Few filmmakers in recent history have encountered as many hardships and calamities as Terry Gilliam. From fights with studio executives to abandoned projects to a lead actor’s death, Gilliam has endured some of the worst mishaps imaginable in film production. Yet throughout it all, he’s managed to produce a small but singular filmography of tremendous imagination and uncompromising vision. Thus Gilliam is also one of cinema’s most persistent survivors.
As further testament to his perseverance, Terry Gilliam turns 70 on November 22. In celebration of his birthday, the Gateway Film Center is screening four films — Brazil (1985), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), 12 Monkeys (1995), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) — as part of their ongoing midnight series, Alive! Late Night Movies. The series starts this weekend with Brazil and continues every Friday and Saturday evening at midnight throughout the month of November, with encore performances on Sundays at 1:30 pm.
Due to availability, all films will be presented in DVD instead of original 35mm prints. Yet for only $5, this offers Columbus audiences a great chance to re-discover Gilliam’s twisted idiosyncrasies on the big screen.
Gilliam first gained distinction as the sole American on the BBC comedy sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. However, his strong visual and anarchic sensibilities had precedents with his earlier career in art direction and advertising, namely a stint with Harvey Kurtzman’s satiric magazine Help! After some political and creative hang-ups in his native homeland, he immigrated to the UK in the late ‘60’s, where he joined the Monty Python troupe as writer and animator.
By 1975, his duties expanded to co-director with the release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The film’s freewheeling, irreverent spirit established Gilliam’s career-long affinity for farcical and fantastical antics, as well as his reputation as a resourceful filmmaker. After the relatively inexpensive Jabberwocky (1977) and Time Bandits (1981), Gilliam ironically received funding from Universal Studios to produce his most ambitious and acclaimed work, Brazil, an ostensibly anti-commercial dark comedy that traces the mental collapse of a civil servant in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic dystopia. With its impressive set designs and dense, Wellesian wide-angle compositions, Brazil forever cemented Gilliam as a bold visual stylist. It also reinforced his preoccupation with unsettling themes, particularly the issues of identity and sanity, and surreal landscapes that resurfaced in subsequent films, from 12 Monkeys to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
Equally as fascinating as the film itself was the chaos that surrounded its conception. Disputes over editing and creative decisions arose between Gilliam and Universal, which resulted in several versions of the film and minimal marketing. As a consequence, the film performed poorly at the box-office and inaugurated his long ambivalent relationship with Hollywood. His subsequent feature, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, was also a box-office failure, due in part to budget over costs and limited distribution.
Financial failure tarnished the director’s esteem with studios as a bankable director, but he eventually redeemed himself with accessible movies like the Oscar-nominated The Fisher King (1991) and The Brothers Grimm (2005). Since then, he’s wavered between triumph and adversity. A string of stalled projects throughout the 1990’s culminated with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2000), whose production was upset by countless disasters, from flash floods to the injury of star Jean Rochefort.
His most recent feature, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), nearly faced a similar fate, when actor Heath Ledger died mid-production. But Gilliam has never been one to give up easily. Rather than re-shoot the film, Gilliam resorted to multiple castings and a plot device in which Ledger’s character transforms into various personas. What resulted was an imaginative and resourceful solution to catastrophe that embodies his resilience as a filmmaker. That Terry Gilliam is now returning to his abandoned Don Quixote just goes to show he’s an undaunted force to be reckoned with.
For additional information about the series, please visit: www.gatewayfilmcenter.com