It’s been a rough week, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet. The problems, such as they are, aren’t going anywhere and I’m done with premature celebration and false hope. All I’ll say is this: when there was a threat of nuclear war earlier this week, it felt thematically correct.
Anyway, instead of moping, I want to talk something more upbeat. I want to talk about a man who’s been inspiring me since I was a kid. Terry Gilliam. There are a lot of people who've shaped my brain over the years. The Marx Brothers. Roald Dahl. Bill Hicks. Neil Gaiman. Alan Moore. Arthur C Clarke. The list goes on and on, but Terry Gilliam is something special. In fact, he’s such a cornerstone of my desire to tell stories that I’d forgotten how big an influence he was until recently.
Back at the end of May, we were looking for some movies to wrap up a bank holiday when my eyes strayed to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I’d not watched it in years but, within moments of that overture and those opening shots, it all came flooding back. The wild, charming tale and those beautifully pitched performances. The brilliant visuals, the stories within stories and that angel of death (which is still the stuff of pure childhood nightmares).
A while later I was surprised to find our local supermarket stocking the Blu Ray Criterion Edition of The Fisher King. Along with a Blu Ray of Time Bandits. I bought both immediately and we watched Time Bandits that night. Sam seemed a little confused by the seam of surreal humour that runs through it. For me, it was a trip down memory lane. It was the first Gilliam movie I ever saw and I still remember being bowled over by it.
There’s no other family movie quite like Time Bandits. For a start, it paved my way into Python thanks to a script co-written with Michael Palin and a great cameo by John Cleese. There’s also something so refreshing about the irreverent way it treats history and its near punk style. Although it’s real strength lies in its characters. The ever bickering family of bandits, the baffled kid they take along for the ride and let’s not forget David Warner having far too much fun being Evil. Plus, there’s that ending. Which, as a Roald Dahl fan, I’ve always loved.
We watched The Fisher King last week. It’s a such a fragile, human movie. A movie that Gilliam made after the many brutal battles of Brazil and Munchausen had changed his career forever. Even now, it feels so free. It feels like it’s searching for a fight whilst being incredible intimate with its audience. Although Gilliam uses intimacy differently to a lot of filmmakers. He uses it to see the damage in his characters and, through that pain, he casts a light on their hopes. He toys with their fantasies, but never gets lost to them. He makes New York a walled city of wonder and worry, blinkered commuter and the beleaguered dreamers. It’s a scarred movie. A bi-polar piece of storytelling that’s lopsided and manic at times. There are deaths and beatings. Monsters, loneliness and love as we journey to some dark places. It’s a genuine modern fairy tale.
As the end credits rolled, I began to understand something I’d not really seen before. Gilliam’s genre crossing, ever experimenting career feels like it’s evolved in synch with my life. He’s always inspired my next step as I was taking it. His Python movies made me howl with laughter. Jabberwocky got me into surreal poetry, but also blended Python with a strange brew of classic English comedy and grungy, medieval caricature that had me studying what was back over my shoulder.
There’s an innocence to Time Bandits that reminds me of youth. It bolsters you along with its heroes but, when you apply it to his stunning masterpiece Brazil, it becomes a weight around Jonathan Pryce’s soul. It’s a target. A ball and chain. It’s the reason he will lose so much of himself in that nightmarish vision of a present we want to pretend will never become our future. There was a lesson there that I didn’t want to learn, but I certainly took note of.
Munchausen is about hope winning through remembrance, whether it’s how you are remembered or how you remember yourself. After that and the artistic exorcism of The Fisher King, Gilliam made two movies that perfectly fitted my teenage years.
12 Monkeys is still one on my favourite pieces of science fiction ever committed to film. It’s never escapist or clinically cleaned up. It never treats its subject lightly. Instead, 12 Monkeys feels both startlingly real and unreal at the same time. It feels, rather fittingly, infectious. For me, it’s Bruce Willis’ finest hour and the story is an intricately woven thing of beauty. Whereas Time Bandits had a sudden end that left you smiling, 12 Monkeys has a gravity to its looping, circling plot that makes destiny feel cruel, unusual and inescapable.
Then there’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. For many, it’s the moment Gilliam started to push too hard at the boundaries. For me, it’s pure rollercoaster. It’s the trip all the posters proclaimed. Love or loath it, there’s nothing quite like it. I saw it just as I was beginning to drink and kick against the pricks. It was the perfect time for Gilliam to introduce me to Hunter S Thompson. The camera swims in that movie. It’s bucks and swerves. The soundtrack roars as the image occasionally melts into a nightmare. I still refer to myself as a geek because of it. When Duke proclaimed himself a hired geek to group of military types in a sandstorm, something got branded onto my soul.
Since Fear and Loathing, Gilliam has been on an interesting journey through madness and stifling studio control. He nearly lost control of The Brothers Grimm and you can still see the stress marks all the way through the picture, but there are moments of wonder and terror that are pure Terry G. The banquet walled in by mirrors to hide the destruction and decay around the aristocrats. The gingerbread man. The red light that coats the dark, giddy eclipse scenes.
After the battle for the Grimms, he went to Tideland, which certainly isn’t for everyone. Your lead actor dies in the first few minutes and spends the movie rotting in the corner, but there’s a fairy tale being told which is both disturbing and engrossing. I love it. It’s a minimalist experiment in the end of childhood.
Then came the ill-fated Parnassus. For a lot of people, it will always be Heath Ledger’s last movie, but for me it’s Christopher Plummer and Andrew Garfield’s time to shine. They’re both on fantastic form in that surreal tale of redemption and greed. Also it has Tom Waits’ turn as, well, sort of the devil if he decided to be Tom Waits.
I’ll never forget the feeling in the cinema when Ledger first turned up in the movie, hanging from a bridge over the Thames. As the two characters who found him fought to bring him back to life onscreen, you could feel the people around you shifting in their seats. It was brave, unsettling stuff.
Gilliam’s most recent offering, The Zero Theorum, is another experiment. One that’s haunted by the hope and peril of his earlier works. It never quite fills their shoes, but I’m not convinced it was ever supposed to. It occasionally feels like a comment on reboots to me. On the expectations of an ever-recycling society of story junkies and internet trolls, although I could be wrong.
These days, Terry is a fighter. He stalks up to studios and dares them to let him make a movie. He plays with images, with editing and sound. With characters and performances. He’s no longer trying to make movies for everyone. If anything, since Fear and Loathing, it feels like he’s making movies for himself. Which I can appreciate. It’s fascinating and inspiring, if a little frustrating at times. Still, it’s great to see your hero acting like a hero. He’s not attempting to fit. He challenges us. He rails against the mainstream, toiling on movies that leave you with imagery and characters burnt deep into your retinas.
It’s rather fitting that his next movie is currently slated to be his long fought Don Quixote picture. Oh, the fun the critics will have with that metaphor.
As I struggle to tell my own stories, it’s great to see what someone working on the highest high wire without a net can create. Terry is making what he wants to make and leaves it up to us to agree or disagree with his art.
Stories without restrictions sounds good to me. I’m lucky I’ve got Terry to lead the way