Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Having watched the chaotic personal style of Terry Gilliam documented in Lost in La Mancha, I’m amazed that anyone in Hollywood would extend him the budget to make a motion picture. This is also apparently what the Brothers Weinstein thought when they advanced him some $90 million to make his version of The Brothers Grimm. They nixed Gilliam’s choice for a lead – Johnny Depp wasn’t deemed famous enough (this was pre-Pirates of the Caribbean) – and also Gilliam’s selection of Samantha Morton as the female lead. They fired his cinemaphotographer halfway through the production & refused to let Gilliam put a prosthetic nose on Matt Damon’s face – they wanted a mug front & center that said “movie star!” Gilliam is said to have been so frustrated & furious that, once the shooting was complete, he went & made another motion picture – Tideland, due out later this month – before sitting down to edit Grimm.

The miracle is that this film works, better even than Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (which we watched one evening at our cabin south of Lost River in West Virginia), tho maybe not so well as 12 Monkeys or The Fisher King – and certainly not as well as Brazil, Gilliam’s masterpiece. Most of the critics reported on the pre-release squabbling between Gilliam & the folks at Miramax & simply missed the motion picture in front of their eyes. Since Gilliam is the sort who makes films for people who like to think, even when it’s a farce, the reviews ensured that it would open weakly, failing to dislodge a pedestrian Hollywood comedy from its top spot in the weekend earnings. Once the film has gone global, moved to DVD & been shown on TV a couple of times, Miramax won’t lose a penny. But they won’t make the megamillions they’d obviously hoped for, either. And one suspects that the 65-year-old Gilliam won’t be working for Miramax again anytime soon.

More than any other film maker since Fassbinder, Gilliam cherishes chaos. If the opening moments of a great movie are characterized by forcing viewers have to make sense out of a world in which unfamiliar elements are occurring right in front of their (our) very eyes – one could build a quite credible theory that the secret to great cinema is just sustaining that sense of bewilderment, the moment before the parsimony principle has clicked into place & given us our predictable genre with its anticipated moments & ultimate conclusion – Gilliam’s strategy is to churn up as much hoopla as is possible from beginning to end, behind which the narrative machine can, from time to time, be glimpsed in motion. None of his films are about character & the plots themselves border on the gratuitous. Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo in Fear & Loathing is an amazing performance, precisely because Del Toro has almost nothing to work from other than a beer belly (acquired apparently just for the role) & an equally resourceful Johnny Depp to bounce off. Matt Damon & Heath Ledger (probably best known as the actor who portrayed Billy Bob Thornton’s suicidal son in Monsters Ball) don’t have the depth or chops of Depp or Del Toro, but they do have a major advantage in that the film’s reliance on computer generated (CG) effects appear to have forced Gilliam into story-boarding a plot together.

But plot & narrative are two different things. And hardly anybody makes this more self-evident than does Gilliam. Narrative is the unfolding of meaning in time, whereas plot is the sequencing of events in a referenced world projected by the work of art. Plot, Gilliam seems to be arguing, is necessary but not terribly important. What’s important is what’s happening right now in front of you. Thus it is not that the child is being spirited away to become the necessary 12th part of the sleeping queen’s centuries-old spell that matters, but how her eyes disappear when they are taken over by the emerging (if Ghostbuster referencing) horror that is the Gingerbread Man.

This insistence on the present detail is a Gilliam trademark, one that is accentuated by his preference for weird angle shots, minimal lighting, crowded sets, with unexpected faces filling up the entire screen (even better if something busy is going on as well, such as the emergence of many little bugs from a cuff or mouth). His films never pause for a breather & one reaction that you can see happens is that some viewers (Roger Ebert is pretty clear about this in his own reaction to the film) take their own psychic pause, as if the constant bustle ejects them from their own viewing experience. They may not – as Ebert obviously did not – ever return completely to the film.

Gilliam films are thus exhausting & not everyone makes it all the way. The Brothers Grimm is unusual in this regard in that it’s a reasonably compact project – one could even call it “neat” by Gilliam standards. Part of how this works is, I suspect, the result of one of Miramax’s interventions. Matt Damon is a stolid, phlegmatic type compared with Johnny Depp, the human chameleon. It is precisely Damon’s pint-sized version of Robert Mitchum at the center of all this rumpus that acts as an ongoing focal point, a still center amid the ongoing circus onscreen. To some degree, that is what Del Toro gave to Fear & Loathing¸ tho it’s not Del Toro’s basic style.

It’s always interesting to see who does, or does not, get it among Gilliam’s supporting cast. Just as Tobey Maguire as was completely clueless as to his role’s function in Fear & Loathing, Peter Stormare, normally a great character actor (his role as the back-alley eye doctor in Minority Report was one of that film’s high points, and he remains famous as the gangster who fed Steve Buscemi to the wood chipping machine in Fargo), can’t seem to figure out who he’s supposed to be. In fact, just as Maguire should have represented the “sane everyman” aghast at the antics of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear & Loathing, Maguire played it as tho he were a reject from a Dumb & Dumber casting call, Stormare is the one figure whose character – an Italian adjunct of the French occupation troops in 19th century Germany¹ - actually changes over the course of the film. We need to see that in order to understand that the lack of development on the part of the others is not an accident. But Stormare is all over the map, as if he were a different character in virtually every scene.

That’s a risk that Gilliam’s improvisational approach to movie making maximizes. If he doesn’t get away with it 100 percent of the time in The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam manages to do so often enough. Somebody some day will no doubt offer a deep Lacanian reading of all the psychic lightning bolts Gilliam is hurling here – the film’s basic message is that fairy tales are rooted in real lives & that, read literally, they can be horrific because the reality they reflect is as frightening as what happens to a small town when twelve small girls go missing. But I wonder who, exactly, will ever see that movie, even tho it’s the one right in front of us.


¹ The idea of setting the film in “French-occupied Germany” is a typical Gilliam gesture, so wry that you almost miss it.


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