Is there any filmmaker today who identifies more closely with Orson Welles than Terry Gilliam? I'm not talking about content so much, although both men have an unfinished Don Quixote on their resumes. Welles was, for the most part, concerned with old age, or at least bitter experience, while Gilliam's chief preoccupation consists of childish things and fairy tales. But when it comes to the business end of movies, they are remarkably similar. Both men possess a singular artistic vision and a particular way of seeing things, regardless of current trends. Both are capable of masterworks, and both have achieved them in one form or another, despite the callous meddling of the studios and the supreme ignorance of the critics and the public. In both cases, these filmmakers have turned out works that could have been so much more.
Consider Gilliam's previous film, The Brothers Grimm (2005). It has Gilliam's touch all over it, but it reeks of studio re-writes, test audiences, and willy-nilly, third party cutting. Though the two films can't really compare, Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) went through much the same process over sixty years earlier. But even when these filmmakers release a film that they more or less controlled, such as Gilliam's Brazil (1985) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) or Welles' The Trial (1962) and F for Fake (1973), no one is ever quite ready for them.
That's the case with Gilliam's Tideland, which has been sitting around for some time (a Region 5 DVD is already available) and has left squeamish American distributors quivering in their boots. And as much as I'd like to embrace it, it wanders into areas so disturbing that it defies an unqualified recommendation. (This from a guy who watches Fear and Loathing once a year for fun.)
Gilliam seems to have understood the icky marsh he has stepped into, for he provides an opening disclaimer. He appears on camera and warns that some of us will love the film and some will hate it. It's an exploration of his inner child, he says, which turned out to be a little girl. That's an odd statement, and it may provoke laughter, but the laughter soon stops.
The wonderful Jodelle Ferland (Silent Hill), who is twelve now but must have been about nine or ten during filming, plays Jeliza-Rose, an imaginative young girl with a positive outlook. She lives with her junkie mom (Jennifer Tilly) and dad (Jeff Bridges) and even helps prepare her dad's heroin shots. When her mom, currently in withdrawal, suddenly kicks the bucket, dad panics, grabs Jeliza-Rose and a map of Jutland and hits the road. He goes to his mother's old house, planted in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. Jeliza-Rose's grandmother is long gone, and the house has become a vagabond roost, covered in foul graffiti. Dad shoots up one more time and keels over, planted in his chair, leaving Jeliza-Rose to fend for herself.
Jeliza-Rose's imagination, and her doll-head companions (each of which speaks with its own voice, provided by Ferland), keeps her from fully comprehending the dire nature of her situation. She goes out exploring and feasts from a jar of peanut butter her father was thoughtful enough to bring. Soon her survival depends upon her closest neighbors, the witch-like Dell (one-time Oscar nominee Janet McTeer) and her brother, the developmentally disabled Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who has a scar running through his skull. Dickens has built a "submarine," pretends to hunt sharks (really the train that runs nearby) and has at his disposal a collection of explosives. Though he is at least ten years older than Jeliza-Rose, they form a creepy, romantic entanglement, complete with kissing and talk of marriage and babies.
You can see how the movie slowly slides downhill. Helping dad shoot up and putting up with mom's DTs is actually kind of funny in a dark way, especially because these events have little affected Jeliza-Rose's disposition. (Watching the same events in Asia Argento's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is far more difficult.) Rather, it's Gilliam's dabbling in sex that is so hard to watch. He has never really dealt with human sexuality before (neither did Welles, but that was more a product of his time than his temperament). Coming at his topics from a child's point of view, there really isn't a good place to start. When Jeliza-Rose spies on Dell seducing a delivery boy, she doesn't know what to make of it, and it's a joke. But when she and Dickens begin to explore their mutual attraction, it brings about squirms. Some audience members may even speed-dial the pedophilia hotline. Gilliam steps on even bigger toes with the Dickens character. Charming as he is, he's also twitchy, loud, unpredictable and perhaps violent. He's frightening all by himself, but near a young girl with her defenses down, you just want to cover your eyes.Despite this, Tideland is a gorgeous film, a complete and total Gilliam experience from beginning to end. It's full of his particular roving, deep-focus shots, like a fish-eye lens with wings. Aside from the fact that it's based on a novel and makes references to Alice in Wonderland, it still seems boundless, free of all earthly ties and ruled only by limitless imagination. After seeing The Brothers Grimm and hoping Gilliam would have more control over his next film, I have to remember to be careful what I wish for. But these two films beg a question. Which is more useful: The free-floating, dangerous, personal film or the safe, studio-neutered product? The Grimm brothers themselves have offended many people over the centuries and their works have endured. Perhaps once we leave these squeamish times, Tideland will emerge like one of Welles' later films as a misunderstood classic. But for now all I can do is try to understand -- and fail.