The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam
If Terry Gilliam didn’t make movies, what would he be? An artist and a cartoonist, certainly – he says he’s always drawn, and he made a living at it in the early 1960s. But just supposing we took away his pencil? Maybe it’s a knock-on from the antique traveling theatre at the heart of his latest film, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, but it seems natural to imagine him in a circus context. He could be the ring-master, or the clown, the lion-tamer or the showground barker… I could even picture him as the bearded lady. Maybe all of the above: it would be the greatest one-man show on earth, with the proverbial cast of thousands.
To some extent every director has to be a jack of all trades, but artists like Gilliam put such a strong individual stamp on their work it shows through in every nook and cranny of the frame. I talked to his favourite, one-eyed cinematographer Nicola Pecorini a few years back, and he told me how Harvey Weinstein had fired him mid-shoot from The Brothers Grimm “because I was shooting it the way Terry wanted it to look. Then they brought in a new cinematographer and Terry shot it his way anyway.”
So what are the hallmarks of a Gilliam movie? In no particular order, there’s the abiding interest in fantasy, and other worlds – in fact it’s hard to think of a Gilliam movie that doesn’t involve alternate realities of some kind. Related to this, there’s a fascination with myth, legend and history (The Fisher King; Time Bandits; The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen), and a deep dislike for bureaucracy, repression, and the petty bourgeoisie (Brazil; Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas).
His heroes are quixotic visionaries or madmen, liars or innocents – characters capable of seeing the bigger picture even when nobody else sees it the same way. Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is of that ilk, a storyteller graced – or cursed – with secret knowledge, a lonely romantic, as well as a director-producer who feels increasingly out of touch with modern times (in the film’s first scenes we see the Parnassus traveling theatre performing for an unappreciative audience of drunken yobs).
All of which might be woefully self-aggrandizing, if not for the exhilarating extravagance of Gilliam’s imagination and his subversive, anarchic sense of humour. He was a Python after all. Even in his darkest, most perverse film, Tideland, which is full of death and drugs and which is entirely populated by the demented and the disturbed, there is a glint in his eye, a glee in stirring things up, and a lyrical insistence on beauty and wonder in our midst.
He’s suffered his fair share of hard luck in a career blighted with unproduced projects and lengthy gaps between films, but then an eccentric talent is never going to have an easy ride in a field so expensive as the movies. Better to celebrate how much he has gotten away with: a dozen features; wild, prodigious cinema unique to his vision but always unpredictable and fresh, contrary and expansive – movies that open up and bloom before your eyes.
The Best of Gilliam Collection
2. Time Bandits (1981)
Maybe the most purely Gilliamesque movie of them all: a quick trip through the best bits of world history in the company of a small boy and several short people.
5. The Fisher King (1991)
Yes, it’s his most conventional film, but it would still be remarkably strange by anyone else’s standards, and Richard LaGrevenese’s script does hang together better than some of Gilliam’s more wayward efforts. Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams are good, but Mercedes Ruhl steals the picture.
Titles related to this article