Terry Gilliam Retrospective at the BFI

Sunday, August 02, 2009 Craig Grobler 0 Comments

When Terry Gilliam’s Tideland was awarded the FIPRESCI prize at Spain’s 2005 San Sebastian Festival, jurist Sergi Sánchez noted, ‘Gilliam’s was the only film that dared to propose a risky and radical image, without any concessions, on a specific matter: madness as the only way of escaping in the face of a hostile environment. All this is endlessly coherent with the director’s body of work, which has been frequently misunderstood by the critics, the industry, and audiences alike.’ The BFI reflects on just how Gilliam’s own brand of cinematic ‘madness’ has cast him as a true maverick, perhaps even caught on the cusp of genius, as they mount a comprehensive retrospective.

Born in Minnesota in 1940, Gilliam moved with his family to LA where he was brought up and, for a while, tried his hand as a (struggling) cartoonist. His chagrin at the US invasion of Vietnam was a catalyst for his move to England where he re-invented himself as an ‘animator’. Gilliam would often provide snippets of work for the BBC, which led to his meeting with the Monty Python team and the beginnings of his career as an imaginative and highly inventive director. In his first feature, Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975), he and fellow director Terry Jones managed to transform the lack of money for hiring horses into a joke (coconut sound-effects accompaniment to knights miming riding) fondly remembered even now. This was followed by the medieval fantasy Jabberwocky (1977) and the smash-hit Time Bandits (1981). Then came his Kafkaesque feature Brazil (1985), starring Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro, which has become a cult classic.

In the years that followed, Gilliam declined the opportunities to direct blockbusters such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump, amongst others. He suffered battles with studios, abandoned projects and outrageous bad fortune – including, most recently, the death of one of his lead actors, Heath Ledger. Despite this he has managed to persevere and deliver truly individual curiosities in a field often dominated by bland and predictable fare and has always been able to turn a drawback into an advantage in his cinematic world that’s part fairy tale, part Hieronymus Bosch, but all Gilliam, and populated by a strange but oddly compatible group of fellow eccentrics. Whether he’s following The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), The Fisher King (1991) or The Brothers Grimm (2005), his films can electrify audiences. Gilliam has never trod an easy route, his career path more obstacle race than 100-metre dash, but the results glitter with ambition and glorious imagination.