terry gilliam memoir

Lessons From the Army

Like any young, fit man living in America in the ’60s, Gilliam faced the draft and the possibility of being sent overseas to Vietnam. He managed to join the National Guard, avoiding combat but still getting a taste of the military lifestyle. Although he writes of his time in America’s armed forces with frustration, you can see the germs of future comedic concepts and satiric points being formed:

Any inclination I might have to had (which was infinitesimal) to subsume myself entirely in the business of soldiering would certainly not survive the absurdities of basic training. I jut found the whole thing very hard to take seriously.

He writes about witnessing the broken bureaucracy of the United States government. His description of how the National Guard was run sounds like a deleted scene from Brazil:

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was required reading for reluctant draftees like me. The book really captured the tragic foolishness of the whole business. […] At this point you realized why so much of what you learn in the army is about projecting a coherent show of capable authority – because of the desperate need to conceal the reality of institutional incompetence.

Gilliam’s odyssey through military life is ultimately whimsical and bizarre – he writes of traveling through Europe to escape his responsibilities, utilizing a network of fake correspondence to keep the government from knowing where he actually is. He managed what so many of his heroes failed to accomplish: he escaped the system and got away with it.

twelve monkeys

Disneyland and Disillusionment

Early in his book, Gilliam writes of frequently visiting and appreciating Disneyland, which opened when he was a teenager. The immaculately constructed fantasy lands of the park proved essential:

My imagination was ways stimulated by enclosed worlds with their own distinct hierarchies and sets of rules – whether that be the virtual reality of Disney’s Tomorrowland, or the medical castles or Roman courts of the sword and sandal movie epics, which I loved just as much. Such well-defined social structure give you something to react against and take the piss out of, and I’ve always – and I still do this – tended to simplify the world into a series of nice, clear-cit oppositions, which I can mess around at the edges of.

This is the root of Gilliam’s ability to take something he loves and rip it to pieces. He has an obvious fondness for medieval fantasy, so he tears into the genre with the ferocity that only a fan can muster in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky. Of course Gilliam would love Disneyland – few directors put every inch of themselves into their world-building and Walt Disney’s first theme park is the squeaky clean version of the detailed fantasias Gilliam would later accomplish in Brazil and Baron Munchausen.

However, Gilliam’s falling-out with the park also feels like it was torn right out of one of his movies. When he returned to the park in 1967 as press to cover the opening of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, he had a troublesome encounter:

When we arrived at the special place where the special people enter, we were told that the head of security would have to come down and vet my hair, because the guy on the gate who looked like an FBI agent had put in an alarm call. As I waited, I became aware – for the very first time – of the barbed wire around the entrance […] The idea for Brazil was born out of several different moments of extreme alienation and this was definitely one of them.

This event, along with the Century City riot of July 1967 (where Gilliam and his girlfriend were assaulted by police), convinced him to take up residence in England for awhile. Two years later, Monty Python’s Flying Circus premiered.

However, it’s hard to imagine Gilliam, whose animations for the beloved series have become iconic, landing that job without every single thing above happening to him. Every artist is the result of a thousand experiences, of life lived in their own unique way. Gilliam isn’t shy about his life, relationships, and trials in Gilliamesque and the result is an intimate and funny portrait of an utterly unique filmmaker.

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