Escape from Gilliamland
Alfred Jarry. To any who are well-versed in the history of artistic movements, this name is instantly familiar--he is the man who started the avant garde, a host of artists who rebelled against the boundaries of art.
Jarry established this movement when he probed the barrier between life and art. One hundred years ago, during the production of his Ubu Roi, Jarry took to the streets with the clothes and manner of his main character. What began as a mere experiment mixed with publicity stunt eventually so mired Jarry into the part of Ubu that he succumbed to it, living the rest of his days in a persona he had created. Questions lingered as Jarry's life continued: Is Ubu life? Is Ubu art? Answering these would be tantamount to marking where Jarry ended and where Ubu began.
Jarry was probably the first to be tortured by the modern age's blurring of life and art, yet many have followed in his footsteps since. As we shall see, Terry Gilliam languishes under the curse of Jarry--during his days of filmmaking, the themes of his work infiltrated his life in a manner beyond his control. Though this irony must have been as painful as it was dramatic, it has provided a stunning illustration of his art's validity and truth.
Be warned: We shall herein delve into the mysteries of Gilliam's films (specifically Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)), divulging details of their plot and characters, details not intended to be known by those who haven't seen them.
Be doubly warned: This scrutiny of the margin between life and art is not for the weak of heart.
"Heroes, bah! What do they know about an honest day's work?"
-- Randall, the Head Bandit
In 1980, Terry Gilliam was already famous. As the animator for Monty Python, the notorious British comedy troupe, he had etched his name on television history by putting the stream in the most popular stream-of-consciousness show of all time. He had also written and directed such Python classics as Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979). Yet in 1980, Gilliam was to break new ground and parlay this popularity into his first watchable feature--Time Bandits. In so doing, he would for the first time experience that which plagued Jarry. The themes of anti-heroism and vapid commercialism which pervaded his film would infiltrate his life as well.
As a child, I was somewhat addicted to Time Bandits. I truly cannot recall what I saw in it during the early years of my life; perhaps I was a budding cinephile trying to traverse the gap between commercial and artistic cinema, perhaps I just identified with the three-foot-high point-of-view shots that recount the story.
The film begins small: Kevin, a young boy, is trying to explain the wonder of Ancient Greece to his commercially-brain-washed parents. At long last, he gives up, retreating to his room and the solace of his dreams. Almost immediately, he meets a crew of dwarfs--the Time Bandits--and is swept up in their quest: they have stolen the Map of the Holes of the Universe from their omnipotent Employer, the Supreme Being himself, and are using it to "get stinkin' rich."
Where is the logic in this endeavor? The Bandits wield an awesome power to travel through space and time, yet they do nothing more than filch mounds of material goods. And to top it off, the Supreme Being chases his former workers, never letting them settle down and enjoy anything they have stolen. If we consider the Bandits' lack of sound reasoning, it becomes apparent that they have fallen under the complete control of capitalist conditioning, and, akin to Kevin's parents, want to acquire things merely because they are told these possessions are 'valuable.'
The antagonist of the film, Evil, steps in. He believes strongly in the power of technology and thinks the Supreme Being wasted time creating frivolous ornamentation within Creation when he should have made lasers 8:00, Day 1. On the other hand, Evil sees the value of technology and plans to use it to usurp all of Creation and remake Man in his own image--an act seemingly already in progress, judging by our braindead consumer culture and religious devotion to science and technology.
In the meantime, Kevin tags along with the Bandits, discovering that his great heroes were not truly particularly great: Napoleon simply wants to watch "little people hitting other little people;" Robin Hood has hardly any authority over his criminal organization and barely cares for the poor; and King Agamemnon is both uxorious and unjust.
Evil interrupts this realization, using his powers of capitalist corruption and tempting the Bandits with the Most Fabulous Object in the World, the same kitchenware unit longed for by Kevin's parents. This vicious trap leads to a confrontation between Evil and many forces of good, but it is no use--Evil is too powerful. Just as it seems that there is no stopping Evil, the Supreme Being appears and demolishes it. And then the Supreme Being declares, "I think it turned out rather well."
Kevin refuses to accept the Supreme Being's declaration: he demands to know why so many people had to die, why we have to have evil at all. The Supreme Being replies, "I think it has something to do with free will," and disappears. With these disinterested gestures, even God has let Kevin down.
The story within Time Bandits has been told, but the story about it has not. We have seen how anti-heroism and vapid commercialism pervade his film, now let us see how they infiltrated his life.
Despite Gilliam's popularity, despite the fact that his and Michael Palin's script captured the interest of such renowned British stars as Sean Connery, John Cleese and David Warner, no American production companies would commit the paltry sum of five million dollars to this magnificent tale. Even with the film complete and its expensive look apparent, no company would buy American distribution rights for the same small sum. Denis O'Brien, an executive from Handmade Films (the company that made Time Bandits), eventually paid for prints and advertising in the United States--a move that earned Handmade Films around ten times their investment.
Gilliam refused to accept the executives' declaration: he demanded to know why so many beautiful yet non-mainstream concepts had to die, why we have to have Hollywood at all. The only reply he received were these executives discussing their statistics and data, claiming that no one would attend movies of this kind. Gilliam's response: "You listen to these people and you just shake your head. They are so goddamned sure they know what they're talking about, and all they are doing is guessing. They invent their own research, then depend on it as if it were science. They have no respect for the intelligence of their audience."
With its disinterested gestures, Hollywood demonstrated that it could not envision an audience with more intelligence than Gilliam's brainwashed characters--and in so doing it had let Gilliam down.
"Sorry, I'm a bit of a stickler for paperwork. Where would we be if we didn't follow the correct procedures?"
-- Sam Lowry
A few years and a couple Monty Python projects after Time Bandits' wild success, Terry Gilliam had another pet project, a script he had written with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown. In 1985, Gilliam would turn these pages into his most critically acclaimed work--Brazil. In so doing, he would again experience that which plagued Jarry. The theme of imaginative fantasy fighting totalitarian reality that pervaded his film would infiltrate his life as well.
When the script was first circulating in Hollywood, American production firms were again not interested. That is, until one fateful film festival (Cannes 1983), during which a bidding war began. When the dust had cleared, Universal had paid nine million for the domestic rights and Fox Pictures International had paid six million for the foreign rights, giving the film no one wanted a fifteen million dollar budget. "8:49 PM, Sometime in the Twentieth Century" the movie opens, the words drifting lazily over a beautiful cloudscape. After a brief moment, this image dissipates and is replaced by an Orwellian world where technology infests every corner and people are merely cogs that operate machines. We sift through the bureaucracy's drones, watching them all pulsate through the streets like hordes of infesting locusts.
Then the lovely cloud-filled skies appear once again and we watch a man in shining silver armor glide through the puffy whiteness on his Icarus-like wings. He is tantalized by visions of a blonde woman dressed in stereotypical vestal virgin clothes. After a few moments of this enticing image, we see its protagonist in a different form: a small man named Sam Lowry who is merely a government drone trapped within this dystopic world; we have followed him from the flights of his fancy to the nightmare of his reality.
Despite our disgust at his revolting life, we become attached to him. We soon find that he is without ambition, enabling him to defy the wishes of his mother, his boss and his society. However, his defiance has no direction--until, that is, his dreams enter his reality and he sees his damsel in distress. His life turns into one mission: to follow and aid this maiden. We can but hope that this mission will finally allow him to escape his bureaucratic prison.
Stepping in to help Lowry wander from the flock is Harry Tuttle. Tuttle, a renegade plumber, intercepts Lowry's panicked report of a broken heating system and takes upon the civic duty of illegally fixing it to circumvent the overweight bureaucracy's maze of red tape. Tuttle in this brief scene establishes himself as a true hero, a hunted revolutionary suspected of terrorism, a man whose desire to plumb has led him to defending himself with a gun. With the words, "Listen, kid, we're all in it together," he flies off into the city along his Spiderman-like wires.
Lowry needs no more encouragement. The next time he sees his dream woman (named Jill Leyton), he jeopardizes his future as an upwardly mobile cog in this depersonifying culture to pursue his fantasy. In his time with her, they are both marked as revolutionaries and terrorists and are captured. Lowry is taken to a tremendously large torture chamber, strapped into a grotesque metal chair and prepared for the torment to come. At that very moment, Tuttle and a rebel army rescue Lowry, allowing him to ride off into the sunset with Jill.
Or so we are led to believe--until we see that Lowry is still strapped to his chair, about to be tortured in a world that has his body but not his mind. Clouds fill the chamber, giving us hope that through imagination alone the human spirit may overcome any oppressive system.
The story within Brazil has been told, but the story about it has not. We have seen how imaginative fantasy fighting totalitarian reality pervades his film, now let us see how it infiltrated his life.
Upon completing the film, Gilliam gave Fox and Universal his 142-minute cut of the film. While Fox accepted this cut and released it in Europe, Universal reminded Gilliam of his obligation to deliver a 135-minute version. Dissatisfied with the film's dark ending, they even had the gall to recommend that he lop it off, ending the film where Sam and Jill drive into the sunset. Gilliam scoffed.
Sid Sheinberg, a top executive at Universal, seized this opportunity. While Gilliam worked to fulfill his contract, Sheinberg convinced executives that they should make the film more accessible by "taking out the depressing parts and shortening it." He prepared his own edit of the film, which began, a personal war between Gilliam and Sheinberg.
Gilliam, knowing that he could not fight the studio in a court of law ("They've got all the lawyers in the world," he quipped), took his issues into the public domain. Gilliam and Robert De Niro went on Good Morning America, holding up a picture of Sheinberg and designating him as the enemy. Jack Mathews of the L.A. Times joined the fray, weekly columnizing both sides of the conflict, distinctly favoring that of Gilliam. Gilliam finally took out a full-page ad in Variety which read, "Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film 'BRAZIL'? -Terry Gilliam."
This battle paid off when, on the night of the premiere of Out of Africa (1985), Universal's highly-touted 'film-of-the-year', Brazil received the Los Angeles Film Critic Association's awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director. After sitting on it for a little while longer, Universal finally released Gilliam's 132-minute cut. As Gilliam said, "I was getting all these phone calls from people saying, 'Oh, well done, maybe now the flood gates will open [and] we'll get films out, blah blah blah.' Of course it didn't--just like Brazil, the system doesn't change, you just escape in your madness, that's all."
In spite of this cynicality, we see that Gilliam's rabid persistence did get his film released; his dreaming allowed him to overcome the Hollywood bureaucracy, giving us hope that through imagination alone the human spirit may overcome any oppressive system.
"Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
-- Baron van Munchausen
Riding on the commercial success of Time Bandits and the critical acclaim of Brazil, Terry Gilliam was a director studios coveted--a fact Gilliam wanted to capitalize on. To this end, he and Charles McKeown adapted the drinking stories of a certain Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymous von Munchausen who had fought with the Russian army against the Turks and had exaggerated his deeds to such an extent that they became the stuff of legends.
Gilliam and McKeown wove in all of the vivid imagery that had evolved in the different versions and translations of the story, and with it created a brilliant and captivating script, the likes of which had not been seen in years. In 1989, Gilliam would turn these pages into his most expensive work--The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In so doing, he would experience that which had burned him twice before. The theme of romanticism's battle with realism which pervaded his film would infiltrate his life as well.
The frame of Munchausen is quite simple: the Baron, withered from many years of adventuring and aghast at being called a liar by the world, invites Death to take him to whatever realm lies beyond. Yet he is convinced by a young girl to stay alive a bit longer in order to save a town from the siege of theTurkish Army, a situation that the Mayor Horatio Jackson appears not to be making any headway in, despite his confidence and 'scientific methods'.
Munchausen agrees, but resolves that he will need his band of superhuman friends to help him in this great labor. To find them, he takes a sinuous path to the Moon, through the Center of the Earth, into the hat of a giant, into the belly of a whale and through many other equally fantastic places. Once his allies are all assembled, the Baron engages the Turk heroically, showing up the prissy Horatio Jackson and demonstrating the value of belief in fantasy.
Though the film digresses quite a bit, its central theme is still evident; as Gilliam says, "the clash between the baroque and the Newtonian view of the world," represented by the characters of the Baron and Jackson, "is my message in a bottle." However, Jackson, the Newtonian with narrow, methodical, 'logical' views, fades into the background of the film, leaving the confrontation between the values of romantic 'fancy' and scientific 'knowledge' to turn into the tale of the Baron's escapades.
While the Baron's adventures may not at first seem relevant to this theme, they provide illustration of his romantic view of the world, where ships can be the helmets of giants, where heads and bodies can plot against one another, where one can make off with the entire Turkish national treasure with nothing more than a few exceptional friends--where one has a right to dream. The Baron's exploits in the end provide the galvanizing force that the townspeople need to open their city gate and find that the Turk has given up his siege. A happy ending at last.
The story within The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has been told, but the story about it has not. We have seen how romanticism's battle with realism pervades his film, now let us see how it infiltrated his life.
It all began when German producer Thomas Schuhly put together a twenty-three and a half million dollar budget for the film. Despite many industry insiders' advice to him that it would cost at least forty million to make, he stuck to his figure, insisting that if the filming were done in Italy, costs would be forty per cent lower. Within this environment, he claimed that his budget would prove practical.
Yet such was not the case. The Italian crew, great artists though they were, could not keep pace with Gilliam's frenetic style of filmmaking and continually gave him more intricacy and detail than he could use. The language barrier and myriad of scams added to the host of problems, making it clear that production in Italy was more expensive, as well as quite a bit slower. These naked facts were augmented by problems with animals (tigers refusing to be sedate, elephants stampeding and a horse setting off explosions) and film financiers (who threatened to remove Gilliam from the picture and cut so many scenes that it would no longer make sense). Also magnifying the problem was a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from Allan Buckhantz, over copyright infringement (among other things); he owned the rights to remake the Nazi war propaganda film Munchhausen (1943), based on the very same Baron. (These production details are well fleshed out in Andrew Yule's Losing the Light (Applause Books: New York, 1991).)
The cast and crew fought their way through the production and all of its difficulties, incurring a final tab of forty-six million dollars, almost twice their original budget. As Gilliam said at long last, "I always identify with my lead characters. I was Sam in Brazil. 'What will become of the Baron? Surely this time he will not escape!' began as the movie's theme tune, it soon became mine."
While Gilliam's adventures may not at first seem relevant to the theme of Munchausen, they provide illustration of his romantic view of the world, in which imaginative directors can helm a gigantic film, in which a English-speaking director can plot with an Italian-speaking crew, in which one can receive twenty million dollars to make a movie with your (quite exceptional) friends--in which one has a right to dream. Yet Gilliam is not so fortunate as the Baron; though he had survived a hellish production to produce an incredibly ornate and detailed film, few came to see the movie and fewer still regarded it with the high esteem accorded to Time Bandits or Brazil. Ultimately, the ending was tragic.
"There are a great many mysteries associated with filmmaking."
-- Terry Gilliam
Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. These films comprise a trilogy of sorts in Gilliam's work, a fascinating treatise on the foundations and functions of fantasy. They were well-received by critics and audiences the world over. Yet he has not brought a film from a blank page into colorful reels of celluloid since these three movies--instead he has relied on the scripts of Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King (1991)), David and Janet Peoples (Twelve Monkeys (1995)) and Hunter S. Thompson and Alex Cox (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)). Why?
The answer seems simple: like his main characters, his dreams infiltrated, his life. These three productions were to convey Gilliam's themes to a distant audience, but these themes usurped Gilliam's art with his life, blending his dreams with his reality.
My guess would be that Terry hasn't both written and directed a film since his trilogy simply because he wishes to escape from Gilliamland.
"The story within Escape from Gilliamland has been told, but the story about it has not. We have seen how the blurring of life and art pervades my story, now let us see how it infiltrated my life.
-- Ben Guaraldi
An afterword seems in order.
In the time since I've finished this article, I have been constantly considering the intriguing visuals and absorbing themes of Terry Gilliam's work. I hear of extraordinary endeavors and look for the signature of Munchausen. The clouds float by in their majestic beauty and I search for Sam among them. And each time I find a map, I search for a hole.
I see people long for the simpler times when fantasy was more real; I watch people daydream away their nightmarish reality; I observe people trading the wondrous imagination of their youth for a scientific concreteness more appropriate for their 'maturity'.
And I've beheld the artifacts of our technological culture envelop us more and more, from the strange cleaning machines the janitors in my building use to a smokestack that belched giant puffs of steam into the atmosphere. Is saw this image and I thought of Terry--what would he say to this disgusting machine that belches the symbols of dreams? Would he call it Hollywood? Would he call it myth itself?
I know not. All I know is that I want to escape from Gilliamland myself.