adds up to very little in the end. Unlike the rest of Gilliam’s creative canon, Tideland represents the director at his most disassociated. Similar to the lead character, Jeliza-Rose, he too is trapped in an unwieldy world of his own making. And now it seems that he’s ready to rebuke yet another studio for screwing with his efforts.
Consider this: THINKFilms was touting Tideland for Oscars back in November. Press releases went out to all critics groups with the standard ‘For Your Consideration’ rot, and free screeners were made available. As part of that DVD, Gilliam gave a surreal ironic introduction (a piece that prompted many an admirer to question his cinematic sanity) and then the full length feature was presented – in a 1.78:1 transfer. Now, if THINK really thought Tideland had a chance at Academy gold, why did they undermine their artist (and, in turn, his hardworking crew) so? Though he probably doesn’t care about such self-congratulatory backslapping, why didn’t Gilliam complain then? Was it because he knew he had no chance at Year End glory? Or was it a case of out of sight, out of mind?
In defense of the DVD, it doesn’t look like Tideland is missing much in the visual department. Only a comparison between the two transfers (Region 1 and Region 2) will settle the story once and for all – and that’s just what we’ll attempt to do in Part 2 of this discussion. In the meantime, we are stuck wondering how something like this can occur, especially in a day and age where every online film fan has a forum to ridicule and rail against a shoddy motion picture package. It worked when Pan and Scan was threatening to turn the digital medium into a graduated VCR. It worked when colorization raised its repugnant head a couple of years back. Studios frequently feel the wrath of the cinematic faithful when films are released minus key scenes, lines of dialogue, or removed musical cues. So, is the Tideland story a legitimate slighting of a moviemaking genius? Or is it just a product pitching ploy. We’ll have to wait for an Air Mail delivery from the UK to find out.