The Gilliam theorem: A profile of Hollywood’s niche auteur

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As Terry Gilliam’s latest, The Zero Theorem, nears release, we take a look at a bright career spent catering to the few.

Terry Gilliam has been a filmmaker for over 40 years, but has never found the same type of commercial or mainstream success as some of his peers. His career began at a time in Hollywood history when Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas were beginning their illustrious careers, when Martin Scorsese began creating his own legend, and when Steven Spielberg started to reinvent the cinema experience with a giant shark. But for a number of reasons, Terry Gilliam’s success has never been able to stretch beyond cult status. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that the majority of Gilliam’s films are built for a cult following; always kooky, never on centre. Gilliam’s eccentric nature bleeds into all of his films, and he has made some great pictures along the way, but this very same nature might be keeping him from hitting the mainstream.

Not that I think he minds.

The majority of Gilliam’s films are built for a cult following; always kooky, never on centre. It keeps him from hitting the mainstream

Terry Gilliam has never been quite right, growing up in Hollywood in the 60s and fleeing the US during that time for fear that he might become a terrorist. He left and headed for England, where he would meet up with Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, and they would collaborate to create the comedy troupe Monty Python. Working as an animator on some of the earlier Monty Python films, Gilliam directed their most popular film, The Holy Grail. While it is widely celebrated as one of the best and most influential comedies of all time, Gilliam isn’t typically credited for direction. Over the next few years, Gilliam would find success making niche films like Time Bandits and Jabberwocky while still directing Monty Python tales. But in 1985, Gilliam created a zany futuristic adventure that has since become regarded as one of the best science fiction films of the modern era.

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Brazil is a bizarre futuristic film about a man who tries to fix something and causes more and more trouble for himself along the way. Set in a dystopian future world not far from the imagination of George Orwell, Brazil stars Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro in what might be his most forgotten role. Although Brazil did not find a mainstream audience, it is one of the most lauded cult classics of the modern era. But even though Brazil is considered a modern classic these days, it took some time for anyone to warm to the film. It never quite found a broad audience upon its initial release, but over the years of video and DVD distribution it has finally found the right crowd.

Films like 12 Monkeys and The Fisher King can seem cold when, in fact, they have much warmth at their core

Gilliam’s career continued to utilise bizarre and off-kilter narratives, of twisted characters who stumble and lean through their life. In 1991, he created his best film to date – The Fisher King manages to balance reality with fantasy perfectly, telling a modern fairy tale about a broken man (Jeff Bridges) looking for redemption in the adventures of a seemingly insane homeless man (Robin Williams). The Fisher King was never commercially successful, but is heartfelt and rich with character and emotion; Mercedes Ruehl would go on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, playing Bridges’ long suffering girlfriend. It’s another film which is considered great to many, but with very little commercial success.

The conundrum here seems unusual, but when one sits back and observes these pictures, it’s easy to see how the upside down world Gilliam portrays in his films would be hard to connect with audiences. Take a film like 12 Monkeys, another brilliant dystopian sci-fi adventure starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Where is the access point for the audience in a film about a broken-down, miserable time traveler and an insane man who leads a revolution? The lack of relatable characters creates a wall for the common movie-goer. The environment is harsh and unstable most of the time, so there is never a sense of comfort with Gilliam’s always tilting and swaying camera. Films like 12 Monkeys and The Fisher King can seem cold when, in fact, they have much warmth at their core, if the viewer just allows themselves to be pulled into such a challenging environment.

Get your head around more mind-bending cinema: A Nietzschean interpretation of Eternal Sunshine

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Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas never truly cared about being relatable or accessible to most of the population. ‘Drug movies’ like Fear and Loathing have a specific drive and a narrow audience. It is a film about a cult author (Hunter S. Thompson), made for a cult following – the film, released in 1998, was Terry Gilliam’s last to find wide release. Since then, Gilliam has directed Tideland, which is virtually unwatchable, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, which largely found publicity as the last film to feature footage of the late Heath Ledger.

Other than these and a few more failed attempts, Gilliam’s career has slowed considerably in recent years. What might be the most fascinating aspect of Gilliam’s career is that a movie he never even made may be his most popular. For years, decades, Gilliam has tried to make a film about Don Quixote, and his disastrous first attempt is chronicled in one of the finest behind-the-scenes documentaries out there (Lost in La Mancha).

Terry Gilliam has a solid career filmography, though a spotty one in recent years. But even though some of his films are modern classics, and others are unmitigated disasters, there is no denying the power of his storytelling and his unique voice behind the camera. Gilliam’s pictures may alienate some, most, but they are made for a specific crowd and an eclectic audience. He may never have the fame and revered career of some of his contemporaries, but I truly don’t believe that was ever his intention.

 

Profile of another maverick director: A closer look at Lars von Trier’s Depression Trilogy

 

Featured image: Sony Pictures Releasing

Inset images: 20th Century Fox; Universal

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