SOURCE: A review of Brazil, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4, Summer, 1986, pp. 22–8.
[In the following review, Glass examines the psyche of Sam Lowery, the main character in Brazil, and the cause of Sam's fantasies.]
During the long-awaited year 1984 a veritable deluge of articles, books, talks, speeches and more were given over to discussion ad nauseam of Orwell’s book and prophecies. Nineteen Eight Four became the province, in 1984, of a battle for the most prevalent interpretation of totalitarian society—whose resembles it more, “theirs” or “ours”: the USSR or the USA. It should have surprised no one that most leftist accounts attempted to tabulate the qualities of life in America in the eighties that clearly showed capitalism as finally having achieved Orwellian thought control—TV, governmental newspeak, powerless manipulated masses, big science. The right, meanwhile, redoubled its efforts at painting the Soviet Union in the drabbest of greys, with police helmets atop the dour heads of half the population stomping across the supine bodies of the other half.
What a relief, then, that Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the following year, rose above the general soporific level of that ideological fray to propose for us a critical vision of the world at once more sophisticated than Orwell’s and more challenging to its audience—a work perhaps doomed to lesser status in cultural history for these very reasons. For while Nineteen Eighty Four, within Orwell’s intent, may with some legitimacy be claimed by both left and right as “proof” of the politics of each, Brazil’s critique of our world, in its ambiguities and twilit despair, is not so easily digestible. There can be no doubt that the main fire in this movie is trained toward bureaucratic consumer capitalism. And yet its portrayal of a working class irrelevant and oblivious to the horrors of everyday life under an authoritarian regime leaves little room for socialists to claim the film as their own. What, then, is Brazil?
Referring years later to his second film, Before the Revolution, Bertolucci said, “We all misunderstood Brecht at that time.” Maybe it took Godard’s explorations in political cinema of the late sixties and early seventies to clear away the lingering ghost of the German playwright for modern left wing film-makers. Godard’s emphasis on the author’s end of things proved, if nothing else, that a popular cinema demands popular means, even if an ultimate goal remains the subversion and destruction of its own illusionistic devices. The closest Godard ever came to realizing such a balance in his work was arguably Tout va bien; while Bertolucci swung back to self-confessed bourgeois film-making in 1900 to communicate the PCI’s schematic appraisal of Italian events. Ten years later, building on the experiments of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam has produced in Brazil his variant of Brechtian cinema for the eighties. But this political film-maker’s worldview comes across with substantial differences from his predecessors, whose working-class focus and optimism have given way in Gilliam’s work before certain stark truths about late capitalist culture.
Brazil is a tragicomedy about the relationship between imagination and fantasy, and about the ability of a society (“somewhere in the 20th century,” as the opening sequence informs us) to constantly transform the energy of the former into the dead weight of the latter. Excellent performances by the principal actors abets the direction by Gilliam, which in places falls short of the brilliant writing by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown. The structure of the film’s plot is relatively simple, even if the plot...
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itself—and everything else about the film—is extraordinarily complex. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who works in a giant bureaucracy (the Ministry of Information) escapes from his feelings of guilt and the oppressive tedium of his life through fantasizing. When Jill, the woman of his dreams (Kim Greist), shows up in real life and turns out to be a suspected terrorist, he jeopardizes his job and then his existence in wooing her. The narrative of Sam’s day-to-day reality, and the story of his gradual fall, is periodically interrupted by his flights of fancy. When Sam is finally arrested to be tortured, a commando team of rescuers pulls him to safety, and he escapes to the country with Jill. But it’s just another fantasy; the last scene reveals him alone in the torture chamber, its vast space filling with the clouds of his dreams, and the soundtrack with the 1939 song “Brazil” segueing into the rhythms of carnival or the credits.
The “space” of this film defies temporality: not just literally, as in the hero’s fantasies, lifting him from daily drudgery into the false liberated zones of his psyche’s wish-fulfillment, but in the metaphoric creation of a simultaneous past/future, itself the work of imagination posing its alternative to fantasy precisely because of how it resembles—tantalizingly—something in the shape of our present. Unlike most of the hi-tech dreck mini-genres to which Brazil bears superficial resemblance, this film doesn’t rely on the stock sci-fi device of future-discussing-present to speak of our own world. Instead, it lifts just enough from post-Star Wars cinematic technique to present the initial appearance of futuristic genre plays—only the better to undercut those conventions with numerous startling reversals of plot, character, theme, and expectation. The Bladerunneresque monumentalism of the buildings, for instance, resolves, upon closer examination, into faithful reproductions of thirties fascist architecture.
In fact, all manner of thirties and forties visual imagery predominates, from architecture to technology, in references to popular culture of the period like Chaplin’s Great Dictator, the Marx Brothers, and Casablanca, as well as the title song. World War II-style posters in the distinctive mold of the Englishman Abram Games help set the social atmosphere of the world in which Sam dwells (“Don’t Suspect a Friend—Report Him!”).1
Sam’s fantasy imagery owes much to Nazi suggestion, as well; his armor and soaring wings recall the Hitler posters “The Flag Bearer” and “Germany Lives!”;2 and the opening scenes of the film, amid billowing stratospheric clouds, quote Riefenstahl’s beginning for Triumph of the Will. The terrifying scenes of police bursting into apartments and capturing suspected enemies of the state lift the central element of Ben Shahn’s poster, produced for the Office of War Information in 1942, “This is Nazi Brutality,” with its semi-surreal hooded prisoner about to be shot.3 Even cutesy machines, like the camera eye on extender arms that could be an Industrial Light and Magic effect, are vastly out-numbered by a profusion of post-World War I office machines, in which the ubiquitous computer-video screens find themselves embedded. The portmanteau past/future technologies, while adding their own weight to the between-wars visual style, also, curiously, provide a clue to deciphering the Oedipus play within the social drama, the other side of Gilliam’s vision.
Lowry’s fantasies take on increasing amounts of restrictive, disturbing baggage after the first, joyous Dedaelus ride above the clouds. Standing between him and his amour is a metallic samurai warrior, towering over Lowry, disappearing instantly as Lowry charges it, its own glittering armor and weapon more massive and threatening than poor Sam’s. The warrior is but one of several fathers for Lowry, struggling within his unconscious to come to terms with his felt oppression and life that would be empty were it not filled with something worse. Macabre guilt-creatures show up in his fantasies following his abortive visit to the widow Mrs. Buttle’s apartment, her husband tortured to death over a bureaucratic error. All his dreams likewise perfectly reflect social realities that he refuses to face directly. Each dream has its material antecedents carefully placed within the narrative, material in two senses: the mundane everyday material of people and things transformed, condensed, etc.; and the film’s gradually accumulating material analysis of the psychological relationship between the individual Lowry and the oppressive social structures arrayed against (and internalized by) him.
Why does Lowry fantasize? The film poses three unavoidable reasons: the dead weight of meaningless or immoral work; the stultifying leisure of a parasitic consumerist culture; and his familial burden of guilt and Oedipal anguish, as personified by the various fathers (Kurtzmann, Helpmann, the actual absent father, the samurai), but more importantly, by Mother. Authority and power relentlessly foist themselves on poor Everyman Sam wherever he turns. It’s no surprise he begins to confuse them in his inner life when in fact they share a great many characteristics. Work, leisure, dreams: he literally has nowhere to go.
Lowry thinks he has only dreamt his fantasy woman. In fact he has dreamt his mother, whose overbearing intrusion into his life takes many forms. But his dream woman also actually exists, as her own person, and as someone who is quite different—active, capable, thoughtful—than he has fantasized. The dual history of Sam’s relationship to Jill/mother unites, ultimately, beneath the signifier of the same actress.
This part of Brazil reproduces in psychological miniature the two worlds in which Lowry dwells. Just as his real world is a condensation of historical fascism with the consumerist present—an iron past in a velvet glove—his fantasy life, apparently soaring freely in the skies inside his mind, actually revolves around his reaction to and internal transformation of that fearful authoritarian world into emotional symbols, rendered the more powerful through combination with the authoritative material of his mother.
Gilliam presents this world as in large part an historical regression, the fast and loose play with technological eras one aspect of a more generalized picture of decay masquerading as progress. Mother, through surgical treatments that the very rich can afford, regresses too: growing younger and younger as the story unfolds. Her best friend, undergoing similar treatments with another doctor, keeps suffering “complications,” which by the end of the film have killed her. She is the Dorian Gray portrait of Mother; her painfully shy daughter, preserving symmetry, mirrors Sam as the emotionally crippled child of a rich woman. The maître d’ at Mother’s favorite restaurant almost doesn’t recognize her; by the time Sam attends a party at her penthouse she has men younger than him fawning over her. When Sam makes love to Jill in his mother’s bed it is unclear, for a moment, with whom he frolics. (He does announce, in a neat reversal, that he has just “killed” Jill in Helpmann’s office. The pieces are all there, but a little jumbled.) During his last, long fantasy, however, the relationship between Jill and Mother as signifiers in Sam’s internal universe finally becomes explicit, perhaps because Sam now too has achieved a regressive apotheosis, the culmination of all his fantasizing.
After escaping the torturer’s chair and blowing up the MOI, Lowry runs up a ramp into a huge building, its columns semicircled around it with the aid of a wide-angle lens in gathering darkness. Lowry, with subjective camera, faces two doors, large crosses on each (Chaplin’s “double-cross” from The Great Dictator). The screen is nearly filled by the unctuous face of the maître d’ from the restaurant; he ushers Sam/us into a bizarre funeral service for Lowry’s mother’s friend, who finally has succumbed to her “complications.” Her picture is on the wall, and her coffin rotates slowly on a dais as a minister drones on. We see the back of Mother, a circle of young male admirers clustered around her. Lowry runs to her, calling out “Mother!” She turns, and it’s the face of Jill, Mother’s treatments having apparently brought her to this. Sam continues to cry out to her until the funeral service is interrupted by the arrival of the police. Sam overturns the coffin and a gelatinous skeleton spills out onto the floor. He dives into the coffin, falling through blackness. Landing in the street, in familiar nightmarish terrain from his earlier fantasies, he is pursued by hideous baby-masked creatures (some pushing shopping carts covered with coffins) onto a pile of ducts, to a blank wall. They move forward toward him. Miraculously his hand finds a knob. He turns it and steps inside the door, closing it against the onrushing creatures. We hear a motor. He’s inside the prefab house Jill had tried to deliver before, on the trailer of Jill’s truck. They drive through the night, and by morning we see their rig parked in the green countryside. The camera tracks back and up, into the sky, the earth unrolling in all directions, music swelling triumphantly.
The last fantasy, particularly Sam’s condensation of Jill with his mother’s regressive movement to her lost youth, tears the veil off Lowry’s oedipal secret: his learus dreams, grounded, are only so much infantile mother-lust. His fantasy escape from work drudgery and controlled consumption—potentially understandable as liberation, albeit brief, from the world he hates—in fact only brings him back onto the personal/historical tracks of his psyche, which run in a circle.
Earlier in the film Sam and Jill drive up a road away from the oil fields where she has picked up a package, which Sam fears is a bomb. The highway is lined with billboards so closely packed together that from the road one cannot catch any glimpse of the devastated industrial landscape on the other side. Lowry’s belief in his fantasies parallels the road; blinders presented as liberation.
The last long fantasy sequence ostensibly settles accounts with “father,” as displaced from Helpmann into the building and institution that he runs, the MOI. All the structures of arbitrary authority, irrationalist logic and brutality are condensed and blown sky-high. Better, the samurai has been replaced with a more accurately symbolized figure for Sam’s oppression. Sam is then able to go and resolve his relationship, similarly, with mother in the funeral service. But at high cost: experincing his death diving through the vagina/coffin. When he comes out the other side of his trip through the underworld he is enabled finally to escape with Jill and live the fantasy through to its conclusion. But as Helpmann ironically comments, “He got away from us”—an escape that leaves them alive and Lowry dead.
The message can be read, typically for this film, at least two ways. Either the possibilities to change things, both for the individual and society, are nil; or—and I think the preponderant weight of Brazil’s evidence rests in this direction—change is possible only if it is attempted outside the ideological terms dictated by oppressive social structures. This means, with Lowry’s fate the alternative, steering clear of the everpresent temptation to fantasize one’s way toward a solution.
Brazil’s world is a nightmarish synthesis of Marx’s critique of capitalism and the worst fears of Freud about human potential in history. The Frankfurt School’s classic analyses of fascism in the thirties and forties explored the dialectic of social forces and psychic response, with the initial revolutionary impulse of their studies ultimately tailing off into the terrible sense of humanity having reached an historical blind alley. The Marxist-Freudian analysis of such thinkers around the school as Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin remained as sharp-edged as any social critique of the time. But their work could not recapture the optimism of the earlier generations of Marxism, and for good reason. The Frankfurt vision was informed by the experiences of the twenties and thirties: failed revolutions in Western Europe, decline of mass participation and bureaucratization of the Russian Revolution; a capitalism in deep crisis but with a working class too numbed by unemployment and hunger, on one side, and rising Fordist consumerism, on the other, to do anything with the opportunity.
Brazil unites the understanding of these social forces of the period and the psychological responses called into being by them in its grim story. The result, more Benjamin than Brecht, is nonetheless not completely without hope. This single ray of light emanates from the relationship set up between imagination and fantasy in the film.
Imagination might be defined as the ability to project something other than what is, in such a way as to be able to realize the image in reality. It is a hopeful response and alternative to the external pressure of social oppression. Fantasy, as poor second choice, is the ghost of imagination strangled, where one’s own felt oppression is turned inward and relief sought helplessly in images shaped by that oppression. The opening scene of the film sets the stage for this dichotomous paradigm: the Riefenstahl quote opens up the territory of fascist imagery for exploration by the story, the scene shifting from the sky to high inside the lobby of the MOI, moving down the statue of an iron eagle to its base, where a woman slaps a little boy in front of the statue’s motto: “The truth shall make you free.”
The narrative expression of this difference between imagination and fantasy can be illuminated by the opposition utopia/dystopia. Brazil is almost entirely dystopic, to be sure. But it asks us to consider the sources of dystopia through distancing devices: filmic quotes, wrenching narrative reversals, Walter Mitty structuring, and some particularly effective uses of music. In the scene where Jill and Sam finally kiss in his mother’s apartment, the moment is heralded by loud “Hollywood romance” music bursting onto the soundtrack, its intent impossible through exaggeration to miss. And at the end of the film, following the revelation that Sam’s escape was another fantasy, the music of carnival gives us, for the first time, a direct reference to the country Brazil, posing the question, why now? The distancing devices compel us to seek relief in imagining something different, if for no other reason than because the choice between reality and fantasy—as offered by Sam’s example—is so brutally limited.
The last scene, lingering on through the credits, sums up the argument of the film. The visual presentation of Sam dwarfed by the immense torture chamber, the room filling with the clouds of his/Riefenstahl’s dreams, graphically charts the individual’s capitulation to the torture chamber of society, even—especially—in the very moment of attempting a private escape through fantasy. The expressionist externalizing of internal spaces, which in turn have been absorbed from public fantasy, or ideology—here exposes the simple fact that fantasy stands in the way of imagination.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Brazil is its internal consistency and coherence. Each of the parts fit together in a seamless symbolic universe, where more important than exact relationships between them is their simple copresence. Throughout Brazil the images accumulate without Gilliam forcing their connection: and yet they connect. The food in the restaurant is delivered in small piles of colored mush, with a photograph attached to the plate of what the dish is supposed to be: steak, seafood, etc. Rich people become young again through surgery, although sometimes the treatment has ‘complications.’ Billboards lining the road block out the view of a gutted landscape. Screens are thrown up around the horribly wounded people in restaurants and department stores after terrorist bombings, so that the consumers can continue with their consumption undisturbed. Mrs. Buttle signs the proferred forms, accepting a receipt for her husband whom she knows will never return. Worse, Sam’s old friend Jack (Michael Palin, another Monty Python alumnus) has moved beyond passive acceptance to active complicity with the terrorist state regime. And Lowry creates his own world, made up of elements of the real one that are themselves created for people like him. Again and again the power of fantasy to block out a painful reality and provide an ersatz substitute for imagination seems to offer a solution, even as its fateful passivity prevents the imaginative activity that could address the problem.
Gilliam has a knack, inherited from Monty Python, of taking older media materials and reworking them into “something completely different.” The old gag of the boss turning his back for a moment, allowing the workers to goof off, is replayed with Kurtzmann inside his office, aware that everyone is watching Casablanca on their computer/video screens. He can hear the sound of hundreds of monitors thundering out the lines of the movie; when he wrenches open the door and locks out, all is business as usual. More than the gag, which is well-timed, is how it fits the film’s argument. Collectively responding to their meaningless jobs sorting information, the workers in the MOI stage a little revolt as soon as the boss provides them with the opportunity. What seems to be rebellion—and it is, at one level—ultimately loops back to the advantage and continuity of the system as an entirety, for this remains a harmless revolt, a diversion from any more direct confrontation with the forces in power.
Lowry, by contrast, daydreams himself into incessant engagement with the mythic embodiments of evil power. His idyllic flights in the clouds are interrupted by giant corporate monoliths thrusting out of the ground, separating him and Jill; by brick-covered hands and face of a giant animated Kurtzman, erupting from the street, holding him back from flying; and most insistently, the huge samurai, another reference, perhaps, to thirties fascism, but also a seemingly invincible male power, barely human, another combination of past (feudal Japan) with future (all metal). Tellingly, the very moment of Lowry’s triumph over the evil warrior occurs as he is busy getting himself clubbed into unconsciousness in his ill-considered attempt to rescue Jill in the department store. Here the function of his fantasies becomes painfully clear; it provides him with just enough subjective resistance to state terror that he reveals himself, and becomes its object.
Two characters represent the possibility for a more effective resistance, Jill and Tuttle. Jill sees through the machinations of the state bureaucracy and the myriad ideological systems it utilizes because she cares—without becoming maudlin—about human beings. This puts her into direct conflict with the worldview and practices of nearly everyone around her. Her query to Sam, “How many terrorists have you ever actually seen?” stops him in his tracks, because he has never questioned the incessant propaganda from the media about terrorism, nor, for that matter, about anything else. His individual resistance is so privatized that no relationship has evolved in his mind between his personal frustrations and the real world. Jill’s conscious distance from the ‘common sense’ of their society leads her to try to comfort Mrs. Buttle when her husband is mistakenly carried off by the police, and to attempt redress with the bureaucracy. Her efforts earn her a large file in Jack’s office and official suspicion of terrorism.
Tuttle (Robert de Niro), a former Central Services worker, now has a file himself as a “freelance subversive.” His hostility to paperwork led him to operate on his own, tapping people’s phonecalls and discovering when they needed help with their omnipresent ducts (“Why a duck?”). Unfortunately his well-intentioned assistance in unofficially repairing Sam’s ducts—based on the slogan he repeats to Sam a couple of times “We’re all in this together”—brings down on Sam the vicious enmity of the sadistic Central Services workers, who savage his apartment, running ducts out of the walls and through all his rooms, lowering the temperature to freezing and finally forcing him out of his home. Sam’s revenge against them, effected by Tuttle, notably does not bring him back his apartment, and is of a piece with the ineffectiveness of Tuttle’s flashy, swashbuckling adventures (played with madcap abandon by de Niro).
Jill and Tuttle come closest of all the characters in Brazil to possessing something resembling imagination, and together spin one of the three slim, fragile threads of hope in the film. Their differences with the culture at large lead them to action against its excesses. Unhappily neither comes particularly close to success, Jill’s efforts on Mrs. Buttle’s behalf running afoul of the Kafkaesque rules of the bureaucracy, and Tuttle’s good works undone by the Central Service workers. Even in Sam’s climactic fantasy Tuttle loses, done in by the papers he fled Central Services to avoid.
Nowhere does the film offer explanation of their failure directly, lending substance to the sense that the film finally holds out nothing beyond despair for its audience. But one may infer that their failure is that of the individual response to a collective problem, to a social structure capable of absorbing or neutralizing individual revolts. Several times we see a billboard, looking like the famous billboard in the photo from Depression America with a happy family driving in their car, a breadline stretched out below it. The slogan, each time we see the sign in Brazil, is obscured. Only during Sam’s false flight from the torture chamber we are allowed to read the slogan, which turns out to be Tuttle’s “We’re all in this together.”
The high point of hope in the narrative occurs when the commandos led by Tuttle rescue Sam. Even before we learn that Sam has only dreamt the entire episode several clues warn us to beware: the dozen or so rescuers are gradually cut to ribbons; the worker in the MOI lobby pays no attention to the fierce struggle, and is killed herself in the crossfire; and Tuttle himself, wrapped in paper, is “disappeared” after apparently blowing up the MOI. Without the assistance of the working class, armed struggle against the authoritarian state is futile, a positive lesson as well as a moment of despair in the story. The lesson is underlined by the quote, during the scenes inside the MOI lobby, from Potemkin, i.e., an historical moment when armed revolt succeeded for the same reasons.
The third hopeful sign in Brazil is curiously Sam’s fantasies, precisely through clearly demonstrating the impotence of his dream life and its complicity with fascist culture. The graphically negative example of Sam; the moral resistance of Jill and Tuttle; and the electrifying collective rescue, for one moment: these are the small redemptions of Brazil’s dark worldview, which together breach the despair with some photons of hope.
Whether all these levels of meaning make it from screen to audience is a matter of conjecture, one that I’ll propose a glib answer to: not likely. But the virtue of Gilliam’s approach is in how he constructs many doorways for his audience. The film can be enjoyed as a visual extravaganza, with the aid of a special effects budget that must have made the former Monty Python cut-out animator very happy; as post-modern stylizing; as a dystopia in the tradition of Metropolis, Nineteen Eighty Four, Bladerunner and the like; as existential nightmare like Kafka’s The Trial; as a black comedy—the list could go on indefinitely because it’s all there. Once inside Gilliam’s film, however, the same sense of hypnotic fascination seems to capture each member of the audience, no matter how they arrived. And this ultimately means that something in the vision of Brazil reverberates with the late capitalist experience, the subjectivity that engages with urban vastness, with faceless bureaucracy, with the moral decay accompanying the commodification of all social relationships—and with the individual’s daily efforts to cope with it all.
Lowry’s confused rejection of the social norm is based on a healthy impulse. Unluckily for him, so powerful is the enemy that it can even control the forms of revolt against it, channeling their aberrations like the arrow-straight road lined with advertisements concealing the devastated landscape behind it. If Brazil offers any answer to this impasse, it is in the segue of the song at the end into the sounds of carnival, the moment when the film’s title finally reveals its significance: the utopian promise of the festival, which breaks down the innumerable barriers of everyday reality in the name of joyous celebration, which deliberately confuses appearances and reality through the ruse of the mask, the great social leveller, so that appearance and reality may be posed as a direct question; and which gives license to break free of social constraint so that desire and its object can find one another, if only for one transcendent moment. Carnival, the structuring absence of Brazil, defines the imagination and its power suffusing every frame of a film about its fantasy-ridden other, our daily lives.
Rhodes, Anthony, Propaganda, The Art of Persuasion: World War II, 1976, Chelsea House Publishers, pp. 124–128.
Rhodes, p. 43–4.
Rhodes, p. 171.
The distinction “imagination/fantasy,” is elaborated nicely in Stephen Robinson’s “The Art of the Possible,” Radical Science 15, Oct. 1984.
SOURCE: “The Mad Adventures of Terry Gilliam,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 57, No. 4, Autumn, 1988, pp. 238–42.
[In the following interview, which took place on location during the filming of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam discusses the progress of the film.]
‘I get the feeling that, a bit like Brazil, the making of the film is going to be like the film itself. Where Brazil was about a nightmare, this one is about impossibility and overcoming it, and trying to push through a lot of things and a lot of people who don’t think they can do it, because they are realistic.’
Terry Gilliam obviously knew, perhaps better than anyone, the impossibility of creating his new film. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Just before shooting began in September last year, the director admitted what everyone has been trying to tell him ever since: the film cannot be done. But Gilliam went ahead and did it anyway. What his ultimate vision of Munchausen will be is anyone’s guess, including Gilliam’s own. He has spoken of making this film for years. But the processes by which it has been evolving, growing, shrinking, and being cast into the cold public spotlight before its time, have proved bigger than anything he has experienced before. Gilliam has stood apart, feeling protected from the ‘factory’ aspects of film-making. Now he is caught up in the largest movie to shoot in Europe since Cleopatra.
Though born in Minneapolis, the 47-year-old writer-director grew up in Hollywood’s backyard, an environment which fuelled both his desire to enter films and his dislike of the film community itself. ‘A lot of it came from the fact that I wanted desperately to get into movies and didn’t have any idea how one got into it. And I didn’t like the rules of the game, if you were going to work your way up from the bottom. The majority of people in the movie business in Hollywood are there for the money and the power, and if you are working there you have to talk to them, and if you do that you are going to be influenced by their attitudes. I don’t want to talk to them about anything: hand over the loot and let me get on with the work. And what I like in England is that the film industry is not a very healthy thing, so that those involved with it are there because they love film. I really just spend my time working in a very useful way, as opposed to meetings with a lot of inane discussion…’
Baron Munchausen’s estimated budget of nearly ＄25m made it one of the largest independent productions in history. Earmarked as a co-production between Laura Film (the film’s production office headed by Thomas Schuhly) and Prominent Features (a division of Prominent Pictures, the Monty Python organisation), Munchausen was picked up by David Puttnam and Columbia, which signed a distribution deal for worldwide theatrical and video rights (excluding Italy and Germany, territories already signed for by other investors). The ＄20.5m which Columbia promised upon delivery of the completed film (making it a ‘negative pick-up’) was used as collateral to obtain a bond from Film Finance, Inc. a Los Angeles-based insurance firm.
But delays in the pre-production period only foreshadowed the greater financial and logistical difficulties once the film started shooting at Cinecittà in Rome, and later during location work in Spain. Because Munchausen is an independent production—caught without the built-in safety net of an in-house studio film—Gilliam found himself struggling to complete his dream project, while up against the same Hollywood bureaucracy he has repeatedly criticised since before his much publicised battle to save his cut of Brazil from that film’s US distributors. And the film’s problems, already bad enough, were made to seem even worse because of the press reports they generated.
The insurance company wanted no part of a runaway production, which was what Munchausen appeared to be. They sought financial assistance from Columbia, but by that time the upheaval of management which marked the departure of David Puttnam as head of the studio left no one willing to address the film’s troubles: Munchausen was an independent feature and therefore on its own. ‘Basically you do a film in a certain atmosphere,’ Thomas Schuhly said. ‘Columbia just said, “Okay, we changed our management, the guys who set up this atmosphere are out, therefore there is no more atmosphere—there is just a deal.” It’s like getting married. You marry because your intention is to get along, and beside your legal obligations there are many other obligations you don’t put on paper. Here there was no divorce, but the marriage was different suddenly.’
In November 1987, Film Finance halted shooting for two weeks in order to rein in the spiralling budget and shooting schedule. Gilliam and Schuhly were threatened with dismissal. Rather than have his film taken away from him, Gilliam found himself forced to make drastic cuts in the screenplay, to eliminate or pare down the more expensive sequences. Even given the slicing and hacking, which couldn’t totally prevent a budget overage projected at about ＄10m. Gilliam is convinced that Munchausen still stands as a film far more elaborate, more difficult and more uncommon than anything he has ever experienced or imagined.
It is certainly far removed from the quick, frenzied shoots to which he has accustomed himself, having to work with new talent not used to dealing with special effects—or, for that matter, with Gilliam himself. It was Gilliam’s association with Thomas Schuhly which brought the production to Rome, where Schuhly hoped to foster a special working relationship between Gilliam and the artists at Cinecittà. ‘The English character for me is a very dark one,’ Schuhly said. ‘Italians are very light, very sensual. And I thought that the film should get the feel of a very light atmosphere. You see it on the screen—it’s totally different from Brazil.’ Director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, art director Dante Ferretti and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci were signed up. Gilliam’s enthusiasm for working in Rome soared.
One of the painful truths of this arduous shoot, however, is that Gilliam’s working habits do not travel well. Though he is thorough in preparing films down to the most minute detail, the time it takes to carry those details on to film never matches his hopes. Even when the shooting schedule approaches anywhere near normal, he feels ‘Normal isn’t fast enough.’ And while his other pictures have helped him establish a team of people who apparently satisfy his demands, few Gilliam veterans are in Rome to take part in this adventure. An apt example of the problems the production has faced is the difficulty of communication on the set, which sometimes finds Gilliam on one side and the Italian crew on the other, with a harried interpreter in the middle.
On the set of Vulcan’s arms factory during the last week of shooting before the 1987 Christmas break, the smoke-filled atmosphere lit by the fiery yellow and orange glow of the furnaces is deceptively arctic, as Gilliam tries to get a single take to his satisfaction. John Neville, as the Baron, is sprawled in front of the camera, being pushed along a track towards a pool of water. While they run through the shot, Gilliam watches a TV monitor which shows the camera’s POV. After calling action, his eyes are glued to the screen. He silently mouths the dialogue as Neville speaks. His eyes are wide and gleeful; he looks like a child watching his favourite Saturday morning cartoon show. But his happiness turns to dismay as the take continues, and the camera moves just don’t match what he wants to see. He huddles again with the camera crew, his frustration obvious.
The shot is run through over and over again. As Gilliam examines the monitor on each take, his happiness with Neville’s reading begins to evaporate. He goes back to the crew. ‘It’s nothing like in rehearsal,’ he yells. ‘I want the shot done right here as it was done. It is now 11 o’clock in the morning. You don’t have a director. You don’t want to turn over? I go home!’ Gilliam storms off the set, with the actors sitting nearby looking somewhat shocked, though not too surprised.
‘He knows just what he wants,’ says Winston Dennis, a huge, cuddly giant playing Albrecht (he also appeared in Time Bandits and Brazil). ‘It’s the first time I’ve seen Terry blow his top.’ Neville’s stand-in has taken the Baron’s place, as the crew reviews the moves they’re supposed to make. ‘Of course, on the set, we’re two little angels,’ says Dennis, nodding towards Oliver Reed. Reed rolls his eyes in amusement.
Outside the soundstage next day Moo Moo, a cow, is tethered to a tree, awaiting her appearance on the set. Her genial keeper shoos people away, but there’s no need; the cow is quite unfriendly to anyone passing by. ‘It was actually written as a herd of cows,’ remarks Gilliam. ‘It comes from Gabriel García Márquez’ book Autumn of the Patriarch, where he has this scene of a cow on a balcony. I don’t know, cows are on my mind. I made the mistake of having animals all over the place on this film.’ As he walks towards the Cinecittà lunchroom, for the only hour of peace he seems to have each day, he talks spiritedly and enthusiastically, even of events he might prefer to forget. His infectious giggle makes him sound like a tenor Woody Woodpecker.
[David Morgan:] How have you had to adjust your working habits since coming to Rome?
[Terry Gilliam:] For people here the concept of the maestro is very important—this one man, from whom all knowledge and wisdom flows—and I don’t like to work that way. I really like being part of a team, but people here aren’t used to working that way—or at least the people on this film aren’t. I think it’s a Catholic thing. If the director can be made God, then people can be popes and cardinals and bishops, and so the greater the director, the greater your popehood or your bishopric. It really is like that. So they elevate the director.
It’s more of a team in England; it’s the nature of the society. They all squawk, and they go at each other, but basically people have an attitude that they are more or less equal. They come up and say ‘Why are you doing that?’ or ‘What about doing this or that?’ I get a lot of feedback, a lot of information, and they give me ideas that are better than my own ideas. I become a filter for a lot of ideas, and that give and take is the way it works. Here I have to place the camera exactly, and if I don’t say something it doesn’t generally happen.
After working for years with the same people, they got used to me, so that you could communicate in Neanderthal grunts. But here, because everyone is new, it’s a big problem that I didn’t really worry about early enough. You see, I get very impatient. I want to do things fast, explain things fast. When you do that, no one knows what you’re talking about, and because people are not used to complicated ways of making special effects, they’re worried. They want to work slowly until they understand. That slows the process down and I get frustrated. I only control my madness with a lot of feedback on how the world really is, and if nobody tells me what they think the world is, I have no idea what it is.
We’re in a strange situation. The film has gone way over budget, all sorts of political problems. Also, the studio isn’t a problem, because they made a contract and they are going to stick to it. They have the best deal, of this year or many years to come. We have cut the film a lot, even before we started shooting. We’ve been trimming it down and trimming it down. And up to now I have really avoided looking at the film. For the first time in my life, I have never gone to the rushes. I go to the cutting room and see it on the editing machine, and we go through it in little sections. But I am trying to stay away from it for some reason. I don’t know why.
Is it that you are afraid you will want to reshoot things?
Yes, I think so. The most frightening thing is when you actually get close to doing something good. You can just make a little mistake then and it’s destroyed. It’s as though it is so delicate that with just one wrong turn it collapses.
Also, there’s the feeling that I am doing something in the public domain. It exists in a lot of people’s minds, and I worry that I will disappoint those people, because they have their idea of Munchausen and mine is different. I worried about it for a long time, and now I just ignore it. We invented most of this film. He’s Munchausen, but I’m using him for my own purposes. It was too restrictive just to do the original, because there was no shape to the whole thing, other than this incredible liar telling these amazing tales. But I’m beginning to think that everybody is getting a little bored with science fiction and the same creatures that keep popping up all over the place. What is nice about Munchausen is that it is eighteenth-century science fiction, so it has a different attitude. The imagery is quite unlike what people are used to at the moment. It gets a bit closer to something like The Thief of Baghdad, where it isn’t about machinery—it’s about people and gods and mythological things.
I just got hooked again on my same old theme, Fantasy/Reality. Lies and truth is an extension of that, and it’s about age and youth. Also death, birth, all those things. I think that’s what it’s about … Time Bandits was a story about a boy going through space and time and history, and never knowing whether is was real or a dream; Brazil was about a man who refused to take his responsibility in the real world and spent his time dreaming, ultimately escaping in madness; and Munchausen is really the happy ending, the triumph of fantasy.
Do you think there will be more cuts in the script?
I don’t know. We had another session this weekend where we had to give another bit away because the film is being taken over by the completion company, and they need their little pound of flesh to go back and show that they’re on top of it. And so we keep giving them flesh. We’re down to the bones now. It’s weightier in a strange way. It’s not as fantastic. Luckily we started with such an extravagant piece, there’s room to trim, but the terrible thing is that the stories I was most interested in were lost very early on. There was a whole thing about a horse being cut in half that’s wonderful. It’s a great sequence. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to make this film—it’s not there. It’s still the same film somehow.
That happened on Brazil, but the cuts were made in less threatening circumstances. And I was in a position where I could decide for myself that we were going over budget and time, and we’d stop and make trims. This has been these ‘crisis meetings’ where we have 48 hours to come up with the answer. So, ‘That’s it! Call the lawyers, it’s over, the film is dead, the Baron is finally buried.’ And then, Bingo! At the last minute we’ve found an answer every time. I have never seen a film so determined to keep going.
When you storyboard and design a film, do you take into consideration how much something might cost, how difficult it might be to film? Or do you let your imagination take you away and worry about logistics later?
I sit there and I really think about it and I work out. ‘It’ll only take me a day to do that,’ and then I think I know what I’m doing. And I’ve always been wrong. And each time I can convince myself that, ‘No, I am right this time despite the past.’ Strangely enough, because I believe it’s possible. I am able to convince other people that it’s possible. So we venture forth on these adventures that are just totally impossible. But it’s too late by the time people have discovered the truth.
We have on the film now David Tomblin, the associate producer. He is one of the most experienced first assistant directors in the world. He did Empire of the Sun, Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. He came late to the film, which is a pity, because he is the one that knows better. I have to try to convince him; he’s what I need.
One of our problems is that we spend so long on trying to deal with some of the special effects and the set-ups that the actors don’t have time to work. John Neville has been here every day for months and he has worked only in little bits. And this is really depressing, because he is an extraordinary character: he runs the Stratford Festival Company [in Ontario], he has a hundred actors and they do fifteen productions a season, and he directs, he acts, he’s an incredibly organised man. Now he is caught in this nightmare where he has to sit in make-up for hours and then doesn’t get to work. And he sees around him disorganisation, inefficiency and just chaos, day after day. He has stayed away from films for years, he has concentrated on theatre. Finally we lure him back and it’s like The Nightmare Come True. I don’t even know what to say to him any more, because I can’t justify it.
I really like actors. This started on Jabberwocky, right after Holy Grail, working with Python. I went and did my first film on my own with actors. and suddenly discovered how wonderful they were A good actor is incredibly vulnerable, and if you don’t take advantage of that vulnerability—if you encourage them and give them confidence, laugh when they’re funny and cry when they’re tragic—it’s quite easy and people start trusting you. I like working with British actors particularly because they are technically wonderful and less ‘Methody’ than American actors. You can be sitting chatting about the last football game and then say. ‘All right, here we go’ and Boom.! They are right immediately into the character. They do the scene, it might be a fairly emotional scene, and then it’s over and we’re back to talking about football.
On the Vulcan dining-room set, they are filming Uma Thurman’s entrance as the goddess Venus. Standing naked on a giant clamshell, posed to mimic Botticelli’s painting, the young actress is understandably nervous about her scene. In between takes, she keeps her composure by dancing a silly little dance on the shell. Her surreal act resembles a Monty Python cartoon, and the connection of this image is not lost on Gilliam, who stands dumbfounded, watching Uma Thurman inadvertently recreate a piece he had animated before she was even born.
How did you get involved with film-making in the first place, in particular with animation?
That was really a fluke. I was on a programme [We Have Ways of Making You Laugh] doing caricatures of the guests, and they had some material they didn’t know how to present. I suggested I might make an animated film and they let me; and overnight I was an animator. And then when Holy Grail came along, Terry Jones and I decided to be film directors. We had never done that before. We make these quantum leaps and once your name is up there with the credits, people believe it.
I always drew when I was a kid. I did cartoons because it’s easiest to impress people if you draw a funny picture, and I think that was a sort of passport through much of my early life. The only art training I had was in college where I majored in Political Science. I took several art courses, drawing and sculpture classes. My training has actually been fairly sloppy and I’ve been learning about art in retrospect. But I’ve always kept my eyes open, and things that I like I am influenced by.
How is your work with Dante Ferretti?
It’s great. This is one reason that I came to Italy, just the artistic side of things. I don’t think the film would look nearly so good if we were back in England, because everybody here has such a sense of colour and form. That’s one of the good things about being here, that the film has been influenced by being in Rome.
Something was bothering me about the physical location of the dining-room, where the Baron and Vulcan are supposed to be sitting at table with goblets of wine; it wasn’t quite right. So Vulcan is now in a room that is like an eighteenth-century salon, and it’s very delicate. This is partly because of this location we were sitting at. We changed it round, having him drink out of these little demitasse cups. Here’s this rough, crude, brutish man having to behave in a civilised eighteenth-century manner. It starts getting better and more interesting. And that’s the result of a physical place. You are sitting there and you’re trying to force the place to behave as you originally conceived the scene, and it doesn’t quite fit. You fight this for a long time, and you eventually give in and let the place dictate a few ideas.
Dante is an incredibly hard worker, he never stops. At first of course it was difficult because he wants to do his job and I want to do his job. But we reached a really good working relationship. He has excellent ideas; he’s funny. It would be nice if we spoke the same language. No, we actually do speak the same language. It’s not Italian or English: it’s images.
And your relationship with Giuseppe Rotunno?
His sense of light is fantastic. He has reached the stage where he’s so good that he concentrates on fine points like one-tenth of one per cent difference. I don’t think he is used to someone like me, unfortunately. He has worked with more controlled directors. On the other hand, he has worked with Fellini, but Fellini plays in a different way. Fellini does have total control of the thing and I keep wanting just to be one of the team members. And Peppino wants me to be God.
Is one influencing the other more?
No, because he is making it as beautiful as I want it to be. I get frustrated because I want it to be beautiful, but I also want it to be fast. And Peppino gets frustrated because he wants it to be beautiful and he will hold out to get it the way he feels it should be. So in a way he benefits me enormously because he is holding out for what I really want, but how this actually works with the schedule is something else. On the one hand, I have to get the thing done in the time and money available, and on the other hand, I want it to be an incredibly beautiful thing. Much of the time, what we are doing is telling cheap jokes, but they are dressed so beautifully they don’t look like cheap jokes any more.
There’s one scene in the destroyed city, and the little girl’s father in the film is a theatre manager and he wears this great long blue dressing-gown. Standing in front of the theatre, he is desperate because she has disappeared. There are bombs falling everywhere, and the group of actors is around him and the little girl appears and he rushes out to get her. Now what happens, one of the actors steps on his robe. It’s sort of a cheap comic thing, but somehow because everything is so beautiful and stunning-looking, it’s wonderfully funny, whereas it would only be a titter otherwise. I quite like that. I think that’s what a lot of it is about. You can tell the same joke, and if it’s done like Revenge of the Nerds, nobody will think it’s funny, it’s just crummy. But if you actually surround it with beautiful costumes and sets, brilliant lighting, you set this stage and then you have this silly little thing happen; it moves up to another level. It’s very strange, the way it works.
You lead the audience in one direction, their expectation is going, ‘It’s beautiful,’ and then suddenly, whoops, somebody trips. Slips on a banana skin. It’s the same old thing except you have been raised into a different world where it happens. It’s funnier when it happens to the gods than when it happens to the man in the street. I think all Greek myths were based on this.
The post-production and effects work is going to be handled in England?
Yes. I’m bringing the model shooting back to England, though in a way I am going to miss Rome. But we will put it all in one place, so that I can keep working with the editor and keep an eye on the models. That’s the part I really like, doing that. It’ll be a smaller group of people, we’ll have more control. David Tomblin, the Experienced One, said that it was one of the most complicated films he had ever seen. And to choose to come to Italy is a very bizarre thing to do. The Americans and the British are really the only ones with the necessary experience to make this sort of film. Trying to make a difficult film, plus trying to invent a new system, plus trying to work with new people … I don’t know what possessed me.
Do you have anything to look forward to after Munchausen?
Death. Always an optimist.
It’s the first time I never actually had another thought in my head about what to do next. This may cure me of film-making, for all I know.
What else would you pursue?
I think it would be nice just to do something smaller with a group of people that I feel close to. But my real problem is that I am caught with these images that I want to put on film, and they’re very complicated, expensive things.
Actually, one of the things that came out of this is that we have been doing a lot on this stage with sets that are just painted sets, and it looks wonderful. I keep thinking that I want to make a film which is like that—everything painted. It’s totally artificial and yet totally credible. So it will really be my animation and live action put together. On this film, I wanted to do the things that Disney did on his big cartoons for real. And we’re still doing it in a sense; it has a bit of that feel to it. The stuff we did on the stage was interesting because it was so effective, so magical in a way I haven’t seen very often. And it would be nice because it could be done cheaply. You just paint things, you do false perspective things.
That’s similar to what Méliès did.
It would really be exactly what he did in that sense, only a modern version of it. It bridges theatre and cinema because it’s artificial and yet believable. And people are so literal now and so into naturalism or realism. Theatre and cartoons have always been abstract things. Films are abstract but people think they’re realistic or naturalistic; people seem to think you have to have things that look real to be real.
I think that might be the next way to work. Really cheap. The cheapest film ever made.
SOURCE: “The Fisher King: Terry Gilliam Melds the Modern and the Mythical,” in American Film, Vol. 16, September, 1991, pp. 50–1.
[In the following review, Drucker offers an analysis of Gilliam's directing technique in The Fisher King.]
Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is New York’s top shock disc jockey—that is; until one of his careless on-air remarks triggers a horrific tragedy. Three years later, at rock-bottom, Jack encounters Parry (Robin Williams), a former professor of medieval history who roams the streets living in a world he’s invented to block out memories of a personal trauma. Only Parry, an innocent, has the power to help Jack recover his humanity, and Jack, in turn, tries to heal Parry’s psychological injuries.
Director Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King harks back to Arthurian legend, in which the knight Percival, distinguished by his childlike innocence, heals the wounds of the Holy Grail’s guardian, the Fisher King. The film is intentionally ambiguous about which character is the fool, and which the king. “I love the fact that there is this ambivalence,” says Gilliam. “All myths, if they’re dealt with properly, are never as clean-cut as we tend to see them. One side, if you twist it enough, becomes the other.”
Gilliam himself is both childlike knight and tormented king. His enthusiastic manner, casual dress and impish face, along with the fantastical abandon of his films (Time Bandits,Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) belie his 50 years of age. After his infamous run-ins with studio heads on Brazil and money men on Munchausen, Gilliam emerged a jaded, wounded dreamer. The director announced he was tired of defending his own ideas and was ready to direct someone else’s work.
Fortunately, Gilliam happened upon Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay. “The moment I read this, it was like, jeez, why didn’t I write this,” remembers the director. “The ideas, the characters—I understood everything.”
The director was particularly intrigued by the script’s strong emotional hook. “In my other films, there’s a lot more spectacle,” says Gilliam. “Everything about them is extraordinary and the characters just seem to be part of a bigger picture. In this, the characters are foreground and the rest of the stuff is background. I was curious to see if I could pull off those relationships and the emotional content and not let the audience get distracted by visual things.”
Even though many refer to Gilliam as an auteur, the director prefers to work in a collaborative manner, as he did during his days as a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. On this project, not only were all four actors—Bridges, Williams, Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer—encouraged to offer suggestions, but LaGravenese was included in all stages of the production as well. “I just respect scripts and writers,” explains Gilliam. “Python began because everybody was a writer and had seen their stuff being buggered by other people.”
Besides, believes Gilliam, LaGravenese is his perfect foil. “I didn’t want to make a ‘Terry Gilliam film,’” he stresses. “I was trying to minimize it, keep it straightforward. Richard’s much more mundane than I am, and I think the pull is very good. He keeps trying to pull it back to something that’s real, and I keep spinning out into fantasies.”
In keeping with Gilliam and LaGravenese’s intentions, Fisher King is an actors showcase. Each of the performers has a distinct style that complements the others. Most notable is Bridges, who shows impressive range, giving his best performance to date.
Still, it is Gilliam’s signature that appears everywhere in the film—from the whimsy of Parry’s hallucinations (especially the lyrical vision of Grand Central Station full of waltzing commuters) to the depiction of Jack’s rise and fall (the extremely vertical camera movements mirror his changing social status).
Needless to say, even with its many contributors, Fisher King is very much a “Terry Gilliam film.” “It’s like Parry,” says the filmmaker. “Parry sees a medieval world there, and he drags Jack into it and, suddenly, Jack’s becoming like Parry. That’s kind of the way I work on films. I just kind of bulldoze my enthusiasm right through everybody until they all begin to think like me and they’re coming up with better things than I would have thought of. And,” Gilliam emits a staccato laugh, “I get all the credit for it at the end.”
SOURCE: A review of 12 Monkeys, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 4, April, 1996, pp. 56–7.
[In the following review, Strick describes 12 Monkeys as a confusing, muddled film that was inspired by, but is not as good as, Chris Marker's La Jetée.]
Philadelphia, 2035. Sheltering underground from a virus that has killed most of the world’s population, a group of scientists sends randomly selected criminals to monitor conditions in the derelict city above. One such ‘volunteer’ is James Cole, a surly and violent convict haunted by the childhood memory of a man shot down in an airport corridor. Impressed by Cole’s toughness and powers of observation, the scientists decide he is a suitable candidate for their desperate project to trace the virus to its source. Following clues assembled since the first outbreak in 1996, they send Cole back in time to identify those claiming responsibility, a group called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys. But the time-travel process delivers him to Baltimore in 1990. where he is diagnosed as schizophrenic by county psychiatrist Dr Kathryn Railly and detained in a mental institution. The phone number he has been given as a link with the future proves useless.
Befriended by one of the mental patients, Jeffrey Goines, who encourages him to attempt an escape, Cole finally shakes free by returning to 2035, explaining to his interrogators that they sent him to the wrong year. Their second attempt lands Cole in 1917 in the trenches of France. One of his fellow convicts, José, is carried by on a stretcher and Cole is shot in the leg before again finding himself in Baltimore in 1996. He traces Kathryn Railly to a lecture hall and demands to be driven to Philadelphia. Fascinated by his incoherent story, she submits to the journey which ends with the discovery of the Twelve Monkeys insignia sprayed on various walls. Cole follows the signs and drags Kathryn into the headquarters of the Freedom for Animals Association; terrified staff reveal that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is headed by Jeffrey, crazed son of the virologist Dr Leland Goines.
Kathryn digs the bullet out of Coles’s leg and he gatecrashes a reception at the Goines' mansion. His arrival prompts Jeffrey to take fresh action on behalf of the animals that have suffered in his father’s laboratory. Back in 2035, Cole’s interrogators promise him a full pardon if he can now pinpoint the exact whereabouts of the virus. Although Cole has begun to suspect that these ‘future’ sessions are merely imaginary. Kathryn has the bullet analysed and realises that his story could be true. She warns Dr Goines who, as a precaution, allows only his assistant, Dr Peters, to know the access code to the deadly virus he has been working on. But Jeffrey’s plan, as it turns out, is unrelated to the virus: the Army’s grand gesture is to lock Dr Goines in a cage at the Philadelphia Zoo and release the zoo animals into the city. Crisis apparently averted, Kathryn and Cole plan a new future together and head for the airport, only to encounter Dr Peters and realise that it is he who plans to scatter the virus worldwide. Phoning a warning message to 2035. Cole is handed a gun by José: he tries to stop Peters but is shot down by an airport security guard. As he dies, his younger self watches nearby. On the plane. Peters is unaware that the chatty fellow passenger beside him is a scientist from the future.
Although the standard response to remakes is to complain about their lack of originality and stature in comparison with their predecessors, a knee-jerk protest against all imitations of Chris Marker’s time-travelling story La Jetée seems particularly unnecessary. For a start. Marker’s story, told in frozen photographic instants except for one vital detail of movement, is a time capsule itself, representing a unique conjunction of missile-crisis anxiety, memory (as explored with Alain Resnais). cinéma vérité, and the influence of such friends as Jacques Ledoux and Ligia Borowczyk. At the same time, barely a film at all (Marker called it a photo-roman), it hints at alternative ways of being told and of supplementary scenarios that might yet relate to it. Other time capsules still reach us from the same era but La Jetée, with almost pedantic formality and an audacious humour theorising that time travel is all in the mind, is the one that leaves most to the imagination. Rising at last to the bait, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys sensibly admits to being ‘inspired’ by Marker, but makes no claim to reconstruction.
12 Monkeys' identity is elusive, a compilation of interests and notions in which an affection for Marker is swamped by other dramatic priorities. Jostling for space in an already challenging narrative are the familiar Gilliam predilection for visual delirium and the gloomier concerns of the David and Janet Peoples’ screenwriting team. As explored in Blade Runner, Salute of the Jugger, Unforgiven, and Hero, the Peoples return to themes of tribalism, trials of strength and ruined futures. These elements are peripheral to the bright central core of La Jetée, but they become dominant and unbalancing forces in 12 Monkeys. In part, this might also be blamed on the underwritten romance which, despite the simmering beauty of Madeleine Stowe, refuses to raise much of a temperature. Although Gilliam’s films previously have been well equipped with wonderfully resilient heroines, the mismatch here between time-travelling convict and Cassandra-Complex theorist seems to have defeated all concerned.
Most revealingly, the final close-up of the young Cole after witnessing the key death shows him staring not at the girl’s face which may one day summon him across the years (as the parallel character in Marker’s film does) but at the departing plane in which the virus is being carried off to infect the rest of the planet. This change of emphasis, resulting presumably from the need for a penultimate scene with virus-carrier and virus-hunter together on the same aircraft, drastically weakens the continuity and logic of Cole’s obsessive dream, in which the airport death is constantly replayed. 12 Monkeys turns the whole event into an inexplicable mystery, with unrecognisable people in confusing disarray, an incident which given the traumas of countless plague deaths to follow, the boy might have in fact quickly forgotten.
With Marker, the main mystery is the recurring paradox of time-travel fiction: granted that the death of the traveller is essential so that he will be drawn back to the same moment in time, where (and when) does his assassin come from? In this version, the death of Cole is largely irrelevant to the tracing of the virus, except—perhaps—in that it acts as a magnet, pulling through the earlier hunt for the (equally irrelevant?) Army of the Twelve Monkeys until the identity of the virus-carrier is at last clear. On the way, all of Cole’s returns prove to be essential contributions to the ‘final’ event which is cynically engineered by the team in 2035. Left casually in abeyance is any explanation as to how Cole manages to return to the future under his own steam, or how he gets ‘bounced’ from 1917 to 1996. We might also wonder how the young Cole, alive during the first outbreak of the virus, managed to avoid infection.
The overriding question, of course, is why Cole’s mission is not simply to destroy the virus and save civilisation, although in doing so he would wipe out the future that has invented time travel and would therefore be unable to destroy the virus, and so on. The solution to this one rests squarely in Gilliam territory, where death-defying fights against a malevolent bureaucracy have consistently been attempted since the days of Jabberwocky. In its nattering armies of ineffectual, self-important experts. 12 Monkeys resurrects the cruel conspirators of Brazil, for whom personal survival is the only priority. Why save the world when they can settle for Philadelphia? “It’s not about the virus at all,” realises this new Munchausen, once again evading Death by confronting it, “it’s about following orders.” Fortunately, it is also about the kind of incongruities that bring out the best of Gilliam, zestfully at home in another derelict city, another garbage world, another labyrinth of cumbersome, cobbled-together machinery. It may be nothing more than an elaborate deception, if we read the allusions to Vertigo correctly, a wilderness of monkeys where Bruce Willis again indulges in masochism and Brad Pitt is a transcendent psychotic, but it would probably amuse Chris Marker to no end.
SOURCE: “Mugging for the Camera: Narrative Strategies in Brazil,” in Literature Film Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1996, pp. 288–92.
[In the following essay, Fister explains that Gilliam's use and misuse of cues in Brazil makes the viewer rethink what is “real” in the film.]
Brazil has a curious history. Terry Gilliam, a former member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, created a dystopia so devastating, and yet so compelling, that Universal refused to release it without a massive editing job, reshaping it to match the expectations of the public—and the studio marketing strategists. Gilliam would not agree to their changes and made a dramatic and highly public stand, ultimately winning control over editing, but guaranteeing a lack of marketing support that doomed the film at the box office. He remarked afterward that life was imitating art in a nightmarish way.
It isn’t surprising that the film would dismay a conservative Hollywood studio since it defies categories and deliberately subverts the act of categorization. It practices defamiliarization with a vengeance. In fact, vengefulness was taken to be a prime motivation for Gilliam by some critics. One, in a scathing assessment, said it is “an all-out audience assault” (David Sheehan qtd. in Mathews 77). Even Gilliam, in an interview, suggested his object was to confound his viewer: He describes the film as a “form of cinematic mugging. It starts rather funny, and it lures people around the corner with a lollipop—and, once you get around the corner, pow! It’s too late to escape. It’s claustrophobic—you’re trapped and it won’t end; it ends again and again and again and again. People get resentful, but that’s what nightmares are like” (Bennetts 16).
What is this nightmare and how does it organize its assault on the viewers’ expectations? The story, about a man who becomes trapped in the bureaucracy when he meets and tries to join the girl about whom he has literally been dreaming, begins at 8:49 p.m. somewhere in the twentieth century according to messages superimposed over an opening shot of clouds. From the start we get conflicting signals—we know the precise moment, but not the year. The mise en scène continues this deliberate confusion by proposing a weirdly nostalgic future that has computers with keyboards that look like ancient upright Underwood typewriters, telephones that have to be plugged in like old switchboards, and architecture that combines Bauhaus elements with Stalinist Modern ornateness. As Salman Rushdie puts it, the “idea of the future is somewhat out of date” (52), and we wonder if this “somewhere in the twentieth century” isn’t somehow everywhere in the twentieth century, a melange of our century’s cultural history. Another critic, focusing on the architecture in particular, says, “the present and future are conjoined via the device of a postmodern cityscape in which traces of modernist high rises and pyramid and glass towers intermingle with debris from revival architecture and urban sprawl” (Staiger 22). Unlike the clean, unified designs of the sort of future found in Star Trek or the mythic time of Star Wars, this future has lots of the present in it and is a disorderly mingling of dysfunctional elements. This setting, aside from its confusion over time, is dark, labyrinthine, and entropic.1 The only panoramic views we see are via the cameras: there is no high ground that provides a clear orientation through the maze for the characters, and everything seems incredibly dingy, broken, worn out. This is also far from a classless society, as the dwellings reflect an obvious hierarchy. Sam’s apartment is plain, a unit in a soulless but clean tower block; his mother’s flat is luxurious and Edwardian in its tastes; the Buttles’ flat is working class in decor and faces a grimy air-shaft-like atrium in which dirty children play at a brutal new version of cops and robbers and, on occasion, torch ears for fun.2
The mise en scène has much to say about deception. The fabula3 world is one in which deception is the norm and appearances count for far more than reality. Façades are ubiquitous. Though the lobby of the Ministry of Information is built on a monumental and fascist scale, dwarfing those processed through it, its offices are jumbled, chaotic, and mean even to the point that two cubicles share one desk that the office workers fight over, pulling it back and forth through the wall. Sam’s mother is introduced in a scene in which a plastic surgeon is pulling her face about elastically, engaged in a horrific facial reconstruction that won’t last but that will, for a while, make her look younger. The motorway running out of the city passes through a post-holocaust smoking wasteland, but those driving through it are unaware because the road is walled in with billboards.
Sam himself subscribes to appearances. He is adept at concealing bureaucratic problems in computer wizardry and says, when a bomb rips through a restaurant, he has nothing to do with it because “I’m on my lunch hour. Besides, it’s not my department.” Sam’s growing inability to deceive himself drives the plot forward as the film’s ability to fool the viewer with special effects is uncovered.
The film works overt acts of deception on its viewers as well as on its characters, something that is highlighted, by style and syuzhet, at regular intervals. One startling scene that plays on this filmic deception lasts only a few seconds but effectively sets up the conjunction of the two story lines. Sam is driving to the Buttles’ house singing along with an arrangement of “Brazil” on the radio. He switches it off when an announcer breaks in with news of a terrorist bombing, and the camera seems to follow him into a labyrinth of identical tower blocks, pyramidal housing complexes, each topped with a cooling tower like that for an atomic power plant. The buildings are huge, dwarfing, clean, impressive. But as we move in among them a huge face looms up over them. We cut to a street view and realize it isn’t a housing complex but an architect’s model displayed in a window, with a bottle-wielding wino lurching over it. We are forced to do a mental double-take. And when we drive into the real tenements we find they are huge and dwarfing like the model, but dirty, worn, and decrepit. The architectural intentions are revealed, through a camera trick, for what they are and we, like Sam, must question our own perceptual norms, must challenge the film’s ability to deceive.
The syuzhet is unfolded through two story lines. These start out as distinct elements, but gradually grow closer together, their stylistic signatures becoming less distinguishable. The first story line is the “real” one, the working life of Sam Lowry, a functionary in the lowly Department of Records. The second is his dream life. The distinct styles are played on in the opening scene. “Brazil” plays as the camera roams through beautiful huge peaks of cumulus clouds. The time and place are superimposed in the clouds and then there is an abrupt cut to a television screen. The camera draws back and we see several televisions all playing the same advertisement for ducts. It draws back further and we see a window frame, with a shopper passing between us and the display of televisions. There is a sudden huge explosion and the window and shopper disappear in an orange fireball and smoke. The film title in red and blue neon appears, and then the camera moves back in through the shattered window, where a television is still operating, now running an interview with a man (Sam’s future boss, Helpmann) who is explaining the Ministry of Information’s campaign against terrorism. We cut to a television in an office, where the plot is set in motion when a white-coated technician swats a fly that falls into a printer, fritzes it out, and changes a name on a list of “subjects for detention and interview” from Tuttle to Buttle. We use the same television show to cut to the Buttles’ working class sitting room. No one there is watching TV; they are reading A Christmas Carol. The camera roams upstairs to Jill’s flat, where she is watching a Marx Brother’s film on a small television in her bath. Suddenly, figures dressed in black (terrorists?) rush in and cut a hole in the ceiling, there is an explosion, and Mr. Buttle is bundled into a grotesque head-to-toe straight jacket. It is the security police, arresting the wrong man. As a bowler-hatted official gives the dazed Mrs. Buttle a receipt for her husband, and himself a receipt for her receipt, the camera focuses on the paper and we shift to a frenetic office scene in which papers by the millions are being shuffled. The camera races in a dolly shot up one corridor, turns, races back another, conveying the notion that Mr. Buttle is one small detail in a relentlessly bureaucratic system.
Up until this point the camera has never paused to rest. It has swept from side to side, moved without break from one shot to another by focusing in a close up on a common element to move from one scene to another, always on the move and seeming to search for something. Concurrently, the viewer is seeking a hero—just who is the central character? When will we get to know what’s going on here?
We finally meet our hero when his boss asks for him. There is an abrupt cut (reminiscent of Gilliam’s days in Monty Python’s Flying Circus—“and now for something completely different”) and we find ourselves in a different world, moving to a different pace. A strange winged man is swooping through the clouds, searching. A woman calls his name—Sam. A buzzing telephone ends the sequence and we realize it was all Sam’s dream. At this point the dream sequences are not frequent and are sharply demarcated from the rest of the story, being much more brightly lit, more slowly paced, and separated by sudden cuts. They end with a “real world” sound, and with Sam waking up, entangled in bed clothes, heating ducts, or whatever else the plot suggests. When he arrives at the Ministry of Information we see the woman from his dream—the same woman that witnessed Buttle’s arrest—appear on the screens on a bank of huge television screens along one wall. Sam doesn’t notice until he catches it just before the picture switches. He looks for her in the lobby, but misses her because her back is turned toward him. He is bemused, unsure whether to trust what he saw. But we are let in on the fact that the woman of his dreams is also a character in his waking world. Sam doesn’t know for sure until he goes to the Buttles’ apartment and sees her reflection in a shard of mirror, then compares the image with the object of reflection.
The rest of the film concerns his search for her, his attempt to win her heart, and finally his desperate bid to save her from his bureaucracy. As the syuzhet unfolds the two plot lines converge, with the dreams more frequent, less different from the “real world” events. They become darker as his pursuit of the woman of his dreams leads him into walled-in caverns that are the same shape as the claustrophobic city streets. As the dream world becomes more like the “real” one, elements of the dream creep into Sam’s working world. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell them apart. The Buttle family appears in his dreams, as prisoners dressed in rags, oppressed by “forces of evil” wearing doll-faced masks. When Sam is captured the doll-faced mask appears on his erstwhile friend Jack when he arrives to torture Sam. This confusion is heightened by doubling of characters. Sam unmasks the Samurai warrior in his dream and finds his own face; the brick arms and face rising out of the dreamscape ground belong to his boss: his mother’s constant face lifts make her younger and younger until she finally appears with Jill’s face. We are, for the most part, limited to Sam’s range of knowledge and, as his dream and waking worlds converge, our grasp on the story grows more and more tentative. Which parts of the syuzhet are actually happening? Which are figments of Sam’s imagination?
Stylistic features are as unsettling as those of the syuzhet. Not only are syuzhet lines mingled in ways that challenge our normal schemata for story telling, the film also disrupts our normal schemata for film genres. Humor and horror are inextricably tangled together. Either this is a comedy that isn’t very funny or a tragedy that is inappropriately comic. The names for the grim urban landmarks are all ironic—the Buttles’ Hogarthian tower block is named “Shangri-La” and Sam lives in 579B Block 19. Northwestern Section D—or as directions are given, “That’s exit one on Green Pastures Highway at the Orange Blossom Flyover.” There is nothing green or blossoming, of course, for miles around. As Sam is attempting to evade pursuit and get to Helpmann’s office using his private lift he sneaks past a gestapo-like brigade of uniformed thugs that are practicing Christmas carols under the brutal direction of their sergeant. As Sam is being readied for torture a guard says, “Don’t fight it, son. Confess quickly. If you hold out too long you might jeopardize your credit rating.” We are, at this point, hardly in the mood for a joke, and one of the most wrenching scenes in the film follows immediately. Viewers who associate the name “Monty Python” with manic humor are bound to be disappointed in the darkness and pessimism of this film. But the undermining of generic schemata is deliberate and follows the film’s pattern of upsetting norms. Gilliam told an interviewer “it doesn’t fit into neat categories. One of the primary reasons for making the film was to make something that didn’t fit into any existing genres of film or film marketing” (Bennetts 15). The narrative strategy is to surprise us into feelings we wouldn’t have without the surprise element.
Given the way in which the film tends to weave between extremes of story and of style it is no wonder that bipolarities are so often used to describe the film. Gilliam has called it “Franz Kafka meets Frank Capra” (Rushdie 50) and Salman Rushdie said this “seriously funny” film was “Monty Python goes to Metropolis” (53). These comparisons reflect the disorienting way in which dozens of intertextual references to film are sprinkled throughout the picture. (For instance, there is an obvious replay of the Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin, complete with a person with cracked spectacles and a line of inexorable soldiers moving down a staircase—only instead of a baby carriage a large canister vacuum cleaner is rolling down the steps.) The film is narrated in a fairly classical style, with clues planted that will forward the narrative, little “dead” time or space, and framing that highlights the factors that are narratively important, yet it uses this classical narration to subvert classical narration.4 Gilliam describes it as “a very elaborate documentary, done in a Lewis Carroll way—seen through the looking glass” (Bennetts 15). This reversed reflection raises unsettling questions about perception and about cinema itself.
The theme the film brings to the fore is a duality between image as an act of imagination and image as norm. The oppressive (but all too cozily familiar) system privileges signifiers that are consistent with themselves but don’t necessarily point clearly to a signified. The system, with all of its elaborate paper shuffling, narrates the lives of its citizens without regard to how those lives are actually lived. When Sam joins Information Retrieval his new supervisor is surrounded by a shuffling bunch of clerks as he strides down the hall. He is tossing off instructions right and left, including a solomonic decision about fifteen suspects: “put half as terrorists, the rest as victims.” The system churns along happily until an anomaly crops up and terrifies the system’s functionaries—because the error must be corrected to be consistent with the system, whatever the human cost. The information technology that underpins the system is often baffling to its own executives. Sam understands the ins and outs of paper transfer, but his boss is terrified of paper that is out of line and wants to hide it behind a filing cabinet. Lime, who shares a desk with Sam in Information Retrieval, hardly knows how to turn on his computer, but claims to be “a bit of a whiz on this thing.” It is interesting that there is no political opposition in this dystopia. The closest thing to it is a renegade plumber who freelances because he can’t stand the paperwork. Like Sam, Tuttle is adept at the technology underpinning the society—only Sam’s expertise is in computers and Tuttle’s in the laocoon ducts that are a tangled root system behind every wall. Their very mastery of the system is a threat.
One must begin to question by the end of the film if the system isn’t its own terrorist threat, that the bombings ascribed to terrorists aren’t a fiction created by the Ministry of (dis)Information to justify their large budget, fully seven percent of the GNP, we learn in the opening scene. The system has created a paper version of a society that has taken precedence over the people. The horrifying, baffling end of Tuttle—overwhelmed and disintegrated beneath a pile of windblown paper—is an apt metaphor for the end of individuality in the society.
The final scene, deemed too depressing by Universal, reveals the last quarter of an hour of film, from Sam’s heroic rescue and reunion with Jill and their escape to an idyllic valley, to be only a fantasy. Suddenly, invading the foreground of the green landscape of Sam’s happy ending, two grotesque faces loom up, staring directly at the audience. We are forced again to do a visual double-take, to adjust our sense of perspective and our interpretation of the story. The camera cuts to show Jack and Helpmann standing together, looking at what’s left of Sam. Helpmann says, “He’s got away from us, Jack.” Sam is mindlessly humming “Brazil” and, as the two torturers leave him in the vast chamber, he sings the words “tomorrow was another day. The morning found me miles away with still a million things to say.” Clouds fill the chamber and we are left with the kitschy song and the dreamscape.
In a way, Sam has got away at last. And the film, with its odd mixture of classical cinematic norms and sudden switchbacks, its mixed genres, its gradual merging of syuzhet lines, gives us the chance to ponder the role of imagination in the formation of fabula. The theme is reiterated in the structure of the film, and the audience becomes implicated by having to play an active role in examining the reliability of cues. Gilliam mugs for the camera, playing on a shared archive of cinematic images and cinematic norms in a comic way to set us up for a genuine mugging, an assault on our notions of cinematic narrative. We are left curiously disillusioned about the trustworthiness of cues, but with the sense that our imaginations, like Sam’s, have been turned loose with “still a million things to say.”
Staiger elaborates on four features of the cityscape: postmodernism, darkness, labyrinthian structure, and entropy. See especially page 23 and following pages.
This seems to put to rest the misconception held by some critics (including Staiger) that this dystopia is a critique of the British Welfare State. Any regime that charges back to its citizens the cost of their imprisonment and torture is more an extrapolation of Thatcherism than a reference to a welfare state.
The Russian Formalist term fabula refers to the story; syuzhet to the plot.
Katherine Boyd points out that the Gilliam film depends upon using familiar cinematic techniques that allows the film to “critique Hollywood—old and new—through the selective use of familiar filmic codes, cinematic citation and the undermining of conventions. …Black humor becomes possible precisely at that moment when we become uncertain of the norm” (36).
The author wishes to thank Don Larsson for his encouragement and insightful comments.
Bennetts, Leslie. “How Terry Gilliam Found a Happy Ending for Brazil.” New York Times 19 Jan. 1986, 11:15–16.
Boyd, Katrina G. “Pastiche and Postmodernism in Brazil.” Cinefocus I (1990): 33–42.
Mathews, Jack. The Battle of Brazil. New York: Crown, 1987.
Rushdie, Salman. “The Location of Brazil.” American Film 10 (September 1985): 50–53.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” East-West Film Journal 3 (1988): 20–43.
SOURCE: “Chemical Warfare,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 8, No. 6, June, 1998, pp. 6–8.
[In the following interview, Gilliam discusses adapting Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the screen.]
In 1967—amid the turbulence generated by the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the build-up to the San Francisco summer of love and the explosive Los Angeles race riots—Terry Gilliam left his home country of America for England. Thirty years later he went back to take “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” by bringing Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the screen. Thompson’s 1971 book began as a magazine article for Rolling Stone, which itself sprang from an assignment to cover the Mint 400 motor race on the outskirts of America’s gambling capital. Armed with enough drugs to kill a weighty bovine. Thompson went to the edge, peered into the abyss and came back with a news report that the American Dream was well and truly spent. His writing hijacked Tom Wolfe’s groundbreaking ‘new journalism’ and forever made it “Gonzo”. Alongside Easy Rider, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas introduced a level of realism and pessimism to youth culture that helped define the 70s. “Thompson didn’t go to Vietnam,” says Gilliam. “He's a journalist who didn’t cover the war. So by taking drugs he’s creating a war zone in his head, bombarding his psyche, and then he goes to Vegas and reports as if he were a war correspondent. He created a chemical war in his head to deal with the world there rather than going out into the real war and getting shot at with real bullets.”
To avoid real bullets himself Gilliam joined the National Guard in the mid 60s while working as associate editor on the New York-based humour magazine Help! As a result he spent most of the hippie-birthing period sporting a military crew cut—his current ponytail seems a gesture of constant defiance. During the Watts riots he was working for an ad agency and drawing and distributing anti-war posters in his spare time. Once in London he sought out all the locations he recognised from Blowup and scaled the fence at Shepperton Studios, calling it his own for the day as he wandered around the sets of Oliver. Ten years later he would make his first film as sole director, Jabberwocky there.
In between, of course, he became an animator and member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Gilliam remained in England to make a trio of films—Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)—that brought the studios to tears in their arch defence of fantasy. Brazil’s Sam Lowry chooses fantasy over sanity, while Munchausen railed against the rational world as the film’s budget soared into notoriety.
Fear and Loathing could be seen as completing Gilliam’s U.S. trilogy. Unlike his British-made movies, he did not generate the source material for these, though the films are equally personal. The Fisher King (1991) again had one of its central characters escape into madness and myth, while Twelve Monkeys (1995) took Gilliam to Philadelphia, the birthplace of the US, where an unwitting hero from the near future tries in vain to find out how the country has gone so wrong. With Fear and Loathing Gilliam goes back to the America he left. Vietnam is a constant on the news, racial tensions are high, and the length of your hair is a statement of intent.
The words are Thompson’s, but the film is very clearly Gilliam’s. Alex Cox was originally slated to direct, with Johnny Depp starring as Thompson's alter ego Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Duke's Samoan attorney known only as Dr. Gonzo. When Cox left the project Gilliam signed up, co-writing a new script with Tony Grisoni, writer of Jon Amiel's Queen of Hearts, with whom he has been working for some time on a project about the Minotaur.
[Bob McCabe:] Your adaptation of Fear and Loathing is extremely faithful to the book, with most of the dialogue coming straight from Thompson.
[Terry Gilliam:] If you’re going to do a book, you’ve got to try to do the book. It’s a collaboration: it’s as if the writer wrote the symphony and I’m the conductor, though I also change the arrangement, add some saxes and a few other bits and pieces. What we did was to shape the book in a new way, because the second half falls apart. There’s no point in rewriting the dialogue—it’s great—but what you can do is reorder it: some of the scenes didn’t play as funnily as they do now. Other bits we’ve cannibalised or moved, but I think there are hardly any words spoken that aren’t Thompson’s.
By rooting your film firmly back in 1971 you get away from the image of Thompson as a cool outlaw figure and show that this is basically about two junkies in a room, and it can be unpleasant and bleak at times.
A lot of people said. “You’ve got to update it to make it relevant to the 90s.” I don’t think you have to make it relevant. It’s relevant whenever. It’s basically about two people going to excess, and what we were trying to get across is that the excuse for this behaviour is the loss of the dream of the 60s and the continuing war in Vietnam. The book’s very reflective—you read it as funny and outrageous, but then it goes into something else. In the Alex Cox script that stuff was incidental, but I thought I had to keep playing this other side otherwise it becomes boorish and tiresome, just two guys rampaging around the place.
The characters are products of the 60s—60s guys with all that passion, all that energy and belief that they could change the world. And for all its bestiality and madness, their behaviour is intelligent. It was really intelligent people having the last hurrah, one last chance to say, “Fuck it.”
We were very clear in our thinking. We decided to see it like Dante’s Inferno, with Gonzo as a kind of Virgil, a pagan, primal thing that is out of control half the time. Then you have Duke Dante watching and being guided. Duke is sent to Hell to suffer for the sins of America is the way we’ve approached it, though whether any of this comes through I don’t know. But it helped when we were writing.
That seems to be Thompson’s intent too: he certainly sets himself up as a conscience figure.
He’s from Kentucky and his references are almost biblical at times, or at least coming from Christian morality. But he hides them, he ducks and dives. What’s interesting in the writing is that he equivocates all the time, he never takes a real stance. We found out talking to him that there’s a lot of fabrication in the book—for instance, he was married at the time, but he disguised all this. Perhaps it was the two sides of his personality. I don’t know.
The soundtrack mixes Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin with Perry Como and Julie Andrews. The Stones are in there—but ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, which Thompson recently described as “as much a part of the writing of that book as my own rhythms in the prose,” isn’t.
There’s a lot of pressure to have it in the film, but it doesn’t work. The rhythm isn’t right for the way we’re cutting the front of the movie and the lyrics, which are great, can’t be played with Johnny Depp talking as well. I wanted to start with a bang so what I used is a song by Big Brother and the Holding Company. There’s a raw San Francisco guitar shit that band has. And the title of the song—‘Combination of the Two’—is strangely appropriate.
Initially it was a low-budget project with Alex Cox attached, then Cox was out and you were called in at what seemed like the eleventh hour.
Somehow Alex managed to alienate everybody. I don’t know the details but they all wanted him gone and so he was gone. He went up to Hunter’s house and completely alienated him in one fell swoop—I mean Hunter’s an easily alienated person, but you have to show some respect, some deference, some intelligence in dealing with somebody like that. When Alex was first involved it was a ＄5 million film and then Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro’s presence raised it to ＄7 million. I discovered in retrospect that these budgets were just inventions. When I got out there I said, “OK. I’ll do it but I want to write a new script and I think I’ll just double the budget to start with and see how we go.” So we wrote the whole thing in eight days—we just went through the book, underlined all the bits we liked and then said, “OK, we’ve got that, that, that.” It was building blocks. And at the end of this we took it home, read it, hated it, came back and spent two more days writing like mad.
It seems a remarkably tight time frame.
We’ve done this whole thing in less than a year from writing it to finishing it, and that was part of the exercise. I did it partly to try and break out of the responsibility of making good films, making them well. I just wanted to do something fast and Gonzo, Gonzo filmmaking. That’s why the low budget and short schedule were important. I knew that once we got into it. I’d start screaming and shouting very much like Duke in the book, but that’s the spirit of the piece, so why not go for it? The worst thing was when I realised I wasn’t as young as I used to be, I don’t have the energy I used to have. But we still got through it.
Then it got very messy because the production company Rhino reneged on everything. In other circumstances I would have walked away, but I’d set my mind on doing it. I made less money on this than on Life of Brian way back—but I always said I wouldn’t work just for money and I’d been getting paid more and more as the films had gone on. It got very funny—Johnny was so incensed he said that if the guy who ran the production company came on the set he was going to put in his contract that this guy has to drop his trousers and Johnny gets to whip him with a wire coat-hanger.
It seems on the surface to be the least Gilliam-like of all your films.
Good. In this one I’m not sure which character I am. In earlier films it was easy to see who I was identifying with: Baron Munchausen, Sam in Brazil, the kid in Time Bandits But the last three films have had split protagonists: in The Fisher King you’ve got Jeff Bridges doing the bulk of the work and Robin Williams doing the fireworks: in Twelve Monkeys there’s Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt: in this one Johnny’s doing the work and Benicio the fireworks I find it very odd that these three films that I didn’t write have a similar relationship between the two characters, and I can identify with both of them.
With every movie I’ve made, there’s a connection between the making of it and what it’s about. And this one was just go for it, leap off the edge of the precipice and see what happens. And it’s hellish—it’s all the things the book says it is. It was the most uncertain experience I’ve had for a long time. Usually I know my films so deeply before I start shooting I feel I could shoot blindfold. But this one we were doing as we were going along, making really fast choices, and my stomach was always in a knot. I didn’t want to like the film. I didn’t want to love it. I wanted to maintain an objectivity because I didn’t know what we were going to make. It’s only been in the editing that we’ve slowly honed it down.
If Fear and Loathing could be read as your own search for the American Dream, what did you find?
I think America is still a very confused place. What I can see now is that it’s got wonderful things that I rejected before, yet there’s an inherent dumbness that floats through the whole thing. Vegas is a wonderful display of America now because it’s about the infantilisation of America, which we’ve all been making cartoons about for a long time. But I found Americans have all changed shape: there are huge fat people, who didn’t exist before, and the guys who used to be geeks and nerds have all body built—now they’ve got huge bodies and necks with a little head that sits on top. And they all go to Vegas with their kids and wander around gawking. Vegas brings out the best and the worst, there’s some kind of truth in it. For me it was just like Thompson going there.
SOURCE: “Trapping the Simians in the Scottish Highlands: A Viewer Response to the Hitchcock MacGuffin in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys,” in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 19, Nos. 3–4, August, 1998, pp. 244–9.
[In the following essay, Craig analyzes the misleading aspects of 12 Monkeys in an attempt to discern the actual meaning of the film.]
In a key scene in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), James Cole (Bruce Willis) and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) take refuge from their pursuers in a movie theater holding an Alfred Hitchcock film festival. As the two plan their next move and discuss their feelings for each other, excerpts from Vertigo and The Birds flash on the screen behind them. The scene reinforces the film’s title, and presumed focus, as nothing more than Gilliam’s version of a Hitchcock “MacGuffin,” a red herring important to the characters that is designed to jump start the film’s story, but which is ultimately of little interest to the audience.
As a viewer responding to Gilliam’s time travel based, science-fiction thriller, I find the scene mentioned above particularly instructive. Like Hitchcock, Gilliam is telling the audience to ignore the “MacGuffin” he has created and tend to the relationship between his focal characters, and how it develops despite the technological and political intrusions of both contemporary and future societies. Interpretable on a variety of levels, 12 Monkeys is the rare film that challenges its audience with new insights from repeated viewings. It can be enjoyed as a pure science-fiction thriller, romance, Christ parable, and statement on contemporary society, to list a few potential readings. As the film’s nominal hero, James Cole, says about Vertigo, “It’s like the past. The movie never changes. Every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.”
Ostensibly a chase-and-shoot thriller with a science-fiction veneer inspired by Chris Marker’s short film, La Jetee, 12 Monkeys sees Gilliam incorporate such cinematic devices as fragmented inter-cutting of pre-cognitive material, skewed angles, and the seemingly obligatory '90s depiction of bleak urban settings. A virus set loose in 1996 has killed most of earth’s human population, and animals have regained control of the planet’s surface. The few remaining humans live underground in a dystopian, apparently fascist, society that is run by scientists attempting to devise a cure for the virus that keeps them in a dank underworld where the predominant decorative feature appears to be plastic sheeting left over from the Dario Argento slasher epic, Suspiria. The scientists have developed a form of time travel, however, and they “volunteer” James Cole to travel back to 1996 to discover the virus’ origins. After a couple of misfires that initially send Cole to 1990, and later to World War I, the technology lands him in 1996 where he reconnects and falls in love with Railly (the psychiatrist assigned his case in 1990) while they attempt to prevent the virus from contaminating the planet. Their efforts are inconclusive, however, and Cole is gunned down as the story ends. Overall, then, 12 Monkeys provides a bleak look at both contemporary society and the future while emphasizing the difficulty of developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships in such an environment.
It is the relationship between Cole and Railly that appears to be Gilliam’s moral center in the film for, as noted above, the title is nothing more than what the late Alfred Hitchcock would have called a “MacGuffin.” In the Inside Hitchcock episode of The Men Who Made The Movies, Hitchcock tells viewers his version of what a MacGuffin is.
Two men were traveling by train from London to Edinburgh. In the luggage rack overhead was a wrapped parcel.
“What have you there?” asked one of the men.
“Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,” replied the other.
“What’s a MacGuffin?”
“It’s a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.”
“But there aren’t any lions in the Scottish Highlands!”
“Then that’s no MacGuffin.”
In 12 Monkeys the group of animal activists of the same name led by Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) is the film’s MacGuffin, and following their plan to free the animals from the Philadelphia Zoo takes the audience nowhere.
At the same time, Gilliam is perversely obtuse about his universe’s time-travel catechism. We quickly understand that the future’s scientific community does not have the technology under control, for Cole is forced to survive several glitches before he lands in 1996, his target year. The director also leaves hanging any attempt at explaining how both a young Cole and his adult manifestation can exist at the same time during the airport scene that forms the film’s conclusion. Evidently Gilliam feels viewers are to await some temporal-spatial mumbo jumbo from the Time Lords of Gallifrey as justification.
The scientists’ reliance on errant technology (which is often a theme of Gilliam’s work) helps emphasize the overall ineptitude of those who are theoretically in charge of things. When we first see Railly, she is unable to turn off her beeper without causing a disruption while attending a poetry reading. The police cannot subdue Cole when he arrives from the future, and several end up hospitalized. Attendants at the asylum where Railly is on staff show little understanding of, or compassion for, their wards’ conditions, and are not physically capable of dealing with Cole’s physical aggression without suffering injuries themselves. The institution’s doctors are unable to use their knowledge to benefit their patients, a point driven home when they release Jeffrey Goines from their care while he is still mentally unstable. Security guards at the asylum and an usher at the movie theater are too preoccupied with tabloid newspapers and napping to execute their jobs. Finally, the plainclothes police and airport security personnel either react in knee-jerk fashion when Cole is identified (leading to his death), or do not possess the knowledge necessary to perceive the threat posed by the “biological samples” that contain the virus. Thus Gilliam tells us, we cannot rely on those who have been placed in even the most insignificant positions of authority by society to perform their jobs for the social good.
If our institutions are incapable of maintaining society, as Gilliam suggests, then perhaps society can be redeemed on an individual basis by couples whose relationships eventually lead to love. As exemplified in 12 Monkeys, love cannot be realized until the partners have established a foundation of trust in each other, and for Railly and Cole, trusting each other in the 1990s takes awhile.
The two first come in contact when Cole is brought to the asylum where Railly works. Because Cole possesses no driver’s license, has no identifiable fingerprints, and has severely injured two of the police who come upon him when he arrives from the future, he is naturally loaded up with drugs to calm him down. What the authorities fail to recognize is that Cole is suffering from the trauma and dissociation of time travel. What they do recognize is that Cole is capable of periods of extreme physical aggression toward others. Thus, his initial encounter with Kathryn does little but convince her that he is yet another of society’s flotsam. Railly feels she recognizes him from somewhere, however, and begins treating him. Their relationship is not Gilliam’s focus at this time, for Cole’s stay at the institution is developed primarily to further the MacGuffin by bringing him into contact with Jeffrey Goines, who will eventually mastermind the activities of the animal rights activists. When Goines helps Cole escape, James is snatched back from 1990 to his underworld present.
When the scientists finally send Cole to the correct year, the relationship between him and Railly begins to progress. Kathryn is presenting a speech about the future, emphasizing the “Cassandra Complex,” in which certain people are condemned to know the future combined with impotence to do anything about it. Little does she know that she is about to be hijacked by her own personal Cassandra in James, who has learned of her speech from a flyer posted at a store. As Cole forces her into her trendy, four-wheel drive vehicle, the process of learning to trust each other begins. For Kathryn, Cole presents a two-sided challenge. He is obviously prone to extreme anti-social physical action while also proving prescient regarding certain news events and clues regarding the 12 Monkeys organization. It is while tracking down further information about the activists that Cole and Railly briefly embark into the urban '90s underground and are jumped by two thugs who attempt to beat up James and rape the doctor. Cole saves her, however, killing one assailant and badly injuring the other.
As their trek continues, Kathryn is taken by Cole’s love of popular music as well as his childlike joy in being able to breathe fresh air and bask in the sun. It is during their drive to Philadelphia that Railly removes a bullet from James’ leg where he was shot during his brief excursion into World War I trenches. After James vanishes, the bullet’s existence leads Kathryn to study a World War I photograph she has used to illustrate her lecture and the accompanying book. She is astonished to find James in the picture. Finding that her initial perception of Cole has little validity, Kathryn tells some friends who are keeping an eye on her after her “kidnapping” that she is losing her faith in psychiatry.
She is, of course, learning to trust in James, and when he suddenly reappears on the streets of the city, their previous roles are reversed. She wants him to get away from the police so he can track down the origin of the virus, while he wishes to give himself up and be cured of what he now perceives to be his time-travel dementia. They take a room in a seedy hotel, and Cole tells Kathryn he wants to stay in 1996 and be with her. While they are discussing the reality and delusions of James’ life, a pimp crashes through the door and attacks Kathryn. James jumps to her rescue, beating the pimp with a telephone. Kathryn decides James’ story is on the level, and they relieve the pimp of his cash and flee the room.
They eventually make their way to the aforementioned Hitchcock film festival where Gilliam stages the scene while Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak walk through the redwood forest in Vertigo. This scene is particularly crucial for several reasons. First, Gilliam uses the Hitchcock film as a parallel to what is going on in James’ and Kathryn’s lives, making certain the audience hears Kim Novak’s remark regarding her past life in Vertigo. The theater is the setting where Cole mutters the quote noted earlier about how the past and the film remain the same, but our preceptions about them change because we change. Doctor Railly’s response. “If you can’t change anything because it’s already happened, you may as well smell the flowers,” provides us with a clue regarding the film’s time-travel basis and serves as an ironic precognition to the story’s conclusion. We also hear Jimmy Stewart’s famous line in Vertigo where he tells Kim Novak of the Chinese philosophy that “Once you’ve saved somebody’s life, you’re responsible for it.” Kathryn and James have both saved each other—she by removing the bullet and spiriting him away from the police, and he by twice defending her from assault.
It is interesting that Hitchcock’s masterwork about illusion and reality is playing on the screen, where Kim Novak is initially disguised as someone’s wife and later made over into someone she never was, for that is what Railly is doing for herself and James. Having accepted James’ story, Kathryn has willingly committed herself to him and is attempting to “take care” of him by disguising him with a wig and mustache. James falls asleep, only to wake up to the scene in The Birds where Tippi Hedren is attacked by sea gulls in the attic in Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy’s house in Bodega Bay. Finding himself alone, Cole runs out of the lobby to discover that Kathryn has completed her own makeover by donning a blonde wig and changing her clothes. By pairing this physical transformation with her decision to accept what earlier in the film appeared to be James’ ranting, Gilliam has made Dr. Railly into a heroine in the true Hitchcock tradition.
Having Cole wake up to the bird attack is also an example of Gilliam’s use of birds to indicate coming chaos. Pigeons have symbolically burst out of the frame’s lower edge seeking the sky twice earlier in the film, but here the full-scale attack depicted in the scene from The Birds primes us for the film’s conclusion and the lack of order unleashed on the city when the Army of the 12 Monkeys releases the animals from the zoo.
Ultimately, James and Kathryn’s newfound love cannot last. James is gunned down in the airport as he tries to catch up with the scientist who carries the vials, and prevent him from spreading the virus that will kill five billion people. Terry Gilliam tells us that in the mid 1990s love as redemption is not enough, for we must be constantly vigilant or our loving relationships will be swiftly taken away from us by factors beyond our personal control.
The scene is the denouement of Cole's dreams that we have viewed since the film’s start, bringing us full circle to recognize that, indeed, the past cannot be changed and mankind should be more circumspect about the present. Admittedly, it could be argued that one of the future scientists has caught up to the virus by film’s end, but the strain has already been released on the coast of the United States and we have no assurance that the scientific ineptitude displayed thus far will not continue.
This climactic scene also underlines the major visual tropes incorporated into the story, for Gilliam emphasizes circles and, to a lesser extent, spirals, at key times throughout the film. Starting with the spinning circularity of the official 12 Monkeys logo at the film’s beginning and throughout the story as James discovers the logo as a clue, this imagery is reinforced by several circularly-tracking direct overhead shots in the Hitchcock tradition. The pattern also prevails during the scene set at the spiral staircase Cole and Jeffrey Goines go up and down when Cole confronts Jeffrey at Goines’ mansion.
Gilliam’s use of this dual imagery pattern again suggests comparison with Vertigo, where spirals abound. As Donald Spoto tells us of the spiral in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
it is the basic image on which the entire structure and design of the picture are based. The winding staircase of the bell tower at the mission, the twists and turns of the cemetery walk, the spiraling dark hair in the portrait of Carlotta Valdes (and, in imitation of that, Madeleine’s and Judy’s hair); the spiraling downward journey of the two cars on San Francisco’s hilly, vertiginous streets, the rings of the tree in the forest, the camera’s encircling Judy during the letter-writing scene—all these swirling motions create and sustain the hallucinatory, dreamlike effect of the film, the condition of vertigo with which Scottie is afflicted.
Furthermore, Lesley Brill notes in The Hitchcock Romance that “The spiral is an unstable alternative to the circle.” (205)
Terry Gilliam’s entire directorial career has emphasized instability and disorientation as key aspects of his plotlines in films such as Brazil,Time Bandits, and The Fisher King. In 12 Monkeys, Gilliam spins a subtly different visual pattern from Hitchcock’s in Vertigo. Using the spiral to help trick the visually astute viewer into expecting a standard descent and ascent story about a man and woman who find each other and love, Gilliam violently snatches away the possibility of redemption at the conclusion as the story circles back on itself when depicting Cole’s death.
The film has become something of an instant cult classic since its release, receiving both praise and damnation from its audience of viewers. One of the liveliest critiques of 12 Monkeys surfaced in the pages of Cinescape, where the magazine’s Douglas Perry scornfully declared.
This is what passes for a sci-fi spectacular in the metaphor-deprived '90s. … The overloaded film sinks under the ex-Monty Pythoner’s dystopian melancholy. Even the usually dependable Willis, who’s jerked through the miasmic plot like a tortured puppet, can’t brighten the morose script with his star presence—Cole is nothing more than a confused, blundering waif who must be saved from mental implosion by the love of a good woman.
Emanuel Levy’s review in Variety was also less than effusive, claiming the film “…is a spectacular mess, an excessively complicated film that attempts to be timely by blending a ‘virus’ thriller with a post-apocalyptic anti-science drama.” (12/22/95)
On the other hand, film guide maven Leonard Maltin is more complimentary, stating the Gilliam title, “Plays with present/past/future in ways both clever and confusing: at the very least, it’s the kind of movie that leaves you with plenty to talk about afterward.” (1408) Fellow film-on-video pundits Mick Martin and Marsha Porter are even more enthusiastic about 12 Monkeys, asserting it as “… what has to be director Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, a work on par with the best in the genre.” (1132)
As evidenced by the sampling of responses 12 Monkeys has drawn, ongoing dialogue and critical efforts studying this film should continue. Unfortunately, some will attempt to be recognized as the final word on this Gilliam title, as though no one else should even broach the subject. This viewer finds such extremism an attitude that should not be the standard for criticism. Rather, the goal of critical writing should be to recognize a variety of interpretations of a work in order to open that work to other viewers and critics. On the creative side, directors and their production teams should revel in the diverse explanations their work elicits. Since every viewer or critic brings differing life experiences and communication skills to a screening, the range of responses that result should provide us with a richness of insights into the art of film while telling us something about the viewer/critic as well.
Encased in the trappings of science-fiction, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys tells us much about United States society in the mid-1990s. And while this portrait is not a particularly optimistic perspective, it is one that provides continually fascinating viewing for those who can avoid becoming sidetracked by the director’s MacGuffin.
Brill, Lesley. The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988.
Gilliam, Terry. (Director) 12 Monkeys. MCA/Universal, 1995.
Levey, Emanuel. Review of 12 Monkeys. Compact Variety: The Ultimate Entertainment Resource Guide (Vol. 1, number 2). CD-Rom Los Angeles: Variety, Inc. and XOX Publishing, Inc., 1996. Original review published December 22, 1995.
Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies and Video Guide 1997. New York: Signet Books, 1996.
Martin, Mick and Marsha Porter. Video Movie Guide 1997. New York: Ballentine Books, 1996.
Perry, Douglas. “Simian Deficiencies.” Cinescape, July, 1996, pp. 66–67.
Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. 2d ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
The Men Who Made The Movies. “Inside Hitchcock.” Maljack Productions, Inc., 1985.
SOURCE: A review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 8, No. 11, November, 1998, pp. 48–9.
[In the following review, Williams discusses the over-the-top excesses in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.]
1971. Journalist Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr Gonzo drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in a red convertible, beginning a huge drugs binge. They check into the Mint Hotel so Duke can cover the Mint 400 off-track race the following day, take more drugs and run up a huge room service bill. They visit Bazooka Circus casino on ether.
The next day Gonzo departs and Duke drives to Baker, California. On the way be is stopped by a highway cop. He returns to the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas to cover a district attorney’s conference on drug abuse. Gonzo shows up with Lucy, an under-age girl, whom they send to a motel. They attend some of the conference, take the powerful drug adrenochrome, then terrorise a waitress in a north Vegas café. Duke and Gonzo leave Vegas separately by road and plane respectively.
It may seem perverse to read a film so obsessed with the immediacy of excess as a period drama. But Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas comes from a director who has specialised in tales of time travel, one of cinema’s most brilliant and bizarre animator-narrators of the past. And here the film’s setting in an excessively vulgar United States of 1974 is as crucial to its narrative as the immoderate amount of drugs its central characters obsessively ingest.
Director Terry Gilliam brings to this long-awaited project which he inherited from Alex Cox some of the virtues of a distanced perspective. As an American who settled Britain in the 60s, his vision is imbued with a peculiarly European sensibility and the eye he casts across the crass Americana of Fear and Loathing is radically transnational. Hunter S. Thompson's novel, on which the film is based, is still a countercultural icon revered for its verbal audacity. So hands the project to a director known best for his bravura visual style is a canny move from bold word to excessive image this a flamboyant adaptation. But most of all, Gilliam’s ongoing fascination with how the past is viewed through the lens of the present receives one more twist. Unlike the pastiche medievalism of his Monty Python collaborations (Jabberwocky,Monty Python and the Holy Grail) or the heroic, child’s-dream past of Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, this is a past many of us remember and which therefore implicates us in its telling.
Yet many viewers will be resistant since the spectacle of psychedelic excess is no longer fashionable. Gilliam doesn’t care. Dispensing with foreplay, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas throws you straight into a demented cinematic ‘acid test’ by refusing to explain or justify the desires that drive Duke and Gonzo’s anti-heroic double act. Even Gilliam’s dystopian Brazil glimmers with moments of unabashed human warmth, but Fear and Loathing gets bleaker as it proceeds, so that towards its conclusion such scenes as the terrorising of Ellen Barkin’s downtrodden waitress can only be shocking. This is a film that unsettles through its ruthless drive to implicate everyone in the twisted of the sordid—if you don’t find it funny, you may well be appalled.
We are made to share our heroes’ altered states via the nauseatingly accurate mise en scène. The set-piece when Duke and Gonzo check into the Mint and are besieged by swirling carpets, rubber faces and guests morphing into lascivious reptiles is a masterpiece of addled point of view, making LSD look like the imaginative precursor of CGI. Gilliam crams each frame with hideous, witty details, knowing references and cameo performances. (Harry Dean Stanton, Katherine Helmond and Lyle Lovett make blink-or-you’ll-miss-them appearances: Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci and Gary Busey linger for longer.) An exercise in excess on many levels, Fear and Loathing can seem a cinema of overkill, appropriate to its subject matter but difficult to watch. When paired with the surging images it accompanies, even the gloriously ironic pop soundtrack is stripped of nostalgic comforts.
This is not like Oliver Stone’s yearning for a moment when psychedelia was seen as gloriously cutting edge. Rather, as the title suggests, psychedelia here is the handmaiden of misanthropy. In this Dantesque rendition of the American Dream, which recalls Hieronymus Bosch and Lewis Carroll by turns, the doors of perception open to reveal not a magical Oz peopled by the beautiful but a spiky underworld of corruption, embracing both the cabaret-crowd glitterati and the lumpen hoards of slot-addicts. The relationship between the establishment and its counterculture mutates into one of mutual dependence as the film progresses. “Ether is the perfect drug for Las Vegas,” Duke intones as they enter Bazooka Circus. “In this town they love a drunk—fresh meat.” Sinatra croons about sexual addiction (“You’re getting to be a habit with me,” he sings as Duke signs on to the district attorney’s drug-abuse conference) and the film seems to ask just how we define addiction and where and why we draw our lines of politically correct tolerance.
That this all takes place as a footnote is the stabbing at the Altamont concert, the Tate-LaBianca murders and the Kent State shootings is heavy-handedly underlined by the regular intrusion of actuality footage flickering on hotel television screens. Technicolor excess in Vegas is underpinned by black-and-white televisual death in Vietnam, confusing the line between fact and fiction. (This is in the spirit of Thompson’s ‘Gonzo’ journalism, which fictionalises its writer by placing him, confused and biased, at the centre of the action.) My most recently purchased copy of the novel Fear and Loathing was bought in a bookshop that stocked it under non-fiction. Gilliam would be hard-pressed to pull off that categorisation, but the past of Fear and Loathing is nevertheless uncomfortably close, a foreign country Gilliam was once all-too familiar with.