Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Future Tense

By Chris Herrington

MAY 26, 1998:  The only American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Terry Gilliam’s post-Python directorial career has been marked by a unique, much-lauded visual style, but an only sporadically successful body of work. Gilliam has worked with different designers over the years, so he deserves the credit for the consistent (and consistently novel) look of his films. His is an ornate, retrofuturist vision – a dingy, crowded, thrift-store future collapsing under the weight of past waste. His bleak view of present and future is countered by a boyish fascination with a fairy-tale past of gallant knights conquering ferocious beasts, and in his latest film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he takes on another kind of beast, Hunter S. Thompson.

Any discussion of Gilliam must begin with 1985’s Brazil, one of the decade’s most controversial and most celebrated films. Essentially 1984 played as dark (pitch black) comedy, the film was an international phenomenon, but Universal refused to release it in the U.S. The studio’s unwillingness was ostensibly based on length concerns, but more likely because the suits feared the film’s uncompromisingly bleak outlook would be box-office death. After the Los Angeles Critics Association collectively snuck into a private screening and then named it the best film of 1985 even though it hadn’t been released, Universal succumbed to public pressure (or responded to an avalanche of free publicity) and released the film.

Brazil is a visual steamroller of a movie that is best on the first viewing, and when you don’t think about it too much. A masterpiece of production design, the film plops the viewer down in the middle of an unnamed totalitarian regime “somewhere in the 20th century” and never lets up. The breakneck pace of the film can be oppressive – the gags just keep coming with little sense of timing – but the reality of the world Brazil creates is never in doubt. This highly imaginative film is filled with memorable images, and a few great scenes. One scene where two worker drones have a (literal) tug of war over a desk they share through the wall of their adjacent offices is a classic, a bit of physical brilliance worthy of silent titans like Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. And the overall idea of treating totalitarianism as a big, horrible joke is dead-on. How could such a terror-filled, illogical world not be the blackest of jokes for a sane person forced to live in it?

But this isn’t a film of ideas so much as images. There is an absence of real politics in the film. The nature of the ruling regime and its opposition is so fuzzy that folks of almost any philosophical or political persuasion could embrace the film as their own. Brazil is less a cautionary tale than an attack on reality, with the Walter Mittyish protagonist (Jonathan Pryce) increasingly living a dream life that eventually subsumes the film. Nor is this a particularly emotional film. The viewer is not encouraged to feel much about the horrible things that happen to its characters. Like another dystopian cult fave, A Clockwork Orange, Brazil turns cruelty and tyranny into a visual feat. Ultimately, it is a gawk movie, more thought-out than thoughtful, its story a mere pretext for visual brio.

Terry Gilliam and a three-headed griffin.

Brazil was a career-maker for Gilliam sheerly based on its look, but it didn’t really establish much as a filmmaker. His visual reputation is built on the theatrical rather than the cinematic – production design, art direction, and costumes (and special effects) rather than direction, cinematography and editing. For all the fuss it inspired, is Brazil really a more visually stimulating film than, say, Hitchcock’s perfectly shot Notorious (to choose one of countless examples)?

Whatever Brazil’s problems, it’s smooth as silk compared to the relatively minor films that preceded and followed it. Both Gilliam’s 1981 debut, Time Bandits, and 1989’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are essentially a series of set pieces. In Time Bandits a young boy is swept up by a band of midget thieves who have the ability to time-travel. The film rushes breathlessly from one historical era/figure to another – Napoleon, Robin Hood, the Titanic – without doing much with any of them or making much of a connection.

Baron Munchausen is based on an actual 18th-century military figure who embellished his life so much that books were written, while he still lived, about his tall tales. Gilliam constructs a flimsy plot that lets him bounce from one special-effects-laden retelling of one of the Baron’s stories to another. The Baron meets the man in the moon, gets swallowed by a huge sea monster, hangs out with Vulcun and Venus inside of a volcano. Like Time Bandits, each of these individual components is interesting to look at, but they don’t amount to much and don’t flow together. Time Bandits has a certain neat-o quality that would probably appeal to kids (indeed, I was only 7 when I originally saw it in theatres, and loved it), but The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is an interminable bore. One note of interest is that the Baron’s 10-year-old companion, Sally, is played by Sarah Polley, who has gone on to do outstanding work the in Atom Egoyan films Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter.

After the debacle of Baron, Gilliam turned to (slightly) more standard Hollywood fare. In The Fisher King (1991) and 12 Monkeys (1996) the visual style and motifs established in his Eighties’ films remained, but were toned down. He began to use A-list Hollywood stars (Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt) and the films had happy endings, whether appropriate (The Fisher King) or not (12 Monkeys). He also became a better filmmaker.

The Fisher King flows together like narrative movies should. A small thing for a Hollywood picture, perhaps, but a big step for Gilliam. Unfortunately, it’s weighted down by a rather maudlin (and typical) story about masculine redemption. Both Jack (Bridges) and Parry (Williams) are emasculated early in the film when a man opens fire in a crowded nightclub, killing several people. Jack is a disc jockey who unwittingly set the maniac off, and Parry loses his wife in the slaughter. This event sends both successful men into respective spirals of poverty, depression, alcoholism, homelessness, and insanity. Echoing the decade’s burgeoning men’s movement, The Fisher King is the story of how Jack and Parry regain their manhood through male bonding, drawing on Gilliam’s past fascination with fantasy and fairy tales to give them a literal and metaphorical hero’s quest, replete with a Holy Grail and a fire-breathing dragon. At one point they even assert themselves by getting naked in Central Park and howling at the moon. Robert Bly must have been proud. All of this is tempered only slightly by the fact that the film’s two strongest performances come from its women – Mercedes Ruehl (who won an Oscar) and Amanda Plummer – in “love interest” roles.

If The Fisher King reworked the fairy-tale concerns of Time Bandits and Baron Munchausen, then 12 Monkeys was a return to the retrofuturist visions of Brazil. But instead of conjuring a dreadful Clockwork Orange future such as the one in Brazil, 12 Monkeys seems more in the tradition of the intellectually coherent, emotionally affecting Blade Runner. Where his earlier films drew on either standard mythic/fairy tale contrivances or the collective unconscious that is 1984, 12 Monkeys draws on more fruitful, less obvious source material. It is “inspired” by Chris Marker’s simply brilliant 1964 French short film, La Jetee. A vision of the future reflecting back on the past, La Jetee was a series of beautifully composed black-and-white photographs with narration that told the story of a planet decimated by plague and a man from the future sent back to the past to try and stop it. There is a time-travel paradox at work here similar to the one that made the original Terminator such an indelible action flick, and suffice it to say that the man from the future may have seen the end of the story all along. La Jetee may be the finest visual approximation of memory ever conceived.

12 Monkeys, which tells the same basic story with many embellishments, doesn’t duplicate La Jetee’s formal beauty, of course (imagine trying to get what basically amounts to a feature-length black-and-white slide-show into the multiplex), but it captures much of that great film’s tone. It lingers obsessively, almost lovingly, over the same crucial event. It wasn’t as ambitious as Brazil (what is?), but 12 Monkeys was a deeper, truer, and ultimately more successful film. Perhaps, for Gilliam, the best is yet to come.

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