The 1980s were, with all due respect, the worst time in history for cinematic drama. Cinema as a whole trucked along on a surfeit of fantasy and science fiction films that primarily operated on cruise control but could stumble upon a certain breezy ingenuity when need be. But cinematic art – cinema that sought to say something about cinema and/or explore the art form in a way that doubled as a commentary on the society that would use cinema as a tool of creation and destruction – was at an all-time low. It is telling that what many consider the great American drama of the 1980s (Raging Bull is the only film as consistently revered and awarded, and that was really more of a ’70s film that forget to come out in its proper decade anyway) is most famous for the fact that it was almost never released.
Throughout the 1980s, Terry Gilliam was one of the few who stood in defiance of complicity and convention, and Brazil almost killed him for it. A brutal, lengthy production battle saw the film destroyed and cut-down to size to save whatever commercial potential it had, and, watching the finished product, it’s easy to see why: this is a relentlessly weird motion picture, recalling cinematic styles and tones with its own jazz-like sense of improvisation and cavorting between surrealist asides an hoarse reflections on the grim fandangos of the decade in which it was produced. Whatever the waiting game that was cinema in the 1980s signified, the fact that Brazil was a genuine upset for the producers that funded it says all you need to know about its undeniable artistic merit.
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.
In honor of their seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, I present a pair of reviews for my two favorite Disney animated releases, both released in the same year, 1940, and both far more challenging and transformative than any feature film the company has yet released since. The two introductory paragraphs of the reviews are identical or nearly identical, but the meat of the reviews are film-specific.
Fresh off of reinventing cinema with the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney and his band of merry auteurs certainly made enough money to rest on their laurels and produce what would have assuredly been a hugely successful similar film. Another princess, another band of silly sidekicks, another all-time expressionist cinematic villain, you get the deal. Things would have gone down smoothly, and Disney and friends would have been laughing all the way to the bank.
Except for one thing: for all his grubby corporatism and power-hungry megalomania, Walt Disney genuinely loved film, and he genuinely loved testing the waters for what film was capable of, and no one, not even the corporate masters he answered to, was going to tell him otherwise. He was a man of boundless vision, a child in a cinematic toybox, a person driven by ego and pulsing personal joys and for whom his company was a means to immortalize his dreams and nightmares on celluloid for everyone in the world to see. He made films because he wanted to watch them, and after Snow White, he didn’t want to watch another princess story. He was hungry, and having changed things forever, he wanted to do it yet again.
Ratatouille was in love with whimsy and fable and Wall-E with romance, minutiae, and slapstick humanism, but Up is at its proudest when it is having the most fun in the world being itself. It all begins with a boy, Russell (Jordan Nagai) asking curmudgeonly old drag of a man, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), to help him earn a merit badge, but it most certainly doesn’t stay there for long. Pixar’s trip through surrealism, Warner Bros’ Bunuel-inspired Wackyland, Road to movies, ’30s adventure serials, and filmic flights of fancy more generally, Up sees the then-world’s most recognized film production company end their residency with practically owning filmic invention in the 2000s by paying tribute to all that allowed them to be what they had been so well and so singularly for fifteen years.
Sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off most readily, you know? A few non-actors. A cabin Woods. Two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might. A story that can be summed up as “those non-actors in that cabin face off against those two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might and have their asses handed to them”. Thus is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, such a simple and elegant horror film it doesn’t need to explicate a damn thing. There’s a book. It unlocks some demons. And it’s in a cabin. Why does the book do this, and what are its limits? Who cares. All that matters is that it is the most direct and unworried clothesline upon which Sam Raimi can absolutely tear not one but two genres a new one, and tear down the whole idea of genre as a construct in doing so.
It isn’t really saying much, considering its competition and the positively dreary state of American film during that particular decade, but Evil Dead II might be the battiest, most zestily-directed American film of its decade. Now I recognize this as hyperbole, but Raimi invites hyperbole, and the film earns it. Goodness gracious, the camerawork alone does whirlwinds around anything else being released around the same time, damn near earning the title all its own. Raimi’s whiplash maelstrom never knew a finer shelter than comedy-horror, and it never did the genre prouder than here. The things this camera does need to be experienced, so I’ll refrain from discussing specifics. Let’s just say the man chooses the most inventive position possible for almost every shot and pinwheels his tormented meat-bag humans around his camera like Damian with his first rodent, and he partakes in the mischief every chance he gets. The camera lurches about from space to space, doing almost literally everything it possibly can to simultaneously involve us in the action and elevate us above the action, separating off Raimi’s characters for mockery.
Back to the Future
Unlike many other great pops-men in the film world, Robert Zemeckis is a legitimate auteur, which is to say, he has a unique vision he aims to see fulfilled in his finished product and one which requires a significant amount of effect on his part. I’ll never forgive him for Forrest Gump, a wretched a combination of schmaltzy artificial cotton candy and “I’m above politics and thus more moral than you” traditionalism that nonetheless must innately be entirely political, which manages to one-up itself by just plain having boring wallpaper as a central character (who also happens to be deeply problematic and inhumanly insensitive in its glamorization of the mentally handicapped here rendered as inoffensively cute, innocent, and above all too-moral-to-be-human). Quite a long-winded barn-storming gasping rage of a sentence, but the film had a vision. One which alternated between boring, problematic, and scary, but a vision nonetheless, one which he sought out and achieved through what loosely approximates filmmaking “craft”.
Update fall 2018: Been a few years since I last saw this before the current viewing, but After Hours remains truly unstable, and clearly too brutally crazed to be labeled a psychoanalytic “portrait” of Scorsese, with all the easily-contained clarity and visibility the notion of a portrait implies. After Hours is much more of a working-through than it is a legible work of art; it’s the rattled consciousness of a director obviously exposing himself to nervous tendons in search of transcending them, and it’s gloriously untamed.
Like his previous film King of Comedy, 1985’s After Hours is something of an unheralded masterpiece from director Martin Scorsese. It’s certainly non-traditional, being rather aimless and lacking a conventional narrative or even character development. But it’s also obsessive, dangerous, playful, worrisome, and energetic in a way that veers close to satanic. It’s the kind of open-ended film that people often struggle to understand, and others say is only for the enlightened. My opinion – forget about understanding and just let it wash over you and take you along for the ride. I’m not sure even Scorsese really understands what happens to his main character here, but it undeniably meant something to him, and it undeniably affects us. This is not a film to intellectualize – intellectualizing is what the human mind tells us to do to make sense of event in narrative format, and After Hours is intentionally anti-narrative. While we may want to look at the film in terms of cause and effect, it has other things in mind. It captures like few films the pure chaotic senselessness of human life, how little control we have over our fates, and how narrative cohesiveness is a violent lie we force upon sensory experience so that we can find sense in things which were never meant to be sensical.