Critic Vafa Motamedi explores the work of acclaimed director Terry Gilliam
A broken man sits humming an old tune in a prison chair; a giant with a ship on his head rises from the ocean; a drug addict sinks into his seat as he suddenly realizes he is surrounded by lizard people. It is through the creation of images like these that Terry Gilliam has defined himself as one of the greatest directors in film history. Watching a Gilliam film is a journey into the surreal, the fantastical; into worlds that are both hilarious and haunting in equal measure. Worlds where conformity is analogous to oppression and where individuality is a sin. Gilliam’s world is our world. It is a world more outlandish but just as terrifying and wondrous.
If there is something that Hollywood often lacks it is singularity of vision and a visionary to make it happen. Gilliam is one such visionary. And, perhaps to his chagrin, he has become a sort of elder statesman for all filmmakers with passion and a vision. His films, even the lesser ones, are always a breath of fresh air amongst all the processed dross that the industry heaves out weekly. Watch a Gilliam film and you may not always get perfection but you are always guaranteed something different and wholly unique.
Most filmmakers learn to work with or for the Hollywood system but Gilliam stands alone in his outspoken anger and bewilderment at their micro-managing and interfering self-centred ways. His feuds against studios and executives are the stuff of film-making legend. He famously took out a whole page advert in Variety demanding that the Universal executive who was recutting his film Brazil should release the film as Gilliam wanted it and as soon as possible. There are unspoken rules in Hollywood; things you just don’t do. Gilliam not only flouts these rules, their very existence confuses him. It is this confusion that fuels the contempt for institutions and their bureaucracy which seeps through every frame of his work. There is, perhaps, something naive in his opposition to the Hollywood machine but there is also something refreshingly pure and honest- qualities rare in a business where playing lip service is as integral an art as the actual film-making itself.
Beginning his career with Monty Python, his bizarre and often terrifying cartoons are often overlooked by casual fans but their sheer inventiveness and oddness are still as effective today as they were then. After working as a co-director on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam was bitten by the film-making bug and embarked on a career as a director.
His first notable solo film, Time Bandits, is a fun but subversive time travel comedy which serves as a sly critique of authority for all ages whether that authority is seemingly benign or malignant. Ostensibly a family film, it has an unbelievably dark ending that belies Gilliam’s storytelling method. Less a refusal and more of a total inability to pull punches and his work is all the stronger for it.
Gilliam’s films are passionate in their defence of the strange; those who look or act differently to what society deems acceptable. Twelve Monkeys is less about time travel and more about our society’s callous treatment of the seemingly mad. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the most balanced views of drug addiction ever made revelling in the freedom it brings as the protagonists burst from society’s frigid shackles but is still always mindful of the destruction that drugs inevitably reap.
His masterpiece is still undoubtedly Brazil, an Orwellian nightmare by the way of Kafka, where bureaucrats rule and dreams are discouraged. A brutal and darkly comic take on the dehumanizing effect of the modern world, Brazil, as in all Gilliam’s films, is a celebration of imagination and a condemnation of all those who wish to stifle it.
Despite Gilliam’s past successes it is undeniable that his 21st century work has been less than stellar. Perhaps this slow rot is symptomatic of the cinematic phenomenon where directors seem to lose their mojo after passing middle age. Brothers Grimm and Tideland were both failures, though as always with Gilliam inherently interesting ones. Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus was enjoyable enough but the director of Twelve Monkeys is capable of so much more than ‘enjoyable enough’. Yet the strength of Gilliam’s visual style still endures so perhaps all he needs to do is to find another great script that can match his considerable talents.
Above all, Gilliam is a visual stylist and it is his ability to create such strange yet beautiful images with apparent ease that will be his legacy. Who knows where his next film, Zero Theorem, will sit in his canon. Wherever it falls, the singular creative vision of Terry Gilliam lives on and in today’s cinematic climate we need it more than ever.