Saturday, December 18, 2010

Blind Spots 2: Terry Gilliam part 2

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
I first saw this decades after its release, having heard both favourable and annoyed reactions from friends. I don't know why I made no effort to see it as Gilliam is one of those directors whose every film is worth seeing once. Even the poorer ones have qualities rare in the field. In fact, as I used to say of the Cohens that I liked every other film, I have said of Terry Gilliam that even his failures compel. That said, the best I can say of Munchausen is that, for me, it's consistently ok.

And yet it's all there: the gigantism, the visual splendour, the sly humour and Pythonesque absurdism and a cheeky approach to history. Even the framing device of the film is smooth: the titular Baron walks into a theatrical production lampooning his massive fibs and demands the audience hear the "real" story. From that point, accompanied by a kid whose cuteness is never allowed to push ahead of her role in the tale, we see splendid recreations of past heroics and are taken along an incredible journey to present and future ones. Sounds great. So why did I take a week to get through it?

As I wrote, it's all there, all the Gilliam goodness, the scale, spectacle and imagination but too much of it feels mechanical to me rather than natural. All the colour and pyrotechnics on show could not warm this up for me. I know it has its fans and almost all of them of my acquaintance are significantly younger than I am. Maybe that's it. Maybe I saw it too old to forgive it.

The Fisher King
Like Munchausen, it took a long time for me to catch up to the Fisher King. It barely registered on my radar at the time of its release. I don't know exactly why this should be so apart from whatever was happening at the time that kept me from the cinema. I know Wild at Heart came out at that time which I swooned over (don't now, though) and Total Recall which a lot of my friends were swooning over and of which I thought but little. But I'm sorry I didn't make a point of seeing The Fisher King at the cinema as it's so enjoyable.

It's theme is rise and fall, riches to rags and the real treasures that penury can force sight of. Jeff Bridges is a talk radio king until he makes such a grievous false step that he implodes into depression. His redemption comes in the form of a mercifully controlled Robin Williams, a hard-knocks dizzied bum obsessed with a nerdy but unattainable woman. The once and never again king of the airwaves is forced to be selfless if he is to save himself.

One of the really impressive features of this film is Gilliam's own self restraint. Because he keeps the focus on the troubled relationships that drive the film the greater setpieces (the dizzying transformation of the railway station into an old time dance venue) feel less like momentous jokes than moving spectacles. Also, tellingly, this Gilliam film features the most present and fully drawn women out of all of them. Everyone needs to be on this stage and everyone is given depth. I can't help feeling that it was Gilliam's self reflection driving this. The man spent his career trying to grow bigger and bigger while struggling to finish everything he started only to find the depth he pursued by relatively simple means.

Twelve Monkeys
 I saw this on a date. It was going well. My companion and I were really looking forward to the new Terry Gilliam movie about post-apocalyptic time travel. We were whispering along merrily through the ads 'n' trailers and I took delighted delivery of a fantale proffered by her fair hand. Two chews in I stopped mid sentence. There was a chunk of railway girder in the caramel. A molar had found it and given me the ugliest sensation I was to have that night, the feeling of having bitten down on metal. As potential dental emergency outranked dignity I pushed two fingers into my mouth and pulled out the mutant candy which was ugly enough by itself but made nauseatingly ugly by the sight of my molar filling lodged in it, like a shiny stone set into the ugliest engagement ring in history. By some miracle my date was searching through her handbag at that point (and the lights had gone down for the trailers, anyway) and she either didn't see or was busy unseeing it. I wrapped the hideous foundling in fantale paper and pocketed it for the dentist, suddenly feeling a great windblown icy waste in my mouth. Then Twelve Monkeys started.

James Cole, a convict in an underground post-apoclayptic technocracy volunteers to be sent back to a pre-cataclysmic time to gather information on immunity from the disease that has laid waste the world's population (well, most of it). Arriving back in the 1990s a few years before the big bad he is cripplingly ill equipped to deal with life in the past. So he's thrown into the loony bin and makes it worse for himself when he tries to explain his mission. Here he meets two characters who will have a major impact on his progress: a beautiful young female psychiatrist who screams love interest the moment you see her and a whacked out frenetic young male fellow inmate of the hospital. Can he prevent the apocalypse?

It's easy to forget these years later but the casting of the two male leads was significant then. Bruce Willis had taken the king's shilling after a much loved quirky start on tv as co-lead in Moonlighting and established himself as the kind of wisecracking action hero that plagued the screens of the late 80s and 90s. But from the mid-90s he started widening his scope with a deeper role in Pulp Fiction and deeper still in Twelve Monkeys. Going from the grimacing oafish sexbomb of the Die Hards and whatever other ammunition-budget-led extravaganzas to this performance which is, end to end, a man ruled by a grievous sadness and plagued by constant confusion and powerlessness, Willis managed to convince audiences that he could be the direct inverse of what had brought him fame. Now he picks and chooses.

Brad Pitt had been cruising between southern primitives and wispy roles that required him to do little more than aid the lighting design. His explosive mania as Goines engenders a constant edgy laughter when he's on screen. He didn't just break type by being funny he found a kind of danger in a lightless corner well beyond the hound dawgs could ever offer. This is overacting at its finest. That's not a slur. Goines needs to be weirder than life and if you've ever been stopped for directions to god on the street or taken the wrong taxi you know how some of the citizenry love to overact. His performance is exact and exactly to the opposite casting effect of Robin Williams in The Fisher King and the result was a revelation.

Notice here that all this while I've made no mention at all of the pyrotechnics or scale of this film from this scale-happy pyrotechnic artist but I have written about the cast. That's because this film more than any other apart from The Fisher King in Gilliam's output, he puts the wow beneath the woah! This story of loss and regret on a global scale (the world had recently received a mighty scare about the ebola virus) that plummeted back down to the personal level seems to ignite the nervous systems of its players. This is the most strongly human story in Gilliam's canon and the one I still relate to the most.

If you haven't seen Twelve Monkeys yet might I recommend you locate and view its avowed inspiration La Jetee? Chris Marker's film of a time traveller on a mission is told mostly in black and white stills with narration. It's a brief masterpiece. Gilliam's take on the story of La Jetee is neither a remake nor ripoff but more of a theme with variations taken to a symphonic scale.

My own sense of tragedy found a sympathetic moment on screen as Bruce Willis extracts one his own teeth in a gruelling scene. As the icy aircon darted into the small abyss of my molar I felt both vindicated and righteous.

Next ... the last few.

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