I can’t really imagine anyone else adapting this work, and what Gilliam does feels about as faithful as one is likely to get to the tone of Thompson’s novel: it’s a constant barrage of surreal, warped visions of drug-addled psychedelia shading over endlessly into the bleak darkness of the American Vietnam War-era psyche. And yet it’s so exhausting to watch, so unrelentingly ‘gonzo’ in its approach. Surely this is the genesis for the rest of Depp’s later career, as his director makes no effort to rein in Depp’s absurdist tics whatsoever (he probably demanded more), and so his Thompson/Raoul Duke is bouncing off the walls — apt for the character no doubt, but as I say, tiring to watch. Which probably makes this film adaptation some sort of masterpiece, maybe even Gilliam’s best work (he’s certainly not done anything since that, to me, matches it), but it’s also a weary, weary descent into a very specifically American madness.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox and Tod Davies (based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson) | Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini | Starring Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 3 October 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 October 2017)
I think it’s reasonable to hold the things you love when you’re a teenager to a different set of critical standards. People who got into Star Wars back when that was first out can sometimes be unreasonably dogged in defending it, even though, well, it’s not really all that good (the first one has a sort of camp enjoyability to it, I’ll admit). Life of Brian comes from that same era, and even features a short sequence that nods towards the recent popularity of that aforementioned space-set blockbuster, and needless to say it was a common fixture on the television during my formative years, at which time I found it to be pretty great — though I always liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) more myself. I haven’t seen any of the Python output in decades, though, so it was interesting to revisit this foundational text as part of my Criterion-watching project, and for all that I want to say it’s still a shining beacon of 1970s British comedy (and maybe it is; I don’t know much of the era’s competition), it has sadly not aged all that well for me. Sure it’s always worthwhile to take aim at misplaced religious zealotry — something that I’m sure we’re all aware continues to be relevant today — and Brian takes some good shots at this kind of small-minded thinking by having its not-very-Messianic figure hounded to his death. However, it’s still ultimately a group of middle-class Oxbridge graduates being sophomorically silly about the Bible; I don’t believe that’s a case for any kind of censorship, it’s just not always as funny as it thinks it is (and these lads, particuarly Terry Jones, playing women continues to grate). Still, there remain some classic comedy sequences, the best of them skewering po-faced 1970s socialist groups, as in the ‘what have they ever done for us?’ debate chaired by John Cleese’s Reg (of the People’s Front of Judaea, not to be confused with their mortal enemies the Judaean People’s Front), or an ‘action’ committee he chairs near the end. I suppose one’s reaction to this is dependent on the level of nostalgia you cling to around the Pythons, but I do honestly wonder how the kids of today find this stuff. Ultimately, it feels very much of its era.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Terry Jones | Writers Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam | Length 93 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 November 2015 (and many times at home on VHS, Wellington, in my youth)
Terry Gilliam’s films feel like a lot of work sometimes. It’s not that they’re complicated or pretentious, just that they’re filled with lots and lots of stuff. The set design is claustrophobic and packed with detail, there are gags happening in multiple parts of the frame, little visual jokes or passing fancies, the performances are hectic and filled with excess: he just constructs really very busy worlds. It was evident in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and it’s even more so here, the film which in many ways defines his visual and directorial style. Brazil is an anarchic experience that sprawls over two-and-a-half hours, as low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) starts to discover the state-imposed limits to his freedom. The film’s interest seems not to be in that he falls in love (though he does, to the mysterious Jill, played by Kim Greist), but that his dream world unlocks a vision of a reality that has been systematically shut down by the government for whom he works. Its functionaries are buried in a mountain of papers and filing, from under which Lowry can only slowly and with great effort crawl. This Kafkaesque quality of struggle is what gives the film its style, as obstacles both technological (the cranky mechanical systems that spill across every set like human viscera) and bureaucratic (blue-collar workers like Bob Hoskins, or white-collar mandarins like Ian Holm and Michael Palin are particularly memorable) get in his way. This all should make the film-viewing experience heavygoing (and later films like The Zero Theorem return to the same milieu to lesser effect), yet there’s an underlying lightness of touch. His world is a dystopia, certainly, but it isn’t the brooding chiaroscuro of, say, 1982’s Blade Runner. Instead, it’s dystopia as comedy.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond | Length 143 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015
If this is considered a family film classic, then it’s a dark and strange one. In many ways, it feels like something of a template for Terry Gilliam’s later filmmaking after the previous decade spent subsumed into the Monty Python comedy collective. It’s a story that comes from a place of imagination and wonder, so it’s suitably focused on a young boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock in his only film role), who’s led by a group of dwarves from his bedroom through a portal into another dimension of fantasy and Gilliamesque weirdness. I’m not sure I’m always a fan of Gilliam’s skewed take on the world, though it’s impossible to deny the anarchic energy he brings to every element of filming and set design, the latter of which seems to be entirely based around the toys littering Kevin’s bedroom. The film takes a child/dwarf’s-eye view of the world, with plenty of close-to-the-ground framings of various dastardly creatures (giants, swordsmen, God and Evil, and the very tall John Cleese as a condescending aristocratic Robin Hood). Gilliam keeps the film focused on the merry little band, with strong roles for David Rappaport as their self-appointed leader Randall and Kenny Baker as lovably dim sidekick Fidgit in particular, though given their bandit nature, all of them remain largely selfish and nasty up to the end. Time Bandits has that delight in upsetting the adult world of order that you see in, for example, Roald Dahl’s kids’ books, so it’s certainly not devoid of gruesome little jokes scattered around the madcap capering through this literalised dreamscape. Quite what it all amounts to, I’m not always sure, but it’s certainly diverting.
Criterion Extras: There’s a long filmed interview with Terry Gilliam from on stage at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, around the time of the release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which he speaks volubly and at length about his career, with only brief prompting from his on-stage interviewer. He only briefly touches on Time Bandits, but it’s an interesting piece. There are shorter pieces about the creation of the film’s look, as well as archival footage of Shelley Duvall talking about her (very small) role in the film. The commentary track merges a number of interviews, primarily with Gilliam talking about the making of various scenes, but with brief interpolations from some of the actors like Craig Warnock, Cleese and Michael Palin, who was also a co-screenwriter, and is all very informative.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, David Warner, Ralph Richardson | Length 116 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2015
Apologies for the intermission. I was away on holiday for the last week, and though I’d intended to put a few posts up, in the end I didn’t get around to it. Have sort of found myself spending rather more time proscratinating than writing, so I’m a bit behind. Just need to get back into the writing habit…
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Terry Gilliam | Writer Pat Rushin | Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini | Starring Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges | Length 107 minutes | Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 17 March 2014 || My Rating good
There was a point, back when I started going to the movies, when a new film by Terry Gilliam was something that got people properly excited, and more to the point, got me quite excited. But that was the mid-1990s and a lot of time and projects (filmed and unfilmed) have passed through his career since then. Now, maybe it’s just because I’m not at university anymore that I’ve missed the frenetic and excited discussion about this new film, or maybe it’s that Gilliam’s peculiar vision is no longer aligned with the zeitgeist, but when a friend suggested going to see The Zero Theorem, I had to look up just what it was. So just to recap: it’s the new Terry Gilliam film.