“To be deemed to be OK, to be part of the culture, that's the kiss of death. When I'm pushing against something it helps me define what I believe. I've always been led to see what's beyond, what's round the corner. The world tries to say that this is what it is, and don't go any further, because out there are monsters. But I want to see what they are.” -Terry Gilliam
It all started with the dwarves. It often does. Back yonder, in the days when we had to play rock paper scissors each night to see who would light their clothes on fire to provide light and heat, we also managed to have a luxury or two…although not always at the same time. And one of said luxuries was a grand and imperious invention that would serve as the John the Baptist for the coming televisual revolution. And it was dubbed Home…Box…Office. And it was good. The first day.
And the Lord said “Let there be films (one day, they’ll just call them ‘content’) for this raging imperious prophet of the airwaves! But let’s not go too overboard with how many, okay?” And so the demigods of the budding universe they called “cable” worked their dark arts and procured that divinely mandated limited number of films, just enough so that their latent audience of television fiends would offer forth their hard earned shekels for the monthly privilege of indulging their visual cortexes (thus fulfilling the prophetic advice of Isaiah 67:24, which reads “Hook thy brothers first with a meagre and free taste, for then shall they chase the dragon with great ardour.”)
And so, in these murky and mysterious times, did Home…Box…Office…acquire the rights to show a film about a young and imaginative boy, his awful television addict parents, the pure embodiment of evil…and a troop of thieving dwarves, who had stolen the MAP TO THE UNIVERSE (the one that showed all the secret time portals) from the Supreme Being (God, litigious soul that he can be, refused to license his nom de plume to such an endeavor.) A film directed by an American ex-pat who’d gained some modicum of fame from being an animator for a British gang of comedy thugs. And for being The American in this gaggle of Brits.
And so it was that my life was irrevocably changed.
I remember watching Time Bandits in pieces when it debuted on HBO. And quite frankly, I had very little clue of what it was all about at first. It just seemed a bit strange. And British. Very British. But it focused on the adventures of a kid! And when you’re a kid…well, I hope you know that feeling. And the supporting players were smaller than the kid! Do you realize how gratifying it is when you’re a child to find humans who are shorter than you, especially when they’re adults?
Time Bandits seemed to play on a pretty regular rotation back yonder, and my dad was a committed enough cinema junkie that he often left HBO on in the background. So slowly, I saw more and more of this madcap flick. And I started to see more of it from the beginning. Like many formative experiences, it dug deep into my developing brain. And like many formative experiences, I didn’t fully understand its impact until years later.
Over the years, I would periodically catch Time Bandits when it would briefly reappear on one cable channel or another, and even though I’d enjoyed it as a child, I relegated it to a hazy and fond memory. It wasn’t even until the mid-‘90s that I knew who Terry Gilliam was. But boy, when I finally put it all together, there was no going back.
When I discuss my favorite filmmakers with friends, there are easy names the roll right off my tongue: Scorsese, Lynch, Altman, Romero, etc. At this point, I think that I can access these directors so readily because I own so many of their films, which is a nice visual mnemonic to use. But give me a minute or two and Terry Gilliam always comes to the forefront. I’ve probably seen other directors’ films more times. I’ve definitely devoted more writing and reading to the other ones. I taught an entire class on Scorsese. But when it comes to emotional and philosophical connections with film (and art, for that matter), Gilliam is probably the director for whom I share the greatest affection and admiration.
Some of you in the audience who know me well will now commence with a resounding “No shit!” And yeah, I’ll own up to the similarities that Terry and I have. Primarily an anti-authoritarian streak a county wide. And the distinct inability to keep our mouths shut when a little reticence would greatly help (which oftentimes is also confused or overlapped with that most dreaded of descriptors: a big mouth.)
And those qualities are equally charming and damning when it comes to Gilliam’s career…and probably my own. But my admiration for him lies much more in his still-unyielding desire to be a dreamer. And not just a head in the clouds dreamer (Brazil is a fairly acerbic critique of where that mindset can lead you). For Terry Gilliam, dreaming is all about the activation of the imagination, the use of it as a language, a tool, a transportation device to another world, a time machine, a way to better understand yourself and ourselves. It’s imagination embodied in the intricate production design of his films, some of which is never recognized by 90% of the audience (The Hamster Factor, as the 12 Monkeys making-of documentary of the same name dubs it.) It’s a relentless romantic heart beating underneath the cynical mechanics of the world (as in the enchanting Grand Central Station fantasy waltz in The Fisher King.) It’s touching the outer atmosphere of sanity, and then questioning whether the real sanity starts past that barrier.
Terry Gilliam’s films have the capacity to affect me like no others. To this day, Time Bandits reminds me of the power and value of imagination in a consumer-driven world. At times, Brazil depresses me to no end, but its cold beauty and laughter in the face of doom are awe-inspiring. The Fisher King always reassures me that yeah, romance is a little insane, but, as Nietzsche once said, “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.” I think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the most underrated films of the ‘90s, a hilarious, hallucinatory, troubling voyage through the end of the American Dream. And even though I’ve seen it at least ten times, the climax to 12 Monkeys completely tears me up each time.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be going through Terry Gilliam’s filmography in (mostly) chronological order, delving into each film in essays that…well, I’m not sure what form they’ll take. But that should be part of the fun. I’ll probably be sticking to his solo directorial efforts, although maybe I’ll break down and write about Holy Grail and his short film for Meaning of Life. I’ll definitely be writing about Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha, which might be the definitive Gilliam film (even though he’s just the star.) And we’ll see where it goes. Because sometimes, you have to strike out into life without a definite plan to figure anything out.
Several years ago, a now-former student asked me for my life philosophy in five words for a class project she was working on. I told her “Always be skeptical. Always dream.” I’d like to think that Terry Gilliam would agree with me.