On Terry Gilliam

My DVD shelf is pretty large. That in itself is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s actually three separate DVD shelves at different parts of my room. It’s a pretty simple set up: one shelf for movies, one for TV shows, one for everything else (predominantly pro wrestling and concert films). I love movies. I love TV. I love collecting things. There are quite a few directors whose work I cherish above others. Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, and so on, but none of them reach the caliber of one Terry Gilliam, the subject of day three of Heroes Week.

Gilliam obviously got his start in Monty Python. He’s probably the least known member of the Pythons in a way, considering that he was less of an on-air performer and more of a behind the scenes animator. The transition to film directing was rough at the start; it would be difficult for anyone to consider Jabberwocky a good film. What it did do was establish the kind of film you would expect to see from Gilliam in the future, with its surrealistic humor and imagery, as well as strong fantasy elements. And things were certainly uphill from there.

There have been hiccups along the way. The third film in his 1980’s unofficial trilogy, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a bit of a mess. The Brothers Grimm, while I enjoy it for the fun of the concept, is pretty weak. There are serious problems in many parts of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, when he’s on, he’s the best director on earth. Of this I am certain. No one has the enthusiasm of this man. That’s one of the best parts of his DVD commentaries. He cares so damned much.

I hope that some day we’ll be able to see his adaptation of Good Omens. He’s currently once again working on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and hopefully this time it will actually be finished. It’s a shame that a man who was plagued with so many production and studio problems (his war with Universal over Brazil is legendary, and subject of a pretty damned fantastic documentary on the pretty damned fantastic Criterion DVD release) could be so brilliant and yet so apparently fated to not make films. You can argue about how many of the problems are legitimately the fault of Mr. Gilliam himself, but I wish he would have been able to make more films over the past twenty years. It seemed almost fitting that Heath Ledger died when in the middle of making a Gilliam film (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), which nearly led to that film not being made either. Luckily, it has been completed and may or may not have a December release in the US. Exciting times to see a new Gilliam film. On to the top five.

Top Five Terry Gilliam Films

5. Lost in La Mancha (2002)

I am fully aware that this is cheating. No, Terry Gilliam did not direct this. He brought a documentary crew with him on his attempt to film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to document the process (one would assume we would have seen something similar to The Hamster Factor from the Twelve Monkeys DVD release. The same crew was involved in the filming). Considering how horrendously the film fell apart, and that the documentarians were filming the whole process, they decided to go ahead and make the film about the destruction of the shoot. So many things go wrong so quickly that it almost seems like fantasy. It’s a fantastic documentary that’s also quite depressing at times considering how enjoyable the scenes that were completed looked, and how strong the concept of the film is. Hopefully the second go around will be more successful.

4. Time Bandits (1981)

The first of three Gilliam films from the 80’s that are considered an unofficial trilogy dealing with age, Time Bandits is the first real example of Gilliam as an honest to goodness filmmaker. Tons of cameos, a great art design chock full of childhood whimsy, and a really fun romp through a combination of situations featuring famous folks both historical and fictional (Ian Holm as Napoleon? John Cleese as Robin Hood? Sean Connery as Agamemnon? Awesome!). It’s a great film for everyone.

3. Twelve Monkeys (1995)

I saw La Jetee (the French film where Twelve Monkeys got its inspiration) when I was in college. I had seen Twelve Monkeys years before, but watching La Jetee certainly added to my appreciation for the film. It’s very well constructed, and one of the tightest examples of time travel working logically you may ever see. It’s the film that solidified Bruce Willis as someone beyond a simple action star, and Brad Pitt as someone beyond a pretty boy. In that respect, it is a very important film, and it’s a good thing the quality is so excellent throughout. Great twists abound, and the ending works out extraordinarily well.

2. The Fisher King (1991)

Jeff Bridges plays a Howard Stern-equse shock jock whose life falls apart when he inadvertently sparks a killing spree. Robin Williams plays a now homeless man whose life was ruined by that selfsame killing spree. What follows is a humorous but sobering tale of Arthurian legend, overcoming obstacles, life on the street, and forgiveness. It’s a touching film, and one of Jeff Bridges’ better performances. It’s also probably one of the most straightforward of Gilliam’s films. Sure, there’s a fantasy element and the cinematography is unmistakably Gilliam, but it’s somewhat tame compared to the other entries in his filmography.

1. Brazil (1985)

The best film I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Pryce is fantastic. Ian Holm is at his unsure, wormy best. DeNiro is charming as all hell. Palin’s great. Everything’s great. Imagine if the ruling class in 1984 were complete and total bureaucratic morons that that managed to take control anyway. The story involves Sam Lowry’s attempts to just live his life and get the girl, but spins wildly out from there as more and more ridiculous things seem to happen to him. He has dreams of courage and conquest but cannot act on them in his daily life. He’s weak. Brazil is the best film I’ve seen simply because it is so strong in every sense. Startlingly well acted. Fantastic set design and cinematography to create a future dystopia just left of center. Brilliant writing with one of my favorite twist endings ever. It’s chock full of things you’ll never notice (let’s thank both Criterion and Gilliam for probably the best DVD package I’ve ever seen and some wonderful commentaries). It is simply the best. Nothing comes close.