This book argues the centrality of hybridity to Terry Gilliam's films. Gilliam had a collaborative approach to filmmaking and a desire to provoke audiences to their own interpretations as other forms of intertextual practice. Placing Gilliam in the category of cinematic fantasist does some preliminary critical work, but crudely homogenises the diversity of his output. One way of marking this range comes from understanding that Gilliam employs an extraordinary variety of genres. These include medieval comedy; children's historical adventure; dystopian satire; the fantastic voyage; science fiction; Gonzo Journalism; fairy tale; and gothic horror. Gilliam's work with Monty Python assured him a revered place in the history of that medium in Britain. As a result, the Python films, And Now for Something Completely Different, The Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, along with his own, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, and Brazil, show him moving successfully into the British film industry. Most of his films have been adaptations of literary texts, and Jabberwocky forges an extended tale of monsters and market forces. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen builds on some tales from the original texts, constructing a complex examination of fantasy, representation and mortality. Taking crucial ingredients from medieval and older mythologies, the screenplay of The Fisher King resituates them and reworks them for modern America. Gilliam's complex interaction with Britain and America explains his ambiguous place in accounts of American and British films.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book shows that Terry Gilliam sometimes enjoyed a remarkable degree of financial support and creative freedom, especially with films linked to Monty Python. Gilliam employs an extraordinary variety of genres: medieval comedy; children's historical adventure; dystopian satire; the fantastic voyage; science fiction; Gonzo Journalism; fairy tale; and gothic horror. Peter Greenaway speaks of admiring Gilliam and fellow Python Terry Jones for their anarchy and irreverence. Derek Jarman puts 'glorious Terry Gilliam's Brazil' on a very short list of British 1970s and 1980s films he would keep. Gilliam's American work in the 1990s determines that he does appear in British Cinema of the 90s. The book argues the centrality of hybridity to Gilliam's films.
Monty Python's Flying Circus clearly plays the key role in launching Terry Gilliam as a filmmaker. This chapter also addresses certain pertinent aspects of one of television's greatest comedy shows. One of these aspects is the importance of Gilliam's animation to the style as well as the structure of the show. One of the few self-referential moments occurs in Gilliam's animation, The Killer Cars, in which pedestrian-devouring cars are consumed by a giant mutant cat. Gilliam's animations transfer better than many of the great verbal sketches. Holy Grail is more focused on a single set of characters and a relatively coherent narrative. Hence the animation is decidedly less surreal than on television or in Something Completely Different. Holy Grail gave Gilliam a tough and highly instructive apprenticeship in filmmaking, but the opportunity only arose because he and Terry Jones were Python members.
Terry Gilliam suggested a film based on Lewis Carroll's nonsense verse, 'Jabberwocky', taken from Through the Looking Glass. Gilliam reworked the traditional fairy tale narrative, so that the storyline would precipitate 'a collision of fairytales'. In Holy Grail the many-eyed monster had been an animation, but that was not an option in Jabberwocky. Drawing from Carroll, Pieter Bruegel, Paolo Pasolini and others, and incorporating elements of social document, social satire, evocative nonsense, slapstick comedy, distorted fairy tale, the grotesque and the monster film, Jabberwocky did not play safe. Jabberwocky offered Gilliam the chance to represent the intricacies of medieval society, celebrate its vital humanity, offer a comically inflected critique of his own world, and learn his craft. Despite its huge success, in terms of Gilliam's career as a film-maker Life of Brian was a step backwards from Jabberwocky.
Terry Gilliam was keen to develop two very different projects, The Ministry and Theseus and the Minotaur, a proposal that would resurface several times in his career. By late 1979 Gilliam had Denis O'Brien's verbal backing for Time Bandits. Fantasy in Time Bandits is not an escape from reality, but a means of tapping into the realms that rationality has neglected, or replaced with a world mediated by the commercial media, ideology and tradition. Time Bandits marks the first of several films that feature children as protagonists or as critical observers of the actions and failings of adults. Time Bandits seems to function simply as the cinematic version of a Bildungsroman, a novel of development. Gilliam had teamed up with producer Arnon Milchan in his efforts to realise Brazil, which had been on hold since 1979.
This chapter argues that all Terry Gilliam's films are exercises in hybrid textuality, but the dystopian form taken up in Brazil makes this his most overtly political work. Brazil initially is replete with utopian dreams, but as its protagonist Sam Lowry gains a better understanding of the dystopian reality, his dreams increasingly take on the dystopian tenor of that environment. Lowry's fantasies are critically analysed in terms of their narcissism and escapism, but even if we judge these negatively, he at least inhabits a more stimulating world than those around him. In Munchausen, by constructing the framework of the theatre around the tales themselves, Gilliam and Charles McKeown create a form of transitional space between the worlds of fantasy and reality. The Theatre Royal provides a space where fantasy can be presented, while serving as a refuge from the murderous reality of the besieged town that surrounds the audience.
Terry Gilliam was drawn to Watchmen, with its dark overtones and caustic take on American dreams, as well as its ambitious scope, making it for him 'the War and Peace of comic books'. Gilliam joked that The Fisher King was his 'selling out' film. The film had another distinction: few filmmakers are involved in hits based on the legend of the Holy Grail; The Fisher King made Gilliam perhaps the only individual to have performed the feat twice. The Fisher King offers a diagnosis of the soul's scurvy. The screenplay casts a critical eye over the egotism and vacuous materialism of contemporary America, depicting and denouncing that society as a sterile wasteland, lorded over by indulgent, vicious, morally corrupt and emotionally unaware elites.
Twelve Monkeys marks the commercial high point of Terry Gilliam's association with American studios. Commenting on the genesis of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson gives the account of what Gonzo journalism should be in its purist form. Gilliam's own cinematic practice regularly involves experimentation, failed, frenzied and successful, but Thompson's honest assessment of the completed text's shortcomings hints at the difficulties of recreating his literary experiment on screen. The anarchic verve of Thompson's attack bears the most obvious affinity with the tone, form and imagery of Gilliam's major and most personal film of the 1980s, Brazil. Raoul Duke had appeared in Thompson's Hell's Angels, and the idea that he existed seemed confirmed by the article titled 'Police Chief: The Indispensable Magazine of Law Enforcement' published under Duke's byline in Scanlan's Monthly.
In The Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam is attracted to the darker sense of the fairy tale, understanding it as a suitable genre for mature children and open-minded adults. Bob McCabe had already produced Dark Knights and Holy Fools, a critical survey of Gilliam's films up to Fear and Loathing, and would put together The Pythons Autobiography By The Pythons. The book that came from Gilliam's request, Dreams and Nightmares: Terry Gilliam, The Brothers Grimm, and Other Cautionary Tales of Hollywood, offers a sobering account of the tribulations Gilliam underwent in making The Brothers Grimm. Tideland takes Gilliam into new territory, the world of Gothic horror, and he claimed that in Tideland, Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho. There are elements of the Gothic in The Brothers Grimm, but that film's comic undertones relieve the tension, which builds menacingly in Tideland.