With The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus hitting the big screen soon, we thought it was only fitting to give Terry Gilliam a nod. Few other directors are willing to delve into such unchartered waters, with Gilliam throwing together directorial recipes of fairy tale -futuristic forays that can spell financial success or misfortune for studios. Add to the latter a heaping dose of History 101, and a bit of mad-cap British humor (even though he's not British) and you've got a man that's a bit of an engima in Hollywood.
It's hard to truly define a guy like Terry Gilliam, but whatever it is that makes this guy tick, we like it. It could be the maverick director that he is, pushing forward with projects that seem destined for disaster (see Lost in La Mancha), or just that his films are all really strange. But hey, we're always up for a challenge! The following is an attempt to put some of Gilliam's work into context, and pay homage to a pioneer of the film industry.
1. Social Commentary
Brazil (1985) A sign hangs over a desk that reads “Suspicion Breeds Confidence,” a statement that speaks volumes about Terry Gilliam's Orwellian take on the world. A reoccurring theme in Gilliam’s films is the idea that that the corporate world has a stranglehold on the fabric of society, and that it’s the quest of the “bungled and the botched,” to somehow change the order of things, frequently through the use of imagination. In many of Gilliam's films, insanity and imagination are an attempt to convey the true condition of the world, with the insane being the more rational of all the characters in his films. OK, sometimes they're not, Brad Pitt's character from Twelve Monkeys (1995) being a fairly good example.
Gilliam has always had a knack for mixing corporate greed, religion, and insanity, and presenting them in a way that is hilarious and thought-provoking. From the dwarves pirating away the monolithic skyscrapers that epitomize the greed of big business in The Meaning of Life (1983), to Parry's quest to steal the Holy Grail from a New York socialite in The Fisher King(1991), to God appearing in the form of a businessman in Time Bandits (1981), the idea that the corporate world is pulling the strings is near-constant thread in his films, with corporations and religion often going hand-in-hand.
Escaping reality is a common thread in all of Gilliam's films, and there is nothing wrong with taking a reality rain check. Even Hunter S. Thompson (or Raoul Duke), played by Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Vegas(1998), is in a way escaping realty through drug use. In many cases, there is some form of trauma Gilliam's characters are escaping from. In Time Bandits, Kevin (Craig Warnock) finds solace and adventure from his dull parents by running off with a bunch of crazy dwarves (or are they little people?). In kind, the dwarves themselves are running from God, who they have angered, although that was apparently God's plan all along. In The Fisher King, Parry (Robin Williams) blocks out his traumatic past by escaping into a world of Arthurian legend. At the same time, Jack (Jeff Bridges) is running from the very demon that caused Parry to flip out in the first place.
Escapism seems to be the springboard for Gilliam's forays into the über-imagination vibe that saturates his movies. After all, they need somewhere to escape to, right? Even in Twelve Monkeys, James Cole (Bruce Willis), opts for a trip back in history to escape doing time as a convict. Although the time Cole travels to is considerably less odd that the futuristic wasteland he leaves, he is still being transported out of his element, into a world that causes serious brain overload.
3. Pushing the Envelope
All of Terry Gilliam's films are out there, but Tideland (2005) is a real piece of work. There are those that loathe this film, and others that call it a masterpiece. No matter what side of the fence you choose to set up your tent, you can't deny it has some great scenes. Little Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland...oh, and she's wonderful, by the way), prepares daddy's heroin fix and then lives alone with him after he overdoses and dies. Yeah, it actually goes way beyond that, with some lady stuffing dead people... including daddy. While this movie is a tough sell for many, it has some brilliant acting and amazing cinematography.
Tideland is a great of example of Gilliam forcing his viewers to look beyond what they are accustomed to seeing, and what they are comfortable viewing. In fact, Gilliam insists we see his world, not a watered down version of his world that has been spliced together by studio execs. Perhaps that is why Terry is not the dandy of Hollywood, and why his films have been known to have problems with funding. With the subject content of Tideland, we're not sure how it saw the light of day, but we're happy it did. While some consider this film a flop for Gilliam, we see it as a super-weird piece of genius.
4. Surreal Worlds
There are times when it seems as though Gilliam's set ideas come from a lot of dumpster diving. Plastic bags for clothing, and odds and ends that could be disassembled washing machines, or leftover car parts making up completely unbelievable worlds. While many directors rely on an overabundance of CGI effects to paint their futuristic worlds, Terry Gilliam creates more stark, archaic surroundings to compose a portrait of the future that's not full of shiny, chrome cars, or supermodels wearing glittery clothes.
Gilliam's intent with the worlds he creates seems to show that nothing is ever quite right. From the apocalyptic feel of Twelve Monkeys, to the twisted, mind-scrabbling tale of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen(1988), and the completely messed up, tortured reality of Tideland, there is a manic feel to everything, a human circus, where much can be truly amazing, but at the same time completely out of synch.
Gilliam's acerbic and zany wit finds its origins in the annals of Monty Python, first as an animator and then as an actor, taking parts in a few select skits. Gilliam's humor was transferred to film when he began taking a prominent role as a writer and director, with his British wit in tow. Gilliam would go on to co-direct (with Terry Jones) Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975, and TheMeaning Life(again with Terry Jones, with Jones doing most of the directing) in 1983. After that, Gilliam's films would take on a more American flavor as time went on although his British roots would never completely disappear. Films like Brazil and The Fischer King began to touch on more issues that cast a light on problems effecting society such as the homeless and the role of corporate America in the everyday lives of individuals.
While his absurd humor would remain a staple of Terry's films, his funny side would begin to take a backseat to aforementioned topics such as insanity, religion, and corporate greed, themes that would become trademarks in his work. In fact, as Gilliam's movies have progressed, the humor in his films has digressed, and although it seems that Gilliam may be poking fun at many of society's ills, it's more likely his way of bringing such topics to the forefront.
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