Letter From The Editor - Issue 57 - June 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
I Screen the Body Eclectic
  by Chris Bellamy
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.
October 2005

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 Terry Gilliam.

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 Hollywood.


The duct-filled bureaucratic nightmare that is "Brazil."
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 Gilliam preferred.

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.


(from left): Jack Lint (Michael Palin) and Sam Lowry discuss the differences between Harry Buttle and Harry Tuttle in "Brazil."
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.

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.


James Cole (Bruce Willis) is held in a bleak, futuristic prison in "12 Monkeys."
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.

"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 back.

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 they are.

THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD


Little Red Riding Hood gets lost in Gilliam's woods in "Brothers Grimm."
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 references.)

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."


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