Before becoming a cult filmmaker favorite with fans of steampunk, surreal and tonal dissonance, Minnesota-born naturalized Briton Terry Gilliam was best known as one-sixth of the Monty Python comedy troupe. He didn’t write the sketches, but he often appeared as their more grotesque characters such as Cardinal Fang in “The Spanish Inquisition” and the Jailer in Life of Brianas well as designing and animating all the iconic cartoons that separated the skits in the TV hit “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.
After several unsatisfying small-screen animation gigs, Gilliam finally began directing feature films alongside Terry Jones in 1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grailwhere he was largely responsible for the atmospheric look of the film and, to paraphrase one of his fellow Pythons, “making it feel like a real film”.
For four and a half decades, Terry Gilliam has maintained his highly distinctive aesthetic with retro-futurist elements to his science fiction, classical artistic influences to his fantasy and phantasmagorical ramblings throughout the rest, his tonal style leaning towards dark comics and his go-to anti-authoritarian themes. His boundless ambition and habit of packing his films with more interesting ideas than can comfortably fit on any given screen is why his films are always interesting, but many fail to land.
Gilliam’s projects often didn’t go well, from the production nightmare that it was Baron Munchausen causing unforgivable stress, injury and trauma to many of the cast and crew, including Heath Ledger who dies mid-shoot The imaginary of Doctor Parnassusto The man who killed Don Quixote famously taking a full thirty years to actually make.
Of his 13 feature films to date, where should you start this crazy odyssey? This is a recommended route into a unique artistic mind, probably accompanied by a rude animated guide (you’ll have to imagine that part). This is Where to start with Terry Gilliam.
1. Brazil (1985)
Brazil (1985): A cut above the rest
The tone is set by the first thing we see in Brazila TV spot with a man telling us “I want to talk to you about ducts”.
Terry Gilliam’s films never lack imagination, but he tends to have two speed settings: surrealist comedy and pitch-black dystopia. 12 monkeys, The zero theorem and above all this film (just one of many informal trilogies in his career) sits firmly in the latter camp.
We follow Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) a drone in a nightmarish fascist bureaucracy who unexpectedly receives a promotion at the mysterious information retrieval department. There, he inadvertently draws the attention of sinister government agents as he searches for a beautiful woman he sees in his dreams of him every night.
Brazil blurs the lines of reality from the start, our introduction to our protagonist features him soaring through the clouds looking like David Bowie dressed as a warrior angel. From then on it is in question how much of Sam’s story actually takes place and what is just his mind’s defense mechanism against acknowledging the awful things happening to him.
Gilliam’s influences, like those of Fritz Lang Metropolis and George Orwell’s ‘1984’ are clear, but unusually for a dystopian science fiction (besides the fact that is set at Christmas) it’s not so much about actually overthrowing tyrannical rulers as it is about the liberation of escaping them through your dreams. You have to think there is a real-world parallel to Gilliam’s artistic obstacles and battles with studio executives here.
The system is awful, but there’s little chance of overcoming it even with people like Robert DeNiro’s heater repair man turned revolutionary Harry Tuttle (who may or may not be real). This is a world where an incorrectly filed form can be a death sentence, and the families of political prisoners are forced to cover the costs of their own interrogation, or “information retrieval,” with a payment plan. Brazil it may be more comical than most cinematic dystopias, but it’s also darker and more hopeless in many ways.
Here Gilliam has even somehow managed to make Michael Palin, the notoriously kindest of the pythons, utterly terrifying as an affable torturer, and there’s plenty of pitch-black, verging on morbid humor amidst the over-the-top social commentary. satirical and the Art Deco staging charged with learning. -en-scene.
2. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen it’s Gilliam at his absolute battiest, his imagination firing on all cylinders. This shares much of the same DNA as Time Banditsboth being time-jumping road trips and loosely connecting fantasy vignettes starring actors and comedians (here including Eric Idle, Oliver Reed, and Robin Williams).
In Gilliam’s version of the oft-adapted tall tale, the titular adventurer (John Neville) tells his remarkable probably concocted story in a ruined theater as the years roll back around him, reality responding to his colorful words as he recounts many fantastic adventures with companions of extraordinary skill.
Many of Gilliam’s screenplays work on a dream logic, e Munchausen creates an inexplicably detailed and extravagant dream. The story, while enchanting in its own way can certainly be episodic in nature and goes on rather like any long rambling story told by a grandfather.
Such imaginative visions that are presented to us include a Georges Méliès-esque trip to the moon to meet its disembodied floating-headed king (Williams), a visit to Vulcan (Reed) and Venus (Uma Thurman), and an epic battle against the Ottoman Empire.
It can be said that it had a troubled production, because too often the tension of the performers and the joints between the segments of the story are seen, but that does not make it any less fascinating to experience. The admittedly impressive battle scene that serves as the film’s finale wasn’t the only reason, but it was the main cause of the film going disastrously over schedule and at least $10 million over budget.
Eric Idle pretty much summed up the experience for the audience than the project participants: “You never want to be in them. Go see them by any means, but to be in them, fucking madness!”
Even so, it’s so beautiful to behold, its Oscar-nominated production design (from the frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator Dante Ferretti), the vivid imagined worlds, the vastness, the still impressive effects and Gilliam’s characteristic sideshow designs, which contribute to making every frame exquisite.
3. The Fisher King (1991)
The Fisher King it is Terry Gilliam’s most thematically complex and emotionally compelling film, and arguably his most complete as well; a modern Arthurian legend with many surprises.
Tart but charming former late night DJ Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges, basically playing Howard Stern) becomes increasingly fascinated by seemingly mentally ill homeless man Parry (Robin Williams) and the fairytale quest he’s embarking on.
For the first twenty minutes of the film, the ex-Python’s normal feisty style is somewhat reduced, going for grounded and gritty New York drama. But, practically perfectly timed with the first appearance of Robin Williams, his Gilliam comes to the fore and the fantastic begins to filter through.
The director wouldn’t see his version of “Don Quixote” come to fruition for decades, so in the meantime he dealt with a contemporary analogue that replaced Cervantes’ errant knight with a tenuous grip on reality with a seriously down-on-his-luck modern man and an ailment undiagnosed personality.
Gilliam’s cinematic worlds are usually more overtly theatrical, fantastical, and over-the-top, but this feels like a real-world story seen through a magical realist lens. We genuinely feel for Parry and his trauma, and we also want to see Jack put his worst habits behind him, both men helping each other become more whole as people.
That said, the single images of a flaming red knight charging through a New York park in the middle of the night, and the jaw-dropping result which is the meticulously choreographed and hopelessly romantic waltz around Grand Central Station (stunningly shot in one night) , are reason enough to recommend the film almost alone.
Recommended for you: Where to start with Paul Verhoeven
Terry Gilliam has left a lot behind from his days as “the other” Python, but since moving behind the camera and unlocking the dark and mischievous recesses of his mind, he has made two dozen films without imperfect but undeniably unforgettable. If you’re intrigued after seeing all of the above and want to delve deeper, it’s an adventure worth pursuing; you are bound to be at least amusingly seduced.
#start #Terry #Gilliam #film #magazine