Terry Gilliam

Today is the birthday of Terry Gilliam (b. 1940). I think he is one of our greatest film-makers (though he stops just short of his potential), which is why of course he rarely seems able to get a film off the ground these days. The problem, I think, is very similar to that of Welles. In fact, he shares several problems with Welles (some of which are only problems in the practical sense. 1) He is brilliant and well-read, which alienates him from the industry; 2) He can’t refrain from expressing his opinions, which alienates him from the industry; 3) He can’t conceive of making a small-budgeted movie, which would allow him to keep working, but would necessitate compromise of his vision; and 4) this beautifully expressed philosophy:

Oh, and of course 5) both Gilliam and Welles have an aborted version of Don Quixote. 

Of course, Gilliam only gets it right sometimes himself. He is best when he sticks close to subjects that seem to fuel his imagination, material that draws from his rich mental store house of graphic imagery taken from, oh, everything: medieval painting, puppetry, toy theatres, Victoriana, etc etc. To my mind, to this day, his best work is related in some thematic way to his collage-like cut-out animations for Monty Python.

The movies that tap into that part of his brain seem to work for me: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky (1977), Time Bandits (1981), The Crimson Personal Assurance (1983), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009). The ones that don’t, were disappointing: The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). (I still need to see The Brothers Grimm and Tideland).

The aborted (although reportedly still in the works) Don Quixote is of course a perfect match for his sensibility. Not just because it has that picaresque, fairy tale style plot he does so well, but because the novel (like Gilliam’s animations) has a collage-like structure. His mind works like Cervantes’. He’d also be the perfect person to direct the novels of Voltaire (which we wrote about yesterday here), or Rabelais, or Swift. Hunter S. Thompson, not so much. 

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