Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blind Spots 2: Terry Gilliam part 1 (I know .. parts within parts within parts but I gotta put something up

 When Terry Gilliam began making features in his own right he could do no wrong in my eyes. His animations for Monty Python seemed to open the door to a parallel universe. They were funny by context rather than anything innate. Mostly, they were troubling and angry. Monty Python had me from the get go when the pilot was played back in my childhood. It was like watching psychopaths on hidden cameras, unstable confrontations, inverted banality, and a violent take on British stereotypical characters. In the midst of all that a construction paper gunslinger was shot and buried. Hands grew like flowers from the grave. A girl scissored out of a Victorian picture book came by and cut the hands into a basket. That told me that Monty Python was not going to be some cute BBC half hour but something difficult and fearsome, and that it would probably change all significant comedy that followed it. Ok, I didn't think in those words at ten butit did seem like things were changing.

And we all know the story. The team fought, fragmented and it wasn't the same. Anyone whose tried to make it through all of the box sets knows how gruelling the later Python tv show gets. But if you take the time to watch the movies they were making something very different emerges and it's strange. How could such a cardboard set comedy on video make such a bold transition to the cinema screen? Whenever the tv show had attempted a coherent narrative line through an entire episode it always lost breath early and collapsed. But the grandeur of Holy Grail was what made it funny.  And that came out of the conflicting visions of the Terrys (Gilliam and Jones) which were resolved in the need for sheer pragmatism. Jones veered toward cuteness. Gilliam wanted a cast of thousands. Instead of real horses it was a man clapping two coconut halves together (played by Gilliam himself) not into a microphone in post but on screen in costume. And the film score was all El Cid and Man for All Seasons, tympani and extended brass section. That tension between epic and English whining triviality still makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail feel fresh now. See also Life of Brian and Meaning of Life. Anyway....

So when Terry Gilliam came out with Jabberwocky I loaded myself up with consumer expectations like a suburban dad on a camping holiday ("but why can't we have a spot closer to the shower block if there's one there?") And it went nowhere and took its time doing it. The Python surreality was replaced with whackiness which made it look like a knockoff regardless of how many Pythons were trying to change the lightbulb. What remained was perhaps a look into what Holy Grail might have been given time, money and a free hand to Terry Gilliam. While it's great to see merrye England gone all Ken Loach and the fight sequences with the monster have a genuineness about them what's missing is any cohesion between the authenticity of the period evocation and ... a point. There is nothing to hang the comedy on in this film. The scene, often offered as an example of the film's way, where Michael Palin interrupts an artisan in a workshop with an efficiency suggestion only to have the entire factory collapse around them, outstays its welcome as soon as the big props start to fall.

Then came Time Bandits but before it came Life of Brian which Gilliam didn't direct. He did, however, contribute one of its funniest sequences (Brian saved from plummeting to his death by an alien spaceship) which made the prospect of Time Bandits all the more enticing. And it's a good adventure, taking a child character through the ages and even to the depths of a highly imaginative depiction of hell. For the most part the mix of fantasy fiction and Pythonesque comedy works well, if bumpily right up to the ending which changes the tone of the entire film from adult-leaning adventure to buzzkilling violence. John Cleese is very funny as a Robin Hood more like a Tory politician than a bandit. David Warner is both funny and intimidating as the Evil One. Michael Palin and Shelley Duval as the eternally awkward lovers are very Python, funny or not. And there's Sean Connery who doesn't have to be funny. But a great deal of this and the action are at odds with the tone of the boy being taken on adventure by the dwarf robbers. This is neither a kid's story (even a Roald Dahl one) nor an adult's one. Having the advantage of the Monty Python pedigree it was marketed with that flavour. But it wasn't a Python film. Nor was it so of itself that it could survive the initial confusion of what it was to emerge as a sui generis piece like El Topo or Harold and Maude. The film has its pundits but if you speak to them you'll find a lot of nostalgia in their admiration, a kind of stolen pleasure from their childhood. To its credit the film's delivery on some of its promises and reasonable maintenance of its narrative thread (this isn't Tarkovsky, it needs a constant narrative force) allow return viewings. When I tried to get through it for the second time in two decades I gave up. The imbalance between fantasy and comedy wasn't tension the way it was in Holy Grail, it seemed saggy. It felt try hard. This despite the obvious vision that had conceived it and skill that executed it. I wondered if Terry Gilliam was a technician who had fluked a few good comic moments between bombastic ones.

Then came Brazil and with it an end to the obligatory association with Monty Python. What remained of Python in this film was there in Terry Gilliam to begin with. Mostly, the same kind of troubled anger as I remembered from those animations in the tv show returned.

It was 1984 and journalists were in a frenzy all year playing spot the Orwellian overtone in public events. Michael Radford made a muted but powerful adaptation of the novel. Terry Gilliam threw everything he had (a somewhat considerable stockpile) at contemporary society through an evocation of its past as a reversal of Orwell writing 1984 about 1948. I remember an acquaintance of my flatmate who was roostering himself through local student politics voicing suspicion that Brazil and Nineteen Eighty-Four were released around the same time as they were both obvious attacks on Soviet society. This was a further example of the student pollie phenomenon of treating strong arm politics as though it were the Glass Bead Game and everything outside of that (eg. culture) as remedial reading. When I tried to explain to this fusilier of the SRC that there might be a lot more commentary on the West in those films than he imagined he intoned the mantra so beloved of his tribe: "bullshit." I left it there. It really was only a movie. (He also opined that one thing he liked about Nineteen Eighty-Four was that "the good guys won".)


Brazil deserves the high place given it by Gilliam fans for the sheer force of its argument and the service of every element of the film towards that end. It has his dizzying delight at the confrontation inherent to massive structure, moebius strip logic, and the ugly consequences of a totalitarian enforcement of consumer culture. The tech and fashions are from world war II but the intolerance of dissent by governments applies today. If the film had been released at any time after 2001 no one would be talking about Moscow, they'd be thinking Dubbya's Washington or Blair's London.

And there's still more. Protagonist Sam Lowry's dreams invade the central narrative until the two realms find a strange convergence in the finale. The dreams, initially, are intriguing pieces featuring Sam as a winged figure with a mane of golden curls who increasingly as the dreams progress comes to the rescue of a highly idealised woman. This situation grows enormous in scale to the point where Sam has to do battle with a monster that emerges from the very brickwork of the buildings around him. What a perfect evocation of the fantasies of an oppressed bureaucratic drone. We're reminded by them that Sam is far from the heroic figure he'd like to be. The finale, on a Gilliam-only scale, takes this to its logical conclusion and by that time we are ready to forgive Sam for being the cog in the machine that he was. Where he lands is both better and worse.

Terry Gilliam had arrived in auteur land.

Next ... the other ones....