Sunday, December 7, 2014

One Trick Python

About a decade ago, when I loaded my DVD player with the Criterion edition of Marcel Carne's classic film The Children of Paradise, I was surprised to see that it was introduced by Terry Gilliam. I know Gilliam's work well, ever since Monty Python, but I wondered what on earth Criterion thought would qualify him to introduce a French film from 1945. The introduction itself is innocuous enough (only five minutes long), and at least Gilliam doesn't try to misrepresent the film. But then it hit me. Gilliam spoke about how the film is "poetic" and "like a dream" and how it depicts a world that never existed and how that kind of filmmaking is banished from today's cinemas. "Watching it," he says, "I'm amazed at how much I've stolen from it." Gilliam was chosen, apparently, because he makes the same kind of film of which The Children of Paradise is an optimum example.

Gilliam is what I would call a "one hit wonder." In the music industry, the term refers to a band or a singer that enjoys one unprecedented commercial success, only to sink back into obscurity for the remainder of their career. Gilliam has, in fact, enjoyed intermittent success throughout his forty year career as a filmmaker, but he has always seemed to me to be making the same film over and over again.

He was "the American" member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, contributing small, intermittently funny, animated films to their shows on the BBC. When the show went off the air in 1977, Gilliam persuaded Michael Palin to play the lead in his first feature film, Jabberwocky, which, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which he co-directed with Terry Jones) presented a refreshingly inconoclastic view of medieval England, along with an insistent fascination with scatology. In one scene, Dennis (Palin) woos Griselda whilst his prospective father-in-law is defecating loudly into the river from a nearby window. If Gilliam's intention was to show the dirty, smelly underside of our fantasies of Camelot, he succeeded to a fault.

But the film that really got Gilliam going was Time Bandits, about a boy whose overactive imagination launches him into real adventures with historical figures like Napoleon (Ian Holm) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery), accompanied by a band of annoying dwarves. For some reason, dwarves appear again and again in Gilliam's films, along with an overriding theme: that dreams and fantasies are more real and more important and that altered states of consciousness are more conducive to living happily and healthily than living soberly and sensibly in the factual universe.

This is certainly a valid jumping off point for an artist - as long as his fantasies have a beauty and logic all their own. For example, H.G. Wells wrote a beautiful story called "The Door in the Wall," about a man who confesses to an old friend that he is haunted by an experience from his childhood in which he got lost in the streets of London and went through a green door in a white wall. Once inside, he found himself in a fantastical garden, with tame leopards and a beautiful woman who sat him down and showed him the pages of a book that were alive and that told the story of his finding the door in the wall and what he found inside. But when he insisted that the woman show him the last page he suddenly found himself back outside on the street. All through the rest of his life, he tries to find that white wall and green door. And he catches sight of it at various moments, but he never stops to explore it further, and regrets it all his life.(1)

Gilliam seems to have found his door in the wall and has taken up residence there. He has set himself up as The Doorman in the Wall. But the manner in which Gilliam chooses to show us his private garden with its babbling madmen, smart ass dwarfs and animatronic monsters is feeble and - by now - grown hopelessly repetitive. Brazil, 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, all put forward the very same thesis and are all wheezily representative of Gilliam's penchant for repeating himself. Worse, most of them are contaminated by his bizarre obsessions with little people and lunatics.

I thought that Brazil, which so many have called "Orwellian," was fumbling in conception and execution. The famous story of the producer's reluctance to release the film and Gilliam taking out a full-page ad in Variety exhorting him to release it is justly famous and just another sad illustration of filmmakers' subjection to the whims of the "suits."

I found The Fisher King insufferable, with characters either contemptible or pitiable. I would've walked out on it if I hadn't been in the theater with friends. Jeff Bridges' character was such an asshole that his redemption was an altogether moot problem for me. And casting Robin Williams as someone unhinged was simply asking for trouble. Gilliam's "message" - that we all need to question our standards of sanity and commit acts of misbehavior, like going nude in Central Park (at night, of course) - is simply preposterous.

12 Monkeys was supposedly inspired by Chris Marker's short sci-fi film Ja Jetee. If Marker's film, made up entirely of still photos, was bad enough, Gilliam's extension of its ideas seemed immeasurably worse. Trying to blur the lines between sanity and insanity - even in the context of a work of art (which 12 Monkeys assuredly is not) is an enormous mistake. Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest played the same stupid card - that our looney bins are populated with the wrong people. Playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator is fine if you're Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwan. This was the same problem with so much of Brazil - trying to figure out what is real and what is delusional fantasy. And when you can't decide who is crazy and who is sane, you end up thinking that no one is entirely in charge of his senses.

On the day I saw The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, I won a big jackpot in a Reno casino. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. The character Baron Munchhausen was a legendary liar, despite Gilliam's attempt to transform him into a great truth-teller. The significance of the character derives from the curious extent to which people were prepared to believe in his lies. I could say almost as much of Gilliam. 

I didn't see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, simply because it was one of many films that make it conveniently unnecessary to see. I disliked it in advance.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was the last film of Heath Ledger, who died before all his scenes were finished shooting. Ledger's death left Gilliam's film in limbo, but with so much money and time already expended on the project, Gilliam decided to finish it with other actors standing in for Ledger, as a kind of tribute to him. Bunuel did kind of the same thing in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. When the actress who played Conchita quit, or was otherwise indisposed, Bunuel suggested to his producer that, instead of reshooting the film with another actress (which wasn't feasible), they should simply finish the film with a second actress without explanation. Critics concluded that the surrealist Bunuel was having yet another joke on them.

If Gilliam's Parnassus weren't such a mess - with several different planes of time and place being hopelessly (or purposely) jumbled - his tribute to Ledger would've been endearing. Instead, it comes off as desperate and opportunistic. I'm not sure what role the film's insurers played in the completion of the film, but I think Gilliam should've shelved the project, as he did later when another leading actor was physically unable to continue.     

The Brothers Grimm was, we're told, taken away from Gilliam and finished without his approval. I may sound naive, but artistic control is something that every director should have, and the fact that, even after more than thirty years as a filmmaker, Gilliam isn't afforded approval of the final cut simply demonstrates how much power the money men still wield. While some of the CGI effects in The Brothers Grimm are interesting, the portrayal of the brothers as traveling charlatans ridding people of fake witches and goblins, only to see them confronted with a genuine witch (played by a bewitching Monica Bellucci) is sheer nonsense.

I am probably one of the few people who was glad that Gilliam's production of Don Quixote was brought to an end by the accidental incapacitating injury of Jean Rochefort, the marvelous actor whom Gilliam had cast as the Don. I'm happy that Rochefort's injuries weren't permanent, but I'm also pleased that the project was permanently shelved. Given Gilliam's proclivities, I seriously doubt that his interpretation of Cervantes's picaresque novel would've contributed anything new. The latest news, however, indicates that a new production of Gilliam's script may be in development.(2)

Gilliam, now 74, is still working. I suppose it's a good thing that he hasn't grown so accustomed to the luxe lifestyle of a successful filmmaker that he succumbed to the apparently overwhelming temptation to sell out and direct X-Men or Avengers sequelae. I just wish he would stop insisting that I'd be happier if only I ignored science and spent all my time searching for the secret door that leads me into my own fateful fantasy world.

(1) At the end of Wells's tale, the man who relates the story of the door in the wall falls to his death when he mistakes a door cut in some white hoardings hiding a railway shaft for the entryway to his secret garden.  
(2) Literary scholars and critics have been telling us for decades that we are probably wrong to see the old Don as a romantic or pathetic figure. It is probable that Cervantes wanted us to laugh at his depiction of the delusional misadventures of an old fart.

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