Saturday, November 4, 2006
Terry Gilliam, one of the founding members of the Monty Python Troupe, continues to expand his catalogue of fantastical films with an adaptation of Mitch Cullins cult novelTideland
(opening November 3 at Landmarks Ken Cinema). The film serves up a kind of American Gothic take onAlice in Wonderland.
Terry Gilliam first gained attention as the sole American of Monty Python and the one who did the clever, cut out animation. He then moved on to solo work as a director of such fantastical feasts as Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen . His early work as an animator seems to have influenced his style as a director. As an animator anything is possible, and Gilliam entered the world of directing live action features with a similar mindset. But such an approach can be costly and a number of Gilliams dream projectsmost famously the doomed Don Quixote film whose demise was chronicled in the documentary Lost in La Mancha have failed to become reality because of financial woes. But that hasnt stopped Gilliam from tilting at windmills. He continues to pursue imaginative tales that often feature protagonists who struggle to reconcile their view of the world with reality. He is a champion of madmen, fools and dreamers.
For his latest project, Gilliam has selected something that requires a more modest and attainable budget yet is still packed with creative potential. Mitch Cullins book Tideland seems to offer perfect material for Gilliam. In fact, Cullin sent an early galley of his novel to Gilliam in the hopes of getting a favorable quote from the filmmaker to promote the book. Gilliams response made the British paperback edition of the book: Fking brilliant. Cullins tale of 8-year-old Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) serves up many of the themes and elements that often attract Gilliam: a protagonist with a highly active imagination, a bleak reality contrasted by a vivid fantasy world, and the opportunity to create surreal imagery.
As the film opens, Jeliza-Rose is living with her junkie parents (Jennifer Tilly and Jeff Bridges in a pair of decidedly weird but effective performances). Dad even has Jeliza-Rose prep his heroin doses for him so he can get high and take a little vacation. But when Mom dies of an overdose, Dad packs up Jeliza-Rose and takes her from the big city to a remote and long ago abandoned family farmhouse in Texas. Often left to her own devices, young Jeliza-Rose escapes her loneliness by talking to her imaginary companions: four disembodied heads of Barbie dolls. She also names the fireflies she finds in an old abandoned school bus. As she wanders through the oceans of tall grass, which make the area look like tidelands, she meets a mentally retarded young man named Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) and his ghostly sister Dell (Janet McTeer), who always wears a hat and beekeepers mask.
Terry Gilliam calls the story Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho , and if thats the case, Gilliam is more adept at the Alice elements than the Psycho ones. Gilliam has a wonderful gift for integrating fantasy into the real world. Theres a marvelous shot in which Jeliza-Roses father leaves her room at night and as he walks past her door the shadow he casts is of some strange misshapen creature. But Gilliam lets the image pass quickly and without emphasizing it. Its as if these kinds of things happen all the time and are perfectly natural. The film also works well when its fully inhabiting Jeliza-Roses fantasy world, showing us how she sees things and making odd connections to Lewis Carrolls Alice.
But theres something thats not quite right with Tideland . Some may be offended or put off by the darkness and perversity of the story, but those elements have frequently permeated Gilliams films and have a place in the bizarre worlds that he creates. There was a similar odd feeling at the beginning of Gilliams recent The Brothers Grimm . For about the first half hour of that film, Gilliam seems to reluctantly tag along with the con men brothers who are preying on the fears and superstitions of 19th century country folk. Gilliam had no insight into the slick sales tactics of Matt Damons Will Grimm. There was a kind of disconnect between Gilliam and his material.
Something similar happens in Tideland but this time its between Gilliam and his young performer Jodelle Ferland who plays Jeliza-Rose. Jeliza-Rose is meant to be a kind of innocent who must battle the forces of darkness and evil. Yet theres something too mature and grown-up about Ferlands performance. Shes like a miniature adult and she looks like the freaky pre-pubescent beauty contestants at the end of Little Miss Sunshine , the ones that look creepily like JonBent Ramsey jailbait. The maturity and slick professionalism of her performance robs it of the quality of innocence that the character desperately needs to insulate her from the dark elements of her life. Without that innocence, the perverse sexual overtones that enter the story become even more disturbing. It as if she gets the sexual implications and Gilliam doesnt, as if Gilliam is more of an innocent child than Ferland.
Ferland has a completely different quality from the young performers Gilliam used in Time Bandits and Baron Munchausen . Those children had a freshness, naturalism and innocence. They never seemed like miniature adults groomed for Hollywood sitcoms and able to be cute on cue. Ferland does display an amazing professionalism and fearless confidence yet she never conveys the sense of wonder of being a child. For comparison check out the performances of Alex Etel in Millions or Ivan Banquero in Guillermo Del Toros upcoming Pans Labyrinth . Cullins literary Jeliza-Rose has been compared to Carson McCullers Franke in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Harper Lees Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird . But you cant imagine comparing the cinematic Jeliza-Rose to either of them. Visually, Gilliam captures the childs perspective on the world, but Ferlands performance keeps reminding me that Im watching a well-trained little actress playing the role.
Tideland (rated R for language, sexual content and drug use) is flawed but its still a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a fan of Gilliam. It has elements weve come to expect from Gilliam, yet they dont come together with the level of effectiveness that made films such as Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen so breathtakingly visionary. You can argue that Tideland is just a darker tale and thats why it doesnt satisfy in the same way as his earlier films. But I dont think thats where the disappointment lies. As a critic I may be expected to articulate exactly what I liked and didnt like in a film, but in the case of Tideland , I cant quite put my finger on where the film goes wrong. Its like trying to find the one bulb in the strand of a Christmas lights thats gone bad. You know its there because the strand doesnt work yet you cant locate exactly which one is bad. Yet as a fan of Gilliam, I must confess that even when hes not at his best, hes still far more interesting than most of filmmakers working today.