With no new long-term features hoping about The Long Take for the time being, I’ve decided to do a few short features on directors of my choice. Each should take about a week, focusing on some of their more notable films and trying perhaps to capture their essence as a director. These will mostly tackle directors I haven’t much explored yet, and will probably take on directors with a sort of noticeable aesthetic or sense about them so that their films achieve a cohesive singularity while still retaining individual wrinkles. For my first feature, I’ve decided to look back through the cinematic works of Terry Gilliam, who I think we all can agree is one of the most unique directors of the past several decades to say the least. Enjoy!
It’s a good thing ex-Python animator Terry Gilliam dreamt up Time Bandits in the late ’70s or early ’80s. I cannot tell whether he did so before the sci-fi/fantasy push of the late ’70s and early ’80s, or whether the thought of Star Wars and its success wandering around his brain and taking up air pushed him toward the inklings that would birth Time Bandits, but once, and perhaps for the only time in his life, the stars aligned for Gilliam. His previous film Jabberwocky, his first solo directorial effort, was released in 1977, and this early year, still trapped in the high-minded cynicism of the mid-’70s, was not kind to Gilliam nor to fantasy as a whole. Really, the world wanted nothing but to double down on angst and paranoia during those hard times. They wanted cinema to comment on society, to explore it. The late 1970s presented a new option: the long-lost history of the cinema as escape. And in escape, it too would comment on how society needed the cinema, and why the cinema would always be there for it.
You see, once upon a time, a young B-movie lover named George Lucas knew “the movies” were not meant simply to comment on and interpret the real world, but to distract us from that world when it was too difficult for any movie to explore with seriousness and gravity. The moving pictures could transport, perplex, bewilder, and dazzle, and the late ’70s and early ’80s saw a return to exactly this old-school filmic sensibility of dusting off classic stories with new-school technology, thus bringing about a new boon in filmmaking for children and adolescents, even if the American New Wave was left lying in its wake. It was in the height of this boon that Time Bandits was released, entrancing children with childlike glee and marauding over to their parents’ minds with its genial take on post-modern, deconstructionist narrative storytelling filtered through the mind of a child. It was probably the only time in the modern era where Time Bandits could have been the success it was, and for this one time Gilliam managed to release a film when it was most likely to succeed, we must be thankful.
As Gilliam saw, the surest way to cope with the loss of the decade-long malaise that was the 1970s was to make a film from the perspective of a child wholly unawares, but this didn’t mean adults couldn’t have fun while they were at it. Naturally, this was a progression from him spinning off of Monty Python, having co-directed one of the grand absurdist dreams of the cinema, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Gilliam was always the outsider among the Pythons. Not only was he the only American, but his true interest in the fringe-dwelling world of independent animation was only sometimes able to find a sufficient home in the stream-of-consciousness, channel swapping “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. When they did find this home, however, his work fit like a glove, enhancing the free-floating hostility of the show and its spin-off films and matching the show’s heady but naughty take on the skeletal structure of children’s entertainment/ art cinema (for children’s entertainment and art cinema very much do share a similar structure rooted in a defiance of narrative and focus on the transitive moment).
Indeed, Gilliam’s animation interests owed most of its form to a skewered take on old-school experimental animation. It was not, nor would it likely ever be, commercial stuff. But the underground box office success of the cult Holy Grail meant he could scrounge up a tidy little sum of money and try out a live-action success in the same vein. If animation would have been deemed unprofitable, as it generally was around this time, a live-action post-Star Wars effort had to at least make some money in the early ’80s, right?
Luckily the fantasy boon in its infancy confused producers and saw them prismatically grasp out at any sort of sci-fi or fantasy they could, even if it was decidedly un-commercial at is base level (the very same paradigmatic shift in the film-going public that would see Hollywood producers blindly allow Gilliam the funds for his next project Brazil, and then immediately regret it upon seeing what sinister purpose he concocted). For 1981 though, Gilliam’s vision for Time Bandits was sanded-off just enough to gain a critical mass of popular appeal and find a genuine success in its time. Watching it today, it’s easy to see why: it’s the quintessential Gilliam effort, its lower-key absurdism defiant enough but comfortably worn and fun without even dipping too far into fluff or acerbic snark. It’s a great film, not a children’s film as much as a warped work so childlike that its rampant glee becomes a sort of manic and obsessive gesture that manages to both retain its genial demeanor and still find a hefty portion of not-too-diluted Pythonesque cutting humor beneath its facade.
First though, a little plot: Kevin, an imaginative and untenured little boy played by Craig Warnock, wakes up one night to a knight emerging forth from his closet. Fascinated, Kevin decides not to cower but to experiment with the following night. When a cavalcade of bewildered and diminutive thieves burst froth from his wardrobe, Kevin follows them back from whence they came at the behest of a Supreme Being pestering him forth. He eventually learns that they have stolen a large map that, if fallen into Evil’s possession, would spell the end to time itself. The dwarfs have taken to using the map (which shows the locations of holes for traveling through time) for themselves to secure treasure. After a veritable cornucopia of game adventures through time (meeting Ian Holm as a magisterial Napoleon, John Cleese as a naïve Robin Hood, and Sean Connery in a playful, imposing turn as Agamemnon in Ancient Greece), Evil (David Wanrer) makes his presence known and things prove a fiery conclusion indeed.
What the plot clues us into primarily is one of the most important realities of the film’s post-Pythonesque jumble: it is intentionally irritable, short-tempered, and episodic. Gilliam does not stay the course for long, instead veering off with innocent fancy from idea to idea with a greater eye for the transitive fringes around the side of the screen than the central narrative thrust. It’s a very rambling, rambunctious motion picture that manages to both have energy to spare and never lose itself to endless momentum, stopping just often enough to remind of exactly the childlike demeanor it suggests with every frame. Beginning with a child in bed, it’s almost impossible to miss the “child’s dream” implications of the narrative. The way it speeds up with unending imagination and deliriously moves past the details of logic as it slows down in the come-down from its sugar rush as it catches up with its own energy very much apes the thought process of a child (a thought process itself not so different from the unconscious process of dreaming).
There’s nothing judgmental about the film, then; Gilliam does not seek to impose on the child with a moral, but simply to show him in his natural habitat: his mind. This is Gilliam witnessing an untamed child without morals tagging along on adventures he doesn’t understand and coming up against evils that arrive suddenly and without warning and that may singe and traumatize him for life. Naturally, if horror and difficulty and consequence rear their head in the process (and they do, oh they do), Gilliam is going to sit back and watch. If you find he has the the perkiest, most demented smirk any child with his favorite collection of toys ever mustered, well, that’s what being a director in your cinematic toybox is all about for a person like Gilliam: telling stories, letting them go where they may, and having the time of your life no matter what evils pass by without warning. Children have a more observational sense of consequence that seeks less to teach morals or blame than to dish out, and Gilliam sure follows suit.
Still, it’s never, and this is key in comparison to future Gilliam efforts, too willfully arcane or difficult or mean-spirited in any way. There’s certainly a corpus of appealing ideas guiding the finished product, all captured in Gilliam’s fascination with challenging conventional narrative through replacing stoic maturity with the abandoned lands of children’s fancy. Certainly, the dormant air of caustic humor comes through in the fractured fairy tales history perversions, my favorite being the buffoonishly nice Robin Hood. Meanwhile, the production details of the film owe much to Holy Grail, generally emphasizing their shoddy, low-budget, deliberately vague qualities over their grandly expressive ones. This creates a used universe (very much in the Star Wars vein) and draws out the thin veneer of “this is just a lark” underlying the entire production, lightly poking fun at the whole cloth of these fantasy films being produced around this time for their generally dishonest depiction of the genre. Gilliam prefaces the stagecraft sense, which serves double-duty, both cheekily twisting childish fantasy and falling ever more-so in love with the idea that these films are really just glorified excuses for grown-ups to play around in their backyards like children with more money and a greater access to fancy costuming and storytelling toys. The lithe anti-capitalist stance to the film’s ending also hints at an air of early ’80s critique from the mind of a child who would rather produce than consume.
It’s these sorts of nuances, coupled with his boldly presentational outlook on cinema that could only ever be visual in nature, that makes Gilliam a voice all his own in contemporary film. Certainly, his sensibility is not Python in full – the radical critique of adult media forms and the theater of everyday life as well as the deeply acidic bent that characterized the original show and the films are but background concerns here. But that merely serve to give Gilliam a voice all his own, and certainly a voice he would explore in greater detail over the next several decades (although his relevance severely waned after the end of the ’90s). In his later career, Gilliam only ever really capitulated to box office success once (with his 2005 adaptation of The Brothers Grimm; 1995’s deliciously weird 12 Monkeys was an off-the-wall success but not because Gilliam actively searched for it). Everything else he made, for better or worse, always felt defiantly and aggressively like his vision…and that is exactly why so many of his films have failed to represent his vision, what with the corporate masters that be sabotaging him both pre-and-post filming every chance they get. He’s never really failed to face difficulty getting a product out; sometimes it seems like the gods have it in for him, but he always perseveres.
Luckily for him, things were on his side in 1981, and he knew how to test the waters of fantasy just so without pissing anyone off. Time Bandits was a smashing success commercially and artistically. Four years later, unfortunately, he would produce an even greater artistic success, too much of one, in fact, for the production company to handle. It would forever alter his relationship with film, and create the most fascinating directorial-producer infighting and behind-the-scenes theater of any film released in the past thirty five years. But that is a story for another time…