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Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) opens with one of cinema’s seminal dream sequences: a man is liberated from his car and coasts inhumanly between lanes in a swell of immobile traffic, extends his arms and coasts into the sky. The man shares a tether with a figure beneath him, and is abruptly yanked into a sea below. In the very next shot he springs upright into the frame.
Thematically this action is a durable metaphor in film, a staging of temporary freedom from vices and disturbances that bear numerous incarnations. In this regard dreaming or, more appropriately, imagining is essential to mental welfare. This thought is intrinsic to the body of Terry Gilliam’s work as a filmmaker. In a career that routinely blends reality with imagination, dreaming is the leeway that fosters interaction between the two contexts. And despite Fellini’s conception of the action cited above, it is more appropriative to Gilliam (1).
A capsule description of Gilliam’s work obligates a variety: his films depict over three millennia of history, approach birth and death, youth and old age. There are also unifying qualities between his films: an idealistic, childish perception of history; uncharacteristic humour in carefully rendered time periods; and protagonists hindered by corporate dominance and consumerist vices. In whole, Gilliam’s films concern freedom, specifically the varied forms in which it is manifested. Aptly, freedom in a Terry Gilliam film is often an imagined liberty.
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Terence Vance Gilliam was born in 1940 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up an illustrator and pole-vaulter and was educated at Occidental College in California, volleying majors in physics and politics. He was later employed in varying capacities (regularly in advertising and publishing) on both coasts of the United States. Significantly, a stint at HELP! magazine in New York afforded a meeting with John Cleese, eventually resulting in a recommendation for and role in the British comedy troupe Monty Python.
Gilliam is seen peripherally as an actor in Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969), though it is his handcrafted, cut-out animation sequences that is his distinguishing contribution. His animation technique is crude and efficient, and one of the comedy series’ stylistic trademarks as it accompanies the title credits of each episode and functions as segues between vignettes. Gilliam has claimed to have regularly worked seven-day weeks on his animation, including two all-nighters (2).
Monty Python would collaborate on three feature films, of which Gilliam co-directed two: The Holy Grail (1975) and The Meaning of Life (1983) (Life of Brian  he only co-wrote; he acted in each). During this era Gilliam helmed two of his own films: his individual debut Jabberwocky (1977) and Time Bandits (1981). Each of these works bears a distinct resemblance to Python’s comedic structure (each film may be divided into circumstantial vignettes). Gilliam’s stylistic departure is barely evident at this point in his career.
Comedy, inevitably, distinguishes each of Gilliam’s first films. It is curious, in result, that the production design of his work (and of the Pythons’ for the matter) is so accurate. The Python films, notably, depict eras with obviously out-of-place slapstick comedy. This comedy mars against the organic, dirty environments. It is a totally artificial element and appropriate to the Pythons’ signature brand of humour and interest in contextual juxtaposition in their films.
Jabberwocky is similar to the first two Python films in this measure. (In consistency, The Meaning of Life would resemble the sporadic time and place of Time Bandits.) The setting, the Dark Ages, is directly reminiscent of The Holy Grail. The film is inspired by the monster in Lewis Carroll’s poem of the same name and is Gilliam’s most pronounced genre effort. It is ostensibly a horror film, opening with a fearsome point-of-view shot custom to the genre. Furthermore, the revelation of the title monster is given the typical slasher treatment, and is not seen until the final sequence. (There is an obvious debt to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws ; the title creature, even, is a giant puppet).
Jabberwocky displays a number of elements, each noticeably in contrast, that characterises Gilliam’s filmmaking. Again, here is a carefully rendered historic setting that houses slapstick comedy. Jabberwocky is also one of Gilliam’s most horrific films (this is relative, of course), though horror is uncharacteristic in his other works. Jabberwocky is relentless in its combination of unrelated elements and its seams are bursting. The technique would inform each of Gilliam’s future efforts.
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Time Bandits ostensibly resembles Jabberwocky. It occurs in the same time period, has the same actors and exhibits Gilliam’s characteristic interest in history. Visible in the film’s periphery are Homeric Greece, the French Revolution, the sinking Titanic and basic ethical manifestations of good and evil (the former – the Supreme Being – wears a pleated gray suit). Time Bandits is at once revisionist history and children’s fantasy. Terry Gilliam’s entire career has been spent as an endearing fight against convention. Furthering this plight in Time Bandits is a principle cast comprised almost entirely of midgets.
The short ones are the film’s namesake, and possess traits that may be associated with children: they are immature, rude and greedy. The dwarves are former hedge trimmers for the Supreme Being. The group plotted mutiny, stole a map of the universe (which cites the location of crucial “time holes”) and proceeded to gather the most valuable loot in history. One such time hole lies in the closet of Kevin, a young boy in a relatively contemporary England. He is awakened by the abrupt appearance of the group of bandits and is shortly enlisted in their scheme.
The camera inherits the perspective of the film’s miniature protagonists. It is placed entirely at low angles to respect its main characters’ stilted height. This technique crops the faces of many of the taller characters; we see only their feet and their actions. In this manner Gilliam establishes his film’s subjective approach, and it is clear this troupe of midgets and their younger sidekick, each vulnerably short, stands heroic.
The very scope of this film is incessant in its sporadic setting – locations are nearly incidental, a series of comedic opportunities. The famous climax of the Titanic disaster is seen in over thirty films (and is arguably the subject of many of them) and it is at its least dramatic in this film.
Despite the fact that the film’s comedy inevitably hinders its philosophy, its thought is nonetheless apparent. The world Gilliam constructs is one in which age or, more particularly, maturation prohibits one’s ability to imagine. Much like blood, one’s imagination procures creative and mental longevity. The midgets resemble children not only in their stature but in their ability to idealise history – to make it fun.
Time Bandits was a large success (it would be one of Gilliam’s few), grossing over 40 million in the domestic United States. Gilliam’s follow-up would be a prologue for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life that would demonstrate his ballooning vision and budget violation – traits that that would hinder many of his future efforts. This prologue, entitled The Crimson Permanent Assurance, is a tale of a mutiny among the employees of The Very Big Corporation of America. They are all older men (contrary to the age of many of his characters). It would foretell one of his characterising efforts, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).
For Monty Python, The Meaning of Life is a characteristic effort, as it bears the balance of the sacred and profane, at once excessive and subtle qualities that distinguishes the body of their work. Similarly characterising is Gilliam’s prologue: it runs ten minutes and in its brief duration exhibits a bold, varied visual scale and resolute climactic action. This scene possesses unavoidable limits in its length and relation to the film (from which it is distinctly separate), yet it is an exemplar of Gilliam’s filmmaking tactics.
The Meaning of Life debuted at Cannes in 1983, where it was well received and awarded the Grand Prize of the Jury. Gilliam, a commodity in affiliation with The Meaning of Life and financially with Time Bandits, was approached with interest by Universal Studios. The correspondence would result in a contract for his most ambitious film.
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There is a crucial element of fantasy in Brazil (1985), although it occurs in ascetic, corporate environments: busy, dark offices without an outside view, alleys paved in advertisements and flyers. Legal paperwork (receipts, warrants, order forms) must accompany every transaction and interaction; it is this overwhelming formality for documentation, in addition to the lack of reliability in technology that fosters the most caustic disruption in the most mundane error. (Brazil‘s principle conflict ensues in result of a squashed bug that lands in a typewriter.) As a gesture of calamity exclusive to this environment, explosions in Brazil cause showers of paperwork in their aftermath. They are showers of celebratory confetti, announcing a scar in a system bound in red tape.
It is not necessary that Brazil‘s setting resembles a natural one, though such resemblance forwards the film’s allegorical relevance. A rendition of Orwellian dystopia with the comic cynicism of Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime (1967), Brazil is a parable of corporate dominance; it depicts an environment strewn in propagandistic slogans and is scored with the unending rhythm of typewriter keys. There is no natural horizon in this location; for the matter, there is no hint (until a brief shot at the film’s end) of an uninhibited, natural freedom.
The film’s protagonist is a blue-collared everyman, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). He lives in an automated apartment with the activity and inefficiency of a Rube Goldberg machine. His corporate setting, dressed in impersonal fluorescent lighting and shades of grey, is similarly ascetic. As a counterbalance to his “natural” environment, Sam has dreams in which he is an armoured, winged hero. He glides and flips through the sky, and protects a beautiful, angelic goddess. Sam’s dreams are in fantastic, freed environments and become indistinguishable from his reality (a final conflict seems to occur in both settings). It is a suggestion that the government is fascistically contaminative, that even the freedom of dreams has been prohibited.
Peripheral characters are dressed identically in attire that clearly relays their social rank, forwarding a notion of the individual’s lack of identity – in Sam’s second job, his name is even replaced with a serial number. His mother is seen distinctly throughout, and in each sequence is in a subsequent stage of a comprehensive plastic surgery (literally; in once scene her face is held in saran wrap). By the film’s end she becomes a physical and soulless replication, an attractive body (or, at least, she matches Sam’s perception of beauty in resembling his fantasy girlfriend) and no soul. She is present at the funeral of her own, withered flesh. Superficial material replaces the soul.
Although ironically comedic, Brazil is dense and ambiguous in its comedic intent. Thusly, biographical references to Gilliam’s affiliation with Monty Python are falsely suggestive in critiques of the film. Consider a late scene in which Sam is promoted to Information Retrieval and enters his new office. It is as small as a closet, economically paired with another so that a desk may be shared between the two. Sam arranges his papers and office trinkets and lowers his eyebrows in question as his desk slides slightly into the wall. He enters the adjacent office and distracts its tenant, leaving after he nudges the desk back towards his space. The scene is a clever and comedic sight gag, yet it is more useful (and less comedic) as a metaphor, either for Sam’s discomfort or hierarchal competition.
The film contains two depicted terrorists and several citations of terrorist bombings, yet the arrival of one such character, Harry Tuttle (Robert de Niro), is a heroic asset to Sam. As Danny Peary attests: “Gilliam has made the bureaucracy so despicable and the general public so obnoxious that we’re actually willing to accept a terrorist as a hero” (3).
The film is without debate Terry Gilliam’s most ambitious work, referenced keenly in his prior efforts: Time Bandits includes a exploitative game show that tempts contestants with elaborate and unnecessary home maintenance equipment; Gilliam’s prologue for The Meaning of Life involves a mutiny against a consumerist corporation. It is a fascist and oppressively stark vision (its criticism and recommendation are regularly discrete), as known for its visual strength as it is for its Hollywood spawning. The latter fact is particularly ironic, as Brazil‘s postponement (it was an American film first released overseas) mirrors the film’s theme of corporate prohibition. Brazil was financed by Universal Pictures and, due to a negatively crucial change of guard, drifted in editing for close to a year. To date, the film has been distributed in five cuts, ranging from a 94-minute version edited by Universal chairman Sid Shienberg to Gilliam’s seminal 142-minute cut available exclusively on the Criterion Collection DVD.
The distributional fate of Brazil is of note, secondly, because of Gilliam’s success in securing his original vision, albeit slightly altered due to contractual limitations. Hollywood is notoriously plagued by commercial incentive and a lack of art; Brazil is a rare success, particularly so because it is decidedly anti-commercial. Furthermore Brazil’s critical success is contrasted in its gross; it (in an appropriate epilogue) barely recouped its fifteen million dollar budget. Gilliam’s next film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, would further the trend.
Munchausen is a vision of little inhibition. The title character is a legendary, aging buccaneer. The film opens with a stage production of his famous encounters, a fiction the actual character disrupts; of course, his version of the story will be more embellished. Ironically, embellishment is the very strength of Baron Munchausen. He, tallied in bright red coattails and feathered bicorn, is an able swordsman and gentleman who will travel as far as the moon and to the center of the earth. He is flanked by enormously talented disciples: one has telescopic vision, one has incredible hearing, one is remarkably fast on foot, and another is a token strongman. These traits, when exhibited, will supply the film’s episodes of remarkable beauty. Notably, a late scene involves the strongman on offense as he plucks a trio of ships from an ocean, swings them around his head and tosses them at hostile Turkish troops.
Baron Munchausen would suffer the very fate its predecessor avoided. The film was co-financed between Columbia Pictures and completion guarantor Film Finances, incurring an estimated final budget of 45 million; it was said to be the most expensive film of the time (4). Before completion, and due to numerous hindrances (including lost costumes, production that was regularly behind schedule and lawsuits), production was halted and Gilliam faced expulsion. He was in contract with Columbia to direct the picture and was shortly reinstated. Filming completed afterward with a truncated script and some of the film’s more expensive scenes written out.
There are passages of majestic, realised beauty, including a trip to the moon (in an economical setting that resembles a three-dimensional construction of Gilliam’s signature illustrations), the belly of a whale and a finale in which each disciple is tested. These may be the most distinguished images in Gilliam’s career, but the film’s truncation is apparent and detrimental. Baron Munchausen, gathering from its sprawling design, is Gilliam’s characteristic effort. Perhaps inevitably, Gilliam’s most commercial feature would follow.
Gilliam’s trio of films beginning with Time Bandits is often seen as an unofficial trilogy: Brazil and Baron Munchausen regard the utility of imagination in, respectively, middle- and old-age; Time Bandits involves the child. These three films, despite their differentiated sources and settings, present a cumulative maturation – on the most interpretive level, a life. The films are progressive failures and, in a sense, progressive successes in visual audacity. These films (subsequent and early in a career) display a range exhibited by few filmmakers.
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In a catalogue of films defined by their visuals and quirks, Gilliam’s next film, The Fisher King (1991), is prominent for its familiar contemporary setting (his first) and visual convention – this is relative only to Gilliam’s other works.
Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a New York shock jock in the vein of Howard Stern, fueled by his conceit and the media familiarity with his image. His listeners, we gather, are typically insecure, unhappy people. One named Edwin is a frequent caller who in a sporadic fit of rage takes Jack’s advice too literally, and guns down a flock of customers in a restaurant and then himself. Jack hears of the horror and his influence is made known to him with enormous gravity.
Three years later we see Jack, now a self-pitying alcoholic, living with Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), a video store clerk. Jack’s woes become unbearable. He drinks himself into a glazed stupor, affixes concrete bricks to his feet and stands eager on the bank of the Hudson River. To Jack, death is a welcome change in an existence he cannot tolerate. Jack is unexpectedly rescued by a bizarre homeless army, headed by the show-tune singing Parry. Parry suffers from mental hysteria after witnessing his wife’s traumatic death. (It should be of note that Robin Williams’ characteristic overplay is appropriate to the role of Parry.)
Parry befriends Jack in an attempt to enlist him in his quest to find the Holy Grail (this is familiar). Parry’s quest is prophesised by the product of his bowels – cute little brown floating fat people, he calls them. He claims they have told him Jack is “the One”. Jack relents until he realises that Parry’s condition results from the very act of violence inspired by his radio broadcast. In a desperate attempt to redeem himself, Jack agrees to help.
Distinct parallels may be drawn between the two characters: foremost, they are both suffering from unnerving events in their pasts. By aiding each other, Jack and Parry are in turn mending their own wounds. The Fisher King is a sensitive and frank story of redemption.
Although Gilliam’s vision is repressed there are scenes in which it is exalted in brief, violent spurts. The film’s most famous image (at least one I’ve seen cited repeatedly in trailers for television broadcasts of the film) is of a populated waltz in Grand Central Station that employs over four-hundred extras. Parry’s imagined nemesis is the Red Knight, the horrid manifestation of the memory of his wife. The spectre is a horseman strewn in red shards of fabric and armour, and jettisons streams of fire from his mouth. These images, and a few others, achieve an impact in their sparing use, and in service to narrative – this detail, particularly, is contrary to Gilliam’s earlier works, in which narrative is an incidental feature.
The Fisher King is ostensibly a contemporary fairy tale, though its love story I find to be its most uniquely felt aspect. The film’s characters are realistically motivated (notably, this is the first of Gilliam’s efforts not to include a Monty Python alum) and the feelings and impulses attributed to them are inherently human; this is an unforeseen and innovative aspect in Gilliam’s career.
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Gilliam’s next film inherits elements of his prior work: namely, time-travel and relative insanity. It is also his single foray into science fiction, although elements of the genre are evident in his prior films.
12 Monkeys (1995) is based upon Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée (1962), a work renowned for its simplicity. Gilliam’s film, however, would eschew the resolute strength of its source. The film opens in 2025 in the aftermath of a global epidemic that caused the deaths of billions. Survivors live beneath the surface in rusted sewers. There is a sense of procedure despite this damage, and many survivors are held captive as candidates for a flawed time-travel research. Cole (Bruce Willis) is one such captive, renowned among his peers for his good memory.
Gilliam’s future is distinct within the genre: it is grungy, cloaked in abundant filth, a setting without an inherent advancement. Again, time-travel is a sporadic action with little predetermination (Cole misses his intended destination on two occasions) and little explanation, as in Time Bandits. Furthering its genre irregularity, the film is not replete with campy scientific explanations. It is, contrarily, thoughtful and philosophic – inherent in the film is a suggestion that fate and predestination transcend science, though it is less so, I am inclined to note, than Marker’s source film.
As with 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) is a careful and specific rendition of a celebrated visual source and inhibited for precisely the same reason. The film evidences Gilliam’s success at making the film, yet the success itself follows two decades of unused scripts and fruitless pre-production tied to other filmmakers. The financial failure of the film suggests the formidable task of the source fiction’s translation. The very concept, even, poses inevitable shortcomings. This is tallied by the film’s inheritance of protagonist (Hunter S. Thompson alter-ego) Raoul Duke’s sight; his influence (by any number of illegal drugs) will cause the movement of a carpet pattern, and in the film the action is realistically manifested. These visions occur and, moreover, belong in Duke’s head. Their literal depiction in the film distracts – not evidences – the film’s literary objective.
The film honours the text with meticulous concentration (Johnny Depp, as Duke, is a match as identical as a film incarnation of a comic book super hero). There is a tremendous reliance upon voiceover, and the text’s visual episodes are simply recreated. The filmic incarnation of the “Lizard Lounge” scene, for one, is told with prosthetics and careful staging – it is in effect contrary to the episode’s depiction in the text, as an orgiastic, celebratory and imagined display of the greed and excess of the American people.
As of this writing, Terry Gilliam’s most recent work is available in Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002), a documentary that depicts his failure to complete a film based on The Adventures of Don Quixote (to be titled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). The sparing footage completed and shown in the documentary is characteristically Gilliam: European location shooting, wide-angle lenses and compositions, historical accuracy and, once again, time-travel. Filming was impeded instantaneously by several hindrances, foremost was flooding in a Spain location shoot and an ailing Jean Rochefort cast as the title character. Production was cancelled a week after shooting began.
The fate of Gilliam’s Quixote is pure irony. His is a strife that evokes his title character’s; both are prisoners to their visions (or dreams). Gilliam is a director with specifically fantastic visions that encumber the economy of film production, as evidenced in the commercial performance (in relation to cost) of many of his films. As fiction, Gilliam’s Don Quixote is a failure; as autobiography it is immensely relevant in a career distinguished by regular endurances.
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I open this article with mention of the opening dream sequence of Fellini’s 8½. There are similar perceptions of an artificial reality in each of Terry Gilliam’s films – it is the preeminently telling feature of his career. Despite his successes and characteristic style, Gilliam’s failures are the indispensable evidence of his legendary vision. Gilliam has been validated as a director of invention and personality – not in his completed films but in his failures, his conception of visions that could not be made within the economy of film.
And Now for Something Completely Different (1971) also actor
The Miracle of Flight (1974) also actor
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) also actor
Jabberwocky (1977) also actor
Time Bandits (1981)
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) segment “The Crimson Permanent Assurance”; also actor
Brazil (1985) also actor
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) also actor
The Fisher King (1991)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Tideland (2005) also screenwriter
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) also writer
The Legend of Hallowdega (2010) short
The Wholly Family (2011) short
The Zero Theorem (2013)
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018) (post-production) also screenwriter
Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002)
Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Bob McCabe, The Pythons, Thomas Dunne Books, 2003.
Ian Christie (ed.), Terry Gilliam, Gilliam on Gilliam, Faber & Faber, 2000.
Jack Mathews, Terry Gilliam, The Battle of Brazil, Applause, 1998.
Bob McCabe, Dark Knights & Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam, Universe Books, 1999.
Andrew Yule, Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga, Applause, 1998.
Dreams: The Terry Gilliam Fanzine
With up-to-date news, plenty of information about Gilliam and his work
Film Directors – Articles in the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
The Onion A.V. Club
Interview about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Interview with Gilliam.
The Animations of Terry Gilliam
Article about Gilliam’s animation career.
The Terry Gilliam Files
A page with links to various interviews and articles about his films.
Click here to search for Terry Gilliam DVDs, videos and books at
- In an introduction for The Criterion Collection edition of 8½, Gilliam admits the influence and his emulation of this scene.
- Biographical information taken from Dreams: The Terry Gilliam Fanzine, available: http://www.smart.co.uk/dreams/
- Danny Peary, review of Brazil, Guide for the Film Fanatic, Fireside, 1986, p. 68.
- Roger Ebert, review of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Chicago Sun-Times, March 10, 1989.