Terry Gilliam’s flawed brilliance and offbeat sense of creativity has provided us with some absolute gems: Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys. Even his films that misfire at the box office give us some intriguing moments because of his idiosyncratic style and loose regard for conventional narrative structure: Baron Munchausen, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm.
His latest film, Tideland, promises all of the quirk and style of a Gilliam classic. The basic pitch goes like this: based on the book by Mitch Cullin, this is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ meets ‘Psycho’ as a young girl must fend for herself when her parents die of a drug overdose. So, with some anticipation, I settled down in the Poole Lighthouse cinema the other night to enjoy the viewing experience.
Immediately, my heart sank. Before the film begins, Terry Gilliam himself appears on screen and he starts to explain the nature of the story, and asks the audience to keep an open mind. ‘Some of you will love it, some of you will hate it, but at least at the very end, it will have made you think… And don’t forget to laugh. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Oh no. Why on earth has he felt the need to qualify his film to an audience that’s already paid to see it?
The film starts. After five minutes, I know I’m not going to like it. Ten minutes later, I’m bored. Half an hour into the story and it’s given me a headache because of its bleak tone and stuttering sense of pace. With an hour to go, I can’t wait for it to end. According to Mr Gilliam, I’m in the “you will hate it” camp. And I did. I hated it. I kept an open mind. It didn’t make me laugh, and it didn’t make me think. It just made me feel: what a waste. And if this was from a first time filmmaker then all it could hope for would be cult appreciation on the festival circuit.
Terry Gilliam broke a cardinal rule of filmmaking. He appeared on screen to appeal to the audience’s sense of taste and intelligence. It’s a dodgy tactic because by doing so you risk alienating the audience with the very words you hope will help them enjoy the film.
In spec scripts, this happens quite a lot. It’s the ‘note to reader’. What happens is this: script reader looks at his pile of scripts and groans. Hopefully one of these will lighten up the day. The first script is nabbed from the top and after the title page, there is another segment of the screenplay before the story starts proper:
“Dear Esteemed Reader or Charming Exec, I know you have a lot to get through today but the script you are about to read is, I believe, a work of pure genius. It employs an unconventional narrative structure, breaking down the barriers of the three-act template with astonishing style, and the point-of-view changes half way through to show the remainder of the film from the wife's eyes. It’s different, so you should think outside of the box while you’re reading, and you’ll love it.”
Already, the reader is thinking of dumping the script into the bin but he has to read the screenplay in its entirety so he ploughs on regardless. And lo and behold, the story is absolute garbage. The “unconventional narrative structure” turns out to be tangential and misguided shifts into unresolved plotlines and forgotten story strands. The change of point-of-view is usually an indication that it should have been told from the wife's perspective all along, and the quirky elements are oddball inclusions that have no comedic or dramatic value whatsoever. The barriers of the three-act template have been shattered all right, but all in the wrong way.
Now, does the reader’s dislike for the material originate from the writer’s note at the beginning? It certainly doesn't help. It’s not right to try to tell people what they should think and feel about the story. A reader, and especially an audience at the cinema, is willing to go that mile with you by experiencing the story first-hand, so there’s no need to flag attention to how you feel everyone should be emotionally prepared for what’s in store. It’s condescending and insults their intelligence.
Terry Gilliam’s “disclaimer appeal” at the beginning of Tideland was disconcerting but I tried to put it out of my head in order to enjoy the film for what it was. Unfortunately, the story didn’t engage me on any level, and I wonder if Mr Gilliam hadn’t forewarned us at the start, would I have felt the same way?
Note to readers and appeals to audiences are a no-go area for writers and directors. You’ve written your script and/or made your film. They represent your feelings and intentions, and you hope an audience will appreciate the story. You don’t need to ask them for favours before they settle down to watch the show.
I attended a short film screening once and the directors were asked to say a few words before their film was shown. One director stood up and said: "I'm not going to talk about it. That's why I made the film, so it could speak for itself". At the time, I thought he was a ponce - he was only asked for an introduction for pete's sake - but after his film was over, it was clear he had made a good point. (By the way, a director making an introduction to his film in front of a live audience is great, it's the 'disclaimer appeal' that's a no-no.)
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