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The Fisher King

The Fisher King was a huge departure for director Terry Gilliam, whose career had been generous with its whimsy, wild in its imagination, and resolute in its pessimism. This was his first Hollywood film, made after the widely-publicized debacle of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen pushed him into the arms of high-powered talent agency CAA. Gilliam has always maintained that the bad press created by all manner of fiscal shenanigans on Munchausen unfairly trashed his reputation, and he was determined to take his destiny into his own hands—even if it meant working for the first time as a director for hire, taking on another writer’s screenplay and ceding final cut to his bosses at the studio. It’s easy to see what drew Gilliam to the material. Richard LaGravenese had written a screenplay that presented as a buddy comedy with plenty of one-liners, but drew on Arthurian legend for its mythic underpinnings. It had been in development at Disney, which had sanded down the script’s rough edges. Gilliam veered in the opposite direction, instructing the screenwriter to restore material from earlier drafts and working on his own to deepen the fairytale qualities.

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a radio shock jock who comes off as Howard Stern with a deeper existential crisis. He’s the subject of the film’s opening-credits sequence, consisting of a series of mechanical tracking shots from a camera prowling around high above a tiny, claustrophobia-inducing broadcast studio, the Caligari shadows on its walls suggesting the bars of a prison cell. Jack lives in one of those prestigious but airless New York apartments with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, pointy leather furniture, and a bland, bored-looking woman with a Jean Seberg haircut pouting her way around the place like an Ex Machina fembot. The scenes introducing him are among the least Gilliam-esque that Gilliam has ever directed, and Bridges acts the hell out of them, mugging for the camera with a charismatic smugness that makes his comparatively subdued comic performance later on seem all the more soulful.

Jack suffers a professional crisis of conscience when one of his listeners takes his lazy anti-yuppie screeds at face value and visits a trendy, neon-bedecked restaurant with shotgun in tow, killing seven people. We catch up with him three years later, the king having rejected his bleak tower and now living at ground level. Feelings of guilt and self-pity send him on an all-night bender; he ends up standing under a bridge and considering taking a long nap in the East River. Rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a traumatized college professor now dwelling among New York’s destitute (whom he organizes into rough gangs of peacekeepers and leads in rowdy choruses of “How About You?”), Jack soon learns that the jolly-vagrant shtick is Parry’s unconscious way of denying his former life and keeping memories of a violent event at bay. Parry believes that the Holy Grail is hidden, unnoticed, on a bookshelf uptown, and that he cannot recover it on his own because of the fierce, frightening red knight who blocks his path to treasure. Jack thinks Parry is crazy, but the two become friends, and Williams sends the picture into orbit with a guileless, spring-loaded performance full of physical energy and wide-eyed romanticism.

Yes, this sounds like it could be awful schlock, with its twin male-redemption arcs and magical-realist take on mental illness, but it works beautifully, thanks in large part to the casting. Williams has a cherubic face, the lines of which deepen for the camera when he smiles, and his trademark spontaneity—he has a knack for landing carefully-scripted lines like they’re another part of his manic, just-making-this-up-as-I-go-along routine—adds a tremendous warmth and humanity to the film. And yet there’s obviously darkness inside him; part of his breathtaking presence on screen is the sense he gives that he moves so quickly up there because the demons are chasing him down. Grounding both his co-star and his director somewhat is Bridges, who’s required to nail a more conventional leading-man role with atomic precision. He effectively modulates the comedy to a lower pitch. But while he can deliver the funny face like a pro, he doggedly and effectively registers Jack’s smugness, misanthropy, exasperation, embarrassment, and finally sheepishness, all in their turn and each in its proper place.

The Fisher King has splendid roles for women, too, even if it falls into the usual Hollywood trap of crafting female characters validated solely by the love of the men in their lives. Mercedes Ruehl is Anne, a tough gal who cares for Jack like a stray puppy dog (they run a video store together) but takes a back seat once he gets involved in Parry’s quest. Ruehl won an Oscar for her work here, thanks mainly to a performance that’s as emotionally naked, in its way, as the one Williams gives. She simultaneously expresses desperation, disbelief, and disgust as she feels Jack slipping away. Ruehl’s female counterpart is Amanda Plummer, who has always struck me as a big talent who never quite got the roles she deserved, despite showcases for her in this film and in Pulp Fiction. Though Plummer’s Lydia is a midtown cubicle-dweller who lives up to traditionally gender-coded descriptors thrown her way like mousy and plain (the screenplay doubles down with dowdy and waif-like), Plummer has an electric weirdness around her with unmistakable sex appeal, and she delivers the character from what could have been an easy caricature.

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Plummer has an especially tricky role, because it’s on her to deflect that Lydia is flat-out stalked by Parry, who knows where she works, what she eats for lunch, and what brand of trashy fiction she favours. He gets a pass for creepy behaviour, I suppose, since he’s a scruffy dude dressed in pyjamas and rags and doesn’t really have the option of saying hello. Gilliam dreams even bigger, though, pausing the narrative to turn Grand Central Terminal into a cavernous ballroom at rush hour as Lydia makes her way through the throngs with Parry following behind. One moment, commuters are hurrying towards destinations in the northern suburbs and the next they are pairing off and literally waltzing through the main concourse. It’s one of those breathtaking (and unscripted) flights of fancy that makes for a signature moment in Gilliam’s career; in context, it testifies in high style to Parry’s good intentions and enormous heart.

You might also reasonably complain that it goes a long way towards painting mental illness as cuddly, yet what makes The Fisher King palatable despite its occasional sugary-sweetness is Gilliam’s matter-of-fact embrace of the terrifying darkness at its heart. Parry has visions. Something unhappy and unquiet lives inside him. It takes the form of a shadowy horseman stalking the streets of New York in strange red regalia suggestive of blood spatter. It presents like a psychosis, but it turns out that Jack knows something about this delusion: Parry lost his wife in the same mass murder that cost Jack his career, an event that haunts his days and nights. And that’s why Jack eventually engineers a romantic double date with Anne, Parry, and Lydia–an improvised tour de force by all four actors set in a Chinese restaurant. Jack feels a responsibility to do what he can to restore something like happiness to Parry’s life.

Gilliam and LaGravenese confront the duo’s emerging bromance head-on with a scene near the picture’s midpoint where Parry drags Jack out into Central Park’s Sheep Meadow in the middle of the night. (In the aftermath of the Central Park Jogger sexual-assault case, it was widely considered foolhardy to visit the park after dark.) With amusing brashness, Parry quickly removes his clothes over Jack’s objections. Williams does appear on screen in all his hairy, bouncy, full-frontal glory—the sight of male genitalia still so uncommon on screen 25 years later that the scene has lost none of its original knockabout comic charge. There’s no homoerotic undercurrent, just the tension between Parry’s complete innocence and lack of self-consciousness and Jack’s paranoid mumblings–not only about the possibility of being murdered in the park, but also about the potential for hard-working tabloid headline writers to make hay out of his nude male body being found next to another nude male body. (Psychosis or no, the film’s working theory is that Jack’s disorders are as debilitating, in their way, as Parry’s.) It’s in this scene that Parry gets to the point, relating to Jack a variant on the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King. Long story short, this version features a wounded and ever-weakening king whose health is restored when a fool offers him water from a cup that, to each man’s surprise, turns out to be the Holy Grail. Spoiler: in this formulation Parry and Jack are both kings and they are both fools.

Gilliam’s typical low-angle photography plays up the mythic qualities of his stars throughout, except in those cases where high-angle shots emphasize their isolation. And Gilliam always knows where to place the camera. One of the finest scenes in the film is a musical number that sees a homeless man (the late, great Michael Jeter in drag) visit Lydia at work to deliver a singing telegram in the form of a bastardized version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Jeter has perfect pitch at high volume, and everything else is perfection, too—the shot of Jeter, stuffed into a tight dress, running through the office towards the backwards-tracking Steadicam to find Lydia’s cubicle; the edit between a pair of matching POV shots that eases the scene from his point of view to hers; the series of medium shots that moves the camera higher and higher into the air as his performance progresses, Lydia watching intently while shifting uneasily in her chair. The song reaches a climax that goes on for only a couple of bars before the camera switches abruptly from a close-up of Jeter singing to an overhead view of the scene that is extraordinary in how it celebrates the incongruity of the whole spectacle. It’s exquisitely timed. Of course, when you talk about Terry Gilliam, you have to mention his penchant for extreme wide-angle photography, derided in some corners as “nostrilcam” for its distorting effect on the human visage—but this was conceived as his un-Gilliam film, and his lens selections are relatively restrained. He does continue to favour short lenses that offer as wide a view of the carefully-built and elaborately-decorated sets as possible. (And, yes, they do introduce some interesting distortions, especially when Gilliam shoots from canted angles.) Jack, however, is introduced in part through extreme close-ups shot with a fairly long lens, and DP Roger Pratt breaks out telephoto glass for select exteriors, including shots of Williams racing down New York sidewalks, the Red Knight in pursuit.

The Red Knight is responsible for some of the most arresting images in the film. Astride an enormous horse galloping down Manhattan avenues, fire belching from his face, his appearance doesn’t make physical sense. He’s a ramshackle Gilliam creation—not just a living stop-motion animation but a genuinely otherworldly apparition. The Red Knight shows up whenever Parry rises up from his misery and makes too close an approach to happiness; the poor man tumbles screaming back to earth, like Icarus with his wings aflame. The knight’s appearances are terrifying. Gilliam pulled out all the stops in realizing the figure on screen, but it’s Williams’s reaction to his presence that makes the real impression. To an extent, Williams’s happy-go-lucky performance is too showy; he seems awfully comfortable in his own skin for a character who’s meant to be so troubled. But in the scenes he shares with his demonic nemesis, his pain is 100 percent convincing.

Gilliam, meanwhile, wasn’t satisfied to simply have Williams convey the intensity of his torment through performance. He journeys boldly into the underworld, dramatizing Parry’s trauma with an eyes-wide-open vigour that borders on poor taste. The flashback to Parry’s wife’s death comes precisely at the end of his wildly successful first date with Lydia. It begins with a long shot of Parry as seen through one of the windows in her front door, the bevel in its glass splitting his image in two. The ensuing sequence is vividly imagined and thoroughly brutalizing, both poetic and unsparing. It’s gory. Coming as a chaser to the single most humane passage in the entire film, it’s a spirit-busting comedown. It’s also heartening somehow. Gilliam shows that the world makes possible the joy of human kindness and romance, even though it is at once a delivery mechanism for abject, spirit-crushing tragedy. That’s the very subject of The Fisher King: the idea that the existence of love doesn’t cancel out the possibility of cruelty. Gilliam’s journey into the realm of madness is courageous, not nihilistic, because it proves that it’s possible to come out the other side.

Normally I would have problems with the movie’s unambiguously upbeat denouement. Specifically, I think the dignity of Mercedes Ruehl’s character is surrendered in order to get there. In The Fisher King’s third act, as Jack’s career turns hot again, he dumps Anne rather coldly. This puts her through an enormous amount of pain as she all but pleads for Jack to love her, and he makes a very conscious decision to reject her. In the penultimate scene, after his redemption arc has finished, he shows up at her door with a mere handful of flowers and a sheepish look and is taken back enthusiastically. It feels like an awfully easy comeback from what amounted to a terrible betrayal, and the message is a bit chauvinistic: Why wouldn’t you dump your girlfriend on a whim if you were sure she’d still be sitting there, days or weeks later, as Anne is, yearning patiently for your return? I’d like to believe that Anne would at least be tough enough to tell him to cool his jets for a while as she figures out how she feels about his alleged emotional comeback. That may be unrealistic of me, though. The Fisher King has been a tough movie in some important ways, and Gilliam has earned his happy ending.

Indeed, somewhere in an alternate cinematic universe, there surely exists a version of The Fisher King with a PG-13 rating. It is less urban fantasy and more romcom. Perhaps Rob Reiner directed it. It has little swearing and features entirely sensible lens choices. Robin Williams’s penis does not appear. It definitely has a happy ending. And for sure there is no dream sequence where a woman, shot from behind during a dinner date, has her brains splattered across her husband’s face. The Fisher King is a horror movie disguised as a fairytale–it seeks catharsis in despair and finds solace in a happy ending. It snuggles up to you, clobbers you over the head, and then does its level best to reassure you that the world itself can be more than a shit show.

The Fisher King is basically a redemption story for Jack Lucas, but Gilliam knew there had to be more than that. Script gurus and studio execs who’ve read just enough Syd Field to be dangerous like to complain of flaccid scripts that the “stakes” aren’t high enough. Well, in another, more studio-friendly director’s hands, the stakes in The Fisher King would be nothing more than the sleepless nights suffered by a rotten asshole in Manhattan, as this refugee from the media elite figures out how to get with the common people. Gilliam and Williams, working together, understood something about the threat of madness and figured out how to dramatize that walk along the knife’s edge. There’s a lot to be said for the Hollywood budget: never before had Gilliam’s vision reached these phantasmal dimensions, and never again would it regain this intensity. Terry Gilliam is not a religious man, but The Fisher King is haunted by God and the Devil, entertaining visions of both Hell and Heaven. That’s because Gilliam moves as completely and effortlessly as any director ever has from the waking world into the architecture of a nightmare. The horseman’s hot breath roars like thunder. The woman’s warm blood is on your face. What’s at stake is the loss of the light. And the darkness is intolerable.

THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Fisher King joins the Criterion Collection in a solid but not exceptional transfer sourced from a 2K scan of a 35mm interpositive made by Sony Pictures Entertainment for a 2011 Blu-ray release. I have no idea what shape the camera negative of this film is in, so maybe that was a non-starter—but you’d hope that Sony, probably the biggest overall cheerleader for 4K technology, would have a 4K digital master of this movie in its library. The bottom line is the transfer looks very good, and entirely in keeping with a title of this vintage. Notably, Criterion has opened the picture up, with Gilliam’s blessing, to an HD-native 16×9 aspect ratio, which works well compositionally. I saw The Fisher King twice theatrically, and I remember the picture looking substantially darker than what’s presented here, but I’ll interpret that as an improvement–projection was notoriously dim in flyover country back then, and it’s nice to see more detail. Cinematographer Roger Pratt shot the early scenes featuring Jack Lucas in his element in cool, near-monochrome tones, then switched to a much warmer feel for scenes set in the video store and especially Anne’s apartment, and those colour decisions are well-represented in this transfer. The film element is pretty grainy, especially in darker scenes, so the video bitrate of 23.5 Mbps is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. Still, while compression artifacts are visible upon close, frame-by-frame scrutiny, everything looks good running at normal speed. It all sounds good, too, in a DTS-HD MA 24-bit/48 kHz 5.1 encode. The soundstage is mainly a left-centre-front affair, although George Fenton’s score gets some surround play throughout. The side speakers are employed for ambience in city exteriors, though they only truly get roaring in the film’s fantasy scenes, as Fenton’s music dominates the soundfield. The bad news is that nothing in the A/V department outshines a previous release from Image Entertainment that can be easily had for less than $10.

This edition’s special features, on the other hand, are substantial. Criterion has ported most (but not quite all) of the material from its 1993 LaserDisc, a mammoth set at the time. Back in print at last is Gilliam’s running audio commentary, an outstanding overview of the pre-production and production processes, including Gilliam’s thoughts on exactly how the film’s images and themes relate to the fairytales he had in mind during prep along with his detailed appreciations of the performances. (On Bridges: “He comes from a strong family and he’s always been a good boy.” On Williams: “He moves beyond acting. He is inside something so painful in himself that it’s kind of scary working with him.”) Gilliam is always relatively candid during these affairs, and this track remains—for my money, anyway—one of the best and most informative ever recorded. Also ported over from laserland are no fewer than six deleted scenes, totalling roughly 10 minutes in length, all of them SD transfers from a workprint (displaying a good deal of dirt and other schmutz) upscaled to 1080p for Blu-ray. While they were deleted for a good reason, I remain fond of the one where Jack’s girlfriend (Lara Harris, who had formerly modeled for 1980s New York art icon Robert Mapplethorpe) is seen nude in Jack’s massive bathroom, framed by Bridges’s legs as he straddles the camera. Other relics from the original Criterion LD: three minutes of costume tests (silent, set to “How About You?”), plus an assortment (10 minutes’ worth) of domestic and international trailers.

All of that would make a respectable, if slightly paltry, SE, but Criterion has beefed up this version admirably with new HD supplements. A pair of talking-heads shorts, running one hour in total, offer fresh details, with contributions from Gilliam, LaGravenese, Bridges, Ruehl, Plummer, and co-producer (with the late Debra Hill) Lynda Obst. “The Fool and the Wounded King” covers pre-production, giving everybody the chance to contribute their two cents on The Fisher King’s legend. LaGravenese probably gets the lion’s share of attention therein, detailing the writing process and elaborating on the changes Disney had him carry out before putting the script in turnaround and selling it to TriStar, where studio head Dawn Steel promptly swore (per Obst), ” “Over my dead body is Terry Gilliam going to do Fisher King or any movie for TriStar.” Next up, “The Real and the Fantastical” is more of the same, covering casting and production—starting with Peter Guber’s memo to Gilliam that Billy Crystal would be mahvelous opposite Williams. Costume designer Beatrix Pasztor gets serious props from the assembled commentariat, as does Williams, who is remembered for his generosity of spirit with everyone on set, from his fellow actors to the assembled extras in the Grand Central Terminal sequence.

“The Tale of the Red Knight” spends 23 minutes with Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds, the artists recruited to create the Red Knight, with all his “antennas, fishing poles, and silk” sticking out, for the film’s crucial nightmare sequences. It sounds like it should be a standard-issue Blu-ray featurette but in reality it’s exemplary of the form—it completely captures the surreal, seat-of-their-pants struggle these two went through to keep Gilliam (and, not incidentally, the studio) happy on a tight budget and tighter deadlines, and contains some fantastic behind-the-scenes footage I had never seen before. I found it enormously entertaining. Only slightly less worthwhile, to my mind, is “Jeff and Jack”, a 20-minute examination of Bridges’s quest to find Jack Lucas. Under the tutelage of acting coach (and former radio DJ) Stephen Bridgewater, Bridges first learned how to improvise in the manner of a talk-show host, then developed the character out of that style. Bridges describes the process for a little more than three minutes, and the balance of the short is raw footage from his exercises. It’s quite interesting to see the character start poking his head out of what’s essentially a workshop process, and this strikes me as very much not the sort of material that a big-time actor generally releases for public consumption. But Bridges was cooperating fully with Criterion, and contributes another 12-minute short, “Jeff’s Tale”, that showcases some fine black-and-white on-set photographs he took with his famous Widelux, an oddball panoramic camera.

Finally, Criterion pays tribute to Robin Williams with “Robin’s Tale”, a 19-minute interview with the late performer dated to 2006 and credited to Sony Pictures Entertainment. I don’t know what this material was originally intended to be used for, but the actor’s tone is quite serious overall, landing just a few jokes. Mainly, he discusses his memories of Terry Gilliam as a director. Discussing The Fisher King specifically, he talks about the reaction of the women on set to the mere presence of Jeff Bridges and remembers running into “really heavy attitude” during the shoot at Grand Central Terminal and on the Upper East Side, as well as from a single woman on Columbus Avenue who threw a bucket of water out her window in hopes of dousing the fearsome red knight below. As for the role of Parry, he characterizes it as a “homeless version of Don Quixote” and describes his approach to the part as “part method, part me” before repudiating the complaint that the film served to glorify “madness.” It’s an interesting and appropriate interview to close out this disc; stick around after the end titles for an additional glimpse of Williams on set. Critic Bilge Ebiri contributes a laudatory essay that’s printed on one side of the eight-panel fold-out insert. Sure, I’d prefer a booklet, but the really serious misstep Criterion makes is on the outside of the box, as the cover art is pretty unappealing. The design is contributed by LA2, a former friend and collaborator of Keith Haring’s, which makes some sense in a “New York in the 1980s” kind of way but doesn’t much work for the film.