Sunday, August 1, 2010

Terry Gilliam via Tim Burton part 2: Terry Gilliam

After watching Alice in Wonderland, when Steve and I were processing the visual genius of it, and wondering where that came from besides Tim Burton's head, I kept bringing up Terry Gilliam. In the "live action as spectacle" world, I have trouble thinking of another director who has built the world(s) that exists in his imagination/head as completely as Terry Gilliam. Brazil introduced us to a world that Terry Gilliam invented but in realistic, not animated, terms. The sheer scope and magnitude of the world in Brazil is best expressed this way: "Generally called 'sci-fi noir," [Gilliam's film world] is "a view of what the 1980s might have looked at viewed from the perspective of a 1940s filmmaker.'" This quote, by James Berardinelli from a review on, is one of the great quotes in the Wikipedia entry on the film, which is well worth reading.

The thing is, I could talk about scenes in the film, actors in the film (DeNiro as the freelance heating and air conditioning repairman), images in the film, etc., but I could not relate from memory anything significant or coherent about the film's plot. I could not tell him what it was about, beyond the fact that it was about a sort of Kafka-esque bureaucrat living in a bleak future of cubicles and small hive-like apartments with a Big Brother type government and business world. What happens to him, what the conflict is, and how it is or is not resolved, was completely beyond me. And I have to say, after watching it again two weeks ago, I cannot give much more coherent an account of the plot. I mean, I could, but it would not make much sense or be very interesting to read.

The problem is, it is way too complicated. What is going on in Terry Gilliam's mind is really just way too complicated. The story is so complicated that the film struggled for a title, and finally settled on just naming it after the recurring theme song in the movie. The word or place or song "Brazil" has nothing to do with what the film is about.

Before Brazil, actually, we watched Gilliam's most recent film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. It's also Heath Ledger's last film, and in fact he died during shooting. This fact becomes really interesting after you watch the third film in our festival, Lost in LaMancha, about Gilliam's failed attempt to make a film version of Don Quixote. Among other disasters on the film are the loss of its star, the rather elderly and frail Jean Rochefort, to a complex back fracture that made it impossible for him to ride a horse.

In the case of Imaginarium, the show had to go on, and go on it did, with actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law playing different aspects/faces of Ledger's character in the elaborate fantasy scenes that comprise the final act of the film. Let's just say, it didn't really harm the character or plot much, which is saying a lot about the importance of character and plot in a Terry Gilliam film. Imaginarium's plot seems hung on even slimmer and yet at the same time more convoluted stuff than Brazil, which makes it sort of tiring to watch. But the spectacle inside the actual imaginarium, and especially Johnny Depp's ability to be in alternate universes (which he does so brilliantly in Tim Burton's worlds) makes it hard to take your eyes off the screen.

Gilliam's brilliance, appetite for extravagance and desire to push to extremes of filmmaking to realize his vision are shown in the documentary, Lost in LaMancha. He shows himself to be a gifted visual artist, as he continuously doodles scenes from the film he can literally "play out" in his head. He is able to communicate this vision to a group of talented costumers, light and art designers, and actors (sometimes-- I think this might be the weakest link, as the actors, without solid motivation through a workable and meaningful plot, seem at a bit of a loss or play-acting rather than inhabiting the world of Imaginarium). His glee at walking in his realized vision and seeing it on screen is thrilling to see.

And, like many artists, his theme and what interests him are more or less the same, played out again and again. He is interested in exactly what his films do: the world inside someone's head. In Brazil, a happy ending is exposed to be only a dream in the main character's head. In The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, the wild exaggerations of a grand liar are played out on screen, In Imaginarium, a man builds a portal to engage people with their own fantasies in the imagination of Dr. Parnassus as part of a strange bet with the devil that he can get more people to choose creativity/imagination than sin/escape. It is no wonder at all that the story of Don Quixote, the frail knight living driven mad by reading too many romantic adventure novels who lives in the false world of the novels instead of seeing the world as it really is, appeals to Gilliam. It is perhaps the first, best account of what fascinates him: a world, romantic and larger that life, which he desperately wants to make real.

I see his film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is in pre-production for 2011. Ewan McGregor and Robert Duvall are attached to the project, which is somewhat promising. And for those of us who love and shake our heads at all this "tilting at windmills," it will no doubt be a spectacle worth watching.

No comments: