GILLIAMESQUE

LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)

Gilliamesque is the title of the recent autobiography by Terry Gilliam (co-written by Ben Thompson). On the cover, the byline announces “A Pre-posthumous Memoir,” but when you open the book this byline has a black mark through it, as does the byline below that, “TG’s Bio(degradable) Autography,” also marked through is the third byline: “A singular person’s first first person singular Palin-dromic biograph.” A fourth line is left alone: “My Me, Me, Me Memoir.” Those four pronouns promise to give readers a focused look into Gilliam’s life that is sure to be of interest to any fans of his work. Folks in that latter category should also know that FilmStruck is currently showcasing four films that also put Gilliam in the limelight.

TIME BANDITS (1981)

Time Bandits (1981)

The reason Time Bandits had happened in the first place was because I was trying to sell the idea of Brazil to Denis O’Brien, but he had absolutely no interest in it. That was what triggered me to say, “OK, if you don’t want me to do something for grown-ups, I’ll do a film for all the family.” It took no powers of persuasion at all on my part to get that one through, and when Time Bandits ended up being the most successful film I – or HandMade – ever did in America, that inevitably led me to being offered all sorts of other Hollywood projects that I didn’t want to do.” (Gilliamesque, p. 193)

Time Bandits was recently graced with a 2K restoration by Janus and given a re-release as part of something called Art House Theater Day last September. The story of a child who escapes into fantasy realms with the help of treasure-stealing little people thanks to a map of wormholes is still entertaining audiences 35 years later. It’s blessedly free of CGI and full of old-fashioned camera tricks that would make Méliès proud. Time Bandits is also the first in a trilogy of sorts wherein Gilliam puts his own spin on the riddle of the Sphinx, which asks what starts out on four legs, then goes to two, and finishes on three. The answer being man (who first crawls, but eventually uses a cane), but in Gilliam’s case he starts out with a boy who is transported to fantasy worlds, moves to a grown man who escapes to fantasy worlds (Brazil), and then moves to the old man who is trying to keep fantasy worlds alive. This latter film being:

ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, THE (1989)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

The genesis of Gilliam’s involvement with the affairs of the notorious Baron came about during a visit in the summer of 1979 to ex-Beatle George Harrison’s magnificent nineteenth-century house. Harrison first mentioned the character as they strolled together through the manicured grounds and rose-trellised pavilions. Later that day, he showed Gilliam his leather bound collection of Rudolph Raspe’s Munchausen editions, complete with illustrations by the French painter Gutave Doré. To the captivated Gilliam they looked exactly like movie storyboards. (Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam & The Munchausen Saga, by Andrew Yule, prologue.)

It’s $46 million dollar budget might seem par for the course by today’s standards, but back in the late ’80s it positioned Munchausen to be, according to Andrew Yule, “one of the most expensive features in history, the biggest film to be produced in Europe since Cleopatra.” It was also to be fraught with so many scandals, political feuds and life-threatening vendettas that waves of bad publicity meant the film had little chance of recovery. Perhaps Mel Brooks was right, when he told Gilliam: “Terry, are you serious? You’re going to make a movie epic about a 75-year-old man and an 8-year old girl set in the eighteenth century? Give up now, kid!” (Losing the Light, p. 42.) Thankfully, for Gilliam, redemption was around the corner with:

FISHER KING, THE (1991)

The Fisher King (1991)

It seemed a nice idea to do Fisher King because it broke all my rules: it wasn’t my script, it was set in America, it was a studio film – everything I’d said I wouldn’t do. But I’d tried doing things my way and got into a mess, so why not break my rules and see what happened? In a sense, everything I’d done had been reacting against America or trying to show America that there was another way of doing things. That’s why I was doing optical effects down at Peerless, to demonstrate that you don’t need Industrial Light and Magic. And I remember how angry I was after reading William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade, because he implied that there was no other way of making movies than in the Hollywood system – it was as if what the rest of us were doing didn’t exist. So this time I decided to do everything differently. This was the first time I didn’t have final cut. It was head-in-the-lion’s-mouth-let’s-show-‘em time. The point was to make sure I came in on budget and did all the right things: it was like putting together a new business card. (Gilliam on Gilliam, edited by Ian Christie, p. 193.)

A solid script by Richard LaGravenese with great characters that would be played by Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams and a scene-stealing Mercedes Ruehl (who would win an Oscar© for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) helped lead The Fisher King to a slew of accolades and award wins and nominations. A resounding box-office success, it put Gilliam back on solid ground and would be followed by another success with Twelve Monkeys (1995), then a mixed reception with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and then a couple years later…

LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)

Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe, 2002)

Delivering a severe blow to an ambitious attempt by a team of French, British, Spanish and German co-producers to create a European tentpole movie without prior involvement of a U.S. partner, production of Terry Gilliam’s $32 million Johnny Depp starrer The Man Who Killed Quixote has been suspended indefinitely after the actor portraying the title character, Jean Rochefort, was forced to leave the shoot with a double disk hernia. The 70-year-old French star fell ill only three weeks into principal photography, which began Sept. 25 in Spain. The producers are scrambling to reset production for January, with or without Rochefort, in what could become an enormous insurance headache. (Knight Falls on ‘Quixote’; Euros’ Tentpole Topples, by John Hopewell and Adam Dawtrey, Variety International.)

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were young filmmakers familiar with Terry Gilliam from their The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkey’s (1996) documentary. They intended to similarly cover Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Quixote, only to find themselves witnessing a litany of problems that would become epic in scope. Gilliam was devastated, but felt that “someone has to get a film out of this. I guess it’s going to be you.” Lost in La Mancha got a U.S. premiere at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival and remains highly recommended viewing for any aspiring filmmaker curious about how many things can possibly go wrong on a film set. (The answer? Everything.)

I had a chance to talk with Terry Gilliam while attending Telluride that year. He was in a state of despondency and still shell-shocked at the fact that he had been invited to a film festival, not to present his own movie, but rather the film documenting the demise of his beloved project. At that time he was contemplating his own mortality, and wondering what five or six movies he might have left in him before shuffling off our mortal coil. The answer, so far, and among a slew of side projects, is The Brothers Grimm (2005), Tideland (2005), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), The Zero Theorem (2013), and a film currently in pre-production slated for a 2018 release called… The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Pablo Kjolseth

15 Responses GILLIAMESQUE
Posted By Doug : January 8, 2017 10:30 am

I’ve always been a bit cold towards Gilliam the film maker. For me, too much pretense and empty flash.
I didn’t know that about Harrison, but it makes sense; I think that of the Fab Four, George Harrison was the student of history, one who looked deeper into humanity.
Gilliam does benefit from loyal fans and very loyal ‘famous’ friends who populate his films.
I can’t get away from the idea, though, that if Gilliam had been 7% less of a “MY vision, MY ART despot”…he might have been able to make many more good films. Collaboration isn’t evil, and one who must dictate every single element had best have something worth hearing to say.

Posted By EricJ : January 8, 2017 3:55 pm

Gilliam in interviews THOUGHT he was doing some “savage cynical destruction of childhood dreams” with Time Bandits, but instead created one of the more fun movies of the already legendary Summer of ’81.
The whole Sean Connery scene has wide-eyed JK Rowling all over it, and even the “satirical” opening/closing scenes with Kevin’s parents have Vernon Dursley written all over them.

It’s sort of my best example of how few directors believe their own reputations more than himself, and Gilliam -thinks- he’s a lot more Bitingly Satirical than he actually may be.
Baron Munchhausen could have been the same fun movie, but unfortunately was made after “Brazil”, where he first realized he was a Bold Aburdist-Symbolist Genius, now that the mean big studios were picking on him.

Posted By George : January 8, 2017 10:01 pm

Guys, Gilliam has had some missteps, and his output is uneven — as it is for ANY director who makes films over several decades. But he’s still one of the most original and talented directors we have.

I mean, what do you want? A Gilliam-directed TRANSFORMERS or PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie, to show he can be a team player and make anonymous dreck as well (or as badly) as anyone else?

BTW, Gilliam spent many years collaborating with the other members of Monty Python.

Posted By David : January 9, 2017 12:55 am

Brazil was his very best film.

Too bad it was censored, then butchered, when aired on TV.

Posted By Doug : January 9, 2017 7:24 am

George said: “I mean, what do you want? A Gilliam-directed TRANSFORMERS”
Thanks, George-I haven’t seen a reductio ad absurdum argument for awhile.
My point is that Gilliam could have made more GOOD movies in his career-not dreck and popcorn movies-if he had been less of an egomaniacal director who demands HIS VIEW above all and more of a collaborative artist working with other collaborating artists who also have some good ideas.
Here’s the thing-I don’t think Gilliam really has much to say worth hearing.
As for your “BTW, Gilliam spent many years collaborating with the other members of Monty Python.”…I’m aware. And they did some fascinating, good work. As a team. Collaborating. If the boys had been mere puppets moving to Gilliam’s direction…we never would have heard of them.
Say hi to Xeno for me.

Posted By Andy : January 9, 2017 1:31 pm

Doug, if you aren’t interested in what Gilliam has to say, why do you care about his films?

Posted By EricJ : January 9, 2017 3:18 pm

@George – Actually, Gilliam’s complaint about being given “Hollywood” movies was in regards to dragging his feet for twenty years on an adaptation of what was considered to be the then-unadaptable “Watchmen”.
And Gilliam’s version was going to deviate quite a bit from what became Zack Snyder’s comic-fanboy version–But then, this was back in the days when you gave comic book movies to “big” directors to figure out, and never knew what you’d get. With an uninterested Gilliam who’d played with it for a while, even less.
Think we can say that “Brothers Grimm” is as close to a “mainstream” Hollywood Gilliam movie as you’re going to get, and dear gods, it’s a mess. (In some Asian countries, Grimm was deceptively retitled “Van Helsing 2″, and Gilliam haters and fans relished the irony of how well it fit.)

And if you think Gilliam was one of the “geniuses” of Python for the cartoons, just watch him try to act and write sketches in the fourth season, after John Cleese left. Even the other Pythons thought he was a mugging ham, and subtlety of “satire” was not his strong point back then, either.

Posted By Emgee : January 9, 2017 3:25 pm

“if he had been less of an egomaniacal director who demands HIS VIEW above all and more of a collaborative artist working with other collaborating artists who also have some good ideas.”

Hitchcock was as egocentric as they come; made some pretty good movies. Oh, and Hawks, Ford, Welles, etc.etc.

Posted By George : January 9, 2017 6:29 pm

Frankly, I WANT a Gilliam film to be excessive and self-indulgent. Otherwise, what’s the point? You don’t hire Gilliam to direct a routine, formulaic piece of multiplex fluff, any more than you hired Kubrick to make that. Anything Gilliam does will be quirky, which means some people won’t like it.

But that’s OK. There are plenty of superhero sequels and assembly-line romantic comedies for people who want the same old same old.

Posted By Doug : January 9, 2017 6:51 pm

Emgee: “Hitchcock was as egocentric as they come; made some pretty good movies. Oh, and Hawks, Ford, Welles, etc.etc.”
Absolute agreement, Emgee. It wasn’t the Egomania so much as Gilliam not having much to say. Hitch and Ford and many others had the talent to back up their Egos, but not Gilliam. As for the Monty Python days-that was a long, long time ago, and they were all pretty much Absolute Beginners.
As I said-hot and cold on Gilliam. I LOVE “Brazil” but that’s about it.
Oh, and George-David Lynch is one of my favorites; he had great acclaim for “The Straight Story” which was rated ‘G’. The director of “Wild At Heart” and “Mulholland Drive”. There you go.

Posted By EricJ : January 9, 2017 9:18 pm

The problem with “Self-indulgent” is that, by dictionary definition, it means “Letting no one tell you ‘no’.”
And that’s often the most important part for a director, artist, writer, you name it–Someone to tell you your ideas might NOT be as genius, original or coherent as you thought they were.

Frankly, I facepalmed through most of the “satire” in Brazil, which not only hit us over the head with bricks, but tried to nudge us in the ribs with them, and both felt sore by the “bold” unhappy ending.
Siskel & Ebert panned the movie for being overindulgent and under-original–Mentioning the scene where Price, in his new office, has to fight over a desk with his neighbor, Roger Ebert said it reminded him of a gag Chaplin would have done in “Modern Times”, and…that Chaplin would have done it better.

Posted By George : January 9, 2017 10:47 pm

As used by movie fans and critics, “self-indulgent” is usually code for “not following the crowd.” Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin were routinely blasted for being self-indulgent. Hitchcock’s VERTIGO was criticized for being self-indulgent. Harry Langdon’s career as a director was doomed when THREE’S A CROWD (a great movie, in my opinion), was dismissed as “self-indulgent.”

As for HEAVEN’S GATE … well, we know what happened there. It was a flawed yet fascinating movie, but it was “self-indulgent,” so it had to be slapped down — hard.

Posted By Emgee : January 10, 2017 4:31 am

“Gilliam not having much to say.”In that he’s like Baron Munchausen: you’re either entertained by his fanciful tales or annoyed because it’s all nonsense.

Posted By swac44 : February 6, 2017 9:54 am

Just curious is anyone has actually seen The Zero Theorem yet? I’ll cave and watch it someday, it’s got an intriguing cast at any rate (Christoph Waltz, Lucas Hedges who is so impressive in Manchester By the Sea, and character actor faves David Thewlis and Peter Stomare). But given recent films like Brothers Grimm and Dr. Parnassus, I’m not getting my hopes up.

Posted By kjolseth : February 6, 2017 2:59 pm

THE ZERO THEOREM is worth watching and the closest Gilliam has come to something like BRAZIL, however keeping your expectations in check is definitely a good idea. BRAZIL is a masterpiece. Z.T. was made on half the budget of BRAZIL and has interesting and cautionary things to say about losing our humanity to digital ghosts in the machine, but it lacks the “everyman” charm that Jonathan Pryce infused into his Sam Lowry character.

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