Monday, September 3, 2007

R.I.P. Terry Gilliam

This isn't about zombies, but I feel so utterly alone that I felt it was important enough to give the film I just watched a write-up. The plot of Terry Gilliam's Tideland is one you can find on Wikipedia, so, I'll just skip it. The point of this post is that I am rarely confronted by feelings so strong as to confuse my senses and stifle my reaction so heavily. When Tideland ended I didn't know how to feel. I was sad, yes. I was angry, a little. I was pleased, perversely, but only slightly. Few films have elicited this kind of reaction from me (Jigoku is the strongest example I can think of. The Dreamers, Day of Wrath, I Spit On Your Grave and Funny Games came very close. I anticipate this response from Salo, if I ever find the damn thing). Bottom line: I've felt like this few times in my life. But look at that list. They are either obscure foreign genre pictures or new school art-house grime with some kind of pornographic message about the absence of purity in the world. And more importantly, they have all been just about forgotten save by the Criterion Collection and a handful of diehards, myself included. Why? My theory, as I'm sure there are dozens, is called the Death of the American Intellectual.

This is a theory that I've slowly been refining in an effort to make sure that it makes sense. Tideland was given a good, hard kick in the face by American critics and audiences alike and will now live on as a small scale Munchausen to put on Terry Gilliam's shelf of failures next to Death of Don Quixote. Let's take the side of the critic for a minute. Why would I, as an intellectual who is paid to watch films and sees quite a few watch a two hour film about a little girl who helps her parents shoot smack, then watch them die, befriend a retarded man and his deranged sister who have taxidermed their loved ones and do the same to the girl's dad, while reality slowly peels away, she hears the voices of her dolls' heads, she begins a courtship with the handicapped man, bleeds inexplicably and is saved only when a train crashes nearby, killing unseen passengers. Put all of these things in Gilliam's signature jaunty, all-too-close lens and you have an incredibly confrontational head trip that gives you no choice but to consider things your mind would never have subjected you to, even in your nightmares. Ok, so, like Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly, we give the film an F, shall we? It has no merit and the disgust I'm feeling is explained by the horrible things I just watched, end of story.

Now, let's take my point of view. When something disgusts, scares, upsets or makes you feel unpleasant, isn't it half the fun of being a human being to ask why? Spiders drive me insane. Why? The movement of their many legs perhaps. The quickness with which many of them scuttle across surfaces of clashing color. The alien shape of their bodies. Why did they haunt my childhood dreams? Why do I jump at the sight of them? Why do I seek out movies that feature them prominently? I've slowly gotten to a certain level of understanding of their existence to not be as terrified of them as I once was. What was all that about? If sitting through Tideland only made you think about how much you hated the movie, you're not thinking at all.

This is not an ordinary movie, nor is it one that anyone should really enjoy (In a Fear & Loathing kind of way), but it is mesmerizing. A movie that covers so many forbidden topics is not out to repulse you (well, some of you), but to make you think; to show you something you've never seen or even considered before. Any film that can make me feel so completely uncomfortable exists for a reason. It wasn't a squemish sort of discomfort, but something else entirely. My mind was being attacked by the possibility of these things ever happening. The story, though told by someone with a vivid imagination, is grounded in reality, and this scares me in a way very little else does. This could have been the hellish American Pan's Labyrinth it's been made out to be by some (God knows Gilliam would have been capable of making it), but he didn't just make a special effects movie or a simple horror movie. He made a movie that shook me to my very core. I had to repress the urge to say, "How can you do this?" many, many times while watching Tideland. If while watching this movie, you're only thought was "How much longer till the end?" you ought to be ashamed of yourself. America, its attention span, its appreciation for art, and its tolerance are vanishing quickly. Killed off by commercial films, advertisements and the lightning quick rate of production of things like cell phones and pop music. Exhibit A: Ingmar Bergman is dead and I can't find a soul in my film class who's even heard of him. Exhibit B: Tideland's approval rating. Some journalist compared it to Malpertius recently, in that in 30 years, it will have found its niche. 30 years? Find me someone under 20 who's seen the Seventh Seal, and then we'll go looking for the guy who's seen Malpertius. The reason we are so quick to forget about Tideland is because it was in danger of making us think. Isn't it strange that someone who has made such commercially and artistically successful films as Brazil and Meaning of Life would out of the blue try and gross you out with a story involving a kid cooking heroin for Jeff Bridges. NO! Doesn't anyone else think he's trying to tell us something by refusing to make movies people approve of? America doesn't like thinking anymore, especially about things that distress us. Case in point: The War! If something isn't both commercially appealing and pleasant to think about, America could give a rat's ass about the message it's sending. Sure, it's got one of the strongest performances ever given by a child, beautiful photography, an inspired, touching musical score, and is unconventional in every sense of the word, but where are the tits and gay jokes? I'm not dreaming this right? Tideland occupies one space at Blockbuster, but I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry is grossing 400 million dollars as we live and breathe. The Death of the American Intellectual is a very real thing and it's being carried out by a number of perpetrators: Joel Silver, Jerry Bruckheimer, Adam Sandler, MTV, Youtube, Fox and anything or anyone else that keeps attention spans short, expectations high and standards low. Read a book, watch an Antonioni film, find a Georgia O'Keefe exhibit (even if it's online), whatever you do, don't settle for flash, and don't stop because it makes you think.

They say this is what's going to kill Terry Gilliam's career. I say it's already started killing something intangible and Gilliam's career is just one casualty. Though, that doesn't mean that if he were never to find backing for a film again I wouldn't stage a sit-in at the closest movie theatre. Our greatest artists are dying everyday, and we are watching them go without any recognition of the bright light they brought to the earth in their short time here. Let's not cut short the careers of the few artists still breathing.

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