Posted on Thursday, November 5th, 2015 by Jacob Hall
Someone who cracks open Terry Gilliam‘s Gilliamesque hoping for a comprehensive and complete portrait of the man’s career may be disappointed. The memoir from the director of Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Fisher King is akin to having a nice, long sit-down with an eccentric uncle who stories to tell and grudges to share. It’s a little rambling and it occasionally leaves big questions unanswered, but at the same time, of course it is. This is Terry Gilliam after all. The guy who directed The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He has a yarn to spin and he’s going to spin it his way.
Gilliamesque: A Pre-posthumous Memoir is captivating reading for anyone with an interest in the filmmaker, who began his career as the Monty Python troupe’s animator and eventually segued into making some of the best and most interesting movies of his time. Gilliam dives deep into his childhood in Minnesota, his adolescence in California, and his attempts to make it big in New York City and London. The book is halfway over before he even gets to the Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
And yet that first half paints a detailed portrait of an artist to be. You can see the elements that later become vital components of Gilliam’s career surface throughout his early life in surprising, funny, and occasionally depressing ways. Let’s run down a few of them, shall we?
It you want to read Gilliam’s stories about making his biggest movies or listen to him throw some pretty serious shade on Johnny Depp and Graham Chapman, you’ll need to pick up a copy of Gilliamesque yourself. If you think you’re the kind of person who will enjoy it, you probably will. It’s a beautifully designed book. All we’re going to do here is dive into some of Mr. Gilliam’s stories from the first half of his book, the first 30 years of his life or so, to examine how his unique voice was shaped by his life experiences. Cool? Cool. Let’s do this.
The Mundane Adventures of Terry Gilliam
One of the most interesting aspects of Gilliamesque is just how stable Gilliam’s life and upbringing is. Early in the book, he bemoans having a happy childhood, joking that he never received the scars that define many artists:
That’s what kills me; I’ve always wanted the scars, but I just don’t have them. In fact, that’s probably why I had to go into film-making – to acquire the deep emotional and spiritual wounds which my shockingly happy childhood had so callously denied me.
That seems a little odd for a filmmaker who would eventually go on to make vicious satires like Brazil, nasty and childhood-skewering fantasies like Time Bandits, but it makes sense. Gilliam’s happy, suburban youth seems to have given him the observational powers of an outsider. It’s no wonder so many of his movies are about the power of imagination – it’s what powers him. He has to riff on what’s inside his own head and the stories he knows and the movies he’s watched.
It may also come as surprise that the director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was not a heavy drug user. He blames his age for this – he was a little older than his LSD-using friends and kept his distance after seeing them endure a few bad trips. Gilliam is self-deprecating about his lack of experience with controlled substances:
[The biography of Harry Nilsson] I was reading recently showed him falling into a spiral of drink and drugs that felt like a direct by-product of his achievements. That’s why I’ve worked so hard over the years not to become too consistently successful – because it’s safer that way.
This may explain why his take on Hunter S. Thompson’s book is an intentionally off-putting black comedy – he’s seen people indulge in this kind of behavior while avoiding it himself. Another filmmaker may have made slightly more sympathetic movie.
The Bible and Mad Magazine
Gilliam isn’t shy about being non-religious, but he’s glad he was raised in a religious household, mainly because he likes knowing the stories of the Bible. He even laments his children’s secular upbringing, saying that knowing the basic tenets of a religion make you a better storyteller and audience:
It’s not necessarily a question of having a reverential attitude. What’s interesting is sharing a culture that has grown out of those tales, because it’s easier to have fun with things when everyone understands what the references are.
Religion is rarely a huge theme in Gilliam’s work, but his childhood Christianity can be felt in the way he tells stories with a broad brush and the way his movies riff on imagery and ideas that reverberate across all cultures. Gilliam is obsessed with storytelling as a concept and the Bible is the core around which most modern narrative orbit.
Still, the first thing that seems to have really shaken Gilliam up, the publication that set him on the path to becoming an artist, is Mad Magazine. It’s here that he learned his basic comic chops:
The first lesson I learned from Mad comics was that one of the most effective ways of making a comedic point is to take a well-known character with certain widely accepted attributes, and turn them on their head or use them in illicit ways.
The Bible taught Gilliam how to tell a story and Mad taught him how to subvert it. You can feel the influence of both in films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which takes classical storytelling structure and takes the piss out of it.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Gilliam’s “family” movies probably couldn’t get made today. They’re too dark, too weird, and too unpleasant. He makes movies for kids under the assumption that kids want to be challenged and that their parents want them to have a memorable, visceral experience. Remember the ending of Time Bandits?
It turns out that Gilliam may have absorbed his idea of what a children’s movie should be during his college years. Students would gather together to watch children’s TV shows together because they realized the concepts being snuck into these seemingly innocent shows were fare more subversive and interesting than anything being made for adults:
…one reasons students tend to like watching kids’ TV shows is probably because even though you know you’re technically too old for them, they offer you a link back to the reassuring world of childhood … It wasn’t just televisual comfort food either – kids’ shows often tended to be the most interesting because the adults at the networks weren’t likely to be paying attention, so you could get away with murder…
Some of Gilliam’s movies feel like he wants to recreate this scenario for a new audience. An innocent exterior masks a dark center. A smile masks a dagger.