After the rousing financial success of his previous release 12 Monkeys, someone finally saw fit to give Terry Gilliam a small influx of money to release one of his many long-term passion projects hounding him for what sometimes seems like decades. Of course, that didn’t end up happening and to this day still doesn’t seem to have worked out in his favor, but the man needed work, and when the long-dormant adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s bananas American nightmare Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (in production as a film as early as the early ’70s) came his way, and someone actually wanted him to direct something for once, Gilliam couldn’t say no to a chance to have a little fun with a project he never much viewed as a personal commitment. Maybe it was letting his hair down a little, but what better way to let your hair down than with a drug-infused trip to Las Vegas with Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, and one of the great cult icons of American fiction? Continue reading
Formally an adaptation of what may be the greatest short film ever released, Chris Marker’s New Wave classic La Jetee, 12 Monkeys is another world entirely. This is not, as one might expect, a commercialized bastard son of Jetee’s postmodern commentary on storytelling and film as an art form. It is a more commercial beast, but not commercial Jetee. It is instead commercial Gilliam, very much retaining this particular director’s trenchant exploration of genre fiction, modern anomie, and social lies filtered through nasty dark-water corporate beasts not operating behind closed doors because there are no longer doors to close and hide behind. It’s sharp and prescient, well-directed and with a realist streak seen never before or since in Gilliam’s catalogue, but the film wisely never becomes “of realism”. 12 Monkeys is nothing breathtaking, and it lacks the elegant hellishness of some of its directors more conflicted and subversive films, but his decade and a half of ferocious commitment to personal vision, and three of the few legitimately great films of the 1980s, deserve a present. Gilliam always had trouble finding commercial success, and if conforming slightly to the norms of mainstream entertainment for the sake of a greater paycheck and commercial appeal is his present, who are we to deny him?
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.
They say that Terry Gilliam was truly angry post-getting absolutely royally screwed over by a distributor that had no interest in his mind-melting glam rock drunken rant on the internal contradictions of the literature dealing with totalitarian government (not to mention the contradictions in the US of 1985 that loved to thump their copies of Orwell at the Soviet Union and conveniently pass by the same arguments, and Orwell’s democratic socialism, when the oppressions of the US came to the conversation).
If “they” are right about Gilliam’s rage, it had clearly subsided in the three year interim before his next film. Or, if they hadn’t, Gilliam had at least developed an ability to poke fun at himself while mocking the censors in the process. This work, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, passed by the censors with much less eyebrow raising. And it’s easy to see while: although it is, in its own genial way, as radical as Brazil, it is much less obsessively difficult and intentionally obtuse, and it is less proud and open-faced about shouting its own radicalism right in the faces of the censors and rubbing their noses in it. Continue reading