6
Jun
2010
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Terry Gilliam
Jordan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"Maybe I'm just trying to explain my reality and life and imagination and myself." -Terry Gilliam, 2006.

Considering the work of one director as a whole, it's easy to see continuing themes, outlooks, technical achievements, and even ongoing collaborations with similar individuals. What is clear when viewing the films of a director that aspires to auteurism (or, just as often, in the films of a director who is an auteur whether or not he would admit it) is that something drives his or her work and makes them return again and again to similarities that can grow to define their aesthetic. Yet what drives a director to make a particular film may say more about his role as the true author behind it. In earlier installments of this column, I have examined the what of my selected auteurs"”the recurring aspects of their filmmaking that tie their career together and make any one of their films belong definitively to them over someone else. For this installment, I would like to turn my attention over to the why and look at how the life and experiences of Terry Gilliam have driven his films.

Gilliam was born in America, but moved to England in the 1960's and has barely looked back since (he renounced his U.S. Citizenship officially in 2006). While much of the fantasy of his work can be traced to his whimsy as part of the Monty Python comedy troupe (and prior to that as a cartoonist for Help! Magazine), the aspect of his life that I think has come to most define his work is his experience with Hollywood. Looking at his films, and at the struggles he had making them, provide a great insight into what drives Gilliam's work, and gives added relevance to his persistent examination of the struggle between unbridled imagination and the often bureaucratic or ambivalent society that rejects whimsy.

In Time Bandits, one of his early movies and the first in his self-proclaimed "Trilogy of Imagination" (which continues through Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, films we'll get to in due course), imagination wins outright against the imposing force of technology and modern society. Kevin (Craig Warnock), the film's young protagonist, is an imaginative history buff who is ignored by his technology and status obsessed parents. He rebels against their way of life by escaping with a cabal of dwarves who have utilized their quick wits and cunning to steal a map of space and time that allows them to travel throughout history and steal treasure. Throughout their adventure, it is this spark of imagination that gives them the edge over Evil, who wants to use the map to destroy the universe. When the film reaches its deus ex machina (a character referred to as The Supreme Being appears to save the day), the movie's stand-in for God (Ralph Richardson) does not grow angry with the dwarves, but rather seems amused at the cleverness of their scheme. In fact, the film goes further, into the realm of wish-fulfillment, when Kevin's parents are literally destroyed by their obsession with new technology over imagination, yet he remains triumphant.



This reading of the film fits with the relative freedom Gilliam had while making it. The movie was made on a modest budget, and was both a critical and a commercial success. Throughout production, there was limited studio interference (this being a movie with a smaller budget) and Gilliam was allowed to make the movie he envisioned. As a result, the movie serves as a celebration of imagination, and allows for the imaginative to triumph over the more creatively stunted throughout the story.

Gilliam's next film, Brazil, would expose him to the ugly side of Hollywood he has spent much of the rest of his career rebelling against. This time around, Gilliam was working with a budget around three times as large, and was thus subject to more potential studio interference. The production became so stressful that at one point Gilliam lost the use of his legs for a week. The film reflects this tension between creativity and a seemingly nonsensical bureaucracy kept together only by a strict adherence to its absurd rules as it tells the story of Sam (Jonathan Pryce) a mid-level bureaucrat and day dreamer who gets drawn into the dangerous side of totalitarianism by his efforts to correct a machine error that lead to the arrest and murder of an innocent man. Sam dreams of flying, of fighting a giant samurai made of machine parts, and of winning the love of his dream woman Jill (Kim Greist), but his real life never lives up to the fantasy.



At the end of the film (if you haven't already figured this out by the beginning of that sentence, spoilers lie ahead) Sam is apprehended by the government for his role in a probably nonexistent conspiracy surrounding renegade air-conditioning specialist Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro, whose name seems to be coming up a lot in this column) and taken in to be tortured by his old friend Jack Lint (Michael Palin). Lint uses the standard excuse for amoral actions provided throughout the film, and by figures like former Nazis in the real world: "I'm just doing my job." In one last fantasy, Sam escapes the torture, helps to destroy the Ministry of Information building, and escapes the fascist nightmare with Jill, to live happily ever after. As the two drive into the sunset, the shot cuts to reveal Sam still sitting in the torture chamber, dead eyed and smiling, humming the titular song as he survives his torment only through escape into his imagination.



It is fitting that the studio system that created Gilliam's anger expressed in the ending of Brazil also tried to censor that ending. Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg dramatically re-cut the film into a version popularly known as Love Conquers All, which not only removed the ending (so that the film actually ended with the destruction of the Ministry and with Sam and Jill's daring, and incredibly unlikely, escape) but also excised a large portion of the fantasy sequences that revealed Sam to be a dreamer trapped in a world that won't let him dream. Through the use of a very clever campaign to turn the public in his favor (including taking out an ad in Variety that read, "Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film, Brazil? Signed: Terry Gilliam.") he managed to secure the release of the movie the way he wanted it, but he was forever soured on Hollywood by the experience.

His struggle with Hollywood did not end there, however. As he embarked on making his next film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he was plagued with production problems from the start. After allegedly being promised a budget of $35 million (far greater than the budgets of either of his last two movies) he was given only $23 million. He was also stuck with a producer who insisted on filming in Italy instead of London, which lead to production delays and the film going over budget. By the time it was finally completed, David Puttnam, the Columbia CEO who greenlit the project, had been fired and replaced by Dawn Steel who, according to Gilliam, did not want any of the films made by the previous regime to succeed. As a result, Munchausen was barely released in theaters and became a giant commercial flop.

The story centers on the aging adventurer Baron Munchausen (John Neville) determining to embark on one last quest before succumbing to death. The Baron travels all the way to the moon, beneath the earth's crust, to the bottom of the ocean in his attempts to save a city under siege. The Baron is, at heart, a storyteller, relating tales of his exploits to an audience who came to see a play based on them in the frame that opens and closes the film. The frame takes place during "The Age of Reason" (as a title card at the opening informs us), but this distinction is played as farce from the first. The city is under attack and chaos seems a more apt description of the times than reason. The play detailing The Baron's exploits is shown to be a high budget extravaganza, handled poorly by a frantic director and cast. The real Munchausen enters angrily and puts a stop to the show in order to tell a story that he believes relates his life more accurately. His version is simply spoken, without all of the bravura special effects of the bigger production, and the audience is quickly bored and shuns him.



Gilliam must have felt similarly at the time, as he attempted to dazzle his audiences with wildly imaginative stories, only to have the studio try to silence him and cut off his vision. Just like Kevin stood in for Gilliam's clever use of imagination in Time Bandits and Sam expressed his disillusionment with the system in Brazil, Baron Munchausen reveals a Gilliam that has been beaten back by a world that ignores his creative visions in favor of large scale spectacles and that fails to value the unique skill set he brings to the table.

Considering Gilliam's disillusionment and his growing reputation as an outsider apt to make impractical flights of fancy, it is no wonder that the next Gilliam stand in, Parry (Robin Williams) in The Fisher King is a homeless man the world views as insane. Parry had slipped into a catatonic state following the death of his wife, and emerged with a single-minded obsession"”to defeat the Red Knight and find the Holy Grail. In the view of his work I am forwarding, the commercial failure of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen can be read as analogous to the death of Parry's wife, and that the film centers on Parry's quest as a form of redemption for cynical shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) can be seen as Gilliam telling Hollywood that if given a chance he could save them from their sins.

The key scene in the film occurs when Parry meets Lydia (Amanda Plummer) and is immediately convinced she is his great love. He sees her from across Grand Central Station, and reality melts away as the two of them are swept up into a giant waltz through the main terminal. This scene was not originally in the script (which was written by Richard LaGravenese), and Gilliam was hesitant to include it for fear that it would make the movie, "a Terry Gilliam film." As the mundanely dressed business people who are trapped by the boredom of their daily lives are swept up into a grand, whimsical waltz through the train station, there is no doubt that Gilliam's presence is felt, nor that he is openly expressing the redemptive power of imagination.



It is almost too perfect that when the oft beleaguered Gilliam"”who so often tells stories about one individual's struggle against a society that rejects his imaginative world view"”undertook to tell the story of Don Quixote (in a film to be called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) the production was felled by one disaster after another. As recounted in the excellent documentary Lost in La Mancha, Gilliam's incredibly ambitious project (which he managed to finance on a budget of $32 million collected entirely outside of Hollywood) fell apart when the production was beset by noise pollution from overflying military jets, a flash flood that destroyed some of the locations, and, in a blow that meant death to the project, Jean Rochefort, the actor cast as Don Quixote (who had learned English for the role) was diagnosed with a herniated disk, and was thus unavailable to continue shooting. Production was shut down on the movie, and Gilliam has spent the years since attempting to jump start the project again (its current incarnation, starring Robert Duvall as Quixote and Ewan McGregor stepping into a role originally intended for Johnny Depp, is set to start production soon).



I dedicated myself when I sat down to write this column to making this installment shorter than the last two, and in that respect I have failed. Yet before I wrap this up I feel it is essential to discuss Gilliam's latest film, which continues to express his frustration with the way his films are received by both Hollywood and the general public. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus centers on the aging showman of the title (Christopher Plummer) who travels in a ramshackle carriage around modern London, trying to entice modern day consumers to pay a small price to enjoy his simply, homegrown show. Parnassus is shunned by society, constantly laughed at, ridiculed, and attacked by the general public, yet all he wants is to tell a great story and excite the imagination. In fact, Parnassus is engaged in an endless struggle with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), the incarnation of Satan who believes he can collect more souls by tempting base desires than Parnassus can with the power of his story. As Gilliam even admits, "Its autobiographical. I'm trying to bring a bit of fantasticality to London, an antidote to modern lives. I loved this idea of an ancient travelling show offering the kind of storytelling and wonder that we used to get, to people who are just into shoot-em-up action films." Gilliam sees himself in Parnassus, an aging showman with a vivid imagination in a world that doesn't want to hear his stories anymore.



It is not difficult to realize the recurrent themes of the individual versus an oppressive society, or the struggle between creativity and the bureaucracies of an ambivalent world throughout the films of Terry Gilliam. Yet an understanding of the deep personal reasons that these themes exist, and persist throughout his work leads inexorably to the conclusion that the films of Terry Gilliam belong to him and no one else. More than any director I have yet covered in this space, Gilliam lets his personal life and the struggles he faces in it bleed onto the screen and permeate even those of his films that are only tangentially related to his recurrent themes. When you sit down to watch a Terry Gilliam film, you can expect to be taken on the kind of ride that can only be produced by a brilliant imagination, but you can also identify the pain that goes along with championing that creativity in a world that often rewards mediocrity and struggles to keep this unique talent suppressed. Fortunately for him, for his characters, and for his audience (when they will listen) no force can keep down the imagination of Terry Gilliam.



Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

6/20: David Mamet

7/4: Paul Thomas Anderson

7/18: Fritz Lang

8/1: Charlie Kaufman
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