Director Retrospective: Terry Gilliam

Director Retrospective: Terry Gilliam

Last time, I took a look at the filmography of Tim Burton — whose unique visual style results in films that are often instantly recognizable.  Continuing this thread, I thought it would be fun to pair Burton with another director with a truly unique visual aesthetic.  However, if Burton’s visuals are (typically) vividly dream-like, then this director’s work strikes me as more nightmarish and discomforting in its peculiar stylization.  I’m talking about Terry Gilliam.

The Big List

I’ve seen all 12 films that Terry Gilliam has directed so far.

Here’s the list:  Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975); Jabberwocky (1977); Time Bandits (1981); Brazil (1985); The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988); The Fisher King (1991); Twelve Monkeys (1995); Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998); The Brothers Grimm (2005); Tideland (2005); The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009); The Zero Theorem (2013).

The Top 5

In my humble opinion, here are Terry Gilliam’s top five movies (from #1-#5, with a little note about each one)…

“Brazil” (1985), directed by Terry Gilliam

Brazil (1985) – Despite the fact that he (allegedly) never read George Orwell’s 1984, Terry Gilliam’s seminal and most fascinating work, Brazil, reads like a hallucinatory, horrifying, spiritual companion-piece (of sorts) to Orwell’s dystopian literary classic.  Featuring absolutely stunning visuals — seriously, this movie has several shots that you’d want to just frame and put on your wall — the plot follows Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce in the best role of his career, though some might know him better from his recent turn on Game of Thrones) as he struggles with life and work in a near-future, oppressively bureaucratic society while dreaming of escaping the narrow confines of his occupational obligations and cultural expectations.  There’s some stuff about love.  There’s some stuff about political resistance (particularly seen in a fun performance by Robert De Niro as a plumber / terrorist…yep).  But at the end of the day, it’s the story of a person trying, against all odds, to transform into what they want to be.  There’s a great cast here in addition to Pryce and De Niro, with Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Kim Geist, etc. all making contributions.  It’s partially written by Tom Stoppard, so you get the absurdity that you’d probably expect there.  (And the controversy surrounding the making of this film — where Gilliam publicly feuded with the studio execs to get the film released — is nearly as interesting as the movie itself.  FYI:  This is one of those movies where there’s a “happy-ending” version and a “not-so-happy-ending” version, if you’ve got a preference there.)  It’s not necessarily Gilliam’s most immediately accessible work, nor is it necessarily his most well-known among casual moviegoers, but it’s far-and-away his best film in my opinion.  We’re in legitimate “cinematic masterpiece” territory with this one.

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), directed by Terry Gilliam

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – Try having a conversation about Gilliam’s canon without talking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yeah…good luck with that.  Easily one of the most — maybe THE most — quotable films of all time and a true comedy classic, it’s easy to forget this was made on a shoestring budget, and I think that I remember hearing that much of the plot, dialogue, characterization, etc. was being created and revised during shooting.  I won’t try to summarize the story here because there’s no real point — it’s better just to (re)watch the film and see for yourself.  Great (multiple) performances from John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam himself; and everyone has their favorite scene/gag — whether it be the absurd duel with the Black Knight, an encounter with an obnoxious French sentry, a search for proper shrubbery, a witch trial using the scientific method, or what have you.  Interestingly enough, despite being Gilliam’s most famous and far-reaching film, it’s also the least like the others in his oeuvre in terms of look or feel.  (This is perhaps because of the aforementioned improvisational elements or that he was co-directing this with Terry Jones, with whom he had significant differences in terms of filmmaking style.)  Anyway…make a point to watch it sometime soon and laugh; it’ll help you (momentarily) forget how terrible everything is in the world.

“Twelve Monkeys” (1995), directed by Terry Gilliam

Twelve Monkeys (1995) – Similar to Gilliam’s other dystopian work (i.e. the earlier Brazil and the later The Zero Theorem), Twelve Monkeys tells the story of a man — in this case, Bruce Willis in one of the better performances of his career as a convict — tasked with saving the world against overwhelming odds.  However, while Brazil focuses on the weight felt by those living under a repressive regime, while The Zero Theorem explores the meaning of life in a universe where everything amounts to nothing (or vice-versa?), Twelve Monkeys uses the science-fiction trope of time-travel and confronts the threat of annihilation at the hands of weaponized science (in this case, a deadly virus).  This film differs from Gilliam’s other sci-fi efforts in its more overt use of mystery and noir-like moves — i.e. as an audience, we’re trying to piece together the puzzle along with our protagonist.  (Apparently, this film was inspired by the 1960s French film La Jetee, which I’ve not seen but which also features time-travel and a unique form of mostly still-photographs.)  Along with Willis’s portrayal, there are several solid supporting performances — notably from Madeline Stowe, Brad Pitt, and David Morse.  Gilliam’s vision of the future is dark and dirty; his vision of a present (that Cole returns to) is cold and unwelcoming.  These visual cues, along with the ending (which I won’t spoil here), make me feel like this is perhaps Gilliam’s most pessimistic vision of humanity and the mistakes that we’re destined to repeat again and again.  Think:  a mix of Duncan Jones’s Source Code and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion with a dash of (a disoriented) Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), directed by Terry Gilliam

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – If you ever get a chance, go and look at some of the critical reviews for Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, an adaptation of the novel / memoir / long-form journalism article of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson.  In those reviews — mostly negative — critics complain that the film’s figures are too crazy, that the visuals are too grotesque, and that the plot seems somewhat aimless.  It’s almost like none of them ever read Thompson’s book!  My experience of the film — which I saw before reading the book — was certainly enriched by watching it again after reading the book.  In that context, I can’t imagine a director better suited to adapt Thompson’s story to the big screen, as it perfectly captures the comedy, violence, and (surprising) poignancy of that fantastic piece of innately American (and thoroughly America-focused) literature.  I’m not always a fan of Johnny Depp’s performances, but he captures Thompson’s mannerisms and eccentricities much better than Bill Murray did in Where the Buffalo Roam.  (In fact, Depp’s physical presence is so good here that I’m tempted to think it’s Raoul Duke — and not Jack Sparrow — that stripped Depp of much of the nuance of his earlier performances.)  But the star of the show for me is Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo — as a crazed, unpredictable, violent, drug-fueled legal adviser.  He absolutely steals every scene and becomes increasingly terrifying as the movie progresses (notably in a scene that involves a bathtub, a Bowie knife, and a large grapefruit).  Some fun supporting turns — particularly from Gary Busey and Tobey Maguire.  For my money (insert: “American Dream” pun), it’s one of the all-time great filmic adaptations.

“The Fisher King” (1991), directed by Terry Gilliam

The Fisher King (1991) – Lost amid the crowd of his “classics” (e.g. The Holy Grail and Twelve Monkeys), more hallucinatory flicks (e.g. Brazil and Fear and Loathing), and uber-fantastical works (e.g. Time Bandits and Baron Munchausen) rests, I would argue, Gilliam’s most “balanced” film in terms of realism and surrealism, dreams and nightmares.  The Fisher King is a type of modern fairy-tale; more accurately, as the film’s title suggests, it’s a kind of update on Arthurian (and/or Quixote-like) quests in which one man (Robin Williams) serves as the role of idealist / Romantic while another man (Jeff Bridges) serves the role of cynic / Realist.  Aside from the fantasy influences, The Fisher King is also a moving account of two wounded people — one wrecked by grief, the other guilt — who forge an unlikely connection and, in the process, help the other to overcome their inner demons (or, in this case, fiery Red Knights on horseback).  Williams and Bridges are absolutely superb here, and their shared scenes display a level of chemistry that no other Gilliam film comes close to.  Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer are similarly excellent here.  Of special note is an impromptu waltz that occurs in a crowded train station — basically, a perfect example of magical-realism in its execution.  A deeply, deeply empathetic film that confronts trauma and recovery in thoughtful and complicated ways.

The Underrated One

Honestly, one might make an argument that most of Gilliam’s oeuvre — with the notable exceptions of The Holy Grail and perhaps Twelve Monkeys — hasn’t garnered the acclaim and attention that it should from the general public.  That’s certainly true for Brazil, which is a true masterpiece.  Other films like Time Bandits (1981) and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) are enjoyable enough that I’m surprised more folks haven’t seen them.  But my choice here is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).  From what I can tell, there’s something of a generational divide at work here — i.e. those my age and/or slightly older have often seen it, while those of the subsequent generation usually haven’t.  That’s a shame because this is a very good period/fantasy film based on a real-life person known for his tendency to spin elaborate yarns about various adventures.  (And as you can probably guess, this is also the source for the diagnoses known as “Munchausen Syndrome” and “Muchausen By Proxy,” in which patients falsify and/or exaggerate their condition or symptoms in order to gain attention, sympathy, etc.)  John Neville provides a worthwhile performance in the eponymous role, and there’s a notable cameo by Robin Williams as “The King of the Moon.”  And it’s also a very early filmic role for Uma Thurman (as Venus), as well as Sarah Polley (as Sally).  Unfortunately, this film was also apparently a production nightmare — going way over on money and time, further problematizing Gilliam’s relationships with the studios, and earning / confirming him a reputation as being difficult to work with (i.e. too demanding, too eccentric, too particular, etc.), which would, in turn, cause funding problems for subsequent film projects.

The One to Avoid

There are only a few movies that I would consider for the “honor” of being the Gilliam film to skip.  The Brothers Grimm is (along with Monty Python) the least “Terry Gilliam-like” film in his filmography; but, while it’s largely forgettable, it’s also mostly average.  Gilliam’s latest effort, The Zero Theorem, is a bit of a mess but features some fun performances from Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, and Lucas Hedges — as well as Matt Damon in a relatively small but crucial part.  So I’m going to give the award to Tideland (2005).  I know that this film has its supporters out there — though I’ve yet to meet them — but I found this to be a painfully (painfully) dull film.  Moreover, I found it to be a somewhat disturbing film without much reason for being so.  It’s the only Gilliam film that took me several attempts to finish before I was able to slog my way through it.  Move along…you aren’t missing anything here.

The Place to Start

Similar to the dilemma with Tim Burton’s filmography, Terry Gilliam’s work trades in so much weirdness that it can be difficult to suggest where to start.  And like that previous director, I think it boils down to each individual viewer and his/her personal preferences.  If you’ve read George Orwell’s 1984, then you might enjoy jumping right into the fire with Brazil.  If you’ve read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing, then you might feel comfortable starting on that film, since you’re likely expecting the hallucinatory elements that feature so prominently therein.  If you’re not familiar with those books and you want to play it “safe,” then I might suggest starting with The Fisher King.  It’s got enough of a straight-forward story — i.e. two men…one seeking redemption and the other seeking peace — that the fantastical moments and nightmarish imagery won’t keep you from understanding what’s going on; instead, the inclusion of those aspects will likely only deepen your empathy for these characters and their internal struggles.  Or, if you’re tired of not getting the jokes, then just get it over with and watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Final Word

Of the directors that I’ve reviewed so far as part of this project, Terry Gilliam strikes me as the one for whom viewers are most likely to develop a love / hate relationship.  I can’t really imagine anyone having a lukewarm reaction to his films; and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for not really clicking with his aesthetic.  But for myself, even though the last 20 years of his career have produced mostly forgettable work, I look forward to the next Gilliam movie.  Fortunately, it seems like he’s finally in the last stages of his film about Don Quixote, which is set to be released sometime in 2018.  (If you don’t know, he’s famously spent the last 25-30 years trying to adapt Cervantes’s classic tale of knights, giant windmills, and whatnot.  There’s actually a pretty solid documentary about his many failed attempts to make this movie entitled Lost in La Mancha, which I’d recommend if you’re interested.)  At the very least, even if you don’t “enjoy” his films, I think that most anyone can recognize the visual spectacle, the imaginative textures, and the truly unique perspective that he brings to cinema; and for that, I’m pretty grateful.  Here’s to all our inner Quixotes!