26 April 2008

Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King | 12 Monkeys)

1991 | The Fisher King
Gilliam's Intolerable Cruelty. I've seen this movie-type a million times: a free spirit teaches the down-and-out main character how to love himself again so that he's able to love others. Also in there: boy meets girls, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Yawn. Just wake me up when the Red Knight is on screen. (Even my wife, a connoisseur of romance novels, hates this movie).

Rather than complain about the awful script, I'll list what I did like about the movie. I thought Mercedes Ruehl was excellent in her role as The Dude's long-suffering girlfriend. Maybe she was just playing a stereotype -- I've never been to NYC -- but she seemed to have completely inhabited her character down to the tap-tap-tapping of too-long fingernails. The aforementioned Red Knight was pure Gilliam medieval fun. Despite having Robin Williams play the insane character, Gilliam seems to have miraculously reined him in for the most part. The transvestite homeless cabaret singer was hilarious.

I suppose this was a necessary step in Gilliam's career. After the disaster that was Baron, Gilliam needed to prove that he could make a successful movie under budget. He accomplished just that: The Fisher King was a moderate success at the time and generated a profit. Considering the two films that followed this one, I can't really complain. (5/10)

Watched: NTSC DVD released by TriStar/Sony in 1998. Video has compression artifacts visible all over the place dancing in sometimes interesting patterns, but -- given that the disc is a decade old and came out at the dawn of the DVD era -- this isn't a surprise.

1995 | 12 Monkeys
I can't seem to decide if there's anything to 12 Monkeys. Is it hard sci-fi, or just a neat time travel/apocalyptic movie? Do Gilliam and the writers have anything to say here?

There's an attempt at a subplot in the middle of the film that suggests Cole may be imagining his travels through time, but I don't think this has anything to do with the main thrust of the film. It's hard to imagine we're supposed to seriously consider this idea, really. There just isn't enough ambiguity built into the script for it to really go in such a Dickian direction. Cole disappears from his restraints and a locked room in the insane asylum. He gets a WWI bullet lodged in his leg. He correctly remembers that the boy trapped in the well was a hoax. None of these things can be written off on his mental condition by the viewer.

However, the insanity subplot does allow the film to play with the idea of the malleability of memory. Cole's dream of the shooting in the airport -- which is actually a memory from childhood -- constantly changes throughout the movie. His mind -- as all our minds do -- edits his own memory based on the new information he's gathered to that point. Towards the end of the movie, he has such a strong desire for 1996 to be the present that he relegates his memories of his life in the future to delusions. In an -- probably not unintentional -- ironic twist, the scientists in the future choose Cole for his excellent memory.

Perhaps this is set up to contrast with the reality presented in the film. As Philip K. Dick once said, "reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." No matter what Cole talks himself into believing and no matter what he does, fate continues to march him towards his end. Fate, like film itself, unwinds inexorably to its conclusion. Though our expectation for this type of movie is that the hero will figure out a way to save the day, this cannot be no matter how much Cole or the viewers want it. The day was already lost decades ago; the future is the preset and Cole is simply playing his part in history.

Whether all of this qualifies as serious, hard sci-fi or not, I enjoy the movie a great deal. Anything involving time travel, a super-virus wiping out most of the population and insanity is not going to have to do much more to get on my "great flicks" list. (8/10)

Watched: NTSC DVD released by Universal in 2005. Excellent picture and sound.