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From Python to Purgatory: The Fantastic Films of Terry Gilliam

Monty Python's Flying Circus

When I hear the name Terry Gilliam, the first thing that I see is a gigantic pink foot...crushing everything in its path.

That is because Gilliam was the animator for Monty Python's Flying Circus, the absurdist British comedy troupe of the 1970's that has influenced everyone from Neil Gaiman to the Simpsons. The lone American of the group did surreal collages combining Renaissance paintings, nature sketches, and meat grinders to make a strange world.

When Python's reign ended, Gilliam did not stop his creating. Instead, he launched himself from the animation desk to the director's chair where things became curiouser and curiouser.

A trio of knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam on the right)To talk about Gilliam as a director, you must start with Monty Python and the Holy Grail which he directed with fellow Python Terry Jones. The running joke was that they made a rule that anyone named Terry could direct. The film is of course the Python's most well-known effort, easily quotable, and hilarious.

Gilliam's true talent in the film is in creating an authentic look of medieval Europe. It may seem like a silly joke to have an entire scene where a town and everyone in it is drenched covered in mud and human waste, but medieval scholars have actually complimented such choices, saying that it is one of the closest approximations of medieval life on film. Take that Camelot ("'Tis a silly place")!

From there, Gilliam made a few other films, but Brazil marks the first time that he cemented a complete vision. It is also the first time he truly butted heads with his studio. The visually kinetic dystopia follows pencil-pusher Sam Lowry, who only wishes to keep his clerical job and continue fantasizing about being a superhero who always saves the girl. When a mechanical error causes a typo on some highly-confidential paperwork, Sam is sucked away from his safe, cozy, cubicle and finds himself wrapped up in a true adventure with a real, live girl. 

Detail from art for BrazilOriginally titled 1984 1/2Brazil is an astonishing blend of Orwell's surveillance fear and Fellini's surreal visuals. The true enemy of the film is more of an inept bureaucracy than Big Brother. For example, the error that causes the typo is simply due to an overzealous clerk who kills a fly, causing it to fall in the printer.

Its costume and set design is full of three-piece suits, Art Deco, and many machines with exposed wires. In addition, you have a great performance from fellow Python member Michael Palin as the nicest torturer you have ever met and a nifty cameo from Robert DeNiro as a renegade plumber. You heard me....renegade plumber.

Universal Pictures asked Gilliam to re-cut his dark science fiction satire for a happier conclusion. The director got his version shown in theaters, but for years afterward, a strangely toothless, shorter version of the film would be shown on television. Thankfully the original cut of it is available.
For all the trouble Gilliam got into with the studio for Brazil, it still made a decent amount of money. The same could not be said for the box office disaster that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Based on an actual 18th-century German nobleman who reveled in the telling of tall tales, the film takes an episodic form of adventure after adventure.
A skeptical young girl tries to discount the elderly Baron even as he takes her into outer space,  down to the heart of a volcano, and charging across the front lines of a great battle. For all of its inventiveness, the film failed to click with audiences but has gained a cult following on video.

Lost in La Mancha is not a film by Terry Gilliam. It is rather a documentary about the miserable experience that he and Johnny Depp had trying to make their own version of Don Quixote. Cervantes' novel has been notoriously hard to adapt, besting the likes of even Orson Welles. Still, Gilliam tried to throw his hat in the ring, which promptly burst into flames and spit it back out at him.

Everything that can go wrong does. The lead actor, Jean Rochefort, fractures his tailbone and is unable to ride a horse. Location shots are interrupted by military flight tests, and an insane monsoon washes away the entire set at one point.

Poster for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The film offers a nice overview of Gilliam's past struggles. What I like most about the documentary is how it emphasizes the fact that any time a film is made, it is a huge accomplishment. Even if it is a terrible hunk of garbage, someone still managed to pull people and resources together to create something.

Creating things is all that Terry Gilliam has ever wished to do, so I am pleased to say that his Don Quixote project was not his last. In fact, 2010's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is one of his stronger efforts. It also has the infamy of being Heath Ledger's final film, a detail only amplified by the actor's first scene in which he hangs from a noose. Ledger gives a charming performance as a puckish conman alongside Andrew Garfield and Christopher Plummer, who plays Doctor Parnassus.

The gambling-addicted Doctor is about to lose his soul with the Devil, played by a gleefully carefree Tom Waits. Ledger's character starts to help out until the others see that he is only helping himself. Ledger passed before he could finish the film. Thankfully, this film is also a fantasy. Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell graciously stepped in to help complete Ledger's performance, and gave their salaries to the deceased's daughter.

Gilliam has made many other films, and I encourage you to seek them out. Perhaps they will inspire you to create something curious of your own.