Filmmaker Retrospective: The Bizarre Cinema of Terry Gilliam

5. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)


To conclude the imagination trilogy, Gilliam’s next film looks at an aging man (John Neville), a lifelong devotee of the fanciful turned bitter by a war-torn modern age of progress, brought back into the world of fantasy by a sense of duty and the irrepressible spirit of a little girl (Sarah Polley). Based upon the 18th century German nobleman and raconteur, especially the folktales collected by Rudolf Erich Raspe in ‘The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen’, Gilliam and co-screenwriter Charles McKeown fashioned one of the great, unadulterated fantasy films ever made in a genre with startlingly few companions.

Once again, art and life reflect one another in Terry Gilliam’s career. As the Baron’s telling of tall tales in the film blurs with reality, leaving audiences unsure of what has truly been a mere story or not, so did the shooting of ‘Munchausen’ become littered with questions over fact (what WAS the budget set by Columbia Pictures from the start?) and fiction (has the producer REALLY been paying the bills?), as the production spiraled out of control. It’s a pity that the film has a reputation for the tall tales of its calamitous production, when the finished product shows nothing of those struggles, and is one of Gilliam’s most accomplished, impressive, sumptuous and beautiful films.

Some of the most memorable phantasmagorias in the Gilliam canon are here: the Baron riding a cannonball over the warring city as he passes the winged figure of death in the night sky, a balloon made of women’s knickers rising over the city walls, Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese as king and queen of the moon with detachable heads that can go whizzing off at any moment, Eric Idle as Berthold with his muscular legs weighed down by shackles, outer space filled with swirling astrological symbols made of stars, Uma Thurman rising from bubbling waters in a giant clam shell to recreate the Botticelli painting ‘Birth of Venus’, all of it adding to the endless series of ravishing visuals that make up the film.

The truest cult classic in Gilliam’s filmography, a notorious box office bomb that nearly sank a production company, this masterpiece has found a devoted audience and lived a happy life ever after.


6. The Fisher King (1991)


When it looked to some as if Gilliam would never be able to make a film again, after the heavily publicized debacles of the ‘Munchausen’ shoot, lo and behold he returned with a picture unlike anything he’d made before, and a signal of where his work would lead henceforth. Here was a major turning point, doing three things he said he would never do: make a film in America, make a film with a major Hollywood studio and work with a script written by someone else.

Jeff Bridges and an unrestrained Robin Williams are the center of the film, as a depressed shock disc jockey, Jack Lucas (Bridges), tries to right the past and the damage he feels responsible for in the personification of Perry (Williams), a homeless man traumatized by violence wrought by one of Lucas’ listeners. Perry draws Jack into his own delusional search for the Holy Grail and his battles with a demonic red knight, mirroring Sam Lowry’s battle with the metaphorical samurai in his dreams in ‘Brazil’.

Remaining largely faithful to Richard LeGravanese’s original (occasionally mawkish) screenplay, detouring with one remarkable trademark dream sequence of spontaneous waltzing in the middle of Grand Central Terminal, and working with a smaller budget, Gilliam was under a lot of pressure to deliver a film without fiascos. He made what would become a modest hit and one of his most accessible films, going on to win Mercedes Ruehl a supporting actress Academy Award.

The focus on character here was stronger than ever before and Gilliam’s skills with actors, always apparent but sometimes dwarfed by his gargantuan visuals, were in the forefront. Even though he was on his best behavior, one can sense Gilliam’s own restlessness with the restraint of this film, echoed in the shameless self-promotion of his previous films all over the walls of the video store that functions as one of the main sets. Even though it did not stem directly from his own muse, the film fits perfectly within the Gilliam scheme, portraying a New York City strikingly tinged with magical realism, baroque darkness and wistful dreams.


7. 12 Monkeys (1995)

12 monkeys

His next film was also a project that originated from other sources, a Universal reimagining of Chris Marker’s 1962 masterpiece ‘La Jetee’, with a screenplay by David (‘Blade Runner’) Peoples and his wife Janet. Significantly expanding on the themes and plot of Marker’s 30-minute piece, the film is a labyrinthine work of time-fractured science fiction, with a man sent back in time to investigate the source of a plague that would come to wipe out most of humanity, sending future citizens into a grim existence underground.

For a mainstream project, the film was wildly ambitious and complex, and would prove to be another success for Gilliam’s helming other writers’ work. Visually, it is Gilliam all the way through, with multiple time periods dealt with vividly and the layered narrative lending him manifold elements to work with: a frozen city overrun with wild animals, a dingy, subterranean future, a uniquely Gilliam insane asylum rich with nightmarishly cartoonish characterizations.

The three actors carrying the film are particularly impressive. Bruce Willis gave what is perhaps his best overall performance in a film, surprisingly heartrending and terrifying by turns as a man who steadily loses sense of reality and identity. Madeleine Stowe, as a tough and pragmatic psychiatrist, gives one of the best female performances in Gilliam’s work, perfectly representational of his thematic core.

As her character is first abducted and then caught-up in a man’s seemingly insane pursuit, we see her sensible veneer begin to crack and then fall apart, as the line between what’s real and what’s not is finally indistinguishable. Brad Pitt, in an Oscar nominated role, swung for the fences as one of the most memorable nut cases of the 90’s.

A surprisingly dark, apocalyptic film to be backed by a major studio, Gilliam delivered another signature work that was more than a modest success, and which went on to become a minor classic.


8. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

An adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s ground-breaking work of gonzo journalism had gestated for decades in development hell before settling on a production with Alex Cox (‘Repo Man’) in the director’s chair. He was subsequently fired due to ‘creative differences’. Enter Terry Gilliam. Enter animated, inky black bats swooping across the screen. Enter giant anthropomorphic reptiles turning a hotel bar into a Sodom and Gomorrah.

The film, which was met with mixed reviews and bombed at the box office, went on to become another major cult classic and one of the most persuasively mind-bending excursions into drug hysteria ever committed to film. Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini’s kaleidoscopic look for the film, influenced by the neon-inflected paintings of Robert Yarber, alters style to suit the drug at hand, as a barrage of disorienting visuals convey the experience of marijuana, LSD, ether, amyl nitrate and more.

Featuring Johnny Depp doing a spot-on Hunter Thompson, with Benicio Del Toro as his unfaithful attorney, Dr. Gonzo, as well as a widespread assortment of cameos from the likes of Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Mark Harmon, Cameron Diaz, Katherine Helmond, Michael Jeter, Penn Jillette, Craig Bierko, Lyle Lovett, Flea, Christopher Meloni, Harry Dean Stanton and Hunter Thompson himself.


9. The Brothers Grimm (2005)

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

After a long hiatus from directing feature films, Gilliam returned with what is widely regarded as his weakest film, a pleasant-enough yet largely forgettable work. With an original screenplay by Ehren Kruger that Gilliam and collaborator Tony Grisoni re-wrote (and were unable to get credit for due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America) as well as a number of distribution issues, the film that emerged felt like an exercise in Gilliam-lite.

There was still his Python-esque sense of humor amongst a fantastical backdrop, and beguiling performances from Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, but the plot seemed like a re-tread of countless other fish-out-of-water comedies, with an uninspiring dash of ‘Ghostbusters’ to boot. It’s the one Gilliam film that seems to have had the same struggles as before (budgetary, artistic), and here he finally had to compromise his vision, turning it into his most dispassionate-feeling work to date.


10. Tideland (2005)


Released in the same year as ‘Brothers Grimm’, Gilliam’s next film headed in the opposite direction and stands as one of Gilliam’s most difficult, uncompromising and polarizing films. An adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel about a little girl’s desolate existence after the death of her heroin addict father, left to fend for herself in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, the film seems to go out of its way to incite discomfort and abhorrence in its audience.

A unique exercise in genre tampering, with its constant echoes of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the cinematic doppelgangers of Ed Gein in ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’, its (perceived) perilous use of a child pushed face-to-face against real-life and imagined horrors was too much for most critics and audiences to bear.

Jodelle Ferland’s central performance, a thing of beauty, was overlooked for its stoicism, undermining Gilliam’s central message: children are unimaginably resilient. The film was almost unanimously written off as unpalatable and irresponsible, damning one of the most fascinating and rich films he’d had ever created.

It is with this film that Gilliam seemed to be returning to his trilogy of imagination, mirroring ‘Time Bandits’ in its enthusiastic involvement of a child’s perspective in contrast to a real world fraught with disaster. His next film would hearken back to the rich fantasy of ‘Baron Munchausen’, with similar seismic setbacks.


11. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Collaborating once again with ‘Munchausen’ screenwriter Charles McKeown to create his first original screenplay since then, this complex and challenging visual feast feels like a précis of Gilliam’s own career, throwing everything into the mix, especially his early animation work. Centering on a mysterious traveling theater troupe who function entirely within a horse drawn cart, the story turns on the conceit of a magic mirror that, once entered, taps directly into one’s imagination, turning what lies within into a tangible reality, and forcing the participant to choose between delusion or truth.

It is a perfect representation of Gilliam’s own approach to storytelling and filmmaking. Echoing ‘Munchausen’s’ own interest with ancient mythological gods and iconic figures (Venus, Death, Vulcan), ‘Imaginarium’ also steeps itself in rich allegorical arcana and religious imagery, pitting Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) against the chameleonic Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a wily Devil.

With Heath Ledger playing a major role, his sudden death during shooting sent the production into turmoil and continued Gilliam’s usual streak of fighting inconceivable uphill battles in the construction of a film. In a masterstroke of creative thinking, Gilliam expanded on his own invention and with the help of actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, added an element of character transformation within the mythology of the story’s world.


12. The Zero Theorem (2013)

The Zero Theorem (2013)

Rounding out a reconsideration of his imagination trilogy, Gilliam released this modern echo of ‘Brazil’, a futuristic look at current concerns over humanity’s isolating relationship with technology. Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a remote and depressed programmer and the center of an extremely convoluted plot that reflects the imaginative dead ends our technologies are creating for us in our quests for something deeper.

Qohen is searching for the meaning of life, but is assigned by Management (Matt Damon) to work from home and solve the mystery of the Zero Theorem, a mathematical formula to prove the meaninglessness of existence. Working with an extremely low budget, which he claims was smaller than the one Monty Python had for ‘Life of Brian’, Gilliam was still able to fashion a wholly unique world, authentic in its detail and eye popping in its audacity.

In the current wasteland of cinematic adventurism, Gilliam still stands as a battle-scarred soldier, testing audiences by refusing easy answers, embracing a dreamlike ambiguity and skewering societies with his anarchic brand of myth making.

Author Bio: Michael H. Smith has been writing about film for almost as long as he can remember, and he contributes regularly to his blog After Images – Revisiting Films.