PLOT: A guilt-ridden ex-shock jock discovers he has a tragic connection to a homeless man who believes himself to be a knight questing for the Holy Grail.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although it has a couple of transcendent moments of magical Arthurian fantasy. As weird titan Terry Gilliam’s most popular and commercial (non-Python) film, it is an important touchstone in weird movie history, however.
COMMENTS: Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King starts out strong, as a karmic drama about creep disc jockey Jack hoist on his own petard of media cynicism. When Robin Williams appears as the junkyard knight Parry, attacking a pair of punks with a garbage can lid and the power of song, it briefly becomes a wacky comedy; then develops into a redemption fable as the relationship between Jack and Parry deepens. Magical realism appears in Parry’s Arthurian hallucinations of fiery knights riding through the streets of New York. These multiple tones actually mesh surprisingly well, until the tale goes errant into the Realms of Rom-com, from whence no sane plot emerges unscathed. It concludes with a happy ending that feels very un-Gilliam; the story requires a happy ending, but this one is too pat, too Hollywood. Maybe it’s all over the map, or maybe The Fisher King just has something for everyone; high drama and mythological touchstones for the art house crowd, comedy and sentimentality for the masses.
Plot and style aside, The Fisher King is an actor’s showcase, anchored not by headliner Robin Williams, but by the excellent Jeff Bridges as a self-centered Jack (a character who inevitably evokes Howard Stern). Bridges is slick and unlovable, admired by the public only for his outrageous cruelty. But because he suffers, and because his guilt is enormous and comes from a core that has not yet been drowned in the oily cynicism that engulfs the rest of the character, we root for him to reform. Williams, of course, is the Fool. Under Gilliam’s direction, he’s restrained so that his berserk improvisatory tendencies never overshadow the story and turn it into a Robin Williams vehicle. The comic still gets plenty of moments, both manic (a nude moonlight dance in Central Park) and mawkish (his romantic stoop speech to Lydia, in which he essentially confesses to being a stalker). Mercedes Ruehl is wonderful as Jack’s long-suffering girlfriend, a typical New York Jewish/Italian mutt in trampy miniskirts. This character, who has attached herself to a down-and-out ex-celebrity, could easily have come across as needy and pathetic, but instead she is strong, sexy and noble. She justifiably won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Of the four major characters, only Plummer disappoints, slightly, and that can be blamed on the screenplay rather than her thesping. Her super-quirky, clumsy love interest role is simply unnecessary, a distraction from the film’s important relationships between Bridges and Williams and Bridges and Ruehl.
Standout moments include the Red Knight rampaging through Central Park, a massive waltz in Grand Central Station, and Tom Waits in a cameo as a “moral traffic light.” Curiously, one of the stylistic inspirations for the film is the Hollywood musical. Williams breaks into show tunes throughout, a fellow homeless man dresses up like Gypsy Rose Lee and does an Ethel Merman song-and-dance number, and the words “the end” even appear in the sky above Manhattan lit up like a Broadway marquee. Though not a musical, that spirit of light fantasy bubbles through the movie, leavening some of the themes of mass murder, alcoholic despondency, and homelessness. Even though The Fisher King has a strong sense of purpose, stylistically it’s more than a bit shaggy around the edges. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a film featuring a madman, and perhaps that makes it more lovable in the end.
PLOT: King Arthur, along with Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, Sir Galahad the Pure, Sir Bedevere the Wise, and Arthur’s squire, Patsy, set out to find the Holy Grail, meeting the Black Knight, a killer rabbit, and the knights who say “Ni!” along the way.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While most of Monty Python‘s work flirts with surreal fantasy, this film simply doesn’t plunge as deeply into the genre as most of the other movies directed or co-directed by Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Brothers Grimm).
COMMENTS: As someone who has seen every episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (and “Fawlty Towers”), as well as all four of the “Python” feature films, it pains me to say this, but—this picture simply isn’t all that funny. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (along with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) seems like it would have been more effective as a half-hour episode of “Python”, but, stretched out to feature-length, the seams really start to show. This production has so many indelible moments—“It’s only a flesh wound!”; coconuts used in lieu of the sound of horse’s hooves; “Bring out yer dead!”; etc., etc. etc.—that it seems churlish to say that it doesn’t hang together very well. It sounds like a ridiculous argument, like complaining that the films of Mel Brooks need more plot, but Holy Grail is only hilarious in fits and starts. Some of the funniest bits are the most subtle (“Someday, all this will be yours.” “What, the curtains?”) Otherwise, there is a surprising amount of dead air in this somewhat murky-looking film (it was shot on a very low-budget), which nevertheless has been acclaimed as a deathless classic by generations of nerds. By now, the movie is so immortal that it has been adapted into the hugely successful Broadway musical “Spamalot”, produced by the late Mike Nichols. But the film itself still seems like a huge pile of hit-and-miss gags that don’t actually add up to a real movie. And it is only weird in the way that all Python is weird; the fourth wall is broken repeatedly, but Groucho Marx was doing that 40 years before Python.
The Holy Grail isn’t strange enough to make the List. However, even this nutty farce is a far better exploration of Arthurian myth than the awful film version of Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot (which Chapman’s Arthur dismisses as “a silly place”) or Walt Disney’s exceedingly mediocre animated film The Sword in the Stone.
Because of the eternal popularity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it has been released and re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray a seemingly endless number of times. Some of the behind-the-scenes-stories (in the DVD Extras), like the one about how Chapman’s alcoholism was totally out of control on the set, are perhaps more interesting than the film itself.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Some inspired lunacy—and a lot of dry stretches; awfully bloody, too.”–Leonard Maltin, “Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide: The Modern Era”
“The Python team’s surreal take on the legend of Camelot bursts with inspired lunacy.”–Jamie Graham, Total Film (DVD)
PLOT: Qohen Leth (Waltz) is a gifted but troubled programmer (or “cruncher” as they are referred to in the film) who is assigned a seemingly impossible task: to calculate the “Zero Theorem” and thus prove the lack of meaning in anything. The only problem is, Qohen is convinced that there is meaning to everything, and that it’s just a matter of time before he finds out what it is.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gilliam alleges that The Zero Theorem is a tragedy and that has fared poorly with critics due to assumptions that it is supposed to be a comedy. But the honest-to-God tragedy is Gilliam’s decision to essentially rehash one of his finest films (Brazil) with a more contemporary slant regarding technology and our current sense of isolation. This is a film that has plenty of fine moments, and it’s something of a must see for all the weird fans out there, but it’s a footnote in Gilliam’s cinematic career that puts more pressure on the now 73 year-old auteur to complete the long gestating “Don Quixote” project that has dragged him through Hell (and Spain) and back over the last two decades.
COMMENTS: For all the Gilliam aficionados out there, please don’t despair! The Zero Theorem is lots of fun, and demonstrates just what a criminally overlooked talent Gilliam is behind the camera. The movie looks superb, especially given its extremely modest budget, and many of its imaginative flourishes are a joy to behold. A film needs to be more than just the sum of its parts in order to truly succeed, however, and The Zero Theorem cannot escape the shadow of its far superior filmic sibling Brazil in terms of quality and vision.
The two movies are simply too thematically similar in terms of subject and presentation, and particularly in terms of David Thewlis’ performance which directly channels Michael Palin‘s turn as the terrifying Jack Lint. The update of modern society is viewed through Gilliam’s eye: the blaring in-your-face nature of technology and the personal detachment it encourages. All this is all well and good, but this is all ground that is well-trod, and in better boots, by the earlier and superior film. Zero Theorem is simply too derivative of his past work to have any lasting merit.
Perhaps the biggest saving grace of the film is the performances of the main cast. Mélanie Thierry’s eccentric allure is charming and garish at the same time, and Lucas Hedges gives a star turn as the teenage genius Bob, a role he leaps into with such abandon that he is surely an actor to watch out for in the future. Let’s just hope that Gilliam pulls one last truly great masterwork out of his thoughtbox before he dies, as this minor film would be an unworthy epitaph for such a great director.
PLOT: Monty Python discusses life, from the sanctity of every sperm to the rudeness of the Grim Reaper, in a series of sketches.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monty Python’s films, in general, present a challenge to crafting a list of weird movies. Python pioneered modern trends in surreal humor, but they were so successful at popularizing their craft that their once avant-garde style has become virtually mainstream. And, among their three original-material feature films, The Meaning of Life presents a particular challenge: it’s easily the weirdest of the trio, but also quite less impressive and consistently hilarious than either Holy Grail or Life of Brian. Should Meaning of Life make it ahead of Grail and Brian because it’s a slightly weirder entry, should we select one of the better known classics to represent the Python project, or do all the movies deserve to make it?
COMMENTS: Made nine years after the comedy troupe bid farewell to their hit television series, The Meaning of Life resembles a big-budget, R-rated reunion episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The “search for the meaning of life” structure is almost as loose as the themes that linked their television sketches, and the show’s stream-of-consciousness style (a maternity-room sketch on “the miracle of birth” yields to a satire of Catholic birth control policy, which inspires a joke about Protestant prudishness, which segues into a Church service where the pastor prays “ooh Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge…”) remains intact. The boys’ wit is still rapier sharp–it’s actually more focused at times, blatantly anticlerical and socially aware—and the team immediately regained their comic chemistry as if they’d never been apart. This being a revue-style construction, the results are understandably uneven, but the irreverent tone is always winning. The Python’s approach to comedy is so silly and fun-loving that even the most cutting and grotesque jokes only irritate the starchiest of stuffed shirts. If there is a clunker in the bunch it’s the opener, a fifteen minute standalone Terry Gilliam short titled “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” about a mutiny among a group of older workers at a financial services corporation that turns into a pirate fantasy. Watching this bit, you may think you’ve accidentally put the wrong disc in your player, but stay with it; after “Assurance” ends, we’re treated to the sight of the Python faces stuck on goldfish bodies as they swim around in a restaurant tank and wonder about the meaning of life. Affecting a French accent, Eric Idle then sings the “Meaning of Life” theme song to some typically crazy Gilliam cutout animation (including a machine that stamps out nude clone families wearing Mickey Mouse ears), and we’re ready for the show to begin. The sketches fans talk about most are the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” musical number (with its chorus line of high-kicking nuns) and the unforgettably vile (and funny) “Mr. Creosote” sequence, about a projectile-vomiting glutton who gorges himself at a posh restaurant until he explodes. The movie also features some of the most unapologetically and outlandishly surreal bits in the Python canon: a pink-suited man emerges from a refrigerator to serenades an old woman with a lecture on cosmology, as a means of convincing her to become a living organ donor. Heaven is envisioned as a hotel where it’s Christmas every day, with an eternal floor show featuring sequined angels parading about in Santa suits with exposed breasts. The film’s interlude (helpfully legended “the Middle of the Film”) features three characters straight out of a Salvador Dalí painting (if Dalí had painted punk transvestites with faucets attached to their nipples) wondering “where is the fish?,” a sublimely random and irritating bit of performance art that the Python-faced goldfish cheer as “terrific!” Scenes like these, together with the mild blasphemy and uncharacteristic grossness of Mr. Creosote, make The Meaning of Life the Python’s most outrageous cinematic effort, if not their funniest. It’s as disorganized and confusing as life itself—a near masterpiece of irreverence. And, true to the film’s promise, the meaning of life is revealed at the end, so no one can claim to be cheated.
Universal Studio’s “30th Anniversary” Blu-ray/DVD combo release of The Meaning of Life includes all the features from the 2003 DVD (including the Jones/Gilliam commentary track) and adds a new bonus feature in a one-hour reunion roundtable by the surviving Pythons (minus the deceased Graham Chapman, obviously, and with busy Eric Idle chiming in via Skype).
PLOT: Fourteen different animation studios bring chapters of Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman’s farcical written autobiography to life, with narration provided by Chapman himself (recorded before he snuffed it in 1989 at 48 years of age).
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird enough, but the appeal is too limited—it’s mainly Monty Python memorial fanservice.
COMMENTS: It begins (after thirty seconds of abuse) with Graham Chapman, or rather with a photograph of Chapman’s head digitally pasted onto a cutout of Chapman’s body, forgetting a line while onstage performing a live sketch. As the audience and his cutout co-stars grow restless at the awkward silence, the roof opens and helpful aliens beam the suffering actor up into a psychedelic Saturday morning kid’s show version of a spacecraft. It appears that the foregoing was all a hallucination, however, and after spewing a beautiful chunk of rainbow vomit into a gas mask as he’s being wheeled into surgery, Chapman begins reflecting on his childhood. He focuses on a (perhaps unreliable) early memory of being taken for a stroll through the wartime streets of a British city, calmly smoking his pipe as mom pushes his pram over the severed limbs littering the street. And that’s just the first ten minutes of this odd opus. At its best, A Liar’s Autobiography skips along from one insane sketch to another with the absurdist impatience of a good episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Unfortunately, the script is rarely at its best, and things frequently bog down with scenes like Chapman’s memories of arguments over getting haddock or halibut during a childhood vacation; incidents that neither enlighten us about the enigmatic comic’s artistry nor, more importantly, make us laugh very hard. Chapman adds silly little jokes to his life story—such as the notion that his parents were disappointed when he was born because they were hoping for a “heterosexual black Jew with several amusing birth defects” because they “needed the problems.” This autobiography, however, probably could have used more substantial and ongoing lies, like a recurring supervillain nemesis, because a gripping life story does not emerge here: the movie plays more as a series of digressive comic essays loosely organized around Chapman’s personal chronology. The genesis and operations of Monty Python are largely passed over, though fans will catch some throwaway lines and references, and clips of some classic sketches are incorporated. None of the rest of the troupe are more than minor characters in the story. The two themes Chapman keeps returning to are his homosexuality (bisexuality, if he’d had a few drinks) and his alcoholism. From what appears onscreen, Chapman never struggled with his homosexual urges, but became a “raging poof” quite enthusiastically. Nor were his friends particularly shocked—though he does make Marty Feldman faint from giggling at his coming out party—so there’s no element of conflict to the movie’s sexual subtext. Alcohol proves a more fruitful antagonist, and scenes of hazy hotel room escapades with random groupies and a squiggly Edvard Munch-ian delirium tremens sequence add darker textures. What keeps Autobiography watchable even during its driest patches are, firstly, the constantly shifting animation styles, which range from a dingy variant on Pixar-style 3D to a blocky children’s storybook style to an experimental bits with partially translucent figures. The other thing that keeps you watching despite the lack of any compelling storyline are the completely off-the-wall bits that may pop up at any moment. A man walks out of a bomber cockpit and finds two lesbians making love in the cargo bay; Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud as he analyzes the previous segment; Chapman rides in a roller coaster shaped like a penis past bizarre clumps of suspended breasts. Though not the funniest by a long stretch, Autobiography may be the most surreal project any Python was ever associated with, which is saying something in itself. Overall, this is an uneven piece, but regular readers of this site will surely find something to admire in it. Python fans will obviously want to check it out, although they also stand to be the most disappointed in its lack of probing insights into its central character.
The movie’s official site is worth a click; by answering an interminable series of silly screening questions designed to identify your level of (im)maturity, you can gradually unlock content from the film.
PLOT: As a medieval European city prepares for invasion from a mysterious Sultan, a local theater troupe stages a play about the legendary fabulist Baron Munchausen. Midway into the show, an elderly audience member (Neville) proclaims that the play is all lies and he, the real Munchausen, will explain why. The story that follows jumps back and forth between fantasy and reality, and flirts with time travel.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Despite being directed by the weird and wonderful Terry Gilliam, responsible for one baroque fantasy film after another–Twelve Monkeys, The Brothers Grimm, The Fisher King, etc.–The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is wonderful, but not all that weird, at least not for a fantasy film. Like The Wizard of Oz, not every cinematic flight of fancy is necessarily bizarre.
COMMENTS: The hugely expensive Baron Munchausen, which despite being given a very limited theatrical release by its studio (Columbia) and subsequently becoming one of the biggest box-office flops of all time, received critical raves upon its initial release, went on to find the audience it deserved on VHS and DVD. This visually stunning fantasia, like all Gilliam films, is about the line separating fantasy and reality, and—SPOILER ALERT—unlike Gilliam’s much-loved Brazil and Time Bandits, Munchausen manages to pull a surprise happy ending out of its hat at the last moment, which really makes one think this could have been a hit if Columbia had given it a chance. Munchausen is an admittedly episodic adventure that is at times unwieldy and over-the-top, but only in the sense that every penny of its then gigantic $46 million budget is up on the screen. The director’s usual visual invention is complemented by his legendary sense of humor, and by stellar performances all around. Of particular note is Williams’ out-of-control King of the Moon, Reed’s hot-tempered Vulcan, and an 18-year-old Thurman ideally cast as Venus on the half shell (previously the subject of a memorable “Monty Python” animation by Gilliam). The PG-rated Munchausen is a much more family-friendly, accessible and upbeat fantasy than Brazil and makes a fine companion piece to Time Bandits. The movie is such fun that there are little to no on-screen signs that the film was a notoriously troubled production. Any epic picture is undoubtedly difficult to make, but the legendary problems affecting Munchausen are thoroughly and entertainingly explained on the DVD’s 70-minute “behind the scenes” documentary. Also on the DVD is an enlightening commentary with Gilliam and actor/co-writer Charles McKeown, storyboards, a handful of deleted scenes, and, on the Blu-ray, an on-screen “Trivia Track.” The film itself looks and sounds just fine.
“Port Talbot is a steel town, where everything is covered with a grey iron ore dust. Even the beach is completely littered with dust, it’s just black. The sun was setting, and it was really quite beautiful. The contrast was extraordinary. I had this image of a guy sitting there on this dingy beach with a portable radio, tuning in these strange Latin escapist songs like ‘Brazil.’ The music transported him somehow and made his world less grey.”–Terry Gilliam on his inspiration for the title Brazil
PLOT: Sam Lowry is a lowly, unambitious bureaucrat working in the Records Department in an authoritarian society “somewhere in the Twentieth century” who frequently dreams he is a winged man fighting a giant robotic samurai to save a beautiful woman. An error results in the government picking up a Mr. Buttle as a suspected terrorist instead of a Mr. Tuttle; Buttle dies during interrogation. Sam visits Buttle’s widow to deliver a refund check for her dead husband, and finds that the upstairs neighbor, Jill, looks exactly like his dream woman; he transfers to the “Information Retrieval” Department to access Jill’s personal files and learn more about her, but ends up running afoul of powerful government interests.
Brazil is the second part of Gilliam’s unofficial “Imagination” trilogy, which began with Time Bandits and ended with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Time Bandits is told from the perspective of a child, Brazil from that of an adult, and Munchausen from an elderly man. Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm and Monty Python buddy Michael Palin all appeared in Time Banditsas well.
Terry Gilliam co-wrote the script for Brazil with Charles McKeown (who also plays Harvey Lime here, and would later collaborate on the scripts for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and playwright Tom Stoppard. The three together were nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Novelist Charles Alverson also worked on an early version of the script, but he and Gilliam had a falling out and he was not credited for his work, although he was paid.
Besides Best Original Screenplay, Brazil was also nominated for a Best Art Direction Oscar.
The movie is named after its theme song, Ary Baroso’s 1939 “Aquarela do Brazil” [“Watercolors of Brazil”]. “Brazil” represents the exotic, colorful world (with an amber moon) that Sam dreams of escaping to. According to one story, the film was originally to be titled 1984 1/2, but the title was dropped over worries about lawsuits from George Orwell’s estate (a fine adaptation of 1984 had been released the previous year).
Robert De Niro read the script and lobbied to play the part of Jack, but Gilliam turned the star down because he wanted Palin in the role. De Niro accepted the role of Tuttle instead.
Brazil has a legendary distribution story. The film was released overseas in Gilliam’s original cut, but in the U.S. Universal Studios did not like the unhappy ending and attempted to recut the film, reducing it from 142 minutes to 94 minutes and editing the ending in an attempt to give it a happy ending. (This studio cut of the film later played on television and has been dubbed the “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil). Gilliam opposed the changes and feuded publicly with Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg, blaming him personally for holding up the movie’s release, appearing on the television program “Good Morning America” and holding up a picture of Sheinberg, and paying for a full page ad in Variety reading “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie?” Against studio orders, Gilliam screened the uncut film for free at the University of Southern California. Curious critics attended the screenings, and before the movie had been released to U.S. theaters, the Los Angeles Film Critics voted Brazil Best Picture of 1985. In a compromise agreed to by Gilliam, Universal cut only 11 minutes from the complete version, left the unhappy ending largely intact, and released the movie soon after (reportedly so as not to jeopardize its chances at winning an Academy Award).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some may nominate Sam’s dream of soaring as a mechanical angel battling a giant robotic samurai, or the torturer posed in his decrepit doll’s mask in the foreground with his tiny victim chained in the center of a massive open-air tower in the distant background, but it’s Katherine Helmond’s personal plastic surgeon gripping and stretching her facial flab impossibly tight that’s the most striking, incisive and unexpected of Brazil‘s many visual non sequiturs.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Terry Gilliam explained his vision for the milieu he molds in Brazil as one that’s “very much like our world” but “just off by five degrees.” He was shooting for an atmosphere that’s uncannily familiar, something just strange enough to shock the viewer while still highlighting the absurdities of modern existence. Watching Brazil‘s many surreal touches—as when what appears to be a giant boozing tramp peers over a horizon dominated by cooling towers painted sky blue with white clouds—most viewers will conclude Gilliam overshot the five degrees at which he was aiming. But in the unlikely event the rest of the film isn’t strange enough for you, wait for the finale in which Gilliam pulls out reality’s remaining stops, including a scene where a man is literally killed by paperwork.
PLOT: Journalist Raoul Duke heads to Las Vegas with his attorney (“Dr. Gonzo”) and a suitcase full of exotic drugs to cover a motorcycle race. Somewhere around Barstow, the drugs start to take hold. The mission changes into a quest to find the secret of the American Dream, an excuse for an orgy of hallucinogenic hedonism and dangerously antisocial behavior as the pair tromp through the unreal neon wonderland of Sin City.
The character of Dr. Gonzo, played by Benicio Del Toro in the film, was based on Hunter S. Thompson’s real-life friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney/activist. Acosta mysteriously disappeared three years after the publication of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1974 while traveling through Mexico and has not been seen since.
The original script for the film was written by Alex Cox and his colleague Tod Davies, but differences between Cox and the producer Laila Nabulsi, as well as open disdain of his treatment by an unhappy Hunter S. Thompson, led to the script being dropped. This left only a few precious days for Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni to write a new script to begin production with. Gilliam and Grisoni allegedly finished their script in only eight days, with two additional days for rewrites.
Featured heavily in the opening of the book, the Rolling Stones track “Sympathy for the Devil” was going to be the opening theme that set the tone for the rest of the film, but Allen Klein, former manager of The Rolling Stones and owner of a sizable chunk of their early library, demanded an exorbitant $300,000 for the song. As this would have devoured half of the soundtrack budget, so Terry Gilliam opted for the more fiscally reasonable “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as the closing track.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the scene where Duke, who is peaking on acid while checking into the Mint hotel and has already seen the carpet climbing up a cowboy’s leg and hotel clerk Katherine Helmond‘s face stretching like Silly Putty, suddenly sees the denizens of the hotel bar transformed into a tribe of literal lounge lizards.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Master fantasist Terry Gilliam brings Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical satirical novel about a degenerate journalist and his equally debased attorney companion whose idea of a good time is to sniff ether and scarf mescaline before striding into the whirling carnival of the Bazooka Circus casino to howling life. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s increasingly deranged pilgrimage to the Mecca of American venality turns into a grim and perverse endurance test for both them and the viewer, as the pair see how far they can push the limits of decency without losing their lives, freedom or sanity.
Original trailer for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
COMMENTS: When Terry Gilliam was promoting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, I recall him saying two things on the interview circuit that stuck out: first, he hated drugs. Secondly, he hated Las Vegas. Those confessions made me question whether he was the appropriate man to adapt the cult novel about two modern savages rampaging through Sin City while chugging down a psychedelic rainbow of hallucinogenic substances. The contemporaneous response to the film suggested the pairing was, indeed, a mismatch. Pitched as a comic romp, the puke-stained antics of Dr. Gonzo proved too disgustingly visceral for most critics and viewers. Some fans of the novel found Gilliam’s vision too grotesque, lacking the novel’s context and sense of humor, while newcomers to the story saw only a meandering tale about two antisocial drunks acting like asses. Even my initial review of the movie in 1998 was slightly negative: I wrote “Gilliam films the novel quite literally… and the literalism is part of the reason why the movie fails. The novel was about venality, depravity and corruption, but the movie simply is venal, depraved and corrupt. The novel is a swirl of reality, supposition, imagination, hallucination and exaggeration, but we are always safe in the hands of Thompson, whose prose gives the sense of blindly groping for meaning amidst the bestiality. By putting these depictions on the screen without his mediation… we only garner a sense of disgust as we witness Dr. Gonzo puking his guts out in graphic detail…”
There’s still something to that criticism, but Fear and Loathing has proven to be a movie that has stood the test of time: it’s better on a second viewing, after the initial shock and disgust has worn off. As a comic romp featuring a pair of lovably hip scamps putting one over on the establishment Vegas squares, the movie does fail. But what made the novel linger in the mind was not only the picaresque drug trips and Duke’s crazy sleep-deprived schemes, but also the undercurrent of sadness expressed in the book (and movie’s) epigram: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Fear and Loathing is a tragedy about disillusionment disguised as a comedy about rebellion. The opening scenes—with Depp swatting at the imaginary bats he sees reflected in his mirrored shades as he and Del Toro terrify a hitchhiking hayseed hippie with tall tales about traveling to Vegas to rub out a scag baron—do set a tone of off-kiler alt-humor. Dr. Gonzo fires a pistol into the air, but it only clicks; unlike the man wielding it, it’s not loaded. The pair of rapscallions are essentially harmless. Depp and Del Toro appear to be Merry Pranksters, holy fools infiltrating the green felt halls of the rich and mighty. Their intentions are pure; after spending the night before the journey stoned on the beach, Duke proclaims the trip to Vegas is to be “an affirmation of everything right and true in the national character, a gross physical salute to the possibilities of life in this country.”
And, for a little while, it is. Through the film’s first half, Duke and Gonzo’s adventures are of the put-one-over-on-the-squares variety. They mock the sacred institutions of the Debbie Reynolds Showroom. They try to keep it together while bombed out of their gourds, as the faces of the hotel staff morph into serpents and the power of speech forsakes them. They search for the American dream and find only miserable suburban gamblers looking for Tom Jones tickets and a cheap shrimp cocktail. The trip peaks on the midway to the Bazooka Circus, a bizarre hyperreality that makes psychedelics superfluous. High above the casino floor a trapeze routine involves a pregnant acrobat giving birth to a baby astronaut, complete with umbilical cord. A cowboy barker offers the chance for your image to appear on the Strip 200 feet tall. It’s the American dream seen in funhouse mirrors.
But it’s too much stimulation; between hiccups, a dyspeptic Dr. Gonzo mumbles that he’s got “the Fear.” Back in the hotel room, he takes a whole sheet of blotter acid and, knife in hand, climbs into a bathtub filled with dirty brown water and bobbing grapefruit and begs Duke to electrocute him with the tape recorder when Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” peaks. Duke locks him in the bathroom and reflects that Gonzo’s high is over; marinating in his own filth, the poor bastard will now have to endure one of those “hellishly intense introspective nightmares.”
Duke takes the break in the action as a chance to write and reflect; he remembers San Francisco in 1965, the burgeoning LSD scene and the feeling that in that time and place “There was madness in any direction, at any hour… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. Our energy would simply prevail… We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…” Seven years later, in this Las Vegas hotel room with an armed roommate in the grips of drug psychosis, he realizes that youthful dream is long past. Gazing out his window, he muses that he “can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
This central “wave” speech is the first time we realize that the Las Vegas trip itself, which begins in hope and a spirit of fun and ends in hedonistic degradation, is an allegory for the defeat of the naïve ideas of the 1960s counterculture. From this point on, the comic tone of the film slowly shifts into the background, as the costs of Duke and Gonzo’s overindulgence starts to catch up with them. Things really go wrong when Duke takes too much adrenochrome, turns beet red and sees multiple Richard Nixon heads invading his hotel room. (Adrenochrome, a mythical psychedelic stimulant that can only be extracted from a freshly harvested human adrenal gland, is a symbol of the “bad drugs” like speed and heroin that were scarfed up in the dying days of the Sixties by indiscriminate hippies reared on the “peace and love” drugs like pot and LSD). The story becomes more fractured, a series of barely sketched incidents of the boys breaking open coconuts with hammers and screaming incoherently at middle-class motorists gawking at the lights of the Strip. Scenes of Del Toro emptying his guts into the toilet bowl or out the window of the convertible proliferate. Their hotel room is trashed beyond all semblance of reality; bottles and syringes float in an inch of liquid, the walls are smeared with Playboy pinups and ketchup, and someone has set up a shrine to Debbie Reynolds, complete with glitter and Christmas lights.
These low points of the trip reach their nadir in a quiet scene that’s performed with the pounding realism of a hangover. Out of pure boredom, Dr. Gonzo pulls out his trusty knife and psychologically abuses a hard-luck waitress, played with dignity by an achingly human Ellen Barkin. Duke can only sit by and watch, as if he’s been detached from his worse half and forced to observe the atrocity. Depp’s performance in this scene as slinks out of the diner, returning his plate of food silently with the sad realization that the violation goes far beyond the possibility of any apology he could offer, is one of the few truly decent moments Depp allows his caricature. It’s the point at which Duke realizes their experiment in the antisocial has gone too far. Once, he thought their positive energy would prevail over the official forces of corruption, the powers behind Jim Crow and Vietnam; now, the aging refugees of the Love Generation were terrorizing poor women at knife-point. It suddenly appears that the titular loathing is as rightfully directed toward the hero as it is toward the establishment.
Focusing on the theme of disillusionment and loss of innocence–both countercultural and personal—may be the key to unlocking the power of the film. With its intoxicated camerawork, CGI hallucinations and neon lit unreality, the movie works as pure eye candy and hallucinogenic spectacle. As a comedy, it’s less successful; but Gilliam does capture the loathing of the tale. The script’s downward spiral into ever worsening psychosis makes for a hard sell, particularly for those who come looking for a psychedelic wish-fulfillment fantasy, a simple tale of weirdos triumphing over squares by sheer force of weirdness. That surface element is there, but it’s the way Gilliam taps into the underlying sadness of Thompson’s decline and breakdown that makes the film distressing, memorable, and ultimately beautiful.
FEAR AND LOATHING script analysis – David Morgan breaks down the differences between Alex Cox’ original script and Gilliam’s rewrite, and explains why Gilliam burnt his Writer’s Guild of America card
DVD INFO: As befits a bizarre film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has had a strange history on DVD. Since the movie was a failure in theaters, Universal did not invest too much in their original 1998 release, issuing a disc with a deleted scenes and a ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette as the only extras. Sensing a cult film in the making, the Criterion Collection bought the distribution rights to the film in 2003 and issued a lavish 2-disc Special Edition (buy). Headlined by three separate commentary tracks—one from Gilliam, one by Depp and Del Toro, and one featuring Hunter Thompson himself—and an entire disc full of supplemental material on Thompson and the film. The popularity of the Criterion edition helped launch a reappraisal of the film, which had been almost universally panned by critics.
In 2006 it appeared that Universal realized they had made a mistake by under-marketing the film, and they re-issued their version of the movie—in the doomed HD DVD format. In 2010 they wised up and issued a Blu-ray (buy) with additional “Blu-ray live” features and D-Box motion simulation capabilities. Assuming that Universal had reacquired their rights from Criterion, many movie fans, including yours truly, purchased the Universal Blu-ray in 2010. We’d been had, however, as 2011 saw Criterion release their special edition on Blu-ray (buy)! Since the Criterion edition is clearly superior, the only reason to buy Universal’s competing Blu is to save money.
Fear and Loathing can also be rented or purchased digitally (rent on-Demand).
PLOT: A 1000 year-old mystic enlists the help of a seedy amnesiac to save his daughter, whose life he exchanged for eternal youth, from the clutches of the Devil.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a return to extreme fantasy for Terry Gilliam, who hasn’t delved so deep into the realm of untethered imagination since The Adventures of Baron Muchausen. It is a madcap vaudevillian escapade that is anything but ordinary, a rekindling of the fires of whimsy in modern cinema that has not been lit in some time. Gilliam conjures a tale that comes from the divine and the pedestrian, fills it with colorful, albeit thin, characters, and lets the magic happen as the elements coalesce into a Victorian sideshow of epic proportions.
COMMENTS: Set over a thousand years of the titular character’s life (although it’s mostly set in modern day England), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fantastical meditation on choices: good ones, bad ones, the weight-laden overabundance of decisions we all face at some point, and the demeaning lack of options we also experience. From literal metaphors involving people choosing their destinies in a realm of imagination to the figurative posturings of the opposition between that which is right and that which is merely easy, director Terry Gilliam muses in this film on the ages-old dilemma of free will and how these characters will go about using it.
But forget about that! What everyone wants to know is how well they shoe-horned in all of Heath Ledger’s stand-ins during post-production! As you’re well aware, I’m sure, this is the final performance of the late, great Heath Ledger. Mr. Ledger died during the production of this feature, leaving his role, that of the amnesiac Tony, woefully incomplete. Gilliam, being ever the professional, and no stranger to ill circumstances Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009)→
“…Gilliam fearlessly brings the logic of children’s literature to the screen. Plunging headfirst into history, myth, legend, and fairy tale, Gilliam sends his characters—a boy and six good-natured if rather larcenous little persons (i.e. seven dwarves)—careening through time-twisting interactions with Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon (played, respectively, by Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Sean Connery). The landscape is populated by the giants, ogres, and sinister crones of legend and fairy tale, all in the service of Gilliam’s weird, ecstatic vision.”–Bruce Eder, “Time Bandits” (Criterion Collection essay)
PLOT: 11-year old Kevin is largely ignored by his parents, who are more interested in news about the latest microwave ovens than in encouraging their son’s interest in Greek mythology. One night, a gang of six dwarfs bursts into his bedroom while fleeing a giant floating head, and Kevin is swept up among them and through an inter-dimensional portal in their scramble to escape. He finds that the diminutive and incompetent gang is tripping through time robbing historical figures using a map showing holes in the space-time continuum of the universe that they stole from the Supreme Being; things get complicated when Evil devises a plan to lure the bandits into the Time of Legends in order to steal the map for himself.
Time Bandits is the first movie in what is known as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” or “Trilogy of Dreams.” It deals with the imagination in childhood; the second movie, the bleak Brazil (1985), with adulthood; and the third, Baron Munchausen (1989) with old age. Gilliam did not intend from the beginning to make three films with similar themes; he only noticed the connection between the three films later, after fans and critics pointed it out.
Gilliam began the script in an attempt to make something marketable and family-friendly, since he could not find anyone interested in financing his innovative script for Brazil. The success of the idiosyncratic Time Bandits allowed Gilliam to proceed making imaginative, genre-defying films.
The film was co-written by Gilliam with his old Monty Python’s Flying Circus mate Micheal Palin, who is responsible for the snappy dialogue.
Ex-Beatle George Harrison helped finance the film, served as executive producer, and is credited with “songs and additional material” for the movie. Only one Harrison composition is featured, “Dream Away,” which plays over the closing credits.
Gilliam shot the entire movie from a low angle to give an impression of a child’s-eye view of the world.
Sean Connery was not originally intended to appear in the final scene, but was meant to appear in the final showdown with Evil. The actor’s schedule did not allow him to appear when the battle was being shot, but Connery suggested that he could play a role in the final scene. His second, quite memorable, role consists of two shots, filmed in an afternoon.
A low budget release, Gilliam’s film cost about $5 million to make but grossed over $42 million.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The avenging floating head of God appearing out of a cloud of smoke.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As an utterly original blend of history, comedy and theology
Original theatrical trailer for Time Bandits
wrapped in Monty Pyhton-eque verbal sparring and presented as a children’s fable, Time Bandits starts with a weird enough design. As the film continues and the bandits journey from history into myth, the proceedings get more mysterious and existential, until the flick winds up on a shatteringly surreal climax that is bleak enough to supply the most well-adjusted of kiddies with years of nightmares. As the tagline says, it’s “All the dreams you’ve ever had—and not just the good ones.”