“[Producer] Jeremy [Thomas] knew [raising money to make Tideland] would be difficult, particularly because the film is very, very weird.”–Terry Gilliam
DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam
FEATURING: Jodelle Ferland, Brendan Fletcher,
PLOT: Jeliza-Rose is a nine year old girl with an active imagination who is being raised by a pair of junkies. When her father spirits her away to a lonely, dilapidated farmhouse, then takes an extended “vacation” on heroin, Jeliza-Rose is left to her own devices. She retreats into an intricate fantasy world where her four doll’s heads are her closest companions, but reality is scarcely less bizarre than her imagination: her neighbors are a witch-like one-eyed woman with an unhealthy interest in taxidermy and a childlike mentally retarded man who also lives in his own fantasy world.
- Tideland was adapted from a critically praised novel by Mitch Cullin; ironically, this faithful movie adaptation was critically panned.
- Gilliam made Tideland while on a six month hiatus from directing the big-budget commercial fantasy, The Brothers Grimm (2005).
- Tideland was a commercial disaster, earning less than $100,000 in its initial domestic run.
- According to Gilliam, the French distributor did not want to screen this film at Cannes because there is a scene involving farting, which the French find objectionable.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Many will remember Jeliza-Rose’s doll’s heads, who make memorably fantastic appearances in an underwater house and flying about inside a man’s ribcage. But the more indelible image, because it’s repeated so many times, is the view of the broken down farmhouse in front of amber waves of grain. The look was inspired by the Andrew Wyeth paining “Christina’s World,” and, though unacknowleged, also from the 1990 film The Reflecting Skin (which had an almost identical look as well as an eerily similarly child protagonist). Gilliam often emphasizes the tall gold grass towering over tiny Jeliza-Rose’s head, as if it were surf and she was living in an undersea world. This ubiquitous aquatic imagery helps to explain the title “Tideland“.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gilliam has described the movie as a cross between “Alice in Wonderland” and Psycho, which sounds weird enough on its own terms. He pushes the envelope of weirdness even further with his trademark visual flair for phantasmagorical set pieces, for example, with a gloriously imaginative sequences of Jeliza-Rose falling down a rabbit hole full of tumbling syringes. But even if the audience wasn’t planted firmly inside the skull of the 9-year-old heroine, peering out onto this grotesque world through her child’s eyes, the scenario would have been weird, as the world of Tideland is peopled by grossly exaggerated lowlifes who live out their lives on the lonely fringes of plausibility.
Original trailer for Tideland
COMMENTS: Tideland is a misunderstood film, which is not automatically the same thing as a great film. Popular and critical reaction to Terry Gilliam’s movie and the real-world terrors it tosses at it’s 9-year old protagonist was so devastating that the director affixed a defensive disclaimer on the front of the movie stating, “Many of you are not going to like this film…” He goes on to explain what should have been obvious to every viewer: “This film is seen through the eyes of a child. If it’s shocking, it’s because it’s innocent.”
It’s a bit surreal that a proper discussion of Tideland must begin by addressing the controversy surrounding the subject matter of the film. Tideland is about a little girl with addicts for parents, who is abandoned to her own devices and who makes sense of the absurd adult world by using her active imagination to transform it into an equally absurd, but far more colorful and romantic, childhood world. This outline reads like the basic building blocks of an Important Work of Art. It’s the kind of story that’s too depressing for massive mainstream consumption, but seems tailor made for the critics.
If the same story had been told as a relatively straightforward drama, it might indeed have been lauded as a brave and incisive work of art (as was Mitch Cullin’s source novel). But something happens between that one-line thematic blurb and the film that finally appears. Gilliam places such powerful, grotesque imagery on the screen—although it’s often transformed by Jeliza-Rose’s overwhelming imagination into something innocent and beautiful—that he lost the goodwill of most of the critics.
There’s truth to the notion that some things that work in prose, where the reader’s mind can pick and chose which details to visualize, are too ugly to depict on screen. This is a criticism I find true of Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where Hunter S. Thompson’s whimsical and satirical intent is subverted by a literal depiction of puke and debauchery that turns the story into a screed against psychotropic drugs. But I don’t find this objection to be true of Tideland. The juxtaposition (more precisely, the co-existence) of the ugly and the beautiful, the jaded and the innocent, is essential to the artistry of this movie.
There are two scenes in particular that send audiences rushing to the exits. The first is an early scene where Jeliza-Rose cooks heroin for her rock n’ roller daddy, then injects him. This scene shouldn’t seriously shock anyone, although it should serve notice to those with weak stomachs for human frailties that they may want to select more amiable escapist fare. In a movie with many bizarre and improbable flourishes, this is one note that rings uniquely true; a junkie father might really assign that task to his daughter, and the daughter would probably treat it as a regular chore, like washing the dishes. The girl has no adult knowledge or fear of heroin or syringes; it’s simply something she does for her beloved daddy nightly, and the only effect she notices is that papa drifts off into a dream. Through Jeliza-Rose’s eyes, there’s nothing degraded in her duty; the audience alone supplies that judgement.
The other “offensive” scene, for those who haven’t been chased away yet, occurs at the very end of the film. Jeliza-Rose and the developmentally disabled adult Dickens have been developing a tense but sweet pseudo-romance throughout the third act. This innocent flirtation comes to a deliberately provocative boil near the end of the movie when the ersatz couple’s lovey-dovey kissy-poo games threaten to develop into something unspeakable. Again, Jeliza-Rose is innocent; she knows nothing of adult sexuality, and imagines that babies come from kissing. Dickens, who himself has the mind of a 9-year old, is equally blameless. He has been nothing but playful and chivalrous towards Jeliza-Rose, but we can’t forget that though he’s psychologically a boy, he is biologically an adult male, and he may not be able to control himself or even understand what he is doing if he’s overcome by natural impulses. Gilliam pushes the inherent ironic tension between the innocence of these characters and the horror of what we fear might, and pray will not, happen as far as he can, building our apprehension to an almost unbearable pitch. It’s a masterful directorial manipulation in which we are forced to supply the terror the characters cannot, and it’s the one experience that many audiences cannot forgive Gilliam for putting them through.
There’s hypocrisy in that judgement, however. The scene is provocative, but not exploitative. It’s not meant to titillate pedophiles in the audience, or thrown out carelessly to shock. It’s a scene that’s filled with intense human drama (because such a scenario is imaginable) and artistic effect (because of its immiscible blend of purity and sinfulness). By putting two views simultaneously before the viewer, the innocent childish interpretation, and a cynical adult one, the scene is calculated to force the audience to reflect on its own role in creating the drama, not merely to satisfy morbid lust. Were a director to build up the same sort of Hitchcockian tension using a homicidal stalker and a woman who doesn’t know she was being hunted, audiences wouldn’t bat an eyelash, but would instead delight in the deliciously edgy suspense. But place a child in the same position, putting the oblivious victim in danger not of her life but of her virtue, and the reaction flips. We’re jaded to the murder of adults (or sexually mature teenagers), which is standard entertainment in blockbuster thrillers. Gilliam has found one of our few remaining cinematic taboos to milk, and some people simply believe that this part of human existence must be permanently hidden from view, however honorably the subject is approached. I disagree.
The one legitimate criticism that arises from this line of thinking is that the child actor’s own innocence might have been compromised by the performance. It’s a reasonable possibility, but one that again suggests that we’re still projecting our own knowledge of the filthiness of the adult world onto children. There’s no reason that the actress Jodelle Ferland had to understand the mature aspects of the script any more than the character Jeliza-Rose did: in fact, such an understanding might have jeopardized her ability to project the necessary innocence. It’s doubtful that the director sat her down before scenes and explained to her the horrors of heroin addiction, or the mechanics of adult intercourse, in graphic detail.
The viewer who allows himself to be driven away by Tideland‘s ugliness will miss out on a lot of beauty. Jodelle Ferland’s performance is wonderful. She’s as enchanting and adorable as Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Her performance is heartbreaking, because we recognize sordid circumstances of her life that she can’t see. Remarkably, Ferland performs no less than five characters: she speaks for and carries on dialogues with her four doll’s heads, each of whom has a different voice and personality, throughout the film. Brendan Fletcher’s Dickens is also an amazing portrait. He captures the nervous tics, the strange halting speech and the even stranger preoccupations of the mentally retarded that involuntarily repulse us, but he too is so sweet and innocent that we are won over to his side. He’s pitch-perfect. Jeff Bridges’ deranged, notice-no-evil rock and roll junkie, despite being the ultimate unfit parent, is an amiable clown whom we almost like against our will. He also hits the right note, because it’s necessary that we almost like him: he’s tender and playful enough towards his daughter that we can understand why she dotes on him.
The fantasy sequences are visually sumptuous, especially the underwater centerpiece. They also are the key to the redemption-through-imagination theme of the film. When Jeliza-Rose imagines three of her lost doll’s heads flying around happily inside the cathedral-like ribcage of her father, we realize how essential her fantasy world is for her to survive her real-life losses.
The film as a whole is far from perfect, however. The audacity of Tideland‘s vision is strong enough to buoy it above sea level, but the execution is often questionable. The real problem with the film is that it’s fairly clear where Jeliza-Rose’s imaginary world ends, and the real world begins, but there is not enough contrast between the two. Tideland‘s reality is too bizarre. Jeliza-Rose’s choice is not between reality and fantasy, but between an irrational dream and an irrational nightmare.
There are too many false notes in the “real” world. Jennifer Tilly’s plays the improbably named “Queen Gunhilda” unrealistically as the ultimate trailer-trash parody. But the little girl’s casual acceptance of even such a queer mother’s death, her complete lack of bereavement, is so implausible that it leaves a sour steak on her otherwise lollipop-sweet charm. And the entire character of Dell, who at the same time is every kid’s inner picture of a witch, yet another irresponsible and completely self-absorbed adult, and the single most disturbed exhibit in Tideland‘s menagerie of weirdos, goes a step too far. It’s no fault of actress Janet McTeel, who plays the role given her well, but Dell is superfluously weird; it’s just too inconceivable to think that yet another bizarre character could be thrown in our poor waif’s path. Jeliza-Rose deserved at least one real adult to interact with before the credits started to roll. A movie that posits two levels of reality should play fair in at least one; reality should be something relatively recognizable, so the fantasy world can provide a legitimate flipside.
The movie also suffers from pacing problems. It meanders about episodically for almost an hour before recognizing that the friendship between Dickens and Jeliza-Rose is the driving force behind the narrative. More importantly, the ending is too abrupt. The heroine is placed in horrible jeopardy, but yanked away to safety at the last possible moment. Although some plot elements come together at the end, the resolution is rushed, and in the end we feel like we’ve suddenly been awakened from a dream by a frantic alarm.
In his disclaimer to the film, Gilliam advises, “I suggest you try to forget everything you’ve learned as an adult—the things that limit your view of the world. Your fears, your prejudices, your preconceptions. Try to rediscover what it was like to be a child, with a sense of wonder, and innocence…” With all respect to the director, that’s only half the advice he should have given. To truly appreciate Tideland, to experience all it’s irony and suspense and artistry, you must see it simultaneously through one eye of a child, and one of an adult. If your childish eye has been stung out by a swarm of bees, like hopeless Dell’s, you may be permanently unable to view Tideland for what it is: both beautiful and disgusting, and flawed like this sinful world itself.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Way too disturbing for kids and too weird for most grown-ups, ‘Tideland’ is likely to wash up in boutique distribution where Gilliam’s name will pull in only his most devoted fan base.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)
“…unrestrained inventiveness is both the blessing and the curse of Gilliam’s wack-job of a film, whose anti-conventionality (and anti-commercialism) is a breath of eccentric air even as its narrative and stylistic lack of self-control ultimately results in something of a catastrophe… employing a tsunami of askew camera angles and fish-eye lenses that are less inspired than simply insistent, Gilliam turns his film into a phantasmagoric funhouse bereft of rhythm, basic coherence, and, finally, much in the way of fun.”–Nick Schager, Slant Magazine (contemporaneous)
“…easily one of the most audacious, weird and unapologetically outrageous films I have ever sat through. In certain respects, it is questionable—but I remained intensely engaged as I watched the thing unfold before me.”–Matthew Hayes, Montreal Mirror (contemporaneous)
OFFICIAL SITE: Tideland official site: As of 4/13/10, the location of the former official site has been snatched up by a cybersquatter, who has so far supplied nothing but some text (in German) about the movie.
IMDB LINK: Tideland (2005)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Dreams: Tideland: The Tideland page at Dreams, the Terry Gilliam fansite; contains numerous interviews with Gilliam, Cullin, and others, and even more links of interest for fans to peruse
Alice in “Nightmareland”: Panel member Sergi Sánchez defends the controversial choice of Tideland as Best Film at the 2005 San Sebastian (Spain) film festival
Stuart Jeffries meets Terry Gilliam: Guardian piece about Gilliam and Tideland. Contains an audio link to the 30 minute press conference with Gilliam and Mitch Cullin from which the quotes in the article are taken.
Gilliam, Searching for His Audience: A Washington Post profile and retrospective of Gilliam’s career with an emphasis on Tideland
Terry Gilliam begs for financing for Tideland on the street: Youtube clip of the director scrounging for pennies and nickels outside the Comedy Central studios
Tideland, a Terry Gilliam film, Cropped: A visual demonstration of the cropping of the theatrical image that occurred in the transfer to DVD
HOME VIDEO INFO: The only available Region 1 (North American) version is the two disc “collectors edition,” (buy) which features commentary by Gilliam and co-scripter Tony Grisoni, a 45 minute making-of documentary filmed by director and fan Vincenzo Natali (Cube), two shorter mini-docs, 5 minutes of deleted scenes, and interviews with Gilliam and producer Jeremy Thomas.
This release caused a furor among film buffs because the DVD transfer is presented in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio rather than the 2.35:1 ratio shown in theaters (see “Other Links of Interest” above).
UPDATE 8/16/2018: In 2018 Arrow Video released a Blu-ray (buy) which presumably corrects the aspect ratio problem (waiting on confirmation for that), and includes all the extras on the DVD set along with new interviews from Ferland, and Jennifer Tilly as well as some additional B-roll footage. The set also contains new reversible artwork and a booklet.