The Terry Gilliam Retrospective Part 1: Ironic Origins

Paul Risker begins a retrospective on the films of Terry Gilliam…

Before we begin I’d like to take the opportunity to briefly talk a little about the history of this ‘Retrospective’ feature series.

I originally started out intending only to re-evaluate the career of ‘Master of Horror’ John Carpenter, an idea that was first implanted into my mind by a close friend who exclaimed in our local watering hole one summer night, “John Carpenter’s career deserves a re-evaluation.”

So many years later with the support of EatSleepLiveFilm’s editor-in-chief and managing editor, I was afforded the opportunity to rant across seven weeks, composing what was my love letter to the cinema of John Carpenter. Sadly, ESLF closed its doors in November, though the site remains live, functioning as an archive for the expansive work of the ESLF editorial staff and contributors.

Approaching the end of the Carpenter feature series, I decided that this was something I’d like to continue, and so I moved onto celebrate the career of Terry Gilliam. Only four parts were completed before ESLF ceased posting, and thankfully Gary Collinson editor-in-chief of Flickering Myth offered the ‘Retrospective’ feature series and its film obsessed tea drinking author a new home. Merci Gary!

But one thing is different moving forward. We want your help to decide the next filmmaker in the series, transforming it into an interactive feature series. Stay tuned for more information.

Over the next four weeks parts 1 – 4 will be re-posted, before resuming with The Fisher King.

Terry Gilliam Retrospective Part 1: Ironic Origins

Terry Gilliam
I doubt many of you would consider it an exaggeration if I were to express the opinion that Terry Gilliam is one of modern cinemas most creative and inventive directors, combining narrative and visual filmmaking practices. Starting with his contribution to classic British comedy (the name I need not mention), the broad strokes of his cinema have spanned time travel and visions of hell, gone on psychedelic trips and delved into the imaginations of any number of protagonists. Oh, and there was the time he tilted at windmills.

Gilliam’s dramas with the studios and producers have ensured his escapades behind the camera have been just as colourful as those projected onto the silver screen. These narrative and visual strokes have defined Terence Vance Gilliam as not just an important American director, an original and interesting filmmaker, but the highest accolade that can be bestowed on a director – that of auteur. To explore his work is to discover a story whose beginnings are marked by irony, as well as a foreboding warning of the difficult road that lay ahead for the maverick director; never content as animator; nor one-sixth of a comedy group.

Underwhelmed by the history of his native America, and with an interest in the European history, in 1967 he set off backpacking around Europe. He returned to the U.S., before finally moving with his English then girlfriend to her native homeland. Gilliam had always been an admirer of the British humour, notably the Ealing comedies and BBC Radio’s The Goon Show, starring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers.

The journey towards his directorial debut Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) was laden with irony. His view of London was derived from the culture of cinema, notably the images of Antonioni’s Blow Up, and Julie Christie whizzing around London in that car. For a director whose cinema has always been fixated on the power of imagination and fantasy, it is ironic that the very thing that attracted him to London, and set in motion events that would lead to a career in directing, was cinema’s own imaginative representation of the city.

Not long after his arrival, Gilliam quickly fell in with a crowd of comedians, becoming the sixth member of one of the great British – or for that matter international – comedy teams, Monty Python. It was ironic that in such a short space of time Gilliam found himself contributing to the English comedy heritage he had once admired from afar.

Despite this initial success, Python was a double-edged blade for Gilliam, preventing him from reaching his goal: to direct. From early on Gilliam knew how important it would be for his directorial aspirations to get himself that all important directing credit. Prior to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam had sole creative control of Python’s animation set pieces. Gilliam has remarked that animation was something that he just fell into. As surreal and baffling as those sequences are, even now, they are intrinsic to the identity of Python – a testament to Gilliam’s creative vision.

He was the objective judge who would hear the sketches pitched, free to laugh without restraint; the lonely and unprejudiced animator who was absolved of the group’s politics; of the competition of Python’s writing teams.

Whilst Monty Python and the Holy Grail would be a step forward for Gilliam, it was in truth only half a step. Gilliam, the master tactician tricked the group into agreeing that anyone named Terry would direct the film. So came about Gilliam’s directorial debut, though of course that meant co-directing the movie with Terry Jones. The different working methods of the two aspiring directors only led to conflict, something Gilliam’s career would be defined by (the war for Brazil and the Munchausen disaster). The introverted nature of the animator, not used to having to direct actors, combined with the Pythons’ preference of actor’s director Terry Jones, meant Holy Grail was a baptism of fire for the sixth Python. Eventually he would focus on the technical set-ups whilst Jones worked with the cast.

Working in a genre that had one requisite: to make people laugh, Gilliam’s obsession with the visual aesthetic, his grand ambition, led to those colourful adventures behind the camera; sneaking into the editing room late at night to make changes behind his co-director’s back. Holy Grail was almost certainly an abrupt introduction to directing, and he would not co-direct the other Python films, relinquishing the duty to Jones. His stubbornness, will power, and his capacity to dare to dream would define his future cinematic vision, whilst having the adverse effect of bringing conflict to his door.

It would in fact be six years following Holy Grail before he made the transition from ‘I am the sixth Python’ to ‘I am Terry Gilliam’, across two films: Jabberwocky and Time Bandits. These two films are a defining moment in the director’s career, his struggles to find his own auteurial presence, looking forward and looking back from the adventure that was Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

You can read the full seven part John Carpenter Retrospective feature series at EatSleepLiveFilm:

Part 1: The Six Year Stretch (1976-1982)
Part 2: Halloween and The Fog
Part 3: Escape from New York
Part 4: Star Man and Big Trouble in Little China
Part 5: Prince of Darkness and They Live
Part 6: Body Bags and In the Mouth of Madness
Part 7: Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life

Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.

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