The Fisher King

Robin Williams in 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.


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 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.

The Zero Theorem

Mélanie Thierry and Christoph Waltz in The Zero Theorem

The list of things Terry Gilliam doesn’t like includes iPhones, earphones, computers in general, advertising, modern pop music, and the yawning vacuum at the end of the universe. Gilliam drafts Christof Waltz as his beaten-down-by-bureaucracy surrogate this time around, casting him as a kind of genius math whiz who’s put to work as a kind of human calculator, performing numeric operations to help prove the titular postulation about the fate of the universe and the meaninglessness to which it suggests human existence amounts.

It’s schematic and mostly redundant in Gilliam’s body of work, but still there’s stuff to like here, including the performances (David Thewlis does a mean Michael Palin, as it turns out) and some of the production design. I liked the parody of targeted advertising, in which annoying talking billboards follow right on your heels as you walk down the sidewalks of the future. I was pretty impressed, even, by Gilliam’s crude-by-CG-standards visualization of mathematical problem-solving as a huge three-dimensional puzzle, especially the deflating moments when huge masses of perfectly stacked building blocks come tumbling down, another big idea collapsed into rubble. (Gilliam knows a thing or two about that kind of heartbreak.)

There are some striking moments where the grim conditions of Waltz’s life are compared to the benevolent, it’s-always-the-golden-hour fantasies that a virtual-reality suit bestows, but mostly it feels like Gilliam is directing a screenplay written by a tyro who was really, really impressed by Brazil — homage becomes cannibalization, and as Big Statements go The Zero Theorem doesn’t add anything to what Gilliam’s delivered before. Part of the problem is surely budgetary, lack of funds limiting the film’s visual scope and finesse. On the other hand, there’s that script. Emotionally stunted hooker with a heart of gold falls in love with disturbed hermit 25 years her elder? Ye gods, Gilliam, you can do better than this.

Gojira, Gilliam, and R.I.P. Gordon Willis

Elizabeth Olsen

Godzilla left me more or less cold. I could barely find enough to say about the latest Hollywood franchise reboot to fill up a Letterboxd diary entry. And yet smart people waxed rhapsodic over the damned thing. What am I missing? I see a film with a few exceptionally clever moments and technically brilliant CG work that never finds its narrative footing. Not as scary as War of the Worlds or as much fun as Jurassic Park, it doesn’t measure up to even second-tier Spielberg. And as gloomfests go, it doesn’t squeeze the cheer out of the room anywhere near as effectively as a Christopher Nolan pic.  I didn’t dislike it, exactly, largely because it does many things right. It even gets some of the hard stuff right. (Godzilla as hero was totally the way to go this time around.) But it gets some easy things wrong — first and foremost by putting the single blandest character in its homo sapiens line-up front and center — and never works up a real head of steam.

Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen
Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen in Manhattan

R.I.P. Gordon Willis, ASC. The cinematographer behind the camera for The Godfather, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, and more has passed. He got that dim, shadowy look for The Godfather by deliberately underexposing film and not pushing it quite enough in processing to make up the difference. (“A lot of cameramen work to increase the quality of the image,” he said at the time, “but in this specific case I’m working to decrease it.”) You can see much of his finest work on really good Blu-ray versions — the latest Godfather reissues and the Woody Allen films are top-drawer — but the indignity of a revisionist HD transfer of All the President’s Men that he described as “all fucked up” tarnishes his legacy. (“You call these [home video] guys, it’s like talking to a head on a stick,” he memorably told Jeffrey Wells.)

Terry Gilliam is making his Don Quixote movie again. This per Variety, which reports that casting has begun anew. (Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor were set to star in the previous incarnation of this project, and of course Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp were attached once upon a time.) Good luck, old buddy.

Those Ennio Morricone concerts in New York and Los Angeles have been canceled.

Ullmann. Bergman.

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman
Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Johnny Depp in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam’s career has been a bit of a wooly thing, flitting from genre to genre and flirting with the mainstream without ever quite consummating the relationship. His best film to date remains Brazil, a dystopic masterpiece that’s bookended by another pair of singular accomplishments — the well-regarded fantasy adventure Time Bandits and the less-celebrated epic The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (A book, Losing the Light, was written about bringing that oversized project — a must-see for anyone who interested in expansive, expensive whimsy in the days before CGI — to the screen.) He next made The Fisher King, a nicely written (by Richard LaGravenese) romantic comedy with the hint of madness around the edges, with Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams, and then snared Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt for his big commercial triumph, a feature-length extrapolation from Chris Marker’s brilliant science-fiction short “La Jetée” called Twelve Monkeys. For an encore project, he moved in as a fix-it artist on a troubled Hunter S. Thompson biopic, completing the Johnny Depp vehicle and instant stoner classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And with that, his future in the industry seemed assured.

And then the bottom fell out.

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1280_tideland.jpgTerry Gilliam has made a living out of movies that dance along the line separating the physical world from that of the imagination, serenity from hubbub, and sanity from madness. In a career that sprang from the organized chaos that was Monty Python, he has slept with the surrealists, danced with Jan Svankmajer, and kissed the sweaty brow of Tex Avery. His pictures have ranged from whimsical fantasy and uneasy science fiction to startling takes on the dementia that devours the very edges of our reality, occasionally swallowing human beings whole. While his missteps may well outnumber his outright triumphs, the Gilliam stalwart (and I do count myself among them) will find something effective and admirable, and likely something over-the-top brilliant, in almost every outing.

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


Who ever would have thought that Terry Gilliam, once the bane of Hollywood and every bit the deranged auteur, would evolve into such an astute observer of other people’s work? After his twisted dreams-and-the-dreamer “trilogy” of Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam seemed damn near unemployable. Never mind that Brazil is held by some to be one of the few masterpieces of the 1980s — after all, the bad blood between Gilliam and Universal on that project was so rancid that Gilliam took out an ad in Variety blasting then-studio head Sid Scheinberg for refusing to release the film.

And Munchhausen was an unqualified disaster. Even its admirers (me among them) have to admit that the film itself reveals the bloated, unfocused truth of its production, which was completely out of control. As the budget ballooned to proportions greater than those of any other film previously shot in Europe, whole sequences were scrapped and what remained had to be stitched together in less than optimal fashion. Still, Munchausen had its moments of great(ish)ness, making it all the more distressing that it seemed sure to seal the ultimate commercial fate of a truly visionary director.

How he got the go-ahead for his next project is anyone’s guess. Maybe it seemed safe enough to trust even a madman like Terry Gilliam with a Jeff Bridges/Robin Williams project. Richard LaGravenese’s script for The Fisher King mixed with Gilliam’s directorial style, which had never been craftier, to create an honest-to-god feel-good movie about the power of love and redemption. When the story, which had to do with an unlikely friendship and an even unlikelier rehabilitation, became a little too pat, the ensemble cast saved the day. And while Fisher King would never be described as a model of efficiency, Gilliam’s loping, almost lazy style is complemented by a handful of terrific set pieces driven by dialog, performance, an overwhelming sense of compassion, and a fascination with what it means to be human.

Incredibly, Gilliam wound up back at Universal for Twelve Monkeys. This time, the lunatic was given the keys to an asylum that housed no less a screen personage than Bruce Willis, with the newly-hot Brad Pitt in the role of supporting nutjob. For a reported budget around $30 million (cheap by the standards of Hollywood and Willis), Gilliam did the unthinkable — he delivered an expansive science fiction film that found its audience through a combination of star power and a tricky storyline. Never mind that the real trick of the screenplay was the simplicity of its gimmick (lifted by screenwriters David Webb and Janet Peoples from the avant garde SF classic, “La Jetée,” which Gilliam claims never to have seen); audiences left the theater scratching their heads, unable to quite get their minds around it. Gilliam’s deranged sense of story and eye for art direction turned Twelve Monkeys into a wrenching, psychotic, and heart-breaking experience.

Last year, he was drafted into the movie version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, originally developed for the screen by Alex Cox of Sid & Nancy fame. Fear and Loathing is the chronicle of an extended, endlessly replenished drug trip taken by Thompson surrogate Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his Samoan “attorney” (and adviser on all matters drug-related), known as Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, who got 40 pounds larger for the role). Arriving in Las Vegas on assignment to cover a desert bike race, Duke and the Doc quickly lose interest in the event and instead dedicate themselves to catalyzing a series of increasingly debaucherous experiences by ingesting samples from their traveling narcotics lab, including pot, mescaline, LSD, coke, ether, and god knows what else.

When it works, Fear and Loathing is exactly what it should be — a reckless and hysterical vision of America through disillusioned, drug-addled eyes. When it doesn’t work, it’s still a bizarre fantasia leagues removed from anything else that a Hollywood studio is likely to put on-screen this year. Unapologetic in its garish, matter-of-fact drugginess, with TV spots reportedly banned by (Disney-owned) ABC, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is proof that, occasionally, something bold, visceral and unexpected can make it into the multiplex underneath a studio imprimatur.

Fear and Loathing wallows in the middle American kitsch of Las Vegas, using hallucinogens as a device for subverting that sensibility and appropriating it as a private playground. The key joke of Fear and Loathing is that the world Duke and Gonzo are inhabiting bears only a passing resemblance to the world that the straight folks around them are in. And the film relies heavily on incisive, cynical narration drawn from Thompson’s book to drive home the point that this wild abandon was more than nihilism. It was about making a mockery of complacent, clueless America. The joke could hardly be so funny if Thompson, who crystallized the long strange trip in a piece originally published in Rolling Stone, hadn’t managed to turn it into a new American mythology.

There is no story, per se, and the only character development comes out of the sense that, with each passing scene, these two characters are a little further removed from the outside world, a little more desperately numb, and ever more paranoid. At one point, the good doctor begs Depp to kill him by dropping a tape deck into the bathtub just as “White Rabbit” swells to its climax. At another, Doc is trying to seduce a high-schooler named Lucy (Christina Ricci) who’s come to Vegas with a boatload of her hideous paintings of Barbra Streisand. They crash a local venue just as Debbie Reynolds launches into “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Throughout the entirety of the film, they have a little trouble walking — one such drug-addled sequence is introduced by a voice-over about the effects that a lot of ether can have on one’s motor skills. The resultant spectacle is a stand-out classic of physical comedy, owing as much to Monty Python as to Charlie Chaplin.

In fact, this is the film that establishes Depp firmly as an absolutely top-rank performer — all the more impressive that he comes to it straight from his carefully controlled, absolutely convincing performance in Donnie Brasco (and Jarmusch’s languid Dead Man before that). His dead-on imitation of a young Hunter S. Thompson is irritating for about 10 minutes, until you get used to the mannerisms and speech rhythms. Before long, he invites you completely into Duke’s world, making the audience complicit in this whacked-out escapade. Offered a new kind of chemical substance by the Doctor, Depp’s Duke scrutinizes the bottle, his typically hyper demeanor barely concealing an innocent, childlike enthusiasm. Del Toro makes a perfect brutish companion for this buddy movie, his Gonzo offering a standard of insanity against which the more in-control Duke can be compared.

It’s not a perfect film, but its disjointedness is actually sort of in tune with the tale’s overall mood. Gilliam can’t put a new spin on every escapade, and all this mugging around Vegas does start to seem a little repetitive. The film itself is lacking a perspective on its own events, which Gilliam provides by resorting to extensive narration drawn from Thompson’s prose. But maybe that’s the point — it certainly highlights the gap between the high-as-a-kite narrative and the very lucid observations that Thompson made afterwards. Most importantly, Gilliam manages to make the whole trip feel just right.

The show-stopping tricks up his sleeve include a few digital special effects that are deployed with wit and precision to delight an audience as expertly as any Hollywood picture. Tearing down the highway toward Vegas in a white Cadillac convertible, Duke sees bats in the sky, which are only reflected in the tinted lenses of his sunglasses. As he checks into his Vegas hotel, the desk clerk’s face distorts into a hideous grimace (it’s Katharine Helmond, who had a disgustingly similar role in Brazil) as the patterned carpeting crawls up other patrons’ legs. And famed critter creator Rob Bottin provides a whole loungeful of lizards, a hallucinogenic approximation of animal life on the Strip.

Even though such psychedelic interludes are delightful, I don’t think the picture glorifies drug-taking as an escape from reality. For one thing, Duke and Gonzo’s situation is seen as an exremely precarious one. For another, the film, like the book before it, is very much a period piece. It depicts an intense reaction to a specific moment in time and space without endorsing it. In Gilliam’s vision of Thompson’s version of Nixon’s America, the trippy hedonism of the 1960s is a dim light in the rear-view mirror, and the Vietnam war casts grey shadows across TV screens as well as the American psyche. Not only is it the end of an era, but it’s also a moment of realization that the idealism of the last decade has given way to a very different, sobering reality. This is the story of what happens when you refuse to be sobered.

The only precedents I can think of for this film are Easy Rider, for obvious reasons, and Mars Attacks!, which, sweartogod, has the same cheerfully destructive mindset. All three of the films see the enduring American aesthetic (exemplified in Easy Rider by rednecks with guns, and in Mars Attacks! and Fear and Loathing by Las Vegas itself) as the antithesis of critical thinking and creativity. Caustic, triste, and hilarious, Fear and Loathing is a real celebration of the American outsider.

Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam & Tony Grisoni
and Alex Cox & Tod Davies
Edited by Lesley Walker
Cinematography by Nicola Pecorini
Music by Ray Cooper
Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro
U.S., 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)