“The terrible thing for a guy who wants to make popular films is that I keep ending up being coursework in film schools. I don’t want to encourage film students, I want to encourage the public. But you end up being the darling of film schools” -Terry Gilliam/Gilliam on Gilliam
…so yes, some of you were asking about the Terry Gilliam series of essays that I teased last week. My intentions were good, hot to trot I became, vigor and enthusiasm and delusions ran wild. But the catch was that to go through Gilliam’s directorial career chronologically, I had to procure a copy of his first solo effort, the one film of his that I haven’t seen…well, until last night. A somewhat unheralded little flick called Jabberwocky.
It’s an odd way to kick off a director-focused series, having to finally watch said director’s first feature. And in true Gilliam fashion, this minor matter of achievement was delayed by a formidable layer of bureaucracy and paperwork: the inter-library loan system. Yeah, I had to wait five days for a copy of Jabberwocky to get transferred over to me. (Some of you are probably laughing at this seemingly prehistoric concept. But my Sisyphean adherence to such systems is part of the entertainment value of this series, right?)
This essay might be a bit of an odd duck, as I’m not sure how much I have to say about Jabberwocky. It’s an interesting film, but in many ways plays like a student project, a dry-run for Gilliam’s later, more accomplished works. Maybe the best way to provide some context is to discuss my history with Monty Python, the group, the concept, the legend (sadly, not the stage show, the souvenir program, the CD-ROM, the Officially Sponsored Peanut Butter, the commemorative underpants, or the Fully Licensed Python Burial Plan. Not yet, anyway.)
Growing up when I did was a strange time in which to become acquainted with the Pythons. By the time I became aware of their existence, they’d long since split as a formal entity. My somewhat anachronistic childhood influences (Hitchcock, Kubrick, G.I. Joe) and four much older siblings endowed me with a dry sense of humor, but somehow it wasn’t until my teens that Monty Python became a tangible thing in my mind. And by that time, the legend had begun. And everyone knows that legends without the initial experience can either be deeply inspiring or deeply annoying.
Such was my initial exposure to the Pythons. For a time, it seemed like every geeky kid I knew found tossing off Python quotes to be the height of humor and wit (because “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition” never gets old as a one liner, right?) It reminds me of the numerous people I’ve met over the years who’ve trotted out their satchel full of memorized movie lines as indisputable proof of their love of film. And the sum effect of my Python-quoting friends and acquaintances was about the same. Sure, small talk, cultural glue, etc. etc…..I get it. But when you were like me and hadn’t actually seen the source material, the whole Monty Python enterprise seemed a masturbatory. (I still hold the same thoughts about great swaths of geek culture. But I should probably stop there, lest I spit in the face of my audience too much.)
Fast forward to adulthood when, library card in hand, I finally borrowed the first three volumes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on DVD. And suddenly, revelation! Beyond the parrot sketch and all the famous quotes was this labyrinthine construction of absurdism, dry wit, scatology, and highly evolved literacy, a half-hour of comedic brilliance that required the audience to actually pay attention to the finely weaved connections therein. And to hold onto those connections from week to week. (I had obviously also missed out on Odenkirk and Cross’s Mr. Show at this point…and any number of other children of Python…but cut me some slack, okay?) It was a comedy Road to Damascus moment for me, and like any good convert I dove into the scriptures whole hog.
As I mentioned in my intro essay to this series, I became fully aware of Terry Gilliam around the time of 12 Monkeys’ release, so the Pythonic sensibility wasn’t totally alien to me. Still, finally visiting their canon after years of absorbing the legend could sometimes be underwhelming. To this day, I admire Monty Python and the Holy Grail more than I genuinely love it, so beaten into the ground have its classic bits become. Same for Life of Brian, which I can still appreciate as a great work of religious satire (although part of me still pines for Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory, the joke title for the project that the group would use to shut down inquisitive journalists.) Maybe it’s not the material; maybe I just have an inherent bias against medieval period pieces.
Which would explain my reaction to Jabberwocky upon finally seeing it. Gilliam has noted how Bosch and Bruegel were primary influences on the material and that he didn’t set out to make a Python movie, but it’s still hard not to view the film as an extension of Holy Grail and Brian…or an alternate plot tendril of either. So while I find Jabberwocky to be amusing and inventively constructed, it might be my least favorite Gilliam film (although that sentiment might change by the end of this series.)
But that doesn’t mean that it’s not an interesting film, especially in the context of what was to come in Gilliam’s career. The opening scene is a veritable stylistic calling card, with extensive usage of wide-angle lenses, slightly absurdist costumes (Terry Jones’s hat prefigures the cartoonish ones worn by Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor in Brazil), fog-filtered shafts of backlighting, and a mythological monster stalking the featured character. Religion and the business mindset are ruthlessly satirized; the presence of the monster is decimating the kingdom, but the local merchants are thriving and church attendance has tripled. There’s also a great scene early on in which Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin) sits outside his would-be paramour’s window in a boat, pining for her affections. This brief bit of business serves as a microcosm for the Gilliam oeuvre: it’s a beautifully framed twilight scene punctuated by filth and grime (her family tosses garbage out the window in his direction, part of which splatters water on the camera!), featuring a hapless dreamer of a protagonist. (Authentic filth is something that Gilliam and Jones aspired to when co-directing Holy Grail, partially inspired by the bawdy, dirt-encrusted neo-realism of Pier Paolo Pasolini, especially in his version of The Canterbury Tales.)
This last bit is what makes Gilliam’s films such a love/hate proposition for some people. Viewing Jabberwocky today can feel slightly alien because the modern entertainment business has conditioned us to root for mildly geeky outsiders who manage to rise above it all and tap into their inner hero in order to save themselves/their romantic interests/humanity. Ever the iconoclast, Gilliam has never fully embraced this motif, sometimes aggressively so. We love Michael Palin because he’s Michael Palin, but Dennis is about as ineffectual a hero as you can get, bumbling his way through the story until he accidentally kills the Jabberwock, then lauded by the same people who mocked him before being married off to the mad princess (and essentially transferred from the prison of his poverty to the prison of nobility.)
A stock Gilliam protagonist like Dennis (or Brazil’s Sam Lowry for that matter) is a prickly thing because he simultaneously embodies a dreamer’s aspirations and an incompetent buffoon’s foibles. In other words, he’s extremely human. It’s no coincidence that Gilliam started his directorial career at the end of the ‘70s, a decade in which ambiguous characters thrived in the film world. But while George Lucas and Steven Spielberg ushered in a new set of white-hatted heroes perfectly fit for the feel-good new dawn of Reaganism (to be fair, the moral streamlining of the film world is much more the responsibility of the television and business execs who took over the studios), Gilliam stuck with his principles concerning the fog of heroism…and humanity. Redemption has become the lingua franca of modern film heroes, but a Gilliam protagonist is still just as likely to achieve a minor victory (if any at all) at a film’s end.
And it’s this relentless iconoclasm that also puts some people off. Our base human desire to repeatedly witness classic heroic narratives as a bulwark against life’s travails doesn’t sit well with Gilliam’s yen for depicting the uneasy balance that corruption, lies, love, and triumph must sometimes settle upon. Even the title of the film is a feint against traditional narrative logic, inspired by the Lewis Carroll poem, but ultimately having very little to do with the content of said poem. Gilliam has said that he enjoys the free associative nature of titles in relation to the content of the work, which is somewhat reminiscent of William Burroughs’s cut-up method (cue Burroughs in the trailer for David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, gruffly intoning “Go back to sleep America!”, a very Gilliamesque sentiment if there ever was one.)
I was reminded again of Gilliam’s sensibilities, appropriately enough, during his cameo in Jabberwocky, in which he plays a man trying to gain admittance to the walled city by claiming that a rock he’s holding is actually a diamond. A few scenes later, Dennis meets him in the forest, where he’s sitting on a whole mess of rocks that are supposedly diamonds. It’s never quite clear whether he’s a con artist, or a madman who actually believes that the rocks are diamonds…or both. But we don’t have the opportunity to find out, as he’s duly snatched up by the Jabberwock and stripped of his skin. What an apt metaphor for Terry Gilliam’s long, quixotic career in the film world this would prove to be.