I Screen the Body Eclectic
This column, which appears each issue, is meant to analyze a particular body of work within the sci-fi and fantasy genres - i.e. directors, writers, designers, etc.
Through The Looking Glass
The Cinema of Terry Gilliam
Those who like their sci-fi/fantasy with a touch of the absurd, a full helping of the
bizarre and a heavy dose of social satire often look no further than cult filmmaker
It's not hard to see why. From his first post-Monty Python feature film,
"Jabberwocky," to his masterpiece, "Brazil," and up to his recent "The Brothers
Grimm," Gilliam has maintained one of the most consistently unique aesthetics in
the film world. With the likes of Kubrick, Fellini and Orwell as his guides,
Gilliam has created a cinematic worldview that is all his own, unparalleled in all
Of course, then again, "Hollywood" would be the wrong word to use. Gilliam has
always been a Hollywood outsider, and that has proven to be both his blessing and
his curse -- he's been the victim of the studio system more times than he can
count. Universal Pictures tried to butcher "Brazil" in 1985 (you can see their
absolutely awful 90-minute "Love Conquers All" version on the Criterion DVD);
Columbia refused to give "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" a wide release;
more recently, MGM pulled its funding of "The Brothers Grimm" halfway
through shooting, prompting delays so lengthy, Gilliam actually had time to go out
and shoot another movie. Even after the Weinsteins came aboard and production
resumed, they fired his cinematographer and reportedly forced him to use (really
bad) CGI effects, rather than the more authentic models and miniatures that
The duct-filled bureaucratic nightmare that is "Brazil."
But perhaps it's all been for the best; after all, he has spawned some of the most
memorable cinematic fantasies of recent memory.
THE QUINTESSENTIAL ANTI-HERO
True to their creator, Gilliam's protagonists are almost invariably outsiders and
outcasts, overlooked and misunderstood. More specifically, they often represent
the only remaining sanity in a world gone mad. Take, for example, Sam Lowry
(Jonathan Pryce), the lonely, daydreaming nebbish from "Brazil," living in a
comically Orwellian society in which no action can be taken without first filling
out the proper paperwork. The film's similarity and references to "1984" were so
thick, in fact, that Gilliam's original title was "1984½," in co-reference to Orwell
and Fellini, whose stylistic influences can be seen throughout Gilliam's work.
We see the same type of lead character in he post-apocalyptic time-travel farce,
"12 Monkeys," as our hero, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back and forth
between a future decimated by a deadly virus, and a decaying, postmodern "past"
that has no reason to believe his warnings. (Of course, in typical Gilliam fashion,
he pokes fun at authority, as the "scientists" in charge of the time portal constantly
send Cole back to the wrong time and the wrong place.)
I specifically mention "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys" because it seems that his
thematic and stylistic proclivities came to the fullest fruition in these two films.
In both movies -- which are arguably the two best of his career -- Gilliam focuses
on dehumanization, a favorite topic of Stanley Kubrick. Visual and thematic
references to films such as "Dr. Strangelove" can be seen throughout "Brazil" and
"12 Monkeys." Notice the way both Sam Lowry and James Cole are held tied and
bound, often in straightjackets, a la "A Clockwork Orange," as their captors
examine them. Gilliam has always been a fan of oblique angles and distorted
lenses, and he puts them to great use as both Dr. Lint in "12 Monkeys" and the
scientists in "Brazil" interrogate their respective subjects; the distorted
camerawork expresses a strange discomfort and fear of authority. Throughout the
futuristic scenes of "12 Monkeys," while Cole sits, tied and cuffed, as a giant ball
made entirely of cameras and TV screens, hovers over him, circling him, peering
at him from every angle. Yes, James Cole -- Big Brother is watching you.
But unlike many filmmakers, who use tactics like this just because they can,
Gilliam uses them as part of the entire package. In the case of the aforementioned
two films, that confusion, that fear of authority, goes a long way.
(from left): Jack Lint (Michael Palin) and Sam Lowry discuss the differences between Harry Buttle and Harry Tuttle in "Brazil."
Both "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys" conjure up many of the same messages and
images wrought by the novel, "1984," and satirically attack bureaucracy, customer
service and political correctness, among other things. "You got the wrong man,"
Sam Lowry says in "Brazil" to his friend, Jack Lint, who works at Information
Retrieval. "Information Transit got the wrong man," Jack replies. "I got the right
man. The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man, and I accepted him on
good faith, as the right man. Was I wrong?"
Gilliam creates a nightmarish Utopia, meticulously constructed to an absolute T,
yet so vulnerable it spirals into chaos and is nearly brought down by . . . drumroll
please . . . a typo.
As a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, it goes without saying that
Gilliam has always had fun satirizing the status quo. In the Gilliam-directed
big-business parody, "The Crimson Permanent Assurance" -- the 20-minute short
film that comes before "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" -- if you look
closely at the stationery used by the evil corporate machine, it reads: The Very Big
Corporation of America. Even as Gilliam moved on from his Python career, he
brought many of those same satirical sensibilities into his later work.
THEATRE OF THE ABSURD
But while Terry Gilliam is well-known for his unique and nonconformist sense of
humor, he is undoubtedly best known for his eclectic visual style. Like Federico
Fellini, Gilliam has a penchant for bizarre, oft-carnivalesque visuals -- the fantasy
sequences in "Brazil," where Lowry envisions himself as a winged superhero
battling monstrous creatures made of bricks and rubble; the hallucinatory ghoulish
beasts roaming the casino in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"; or in "The
Adventures of Baron Munchausen," Robin Williams' floating dismembered head
barking orders at the Baron while his corresponding (and rather overdressed)
headless body pines for the attention of the missus; and of course the freakishly
over-surgically repaired socialite women from "Brazil," a prophetic precursor to
the over-Botoxed Hollywood vixens of today.
The heroes and villains of his films, with almost no exceptions, are nothing if not
eccentric. It's hard to forget the perfectly over-the-top performances of Brad Pitt
as the completely insane Jeffrey Goines in "12 Monkeys," Johnny Depp as Hunter
S. Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke, in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (an
underrated gem, by the way), or Jim Broadbent as "Brazil's" plastic surgeon, Dr.
Jaffe, diabolically stretching Mrs. Lowry's face to ridiculous lengths. Yet these
types of performances are all too fitting for a Gilliam film; the characters always
seem right at home.
James Cole (Bruce Willis) is held in a bleak, futuristic prison in "12 Monkeys."
"There's a side of me that always fell for manic things, frenzied, cartoony
performances," Gilliam once said in an interview. "I always liked sideshows,
freakshows. Jerry Lewis was a freakshow . . . Absolutely grotesque, awful,
tasteless. I like things to be tasteless."
Gilliam often uses his visual style to help hammer down his satirical statements.
In "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys" (we keep coming back to them, but they do seem to
be the most complete representations of his work), his "futuristic" worlds don't
look futuristic, but oddly old-fashioned. Things are dirty, rusty, industrial,
crumbling with decay -- these worlds don't look like sci-fi at all. Instead, he uses
such imagery -- like the huge, intrusive ducts that fill every building in "Brazil"
(and set up some of the funniest sequences in the movie) -- to suggest an arrested
development, as if our advanced, "enlightened" society has actually taken a step
Enhancing these images is Gilliam's original brand of camerawork; he has often
worked with cinematographer Roger Pratt, who specializes in the sort of
disorienting angles and claustrophobic imagery that makes Gilliam's films what
THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD
In the end, aside from the social statements, the winks and nods to Orwell, the
bizarre images, one thing that stands out about the films of Terry Gilliam is the
childlike wonder through which he seems to see it all. And isn't that where great
sci-fi and fantasy so often comes from? Perhaps that's just the way he prefers to
see the world. Perhaps that's why he had us see the phenomenal fantasy setpieces
of "Time Bandits" through a child protagonist's eyes. He uses a much similar
tactic in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," as a little girl, Sally (a young
Sarah Polley) accompanies an aging Baron (John Neville), legendary for his
fantastical heroics, on a journey to the moon and back. She breathes new life into
the Baron and, in the end, helps save the day. (The Sally character conjures
thoughts "Alice in Wonderland," a book and film that Gilliam constantly
Little Red Riding Hood gets lost in Gilliam's woods in "Brothers Grimm."
Gilliam's films are often cynical, yet at the same time they seem to be the answer
to run-of-the-mill Hollywood cynicism.
"One of the things I enjoy about my films is that children really love them,"
Gilliam recently said. "They are open-minded. As we get older, we seem to close
in. We limit the size of the world; we limit everything about it. We have to break
that shell open sometimes."