Terry Gilliam  

The American (now British) in the Monty Python troupe who was responsible for the outrageously funny and surreal animation sequences. Went on to become an immensely talented director of very imaginative and artistic movies which are often entertainingly bizarre. A recurring theme in his movies is of the relationship and clash between fantasy and reality, logic and imagination, exploring this in amazingly imaginative fantasy movies such as the more juvenile-oriented Time Bandits, the commercial Grimm Brothers and the magnificent masterpiece Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Reality was also shoved aside by drugs in Fear and Loathing, traumatic madness in Fisher King, childish imagination in Tideland, desperate escapism in Brazil, etc.

Gilliam has fought hard to stay out of Hollywood interference but his problem is that he is an independent director with creativity and imagination that demands Hollywood budgets. He also seems to be cursed, with many of his projects encountering odd production catastrophes. He often directs his movies whimsically and with strongly driven creativity and a love for impossible challenges and endless detail, inserting many little personally inspired jokes and flights of fancy, often swerving unexpectedly into comical territory. With this, he demands the audience follow him into his own mind rather than follow linear plots. His obsessive drive to bring his detailed visions onto the screen make his movies rewarding and rich experiences for fans. All of his movies are fascinatingly imaginative but only the more unusual ones are listed here.


Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The  
An infamous financial fiasco, but I fell in love with this movie at first sight, have watched it two dozen times since then, it is a criminally underrated masterpiece and probably the best Gilliam movie along with Brazil. This movie explores the real-life character of Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen who was known to tell tall tales about his exploits and adventures and who has a psychological syndrome named after him. On one level, this movie just has fun with his entertaining tall tales of being swallowed by a whale, his super-human side-kicks and five-man war against the Turks, flying to the moon on a ship, riding a cannonball, and travelling through the center of the earth. Gilliam enhances these tales with his inimitable style and attention to amusing details. He also adds surreal touches such as an animated cardboard city on the moon ruled by a giant king who detaches his head from his body, the delightfully absurd scenes of climbing down to Earth from the corner the moon, an organ that plays music by torturing people, and many other bizarrely wonderful scenes. Metaphysically, the script layers a few realities as he repeatedly tells his tall tales to a reluctant audience, his imagination overcoming his current reality and death over and over again until we can't tell what is real and what is his story. On a deeper level, Gilliam explores the joys, youthful exuberance and impact of the imagination. Practically every scene is a favorite. Hugely entertaining and a wonder to look at.

The brilliant surreal classic about a technocrat in the future getting into trouble with nightmarishly inefficient and overpowering bureaucracy while dreaming of love and chasing the woman of his dreams. A technical bureaucratic error leads him into an Orwellian nightmare where he is branded a terrorist while trying to correct a wrongful arrest. His dreams of flying and romantic imagery clash with a harsh world of bizarre executions, Kafka-esque work-places, down-to-earth trucker women, nasty face-lifts, terrifying plumbers and aggressively insistent tube-mail systems. Futuristic, but timeless, mixing various old technology with science-fiction and a unique visual sense that has been copied many times since. Sublimely bizarre.

Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The  
Gilliam's return to form features a more mystical and morally-didactic exploration of the imagination, coupled with the usual Gilliam energy and wackiness. Doctor Parnassus is an immortal with a command of the imagination, using it to expose people's inner dreams and desires, forcing epiphanies and moral decisions. Trouble is, he has been reduced to performing in a mobile rickety sideshow circus in the streets, leading unsuspecting pedestrians to their own imagination behind a mirror where Gilliam pulls out all the stops of visual effects and imaginative images of huge designer shoes, dancing raunchy bobbies straight out of Monty Python, a devil's tongue as a river, kilometer-tall stilts, and much more. He has a strange relationship with a devil (Tom Waits) who likes to play sadistic games and wagers, one of which involves the Doctor's daughter. When Tony, who has a talent for surviving hangings, joins the troupe, he attempts to turn their luck around and together they fight the devil, but a love triangle and Tony's past threaten to ruin everything. A whimsical, slightly messy, but gripping, deep movie that grows on you about the power of the imagination and its role in our lives.

Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The  
Gilliam has built a life-long repertoire of movies dealing with escape from reality into blessed flights of fancy. So, obviously, Don Quixote is a very fitting project. However, this notoriously cursed movie took 30 years to produce, cursed over and over again by incredible bad luck, production failures, deaths, and whatnot. Somehow, here it is finally in all its glory, a passion-project with a vengeance. The result is another sublime Gilliam layered creation, featuring another character that escapes his dystopian, rigid or modern reality, bringing to mind movies such as Baron Munchausen, Brazil and Fisher King. As befitting its cursed production history, this movie's theme is film-making in the real world versus the charm of madness and imagination, an imagination constantly undermined by reality, leading many to call this an auto-biographical movie. But the movie can be taken on its own terms. As with Baron Munchausen, pieces of Don Quixote's story are interwoven with a more modern and realistic setting, constantly threatening to undo reality as both the protagonist and us the audience are teased with reality-shifting scenes that are then pulled back to reveal the trickery and lies, only to dive back in to another layer of not-quite-real adventure. This happens repeatedly, the sad madness of an old man contrasted with reality; Except the exciting adventures of 'chivalry' soon acquire a charm of their own and it is reality that starts looking insane. Faced with the sour reality of scary oligarch producers, aggressive sexy cheating wives, commercialization and mockery that threaten to 'kill Don Quixote' even from within the film-maker himself, incompetent police and troubles with the law, and a bizarre gypsy character that welcomes chaos wherever he appears, the flights of mad fancy and romance turn increasingly welcome and charming to both the protagonist film-maker and us the audience. Chivalry, adventure and madness win, since, after all, in an insane world, only a mad individual can hold the truth. Only audiences that have not read Don Quixote and that don't know what Gilliam is all about will find this movie 'messy'. I loved every minute of it.

12 Monkeys  
Gilliam takes a straightforward sci-fi story about a man sent back in time to try to stop a plague from destroying human life, and adds his inimitable, fascinating art direction with near-surreal sets and dark, imaginative images of the future. Willis is a strangely disturbed man living underground while the animals roam free on the diseased surface, sent on a mission to discover and stop the plague. He arrives too early, and is promptly locked in a mental institution while attempting to make sense of the sequence of events while drooling heavily and swallowing spiders. A visually rich feast as well as fascinating, fun entertainment with a tricky, time-travelling plot inspired by Chris Marker's The Pier. This movie captures the eerie, tragic time-travel twist of The Pier, but is still purely a Gilliam movie with rich, imaginative visual details and very memorable characters. Unforgettable.

Zero Theorem, The  
Gilliam revisits sci-fi and a dystopian future involving a miserable man and his fantasy love interest, causing comparisons to Brazil. But, barring a few odd details such as a manager who wears camouflage clothing and the surreal metaphysical ending, this plays it mostly as straight sci-fi with quirky characters and satirical futuristic elements. Qohen Leth is a miserable mass of symptoms who 'crunches elements' for a corporation that tries 'to make sense of the small meaningful things in life'. He refers to himself in the plural and is obsessed with receiving a phone call that will make his life meaningful. When Mancom Motivational assigns him to a project that may prove the meaninglessness of life, his world crumbles, aided by distractions in the form of a love interest and a young hardware genius that re-awaken emotions and joys. The tech in this movie is a wonderfully imaginative blend of chemicals and odd-looking machines, and it pokes fun at ubiquitous advertising and gadgets. Not as rich and satisfying as some of his other works, but it is still full of Gilliam touches and memorable characters, and even a lesser Gilliam is better than most things out there. Like all Gilliam movies, the details make the movie grow on you.

Of Some Interest

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas  
Terry Gilliam lends his madness and brilliant artistic sense to this trip into extreme drug abuse with non-stop mad visuals, hallucinations and a rapidly downward spiraling binge into paranoia and depravity. Based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel about the search for the American Dream by a journalist and his psychotic lawyer on a road trip to Vegas. There may have been a satiric message in here somewhere, but it gets lost between the mescaline and ether, with characters that only have to act in various degrees of drug-induced confusion while babbling about some aspects of life that only a stoner would find profound. The trip is still pretty entertaining though.

Meaning of Life, The  
Monty Python always bordered on the surreal and wallowed in the absurd, but with this final full-length movie from these British comedy masters, they also introduced over-the-top offensive attacks on social standards as well as the usual insanity. Between musicals about sacred sperm and the size of the universe, we get a man getting his liver cut out while still alive to make fun of charity, a huge man that constantly projectile vomits to make fun of food as pleasure, a nice surreal Gilliam sequence with buildings as pirate ships attacking high-rise corporations, my favorite sketch about teaching sex in the classroom to bored students, and many more. The sketches vary from hilarious to overlong and dull, but the cardinal sin the Python crew have committed which they never had a problem with before is to belabor their jokes long after the punchline has been delivered.

The most mature and challenging but unfortunately flawed Gilliam movie yet. This explores the world of a young girl who helps her hippy, trashy, demented parents take heroin, experiences their deaths, moves to the prairies, makes friends with a crazed female taxidermist and her lobotomized son, talks to decapitated doll-heads and lets her imagination take hold in a twisted world that makes no sense. The movie edges uncomfortably with young sexual awakening and necrophilia but masterfully maintains its innocence, revolving around an astounding performance by the lead child actress and her mentally challenged friend. At times it feels like it's exploring the dangers of uncontrolled imagination in a kind of twisted Alice in Wonderland (Gilliam describes it as a mix of Psycho and Alice), but the little-girl theatrics and doll-playing get tiresome after a while, and the movie just seems to meander. A fascinating dark flight of fancy as long as you aren't expecting a point.

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