Friday, November 17, 2006

Terry Gilliam is still fucked up.

Thanks to CU’s fantastic International Film Series, and the Starz Denver Film Fest, I saw two wonderfully made and very unique films by two veteran directors this week. Terry Gilliam’s Tideland and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Although both films came across as the personal and idiosyncratic visions of these two self-styled auteurs, they actually share a lot in their dark yet hopeful nature (and shockingly beautiful) visions, extremely confident voice and execution (which reigns in all the general absurdity), and their use of young girl protagonists (in Jodelle Ferland and Ivana Baquero). As the experimental filmmaker and scholar Phil Solomon has written about, there is a somewhat small but strong tradition in the cinema of young girl protagonists functioning as symbolic stand-ins or embodiments of a ‘pure’ personal expression on the part of the male filmmaker. In response to some negative (or generally disturbed) publicity surrounding Tideland, Gilliam prefaces the film with a short filmed introduction in which he explains, among other things, that he looked for his inner child and it turned out to be a little girl. This symbolic use of a young girl’s perspective is due largely to the idealized conception of children’s vision as one of pure and unmediated interaction with the world, an imaginative power which the filmmaker strives for. She represents a freedom in sight and experience, and the potential for transcendence of the rigid restrictions put on sight by studio filmmaking and (masculine) socialization in general. The example Solomon uses is Stan Brakhage's Murder Psalm, which may be one of his best films (although it’s hard to say because he made over 300). This use of young female vision is an extension of a much larger cinematic tradition (strongest in western Europe) in which male directors use the perspectives of children and women protagonists as subversive lenses to challenge the overly rational conception of reality prescribed by the patriarchy (like Bergman with Persona and Alexander Kluge with Yesterday Girl). Basically, it's a mixture of a valid understanding of the gendered construction of sight with the sexist male notions of female purity and angelic insight, or in other words, interesting bullshit.

Anyway, on to the first movie (I’ll write about Pan’s Labyrinth in a later post). Tideland is very hard to write about it, or think about, or watch. Basically its just really hard to wrap your brain around. However I certainly enjoyed the experience or running this risky gamut with the ever-uncompromising Gillian and letting his strange world fuck my mind. Tideland is perhaps the most beautifully shot movie I’ve seen all year, and I think it’s Gillian’s most visually stunning (though ironically because of its subtlety compared to his usual carnival ride like aesthetic, and it’s realist yet expressionistic use of natural light). It’s the kind of film you have to take home and chew on for a few days to get an accurate picture of what is even really was (which wont be hard because the images and events become seared in your unconscious). Its strange meandering plot and seemingly scattershot chain of events was structured and secured within the confines of a supremely confident and knowing vision. Although I was never sure where it was going or what it even meant (or if I actually liked it), I never doubted that Gilliam knew what he was doing, and that every seemingly random event was absolutely crucial to his full vision. Gilliam’s films always have an almost pretentious self-confidence, almost to the point of hubris, but I think here he’s really reached a watershed moment in his career where’s he’s made something still prevertedly delightful and generally twisted like all his flicks, but much more sincere and stripped down, a film which uses the tropes of absurdism and a scummy romanticism to attain a deep and authentic expression and perspective. It’s awkward structure would be absolutely impossible to maintain without Gilliam’s extreme self-confidence. However, that’s not to say the film doesn’t fall flat at times, or dissolve into caricature (especially the junky father played by Jeff Bridges). Gilliam’s purposeful overdirection and use of overacting is well-established in his filmic style by now and often yields multilayered insights, but in a film as bare and sincere as Tideland, it stylized acting, almost antagonistically odd plot, and cynical black humor often crumble into hoaky missteps and failed attempts at parable which don’t quite resonate. Despite its faults, the sheer yet confident awkwardness of the film and its moments of transcendental beauty make it defiantly worth watching. It’s the kind of movie I like more with each day it continues bouncing around my head. Here’s The Onion AV Club’s enlightening interview with Gilliam’s about Tideland, in which you can tell he has a masturbatory and completely uncritical (and defensive) love of his new film.


Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You seem conflicted about Gilliam's new film. I haven't seen it, and so cannot judge. But you've written an engaging piece about what is no doubt a difficult film. Kudos!

November 18, 2006 11:37 PM  
Blogger Mazur said...

Thanks a lot. Conflicted definatly sums up my feelings about Tideland. I enjoyed it the whole time, but was never sure how much I actually liked it. But it's pretty easy to give GIlliam the benefit of the doubt.

Anyway, if you see it, let me know what you think.

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