Monday, March 05, 2007

squirrel butts don't glow

Even though the consensus has been crumbling over the last decade, everyone knows that Ed Wood is the lousiest filmmaker of all time. Even people who’ve never seen an Ed Wood film seem to know this, as if Plan 9 From Outer Space were so terrible that it had irradiated the blood of a generation and looped our proteins into a mutant judgment on an obscure Z-grade 1960s director. And then there’s Tim Burton’s biopic, which dramatizes precisely why his films were so bad: Wood had such a passion for his films that his heated ambitions for them overshadowed what he shot on set and even what he saw onscreen. I would guess that Wood thought of filmmaking as a kind of alchemy, the transformation of celluloid by incandescent will. Substitute a garden shed for an alien spaceship? No problem. Throw a bunch of night shots and day shots together in a single scene? Minor detail. Replace an old and shrunken Bela Lugosi with a six-foot dentist, mid-shoot? Why the hell not? It’s all the magic of cinema, yes?

And so it is with Terry Gilliam’s Tideland.

Just out on DVD, filmed in 2005 in the city where I live, Tideland finally came to town for an eight-show run at the local arthouse theatre. Tideland gave jobs to a number of my friends, brought in experienced film techs who provided much-needed set training for local workers, and generally raised the spirits of film geeks all over the province. This is a small, flat city parked on the prairies, but Terry Gilliam’s presence put some gas in its sputtering engine. If nothing else, Tideland populated all the sushi bars and faux-Irish pubs in town with skeletal, huge-teethed women and men in baseball caps and promotional windbreakers. Blackberries littered restaurant tables for months.

Last year the reviews came out. By all accounts, Tideland was uniquely bad. The total nadir of Gilliam’s work. The absolute bottoming out of his moral and aesthetic imagination. People seemed to hate nearly everything about it, from its flatulent junkie father (played by Jeff Bridges) who spends most of the movie as a rotting corpse, to the queasy quasi-sexual relationship between the prepubescent main character and a brain-damaged man in his twenties. Here was a Terry Gilliam movie, filmed right in my back yard, that pushed the boundaries of taste and craft. So hell yeah, I was going.

That seemed to be the predominant mood among the crowd that night as everyone filed in, threw off parkas, swung their heads around to see who else had shown. Film profs, industry professionals, art students – what you might call a target audience for this kind of film. Hell yeah, their eyes seemed to say. We don’t care what Roger Ebert and his shadowy hordes proclaim. We were an audience united in the faint belief that the critics had overstated their case, had smelled Gilliam’s blood in the Hollywood pool and dove in, madly thrashing their acumen.

Afterwards we gathered in the lobby, carefully avoiding too much talk about the film. A friend of mine asked my opinion, but voiced it so delicately that I could not tell if he had watched the film or just shown up moments ago. People shifted their weight from one foot to the other, avoided eye contact, studied the beams in the ceiling or the tile floors. We were engaged in a collective effort to strip our minds of having watched what will likely be remembered, if at all, as Terry Gilliam’s Plan 9.

One good thing I can say about the film is that it presents a strong argument for shooting in Saskatchewan. The exterior scenes in which the characters run and dive through shafts of wheat are absolutely gorgeous. There are great wide shots with Jodelle Ferland’s face filling up the centre of the screen with crenellated gold hills bisecting the background. The opening shocks us with close-ups of locusts balanced on wheatstalks in the manner of Terence Malick, then a sudden cut to a nightclub full of coke-snorting metalheads and nightclubbers.

In between these scenes, all sky and space, are Gilliam’s familiar cluttered interiors, impossibly overdecorated sets shot in wide-angle takes that fill the screen with detail. It’s the overheated dream of a manic packrat, and at first it’s funny, over-the-top and comically grotesque. But after a while it’s just grotesque. Scenes that should cut back and forth to reflect their manic energy go on too long with one camera setup. Takes that should have been discarded, for their distractingly uneven performances or confusing blocking, are kept in. To compensate for the stillness of the camera – likely the result of a compressed shooting schedule – the actors rocket around the frame, their faces and bodies in constant spastic motion. It doesn’t quite work, and it seems like a strange misjudgment for a director who’s been working in film as long as Gilliam has.

But Tideland seems full of strange miscalculations. The weight of the film rests on Jodelle Ferland, the eleven year old actress who plays the hyper-imaginative Jeliza Rose. Some people have said that she gives a terrible performance; others have said that she gives a great performance for such a demanding role. The truth is that no eleven year old could give the kind of performance that the film demands. Jeliza Rose is innocent and wanton, childish and preternaturally adult, a quicksilver persona shifting registers and voices from scene to scene. Disturbingly, we rarely see her fantasy world; instead we are witness to a wacked-out girl talking to doll’s heads, feeding globs of peanut butter into the mouth of her father’s corpse, and trying to make out with a brain damaged adult. Really.

Jeliza Rose is intended as an updated Alice, a character whose rabbit hole is the long dark tunnel of her sanity, but she bears a closer resemblance to Terry Gilliam: manic, unflagging, burning on a reservoir of conviction so pure that the real world is just another fantasy, ultimately of less significance than the inverted worlds that his imagination conjures. Maybe Gilliam saw Tideland clearly, but it’s likely that he was watching an entirely different film.

And I bet that film is awesome.


Anonymous said...

fantastic it's finally out.... I soo wanna go see it.

I sir, have seen far worse films than Plan 9. I've sat though such shitters as Citizen Kane, and Gone with the wind. After, watching Gone with the Wind, I thought I had lost a week of my life on Tara to only hear the drawled-out line that aptly sums up the whole film, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

The film I ache for are the Brazil-s, The spike of Love-s, the Magic Christian-s, The Immortal Mister Teas. Films,where characters can scream, "Faster, faster Pussy cat. They Blew it up!" or "I myself am... strange and unusual. but, what will the women 20th century, be like? ..At best worst lesbians."

I love Films that have a dream like quality, Lawnmower man-Time banditing-Groundhog Daying you into another reality, of disconjointed clips. A mezmorising Russ Meyersian-Kurosawain -Joss Whedonesque-Ed Wooding leap in to the twilight zone. Films that don't just puke a bad Tarantino rehash of catch-phrase tv on your lap. "you Killed Bill, prepare to die" crap.
Films That provoke the unreality of dream where moments are lost, camera angles don't see from where you wish you could, tactile Close-up are obscuring more than they reveal, paces are missed between walked steps, people seem strange and act inconstantly. Scenes are missing and cuts are called too late. Films where this isn't order "take one" print it reality. I want a Mulholland drive in to the internal imaginings, pulling you in pushing you out- mishmash or unprocessed art.

Anonymous said...

a film that merely follows a story and reveals a plot is nothing more than a book on 'celluloid' tape.

Like a good painting it is not just about scene depicted it's the licks of paint, the dabs, and the brush-stokes...Pollock's splats and Van Gogh's impasto make the painting a living thing...not just a picture of a scene.

I usually like Gilliam's films for the costumes, sets, unusual scene and angles shot. The process made apparent, just like his cut out cartoon feet, especially in the surreality this process presents;. Like, child's play, It takes the common place and twists it in 'play 'that requires the spectator to realize that their are hands behind the puppets, but you actually want to pretend, and think what if there weren't.

Friday said...

I totally agree - the film sucked monkey balls and I didn't even make it through the first half hour. It was exciting to have so many well-knowners around for that time though, I must admit.

ozma said...

Oh, this pains me. I love Terry Gilliam. In 'that way,' you know?

Why, Terry, why?

Grand Tuma said...

I saw it when it premiered at the Toronto Festival in 2005. It wasn't THAT bad, but certainly not as good as I was hoping. I was expecting more Brazil or Fear and Loathing. Oh well, Sask looked fantastic. As for the commenter above me, lay off on the pretentiousness please. I love an Eraserhead screening as much as the next guy, but you can't expect the masses to get behind a festival of self-indulgent imagery and non-linear mish-mash. Screw the masses? Sure, let them eat pablum. But pablum is what pays for the lights, the film stock, the crew, the edit suites, the locations, etc etc so that guys like Gilliam can make their little labours of love. You think he paid for that out of his own pocket? Doubt it. Robert McKee, in his book and his seminars(say what you will about the man) that you can look at the film market like a pyramid. The bottom of the pyramid(the widest part) represents classical hollywood storytelling. As you climb up the pyramid(abstract or non-linear film-making) the audience base gets more narrow. The more narrow your audience the less revenue. Simply a reality. Once in a while you'll get a hit(Memento) but that's actually because there's something that grabs the audience.

palinode said...

I agree: Sask looked absolutely fantastic. Apparently The Messengers, the film that installed John Corbett at my regular bar for an entire summer, was shot at the same location as Tideland.

Grand Tuma said...

I can't believe all these folks showed up in town after I moved away. I would've loved to sit down and have a beer with Corbett, I was such a Northern Exposure junkie. The only thing that makes me feel better about that is I heard he's a real dick.

palinode said...

It would have been really easy to have a beer with Corbett that summer. He parked his butt at the bar practically every night. Overall I preferred Judd Nelson. He showed up every night to play Golden Tee and pick up really skanky women.

My Head Is Too Big said...

I really like it. The magic is in getting lost from what's really going on and the shock of coming back in between the scenes from the girl's imagination. Of course I'm also looking forward to renting Shaolin Vs. Evil Dead, so...

Deidre said...

We rented it recently, my boyfriend is Gilliam-obsessed. I had to leave the room while it was on, it just seemed too cruel, the starving girl, the dead father, the fantasy world that seemed no more gentle than her harsh real world. Pan's Labyrinth did a similar thing but because it was so fantastical it was somehow easier to take. I think when Gilliam tries to merge the fantasy world and the real world he fails. I miss the big whooping exuberant movies he used to make.