Terry Gilliam is a Terrifying Genius

There is a moment in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard where a servant says to the clown of the play: “Yephihodov, you a genius. A terrifying genius.” This comes right before he strikes out with the girl of his dreams for the upteenth time and makes a complete and utter fool of himself in pretty much every way possible. I bring up Chekhov because I love him and I’m always on the lookout for my life to imitate his art. And I think I might have found a real life Chekhovian character at long last.

Director and Monty Python member Terry Gilliam is a pretty amazing person. His dystopian reimagining of 1984, Brazil, is a landmark film, and his animation work for Monty Python perfectly set the tone for their greatest works (especially Holy Grail.) This is made all the more amazing by the fact that Terry Gilliam is quite possibly the most frustrating person to work with. Ever. He was also probably cursed by an angry gypsy. No lie. Seriously.

Terry Gilliam tends to have problems getting his films made. Every filmmaker struggles to raise money but Gilliam’s actors tend to die or become mortally ill during his shoots. He also tends to have problems with locations in terms of both governmental interference and weather.

This is, of course, is what makes the documentary of his failed attempt to make his opus, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort (the aforementioned deathly ill actor) so brilliant. The documentary Lost in La Mancha is the tragic and painfully hilarious story of this film gone awry. It is a must see for any one whoever plans to make films, or, frankly, to watch them. The fact the story is about Don Quixote, the well meaning and chivalrous knight-clown, is much too fitting. Watching Gilliam suffer as the film falls down around his ears is definitely one of the most Chekhovian experiences I have ever had.

(The film also gives amazing insight into Johnny Depp for fans of the elusive and very private actor. You can watch all the completed footage for Quixote at director of photography Nicola Pecorini’s site here. Skip to the end for my favorite Depp performance ever. And I quote: “You fucker! What were you thinking? You are a fish. I am a man.” He also almost kisses a horse. Worth seeing.)

Given Gilliam’s inherent tragedy and Heath Ledger’s untimely passing, it hurts me very much to say this. I thought The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was terrible. I left the film not knowing who I was supposed to be rooting for or what actually happened. Then I read this interview and felt a little better.

AV Club: Imagination is such a persistent and grand subject for you, especially in the form of storytelling. It’s something you’ve dealt with explicitly in this movie and in Munchausen and Brothers Grimm, and implicitly in Tideland and The Fisher King. Do you have a sense of what fascinates you about exploring storytelling in that very direct way?
Terry Gilliam: I don’t really know. I just like leaving little exploding bombs in people’s brains. Spielberg is a great storyteller. I just don’t like the stories. I think it’s about what the stories are about as much as how you tell them. I tell a certain kind of story. I tend to tell fables all the time, is what they really are. They’re quite, in some ways, cursory. I look at certain kinds of films and I watch the way they build up suspense or tension, and they take a lot of time on it. I don’t spend much time doing that. Here’s the tale, here we go, buh-buh-bum. And either you’re in it and you’re flying with it—I don’t need to overemphasize it, is my attitude—or you’re not in it. [Laughs.]
AVC: They are fables, in a way, but they don’t have morals. You favor ambiguous, even open-ended conclusions. There almost seems to be a reluctance to leave the world of the story behind.
TG: [Laughs.] That’s nicely put. I think what I’m never doing is giving you pat answers. My stories don’t quite end. Or they end ambiguously. They’re there to continue in your imagination, is my theory. If I’m forced to say these words, I do say it like that. To me, the stories that have always intrigued me are the stories of people leaving my movies and being affected by them.

It makes me feel better that at least he partly knows what he’s doing. He does tell the same story over and over. There is always a man past his time, a dreamer, an idealist in a world of cynics. [This role is played by Christopher Plummer in Parnassus.] And there is always a cynic, a man who must be brought to feel the power of story and fantasy, the magic and flexibility of word [e.g. Ledger in Parnassus]. (Lewis Carroll has a prominent influence on Gilliam.) This is why I think Brothers Grimm is the best example of Gilliam’s favorite story. In it, the cynic and the romantic are played by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. It is some of Ledger’s best work, and it’s so obvious that he and Damon are having immense amounts of fun. It’s got some plot holes, but every Gilliam film does. Check it out if you get a chance:

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