Monday, December 20, 2010

Blind Spots 2: Terry Gilliam part 3

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I am possibly alone among my close friends in not having read a single book by Hunter S. Thompson. I've read articles by him but the idea of the books never appealed to me regardless of how gifted an observer I thought he was. The figure that emerged was one of high intelligence mixed with a Rabelaisian appetite for intoxicants who could make his accounts of the sidelines of history tower over its chief players. Who better than Terry Gilliam to bring that to the screen?

Better than Art Linson, I'd hope. Linson's Where the Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray in the lead was an embarrassing watch in the old Richmond Valhalla accompanied by some friends who'd come along at my insistence. It's a desparate mess designed as a celebration but coming across as conceived at a student bong sesssion and followed to the letter.

Gilliam's Fear and Loathing opens where the book does and uses its first lines narrated by a bald head  Johnny Depp. What follows for the remainder of the screen time is how a movie about Thompson really can be done. When Duke (taking Thompson's cartoonist-bestowed nom d'excess) freaks out in a Vegas bar, seeing the patrons as a group of oversized gillamonsters Gilliam just shows it. The film is episodic as it probably had to be but there is an arc there I didn't expect to see (is it from the pages?) and that is the neural avalanche that waits in threat over the heads of these bucaneers of benzadrine and booze. The last scenes in Vegas itself are murmur-perfect depictions of the sheer distance even staying awake too long can create between reality and one's perception. The charmlessness which with Benecio Del Toro extorts food from a diner waitress towards the end feels like experience rather than contrivance.

Gilliam spoke of this film as a kind of anger management exercise for both what had happened to his native USA while he was absent in Britain and his powerlessness to protest it. This should be true if it isn't as it explains why this film doesn't feel like a re-visitation, there's no nostalgic backslapping about these hijinks. It explains why the film feels necessary. Not my favourite of Gilliam's movies but a clear achievement, all the same.

The Brothers Grimm
This film was reputedly made as a bargaining gesture for finance from real money for his next film. This strategy has served Guillermo Del Toro very well to the extent that if you see a Del Toro film in Spanish it's probably a really good one (if in English probably a jobbing one). It's occured to me that Terry Gilliam might do this himself more often. Then again this is the result.

The idea is good. It's a kind of origins issue for the Grimms whose name has become synonymous with the collections of fairy tales they published. Here they are con men, touring the country conquering supernatural threats that they often create themselves, extorting a living from gullible villagers. The Napoleonic Wars are afoot which adds a little extra hazard to proceedings. From that point, after a few typically Gilliamesque setpieces the film plods so sluggishly that I gave up on it about half an hour in. If any readers of this blog want to make a case for it please leave a comment at the end of this post.

In a self-deprecating gesture typical of Gilliam he said of Tideland that the poster should bear the plea: It's great ... the second time. Maybe.

Now, I've told friends, relatives and potential life partners the same thing about my aesthetic tastes thus: "I warn you, I like a lot of boring movies". It's always a pleasanter way of saying that a lot of my favourite films, some of my cinematic best friends are difficult films. My all time favourite is Eraserhead. My favourite Godard movie is Two or Three Things I Know About Her which is one film a lot of Godard aficionadi don't know about his work.

It's not the obscurity (I have a loathing for affecting anything from its coolness value) it's really that films like this appeal to me. And when I say difficult I don't mean intellectually puzzling, I mean films that resist affection but yet were once sufficiently loved that they survived conception, gestation, birth and initial nuture only to be cast out or exposed to the unfeeling ignorance of their potential public. I'm not hunting ugly ducklings, it's really more like curiosity. Sometimes this is rewarding like staying up one night after my flatmates had all crawled off to sit through the gruelling Come and See and discovering my favourite war film. These curios and freaks of the screen, created away from the standards of the honest world always have the potential to offer vision. And when Terry Gilliam makes a film that promises to travel further out than even he has been I am there.

The premise is this: Jeliza Rose is a little girl whose rock star parents are terminal heroin addicts. After the death of her mother, her father takes her out to a family-owned farm house deep into agriculture territory. Then he dies and remains where he has died, upright in an armchair his decaying eyes masked by the sunglasses he would wear even at night. Jeliza Rose spends the rest of the film diving deep into her imagination and dealing with the taxidermising eyepatch wearing neighbours. Mostly, she retreats into wreckage, tunnels, burrows and hiding places, talking to the doll heads she wears on her fingertips, translating the ghastliness of her predicament into the setting of a brightly lit adventure.

It seems strange to call a film centred around a restlessly imaginative child grim but that's what Tideland is for the entirety of its screen time. While there is mercifully no cuteness to the natural performance by Jodelle Ferland there is also no charm as it is impossible to join her in her flight from the nightmarish reality of her parents' deaths. The neighbouring siblings offer little comfort, being wounded and damaged themselves and unable to offer more than a disturbingly cold sanctuary.

Tideland might well have joined luminous pieces like The Spirit of the Beehive or Raise Ravens with these ordeals facing child characters especially with Gilliam's championing of imagination and his obvious respect for the strengths of children. But the result is more akin to The Tin Drum or Phillip Ridley's tirelessly grim The Reflecting Skin.

Please note, I'm not saying that Tideland is a poor film even within the canon of its director. I can see no evidence in its frames that the unrelenting unease is anything but the result of deliberate design. Tideland knows it's difficult. For all I know it might live on as Gilliam's one true work of genius. It's certainly on its own in his oeuvre, bearing his trademarks but fashioned unlike any other piece in his collection. It doesn't feel like an experiment and terms like pretentious or indulgent don't apply to something so deliberate and precisely measured. It's not cold but it's not warm. Perhaps it's up to its viewers to brave it twice to see. So far I haven't been able to do so.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus
Dr Parnasus, a former monk in an order somewhere between Bhuddism and Dr Seuss won a bet with the devil that won him immortality. Later he bargained for youthfulness in order to marry a love at first sight with the cost of his first born on her 16th birthday. As this story gets under way he makes another bet for possession of the girl who is soon to turn the fateful age.

Dr Parnasus runs a weird old time sideshow in which the members of the public enter through a carny false mirror and into a realm imagined by Dr Parnasus where their own imaginations can thrive, creating and moving through anything they can conjure. One at a time. If there's two, the stronger imagination will dominate.

Into this situation comes a stranger so strange that he doesn't know his own name. They found him hanging from a rope under a bridge. The sideshow crew take him in and his own personability secures him a working passage in the show as a spruiker. He also has ideas of how to contemporise the show's approach which succeed. The convergence of the bet plot and the stranger's identity (including why he was hanged and why he had a means of escaping that fate without their help) gather a momentum we haven't seen in a Gilliam film for a long while.

I normally don't spend too much time describing plots but I think it's worthwhile here. Gilliam's stated aim was to create a work that wasn't sourced from elsewhere.  Apart from reminding me immediately of The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, Gilliam and co have done what they said they would. The problem is that between predictably stunning setpieces a lot of plot is allowed to be obscured by a busyness that creates confusion rather than counterpoint. By the third act the crises are clear and the final pursuit is cleanly drawn and unambiguous but there is so much in the first two acts that is left as mess on the floor.

Part of the reason for this has to be the tragedy that befell production in the death of Heath Ledger. Much of the mess I referred to was revealed as the carpet was pulled roughly from underneath the filmmakers' feet. Gilliam's response to this is a triumph that almost makes up for the crushing disappointments that plagued his unmade film The Man Who Shot Don Quixote (told in the excellent documentary Lost in La Mancha). He contacted three other A-list actors of Ledger's generation who counted themselves his friends and, with a little plot-point-establishing reshooting allowed for Ledger's character to have a different face when he goes through the mirror. In order, he is played or replayed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. This could have been disastrous but it works. Not only does it work but from the moment we know it's going to continue happening we sit up and follow even more closely. It feels as though it was intended from the word go and adds an bonus originality to proceedings.

Once again Gilliam works in the celebration of human invention and explores its shadows as well as the brilliance that creates them. While he has done better in this area he certainly acquits himself with such an impressive save. One thing that no commentator seems to mention about this film is also impressive. The London of Parnasus is divided into a kind of series of sets and backstage areas (where the show's caravan-hold goes to nurse its frequent wounds), the latter desolate in appearance but peaceful and revitalising, the clean face of the city, however, for all its renovated sheen, is a hell of shopping and drunkenness. It's as though the grossness and brutality of a Hogarth print had been recreated in modern dress. Gilliam shows this with uncharacteristic restraint and it is easily lost beside the spectacle. But it's there. Go and look.

Well, this was really only meant to be a brief single post about how hit and miss I thought this filmmaker's output was. As soon as I approached the end of the first one, I knew it wasn't going to be that simple. The more I thought about Gilliam's movies the less comfortable I felt about my judging them interesting failures. There's just too much real value in most of them to dismiss them so. I still can't say I like most of them but I'm unable to dispute that for all his quoting form cinema and art history, for all his operatic traditionalism, Terry Gilliam makes films that, with very very few exceptions, feel like he believed in them. The fact that he still has to struggle to make a new film which will burst with originality and people like Christopher Nolan who for some reason is still treated with the reverence of a marginal artiste (and yet comes out with massively self pleased bullshit like Inception) seem to float from one project to the next is a travesty. I'd ditch all of Nolan's work and that of Stephen Spielberg and James Cameron for one finished print of The Man Who Shot Don Quixote. And with that windmill tilt, I'll here end.

All the others in this series will be shorter ... promise....

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