My interest in the films of Terry Gilliam blossomed relatively late in comparison to most other English culture enthusiasts. Gilliam delivered a speech at the 2009 Bafta awards, after having been honoured as an institute fellow, and took to the stage to thank his peers for their invaluable support and their consistent praise. As the speech drew to a close, Gilliam produced a sheet of paper from within his jacket and informed the crowd that he would like to “Thank all the little people”, before a sleight of hand sent the beginning of the sheet cascading to the floor leaving a lengthy trail of paper and names behind it.
It is only now, after having thoroughly explored his celebrated filmography, that I realise how effectively this single action encapsulated the style and philosophy of Gilliam’s films – A visual feat that would assimilate easily into a classic Laurel & Hardy sketch, re-purposed for a contemporary audience and its spectacle restored.
Gilliam, born 22nd November 1940, began his illustrious career as a cartoonist, providing the surreal imagery that punctuated the Monty Python television series, and that arguably defined their visual style. His technique from the outset featured a prominent re-appropriation of images from the past, blending them with his own work to craft a distinctive and suitable accompaniment for the rest of the troupes equally strange comedic routines. With Monty Python, Gilliam cemented his position as one of the more revered figures in English culture, despite his American heritage.
As Python grew in popularity and the inevitable film began to take shape, Gilliam was appointed as its director. The Holy Grail (1975) followed by The Life of Brian (1979), were received exceptionally well by fans and critics alike with the controversy levelled at the latter’s content only serving to fuel the already dancing fire. Here, Gilliam’s incorporation of history into his work extended into the medium of film, a trope that would continue throughout his directing career, most notably with other temporally concerned films such as the chronologically twisted 12 Monkeys (1995) and the swashbuckling spectacle of Time Bandits (1981) both of which look to the past from drastically different perspectives, but find universal themes through each path of approach.
Gilliam looked to the past for inspiration again with what some would argue his finest film, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1995) where the manner in which he approaches history is fairly delicate, observing Hunter S. Thompson experiencing his own personal revolution as the 60’s draws to a close and another distinctive chapter of history is signed off, leaving many millions behind. When I submit that Gilliam employs the past as a prominent element of his films I observe it in a sense that his blending of what has come before with what has recently emerged, functions to explore the recurring tropes of human nature through decades, centuries and millennia.
There will always be something inherently funny in the joke demonstrated at the Bafta awards, just as there is something inherently tragic found in the end of an era, something astounding found in the mythology of the past, and something terrifying found in the idea of 1984 style observation – a theme Gilliam elaborated on in what is actually his finest film, Brazil (1985).
Brazil, Gilliam’s hypnotic immersion into a totalitarian, privacy abolishing dystopian regime, perhaps demonstrates the filmmaker at the lofty peak of his powers. Thrilling, gorgeous and enthralling, the classic sci-fi/romance/surreal black comedy exhibited that even in the most distant and unrecognisable versions of our past; Gilliam could find a perfectly human idea to explore. It is an incredible feat to be able to depict our most basic nature in such an elaborately designed period of time, but here Gilliam was able to delve into the subconscious of his audience and extract our most primitive emotions such as panic, lust and dreams of escape.
Very little in the films of Terry Gilliam actually takes place in our present or reality, with his recent work beginning to also traverse dimensions as well as time, with the mesmerising Tideland (2005) and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) further expressing his interest in humanity’s place in the vast scale of the universe. This recurring transference of human ideas to unfamiliar settings serves to not only to remove any muddling political, social or economic elements from the basic emotions and ideas explored, but to instil in his narratives a sense of grandiosity and wonder, so as to deliver the message of the film in a manner that remains lodged deep in your subconscious, as both astonishing entertainment and intellectual stimulation.
If anything, Gilliam will always have the ability to amaze. Whether you agree with my idea that his films owe a debt to the past or not is somewhat redundant in the sense that, regardless of how much I am reading into them, their storytelling prowess is second to none. It is difficult to think of a director with the same sheer scope that Gilliam possesses, able to craft often winding tales borne from a simple mistake or a brief moment of shock or even from thin air.
However, it was the aforementioned prank that began to make me consider the role of history, and the nature of transference and appropriation, in Gilliam’s work and how he looks both to the future and the past to examine the ideas, emotions and actions that will remain funny, tragic and relevant no matter what style or context that they are presented in. Despite the endless excursions into different timelines, universes and alien dimensions, the ideas presented to us are always focused intently on the human aspect of humanity – notions such as the temptations of excess, the joys of dreaming and the desperation for survival all seamlessly weaved into his surreal and obtuse imagery.
The paper joke will always be funny, and Terry Gilliam’s films will always be important.
- Kristofer Thomas