The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 4: Terry Gilliam

Terry-GilliamMost of the Pythons are Renaissance men, spreading their ideas over projects in a variety of media, and this fact alone means that this blog series will never be as complete as the Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles. It was relatively easy to listen to all the songs of the ex-Fabs, but it would be an impossible task to run down every solo project of the Pythons. I cannot time-travel back to 2008 then get myself to Lisbon, Portugal, which is thus far the only time and place to have witnessed a staging of Terry Jones’ opera Evil Machines. Nor is Eric Idle’s well-regarded 1975-76 TV show for the BBC, Rutland Weekend Television, available in any form. Other examples abound.

TERRY GILLIAM, on the other hand, focused with laser-like intensity mastering one medium — film. And that makes assessing his output relatively straightforward.

Although his face is not as familiar as John Cleese’s, Gilliam is, in his own way, one of the most widely-known members of the Pythons. His movies frequently — but not always — make it to cineplexes across the country. And if you ask one person who is not a regular Python viewer to name something they remember about the show if they’ve seen it, and they will almost always say “the cartoons.”KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

To perhaps an even greater extent than Jones’ insistence on striking locations, Gilliam’s animations are the true visual hallmark of all the Python projects, especially on the Flying Circus TV show. Gilliam mixed up his own hand-drawn, airbrushed, paper cut-out grotesqueries with snippets of famous works of art and Victorian-era photographs in a stop-motion melange that caused the Python material to flow from concept to concept without awkward transitions. When a sketch ran out of momentum or stopped being funny, there was no need to bring it to a conclusion, which is the biggest headache in comedy sketch-writing. (More sketches fall flat due to a poor ending than for any other reason.) A Gilliam cartoon would simply take over and get them to their next idea.

Gilliam’s role within the group was initially unclear. He was the lone American among five Brits, a Vietnam-era ex-pat cartoonist who started scribbling for the second season of a kids’ show (Do Not Adjust Your Set, ITV, 1967-69) that Idle, Palin, and Jones had developed after earning their stripes in the David Frost writing room.  In the credits of the first five episodes of Flying Circus, he wasn’t even listed with the others. His sole credit was for animations. He spent most of his time in isolation, working from vague cues in the script (sometimes as bare as “insert a Gilliam sequence here”), going through the painstakingly slow animation process under a tight deadline. The voices and sound effects were done by Gilliam himself, getting under a blanket with a tape recorder and making his typical grunting and farting noises, and rattling pots and pans. If he were lucky, he could corner another Python in a BBC hallway to record “proper” voices. It became increasingly clear as the show went on that Gilliam was an integral member of the team, even if he did not write sketches nor appear much on-camera. (He would pop up in bit parts from time to time, because on studio shooting days — when the other five Pythons were the busiest — he had very little to do, having already submitted his animation reels to the director). Gilliam was a true Python, and was credited and regarded as such from the sixth episode on. He may have had second thoughts down the line…

Cut-out animation could not contain the visionary Gilliam’s ambitions for long. After the Flying Circus TV series ended and the team turned to feature films, less and less animation was used. What little animation there was in The Meaning of Life, Gilliam cheerfully admits, was done by a staff he hired. No, what Gilliam wanted to do was direct.

And not direct Python films. His experience co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Jones was not a happy one.

He did receive credit for “production design” on Life of Brian, and while his paid lackeys labored away on the Meaning of Life animations, he was on a huge sound stage directing a “special sequence” for Meaning of Life, while Jones directed the main film on the stage next door. The sequence, called The Crimson Permanent Assurance, was about a group of meek, elderly accountants forced to turn to piracy, “sailing” their crumbling building through the sleek financial district of modern London. It was supposed to be a six-minute segment that pops up two-thirds of the way through the main film. Instead, it ended up being almost a half-hour, and cost as much as the rest of The Meaning of Life. (“Nobody told me to stop,” he shrugged.) Trimmed to sixteen minutes, it was placed in front of The Meaning of Life as a separate short film.Heart-Attack-monty-python-10868648-720-480

When The Crimson Permanent Assurance received better reviews than the main film, and with a bona fide box office hit feature of his own already on his resume (Time Bandits), he knew he was on the right track. He wanted no compromises, no “teammates,” no roadblocks to executing his singular vision.

And what a vision! His films are dark fantasies, disquieting dreams that don’t quite cross the line to nightmare. They are prone to pulsating surrealism and often downright grimness, which has made him almost persona non grata to most major studios, has alienated mainstream audience masses, but has won him a rabid cult fan base (myself happily included) and the respect and admiration of other visionaries. (He was the first choice of J.K. Rowling to direct the Harry Potter films, which gives you a good idea of what was in her mind as she was concocting them.)

And he doesn’t exactly crank them out. His ideas are so idiosyncratic and such a tough sell to the typical studio money-man, he’s gone as long as seven years between theatrical releases. His films are few enough in number that they can easily be listed here:

Jabberwocky (1977)

Time Bandits (1981)

Brazil (1985)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

The Fisher King (1991)

12 Monkeys (1995)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Tideland (2006)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

The Zero Theorem (scheduled for December 2013)

Odds are you’ve seen at least some of these — and enjoyed some, been baffled by others, and perhaps really despised a few. Gilliam’s films do not allow for passive viewing. Whatever you may think of them, they demand some kind of reaction.APTXDD

He’s also a filmmaker of extraordinary bad luck. His epic, multi-year struggle to bring his personal version of Brazil to the screen against the resistance of a meddling studio inspired an entire book, The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal by Jack Matthews.  The Adventures of Baron Munchausen started production months late (costing thousands of lost dollars each day the cameras didn’t turn), due to either the a) inexperience or b) corrupt shadiness of the German/Italian production team, depending on whose version you believe. The project’s biggest star, Sean Connery, bailed from the project when his part was shortened due to budget concerns. These, and many other gut-wrenching disasters, are chronicled in yet another book, Losing The Light: Terry Gillian and the Munchausen Saga by Andrew Yule. (Pro tip: If your projects’ issues inspire entire published books, you’re probably pretty star-crossed.) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ star, Heath Ledger, did Connery one better by actually dying midway through shooting. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was never completed, despite two attempts (so far) to film it. That production’s problems are far too myriad to go into here, and led to the creation of not a book, but a fascinating documentary, Lost In La Mancha, a sad and frustrating chronicle of a movie falling apart before the director’s eyes (as filmed by the crew who were supposed to be filming the “making of” bonus feature for the aborted film’s DVD). [UPDATE: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was finally completed in 2018, but even at the finish line, its release was marred by legal wrangling among the producers. Although it received an ovation at Cannes, the reception by critics in general was indifferent, and it never got any kind of exhibition in the U.S. outside of the festival circuit. It’s on Blu-ray and you can stream it.]

And for a very long time, he was the director attached to the film version of the groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen, which languished in “development hell” for years. He finally left the project because he was unable to raise the necessary budget — a direct result of the Munchausen fiasco. (The film was ultimately made in 2009 with Zack Snyder directing.)

BEST PROJECT: A tie! In true Holy Bee fashion, I cheat my own system and flout my own rules my refusing to name one single “best” project for Terry Gilliam. I honestly could not decide which of these films I have consistently enjoyed the most. So I present both of them for your consideration.

Time Bandits

Released by HandMade Films, 1981.TimeBandits_quad_UK_Gilliam-1

One of the best family films of all time, hands down.

In the great conflict between the Supreme Being and his arch-nemesis, Evil, sometimes the (literal) little people get forgotten. A group of otherworldly dwarves, charged by the Supreme Being with repairing rips in the fabric of space-time, decide to take advantage of the Supreme Being’s inattention, and the fact that they have a map of “time holes,” in order make themselves filthy rich. As a result of a wrong turn, they end up taking along Kevin, an eleven-year-old boy living in a drab British suburb, ignored by his kitchen appliance-obsessed parents the same way the dwarves are ignored by the Supreme Being. They travel from Napoleonic Europe, to the Middle Ages, to Ancient Greece, to the deck of the Titanic, and ultimately to the Time of Legends (a place not really in our universe), all the time with Evil nipping at their heels wanting to get his claws on their map, which he will use for his own nefarious purposes.

Although Gilliam is a gifted storyteller, at the time of Time Bandits he was not particularly adept at the nuts and bolts of screenwriting. He relied heavily on collaborators. On his first film, Jabberwocky, co-writer Charles Alverson described Gilliam as a “great re-writer.” He would spew a bunch of ideas, Alverson would refine and transcribe them into a proper screenplay format, and Gilliam would then tweak it and re-work it to his satisfaction. On his later project–and some say masterpiece–Brazil, his collaborator was none other than renowned playwright Tom Stoppard (for one draft — earlier co-writers included Alverson and Charles McKeown). But I maintain his best co-writer is his fellow Python Michael Palin, who did the technical script-writing for Time Bandits. Gilliam had the vision, Palin offered structure and snappy Pythonic dialogue. Palin and Gilliam are a great cinematic match, and I wish they’d do another project someday.

The big guns in the cast are Ian Holm as Napoleon, John Cleese as Robin Hood (see the John Cleese entry), and Sean Connery as King Agamemnon. On the slightly-less-famous side of things, Craig Warnock is winning as young Kevin, and every noteworthy little- person actor in Britain pops up as one of the titular Bandits (including Kenny “R2-D2” Baker and Jack “Chief Jawa” Purvis). David Warner is Evil incarnate, and one the greatest Shakespearean actors of the 20th century, Sir Ralph Richardson, is spot-on as the Supreme Being. Richardson, in one of his final screen appearances, plays what is clearly supposed to be God as a disapproving, but ultimately forgiving, absent-minded Oxford professor, complete with tweed suit.

It is a fantastically well-made film, a critical and commercial success, and established (along with Brazil) Gilliam’s reputation as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.

The Fisher King

Released by TriStar Pictures, 1991.fisher_king

For the first time, Gilliam trades the misty glades of pure fantasy (or sci-fi dystopia), and takes on sleek, cynical underbelly of modern-day New York. Exhausted and disillusioned after Munchausen, he publicly stated he did not want to make another “Gilliam film” for his next outing behind the camera. He decided to be a director-for-hire on a script that interested him, and the result is the first film of Gilliam’s where he did not have a hand in creating the original story. Perhaps that did free him up a little bit. The Fisher King does not seem as labored as some other Gilliam films, and the production was mercifully disaster-free. Certainly heavier and less family-friendly than Time Bandits or Munchausen, it nevertheless is a nice little parable about the power of friendship and how life can give you second chances. Themes that may be alien to a typical Gilliam film can be credited to screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, who got a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for his efforts. However, its grimy, gloomy visual palette, its dips into dizzying fantasy sequences, the medieval references (“The Fisher King” tale is itself a medieval parable, and a search for the Holy Grail plays a big part in the film’s climax), and its championing of grotesques and outcasts are all proof that Gilliam can’t NOT make a “Gilliam film.”

We get a typically brilliant performance from Jeff Bridges (post-Starman, pre-Dude) as an arrogant DJ-turned-alcoholic loser, Robin Williams in full-beard mode (tolerable, toned-down and actorly, as in Good Will Hunting), as a deluded homeless man who believes he is a “knight errant,” great supporting work from Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer as their love interests, and a very memorable small part from the late Michael Jeter (Mr. Noodle, we hardly knew ye.) The story of how all these people’s paths cross is a thing of beauty which I will not attempt to summarize here (go to Wikipedia for that, or better yet watch the damn thing). It is suffused with despair and loss, and moments of outright terror, but it is also uplifting and at times, very funny. It truly earns its (spoiler alert) happy ending.

WORST PROJECT: The Brothers Grimm

Released by who-the-hell knows, a mix of Miramax, Dimension Films, and MGM, 2005.

brothers_grimmWilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jakob (Heath Ledger) Grimm are traveling con artists, exorcising early 19th-century European villages from various fairy tale curses that they themselves hoaxed up. Until they stumble upon a real curse…

A pretty nifty idea, horribly executed. This is the first Gilliam film that feels flat and cardboard, just clanking through the motions. After the initial set-up, the story becomes totally uninvolving, limping along at an absolute snail’s pace from bloated set-piece to bloated set-piece. The darkness that Gilliam usually brings to his stories turns sour and cynical, often merely unpleasant for unpleasantness’ sake. I never saw Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, but I suspect The Brothers Grimm would make an appropriate companion piece to that turkey.

SHOULD PROBABLY AVOID: Tideland. While the ponderous Brothers Grimm was bogged down post-production, its release delayed nearly a year (surprise, surprise), Gilliam quickly put together a small crew and shot this tidelandmicroscopically-budgeted indie film in Canada. It made it to the Toronto Film Festival by the end of ‘05, and struggled into a handful of theaters in late ‘06 — to a reaction that ran the gamut from confusion to nauseated recoil-in-horror. Laying out the general idea of the film — young girl lives alone with the increasingly-decayed corpse of her drug addict father and begins a possibly inappropriate relationship with her mentally-challenged neighbor — does not do justice to the queasy and relentlessly creepy tone of the film. In the hands of another director, this would be just nasty exploitation fodder, but Gilliam does not play up the shock value of the material. It’s a kind of unsettling brutality without explicitness or violence (until the very end, at least). He just wants the audiences to be deeply uncomfortable, and he succeeds.

Naturally, there is a small but vocal contingent of Gilliam fans who claim it’s the best thing he’s ever done.

WORTH CHECKING OUT: Pretty much every other Gilliam film has something to recommend it.  Those who like Monty Python and the Holy Grail will probably get a kick out of Jabberwocky, a medieval comedy loosely based on the Lewis Carroll poem. Gilliam really played up the muck and filth of life in the Middle Ages, to the point where lead actor Michael Palin described its filming as “six weeks of shit and tooth-blacking.”

brazil_1985_1293850802Brazil is frequently touted as his cinematic high point, and it is indeed great. It is perhaps the best example of the Gilliam Prime Directive: Fantasy can be used to escape the worst realities. The sci-fi world of Brazil is a combination of industrial futurism and 1940s Orwellian flourishes — a triumph of set design and visual composition, and its been ripped off dozens of times since (Gattaca, Dark City, etc. — all good films, but all owe a clear debt to Brazil.)

Gilliam’s other venture into pure sci-fi, 12 Monkeys, is also top-shelf, and boasts an Oscar-nominated performance by Brad Pitt as a mental patient who may hold the secret of the survival of the human species.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the landmark 1971 book by Hunter S. Thompson, has long been said to be “un-filmable.” Alex (Repo Man) Cox evidently couldn’t do it, as he was replaced in pre-production by Gilliam. (Sweet irony, as producers have frequently threatened to replace Gilliam on many things). Not surprisingly, Gilliam brings the drug-fueled ramblings and bizarre hallucinations of the book (and its famous Ralph Steadman illustrations) to the screen with absolute fidelity. And just like the book, it runs out of gas in its final third. The chameleon-like Johnny Depp as the Thompson stand-in, Raoul Duke, adds another over-the-top character to his deep catalog of over-the-top characters. Of course, he had the benefit of being personally coached by the good Dr. Thompson himself…

And poor Adventures of Baron Munchausen. After the traumatic nightmare of getting the epic fantasy onto film, it ultimately got caught in a transition between studio heads. Like a female version of Robert Evans or Don Simpson, Dawn Steel was practically a caricature of the shallow Hollywood shark.  A creature of pure marketing and merchandising, she was without an artistic bone in her body, and took over Columbia Studios from the kindly, avuncular British producer David Puttnam (who would greenlight something like Munchausen). Like a lion devouring a rival’s cubs, Steel systematically sabotaged any projects begun under Puttnam’s tenure. Munchausen never had a chance. (Steel ran Columbia into the ground in two years, was unceremoniously fired, and the studio was bought by Sony. She then promptly died of a well-deserved brain tumor.)

Was Munchausen worth all the trouble? Three thousand words into this blog entry, all I have energy to say is this: It is a Terry Gilliam film — with all the virtues and vices that implies.

As always, judge for yourself. Netflix and/or Amazon has all of these things at your fingertips, if you people can bear to tear yourself away from So You Think You Can Dance.

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