Film 2019: The Zero Theorem


After his splendid trilogy of films in the Eighties, I tended to drift away from Terry Gilliam. I’d loved Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen so much that I couldn’t shift with Gilliam into the kind of films he next wanted to make. Only Twelve Monkeys was closest enough to what I wanted for me to relish it, though I never saw it in the cinema.

I didn’t even learn about The Zero Theorem until I wrote about Twelve Monkeys for Film 2018. It is, and it isn’t, supposed to be the third in a trilogy of films comprising Brazil and Twelve Monkeys and I bought it immediately to view when I came to the right point for Film 2019. This, like the other three film remaining of the first phase, is the first time I have watched it.

In that all three films depict a future society that is chaotic, confusing and deeply disturbing in how it has developed, The Zero Theorem sits well beside its supposed companions (Gilliam has suggested both that they are and aren’t a trilogy). Yet it differs from them in that the future society in which Qohen Leph (Christoph Waltz) is much more of a background element to Qohen’s neuroses, and more superficial in its contribution to his predicament.

Nor does Qohen have a purpose. Jonathan Pryce is in pursuit of his dream girl, who exists in real life, Bruce Willis is on a mission to find and foil the Twelve Monkeys, Qohen is a severely inhibited, multi-neurotic individual who is trying to solve the Zero Theorem because his employer has told him to. He has no personal stake in it. This immediately undermines any sense of meaning to the film, especially as the Zero Theorem is an attempt to find a mathematical proof to the proposition that life in meaningless.

Having total nihilism as your goal makes the film’s goal tendentious to say the least, and it removes a further layer of potential meaning for those members of the audience who, like myself, have no religious involvement in requiring a supervening level of existence and therefore a ‘purpose’ to life. I have long been content to believe that we exist because we exist, because we exist in a Universe that supports life, and not need to ask Why?, let alone require an answer.

To someone like me, the film then becomes a study of a clearly deeply disturbed man, with overt neuroses piled upon neuroses, whose ultimate desire is a complete delusion long before it’s spelled out as a complete delusion. Qohen, who shaves his head, wears black in a garish plastic colour society, refers to himself as plural, hates being touched, or eating or drinking anything with any taste, is waiting for a call to tell him what his purpose is in life: he’s self-evidently insane.

Qohen’s life is invaded by three people who it’s possible to see as attenuated echoes of Scrooge’s three Ghosts. First there is Joby (David Thewlis in an obviously and deliberately awful wig, channeling David Brent), his Supervisor, a former cruncher like Qohen, an awful intrusion into anyone’s life. Joby is the Past, his imbalance self-admittedly caused by the Zero Theorem. Yet he has pull and influence, getting Management (Matt Damon) to see Qohen and assign him to the project.

And Joby, who insists on calling Qohen Quinn, is responsible for introducing Qohen to Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). The bright, bubbly blonde is a sex therapist, at least in her private interactions with Qohen are concerned, though she’s later exposed as a web-stripper. She attaches herself to him, clears his home (an abandoned, burned-out church, symbolising Qohen as a Christ-figure who has escaped religion), and leaves him a VR suit which takes him to an idyllic tropical island beach enjoying a permanet sunset, where he has hair and she wears a bikini, and the two enjoy a degree of physical pleasure. Bainsley is the Present, an alternate Present that Qohen can have if he rejects his programming. She tries to tempt him away in real life, but he refuses.

By now, Qohen is undergoing Bob, the Future. Bob’s a teenage programmer, officially a summer intern, an annoying fifteen year old already bored with too many things and an ability to conceive of things being any way other than he wants them. Bob’s also Management’s son. He’s a teenage computer whizz multi-cubed, he’s the future that you want to reject because you know you’ll have no place in it. He’s assigned to help Qohen, until he falls ill and everything is shut down.

And that’s how the film ends. Qohen has his delusion over his call called out for a delusion. He loses the Zero Theorem because he’s proved it correct when Management wanted him to disprove it. Joby’s been sacked. He’s sent Bainsley away. Bob’s critically ill and unlikely to recover. Qohen destroys all his surveillance and its associated high tech but is still sucked into the Neural Network for Management to fire him. Hi last act is to fall into the black hole of his own subconscious.

This takes Qohen to the beach, alone. All there is of Bainsley is the salt-encrusted bikini top he pulled off her. He reaches out for the sun, juggles it, then sets it. In the darkness of the credits, we hear her voice calling him.

Perhaps in part because the underpinning of the film lies outside my private parameters, I don’t (yet?) find this film worth bracketing with my other Terry Gilliams. It’s more confused, without the ultimate coherence that comes from careful, absorbed watching, which is perhaps down to Gilliam having no official inputto the script. But it comes on another Sunday morning, as the clocks go forward and spring officially comes upon us, and I’ll watch it again, perhaps with better appreciation.

Film 2018: 12 Monkeys


It shocked me to realise that 12 Monkeys, the only other Terry Gilliam-directed film in my collection, dates from as long ago as 1995, and that this is only the second time I have watched the DVD. I remember first watching it, alone in my house, all lights out, recreating the effect of the cinema as best as I could, and being drawn completely into what was unfolding, realising what I was about to see and the inevitability of things being drawn together in a tight, seamless conclusion. The effect was powerful. In the light of a Sunday morning, with darkness out of the question except on my laptop screen, 12 Monkeys had exactly the same effect. Why did I leave re-watching this film so long? Setting myself this series, to watch a DVD each week, was clearly a valuable idea.

12 Monkeys is nominally a science fiction film, and given that it involves the future, time travel and an apocalyptic event, it’s clearly an accurate description. But, in part due to the limited budget ruling out elaborate effects, and Gilliam’s election to use, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly for thematic reasons, a similar kind of Heath Robinson-esque technology for the future, this doesn’t feel like SF to me. Indeed, it’s more about the working out of a puzzle, from inside out, in plot terms and considerably more about people’s perception of reality and what it is.

The film stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt, who was a supporting actor when 12 Monkeys was being made but a massive superstar when it was released. Willis is James Cole. In the future, after an apocalyptic virus has wiped out practically the whole of humanity, and a handful of survivors scrape by underground with a kind of hybrid technology unadvanced beyond 1996, Cole is a criminal, violent and aggressive, who ‘volunteers’ to go above ground (in highly sterilised and biohazard protected gear with much disinfecting before and after) to take specimens from a surface world abandoned to the animals.

Cole’s ‘crimes’ are never specified. From a recitation of his aggressive tendencies, we may extrapolate that they are likely to be a refusal to obey orders in a tiny world dependent upon people doing what they are told in order not to upset a fragile ecosystem, but the film isn’t here to explore that. Instead, as a successful ‘Observer’, Cole is to be sent back to 1996 Philadelphia, just before the spreading of the lethal virus that wiped out the human race.

You will immediately spot the anomaly of a future in which technology has visibly regressed from this 1996 cut-off point but which has developed effective, if imperfect, time travel, but by the time the film reaches this point, its atmosphere has long since drawn you in: you are eager to discover what is going on and the time travel aspect is introduced sufficiently early that it is taken for granted because we are at this moment in the future, and the fact it is only thirty years ahead has not yet been disclosed.

Cole makes the point, especially when Dr Katharine Railly (Madeleine Stowe) diagnoses him as delusional, imagining himself as a would-be saviour, that he is not here to change the past: the past cannot be changed, it has happened. He is here to observe it, to find and contact the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, the people responsible for the dissemination of the virus. He wants to get the virus in its pure form, take it back to the future (our future, his presence), where it can be studied to enable humanity to return to the surface.

The time travel process is imperfect: instead of Philadelphia, in the last quarter of 1996, Cole arrives in Baltimore, early 1990, naked and disoriented (I did not count the number of times we see Bruce Willis’s naked arse but it was plenty). From here on in, Cole is a shambling, often violent, hulking but perennially confused figure, off balance at almost every moment, even when at his seemingly most directed. Willis is frankly superb in the role.

In Baltimore, he meets Dr Railly who tries to treat him, to free him from this delusional mental construct, or diversion, as the film, metafictionally, defines it. Stowe is understated in her part, which of the three leading roles is the most passive, until late in the film. She has the unglamorous task of being normal, which is always a drawback in circumstances such as these. Stowe’s room for overt performance is constricted, making her assumption of the role, and its inherently cool and collected nature, all the more impressive.

Cole also meets fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Goines is hyperactive, volatile, agitated, almost to the point of caricature as an old-style ‘loony’. He’s also intensively charismatic, one of those individuals who, if he could tone the overt irrationality down, could lead thousands on crusades. He befriends Cole, tries to help him escape. Jeffrey plainly comes from a rich family, and will not be in this kind of state institution for long, only until his father finds out. His father, we don’t learn now, is a highly regarded biologist conducting experimentation on animals. He creates viruses…

Cole’s ‘escape’ is truncated and he is heavily restrained, but that doesn’t stop him from escaping for real, when he is beamed back to his present. His mission has been a complete failure but he is given a second chance. The time travel blips again, sending the naked Cole into French trenches in the First World War, where he takes a bullet to the leg and is photographed, before bouncing to November 1996, but still in Baltimore.

This very short interlude has nothing to do with the story. We know that time travel is imperfect, given the six-and-a-half year miss on Cole’s first trip, but this excessively wrong diversion and is unexplained rectification are left unexplained because there isn’t an explanation. The film needs Cole to have been in 1917 for a turning point further ahead. Once again, however, the film has gripped its audience so tight that we go along with it because we still only have the edges of the puzzle and we are seeking pieces to go into the middle of it.

Six years in in Baltimore, Katharine Railly has just published a book about insanity and apocalyptic visions. She gives a talk about it and signs copies, including one to a rather creepy individual, played by David Morse, who gets brushed aside when he says the ones with the visions are the heroes and humanity is insane. Outside, getting into her car, she is ambushed by Cole and forced to drive him to Philadelphia.

Railly tries to deal professionally with her capturer, to talk him down calmly, to get him to see that his talk of the future, of humanity’s impending annihilation, is purely delusional.Gradually, she loses some of her fear as he makes no moves to hurt her. Music thrills him. There’s a leitmotif of a news story, a nine year old boywho’s gone missing in the middle of a cornfield, just like Cole, six years before. He’s presumed fallen and trapped down an abandoned mineshaft and a massive emergency rescue operation is getting bigger and bigger: Cole dismisses it as a prank, the boy is hiding in an abandoned barn.

In Philadelphia, Cole finds an address, a small-style animal activists group. He’s supposed to have left a message, a voicemail on the number given him, picked up and played, unrecognisably, back to him. This is the headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, who did it. Who is their leader? Jeffrey Goines, now working for his virologist father, no longer institutionalised but still crazier than a fruit loop.

By now, a certain amount of Stockholm Syndrome has set in. Katharine’s turned down at least one cast-iron chance to escape, she’s dug the bullet out of Cole’s leg, she’s alongside him, but after the Goines confrontation, with Secret Servicemen ad the like closing in, she signals for help. And Cole vanishes again.

Things are on the turn. In his resent, Cole is pardoned, freed. Still he wants to go back. The trauma has him believing Katharine, believing he’s delusional, that the ‘future’ is a construct. Partly he’s fallen for her, but he’s fallen for the ‘past’, for music, for air that, to him, is fresh. He manages to get himself sent back again, only this time he thinks he’s manipulating his delusion: he wants Katharine, or someone, to cure him.

Only, just as Cole has undergone the undermining of everything he believes, so too has Katharine. It begins with the news, with the discovery of the nine year old boy in an abandoned barn, the announcement that it was a ‘prank’. In an instant, Katharine Railly’s worldview crashes, irrecoverably. The analysis of the bullet she dug out of Cole as being pre-1920, and her discovery of his photo in the trenches are just the icing on the cake, the final blows to a belief she’s trying desperately to reinforce but which has already been destroyed.

She goes after the animal Rights activists but they’ve barricaded themselves in. Jeffrey is planning something. He’s even nuttier than before. It involves his father’s lab…

Cole reappears, seeking help. Katharine rents a room in a hooker hotel, trying to get him to realise he was right all along but they’re disturbed by a threatening pimp, outrages that she’s trying to cut in on his territory. Cole smashes him up, cuts out the teeth in which the tracking device is implanted, if there is such a thing and not a delusion (Cole is uncertain, Katharine less doubtful, but the audience knows the score).

Then it crashes again. She rings the number he has, returns visibly giddy with relief. It was a garbage removal company, leave a voicemail, they come take your garbage away. She was so giddy, she left a message about the Twelve Monkeys, about how they did it. She’s repeating it to Cole, proudly. But he repeats it to her, shocking her into silence. He’s heard it before, in the future. It’s the message that was the basis for his being sent back.

Thoroughly shocked, and convinced of what is soon to follow, Katharine changes their appearance, plans a flight to the Florida Keys. Cole has never seen the ocean, he went underground aged eight. It’s like a honeymoon for them, though the romance is more a thing of desperation, a situation that leaves room for the two of them only, dictated by ruthless logic rather than mutual attraction and desire. He acquired hair and a moustache, she goes blonde and short dressed. She becomes the woman from Cole’s dream.

Cole’s dream. It’s in an airport. It starts the film, it reoccurs, different every time. There’s a square suitcase plastered with shipping labels. Katharine running, screaming silently. Passengers panicking. A man with a gun being shot, falling to the floor. An eight year old boy watching this. I’m ahead of the film now, interpreting the dream as not being a dream but a memory.

Katharine and Cole head for the airport. The Twelve Monkeys have struck. Only, they’ve not released a virus, they’ve released the zoo and stuck Leland Goines in a cage. Animals roam the city. It’s surreal. It keeps breaking into Cole’s head, echoes of his first above-ground expedition.

In the airport, Cole leaves a voicemail, explaining that the Twelve Monkeys weren’t behind the virus, it was someone else. He’s not coming back, he’s saying here, don’t look for him. Practically instantly, his cell-mate Jose homes in on him, presses upon him a gun. Someone’s got to shoot Katharine. Got to follow orders.

Katharine’s buying tickets. Someone pushes past her with a familiar square suitcase, plastered with shipping labels. he’s touring the world, a sequence of cities across the globe. A sequence that is the exact sequence of outbreaks of the virus. It is David Morse. Or, as we now know him to be, Dr Peters. Assistant to Dr Goines at the Virology lab. His case is full of biological substances, in test tubes. he breaks one open, waves it under the nose of the guy checking baggage. It’s already too late.

Too late too. Katharine recognises him, urges Cole to stop him. Not understanding why, Cole starts to run, dragging out the gun Jose just gave him. Peters runs. Police shoot. Cole is shot through the chest and falls. A screaming Katharine enacts his dream, runs to him. He dies in her arms. All in front of an eight year old boy who will, in thirty years time, regurgitate what he has seen as a series of dreams, unaware that he has just watched himself die.

On the plane, Dr Peters settles into his seat. The woman next to him grumbles about the shooting, about the world. She’s in insurance, her name is Jones. As she leans into shot to shake Peters’ hand, we recognise her. She is the chief of the scientists who instruct Cole, thirty years into the future.

It’s an ironic ending, though the film’s last shot is on young James Cole’s eyes. There’s been speculation about ‘Dr Jones’s presence. Cole’s job all along was to find the people behind the virus so a scientist could go back to analyse it and produce the antivirus for the future’s future. Has he therefore succeeded? But ‘Dr Jones’ in 1996 is significantly younger than in the future. Is this coincidence? Is her remark that she’s in insurance to signify that she intends, after all, to change the past, perhaps by killing Peters? But he has already released the virus in Philadelphia: since this is Jones’s younger self, and Peters has infected himself, he has now infected her and the future will change as a consequence. But how can it, given that it has already inserted itself into the past, by Jones sending Cole back…

12 Monkeys was only the second film of Terry Gilliam’s directing career that he had not written, or co-written himself. The film was inspired by the 1962 French short, La Jetee, written by Chris Marker, which was optioned for a remake, and the script was written by David and Janet Peoples (David Peoples also scripted Blade Runner and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgotten). Gilliam brings a visual style to a complex script that operates on many levels and has considerably more subtle moments than even those I’ve chosen to highlight. From the outset, from the initial dream sequence that we learn is no dream, the film enthralls, and leads us, constantly demanding answers, which it delivers in rapid-fire sequence at the end, by which time we have spent two hours in a fugue state where the reality of the film has overtaken our personal reality.

I have found it hard to shake off the emotional state of mind the film created, where uncertainty was nevertheless concretely underpinned by inevitability. Some critics claim that this and Brazil as part of a dystopic trilogy of Gilliam films completed by The Zero Theorem in 2013: i shall have to definitely consider the latter for any putative Film 2019.

Film 2018: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen


When it came to going to the cinema when on holiday in the Lakes, Zeffirelli’s in Ambleside constantly disappointed. But I would always divide my week away between Ambleside and Keswick, and I didn’t even know there was a cinema in Keswick until the day I climbed Blueberry Fell and Walla Crag, walking out of the town down a street I’d never ventured so far along before, discovering a little but proud cinema. And by an ironic coincidence, what was it showing? Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Incidentally, though I didn’t learn this until this decade, I also walked down the street where Robert Neill had lived until his death in 1981.

I went that evening, an old-fashioned picture house with a big screen, ideal for the expansive nature of this film, of Terry Gilliam. I drank everything in with great enjoyment, and rolled back to my guesthouse in the quiet evening air, well satisfied.

That said, Munchausen is certainly the most problematic of Gilliam’s Trilogy of Imagination. It’s long, with a tendency to ramble a bit, it blurs the line between fantasy and reality and it tends to go for spectacle rather than structure. Of it’s two predecessors, Time Bandits is clearly the greater influence: both films are primarily episodic, and Gilliam repeats the trick of the first film, in which Kevin’s toys all appear, in mutated form, throughout the film, whereas in Munchausen, the members of a cast of players become most of the characters in the Baron’s story. And there are some memorable guest stars having some self-indulgent fun.

What Gilliam does is to put onto the screen (not for the first time) some of the incredible and unbelievable tales of the real-life Baron, a teller of tall tales, who remains popular on the continent even to this day. Gilliam puts this into the context of a siege by the Grand Turk, battering an unnamed coastal city whose ‘mayor’, Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), is a man of reason and rationality.

Gilliam signals where his loyalties lie by having Jackson demonstrate rationality to the absurd point of ordering an unusually heroic officer to be executed for demoralising the ordinary ones! To the extent that the film is an opposition between Imagination and Reality, one side’s clearly not going to get an even break.

In the midst of bombardment, a troupe of players under Henry Salt (Bill Patterson) are putting on a surprisingly lavish ‘Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ stageshow when it is denounced and interrupted by an elderly gentleman claiming to be the real Baron (John Neville), and the show being a pack of lies.

The Baron claims to be the cause of the Grand Turk’s attack and relates an absurd story of a bet with the Turk, his near-execution and his subsequent stripping of the entire Treasury – all perfectly legitimately but not taken well – leading to the present attack in an attempt to recapture him. The tale features the Baron’s legendary servants, Bertholt (a perpetually sarcastic Eric Idle), who can run at incredible speeds, Albrecht, of super-strength, Gustavus, of incredibly hearing and lungpower, and Adolphus, of incredible eyesight and accuracy.

Of course, everyone denounces it as rubbish, especially 9 year old Sally Salt, daughter of Henry (a wonderfully written and determined performance by 9 year old Sarah Polley). But when Sally loses her head at the latest attack, which has brought the Angel of Death to take Munchausen’s soul, she runs out to the ramparts, screaming at them to stop, only to witness the Baron fly towards the Turks riding on a mortar shell, and fly back riding on a cannonball!

No-one believes her, of course.

However, the Baron undertakes to lift the siege by leaving the city (in a hot air sailing ship whose balloon is constructed out of ladies’ silk knickers – thankfully, this is not set in the modern day or he’d need the entire city’s worth) to find and bring back his amazing servants. Unsurprisingly, Sally has stowed away.

It’s taken a long while to get here, and though it’s been fun to date, those who criticise Gilliam for a slow start are not without a point, because this is where the story really begins, and here is where Gilliam can gleefully abandon the fetters upon his imagination that a ‘real’ setting imposes. The only representative of rationality present is young Sally, who brings every bit of a 9 year old’s unimpressedness into trying to keep the Baron on point, and the object of the quest – saving everybody from being killed – as an objective. Never has the familiar line, ‘Can we go now?’ been so aptly repeated, and Polley brings everything to it.

We go by the Moon, via the King and Queen of the Moon – the King is Robin Williams, credited as ‘Ray D. Tutto’ (King of Everything) – and their entirely separable Heads and Bodies. Williams hams it up something rotten, Valentina Cortese does the same with a greater degree of subtlety, and there’s this hilarious gag where, the Queen’s head having come to save the Baron and his party whilst her body is in bed with the King. Sally is deeply puzzled by the Queen’s gasps, and sighs and ‘ooh’s until the Baron delicately explains that the King is tickling her feet. We nod to ourselves, wisely, and then there’s a cut to the bedchamber where the King is tickling her feet…

Then it’s off to Hell, and my favourite part of the film. Hell is the realm of Vulcan, who’s being played by Oliver Reed in a manner that I can only describe as delicately and subtly completely OTT! Reed’s roaring, for which he employs a well-good Lancashire accent is tempered by his massively overplayed attempts to be a good host and the whole thing just has me rolling on the floor every time. And this is coupled with Uma Thurman as Venus, Vulcan’s wife, first appearing on the half-shell, immediately smitten with the Baron, and taking him into the ballroom for a dance. Through the air.

The romance of the scene is busted by Reed’s hysterically funny jealousy, all accusations of ‘Strumpet!’ and ‘Floozy’ and similar epithets. Of course, the Baron gets thrown out, with Sally, Berthold and Albrecht, into the South Seas, where they’re swallowed by a massive sea-monster.

No guest roles here, just Gustavus, Adolphus and another grab by the Angel of Death, beaten off by Sally’s one-track-mindedness, and once the Monster is forced to sneeze them out, courtesy of a modicum of snuff, we’re back at the Town and the siege.

The Baron’s full of plans of attack but Sally, despairing at last, points out that his servants are all old, and can’t do it any more. Very well, the Baron insists, I said I’d relieve the siege and I will, and he marches off to the Grand Turk to offer himself up for beheading. Jackson’s there, efficiently and scientifically negotiating the date on which the Turks will surrender (we surrendered last time, it’s your turn).

For the first time in the film, something doesn’t ring true, and there will be another such moment along soon, but for now let us relish that the Baron’s willingness to sacrifice himself galvanises everyone into showing off their strengths, resulting in the complete routing of the Turk and the saving of the town.

Everyone pours out and celebrates the Baron as their saviour. Everyone except Jackson, of course, who lurks with a sniper’s rifle in a high tower, determined to have his way, and shooting the Baron through the back. The Baron dies, amidst much mourning, and is buried in state.

At which point, we’re back on stage, the Baron’s concluding his story by explaining that’s just one of the many times he’s died, and how refreshing it can be. It’s all been a story (of course it has, but whose?) Jackson confronts him, arresting him for spreading fantasies when everyone’s in such danger, but Munchausen claims the Turks are gone. His confidence inspires the crowd to open the gates, against every attempt by Jackson to enforce reality, and true enough, the besiegers are gone and all is the devastation of the Baron’s story.

So, was it all true after all? Sally, the junior representative of reality has come over to the Baron’s side, and the audience is willing to go along for the ride, having had a great deal of fun, but we really do have to put our feet down here and admit that Gilliam has, in the end, let the film get away from him. I’m all for Imagination and Reality being thoroughly mixed together, without a point-by-point explanation as to which bit is supposed to be which, and Time Bandits‘s ending is a superb example of that.

But Gilliam in the end lets his visceral loathing for order and restriction overrule his sense of decent storytelling. Let’s go back to those three moments I’ve picked out with Jackson (Pryce is, of course, absolutely brilliant in the role). Having the heroic officer executed is a great black joke, and the fact that it’s Sting makes it delicious for the non-Police fans among us. But it’s a logical idea, albeit a twist version of logic.

But Gilliam loses it with Jackson at the end. If the man is supposed to be emblematic of Reason, then to have him negotiating not just the continuation of battle, and the ensuing death, destruction and mayhem, as a properly scientific approach to war is breaching your own internal logic. It isn’t twisted, it’s beyond logic.  It’s hating your ‘opponent’ and putting words in his mouth to make him even more despicable.

And the same goes for the assassination bit. By now, Gilliam isn’t working to any kind of logic at all. He’s obsessed, fanatically stamping his feet like any baby demanding his way, and it comes close to blowing the film completely because it shows he’s lost control.

Which is a shame because in every other respect, I love this film, and it’s tremendous fun to watch, but it is flawed, and whilst the flaws are minor, they go to the heart of Gilliam’s themes in not just this movie, but also its two predecessors.

That’s now four fantasy films in four weeks, and next Sunday marks the halfway point of this project. Time for something a little more serious, I think, to celebrate.

Film 2018: Brazil


I never went to the cinema when I was on holiday in the Lake District. This had nothing to do with the puritanical belief that days on the fells and nights at the flicks didn’t mingle and everything to do with the way that the schedule of films at Zeferrellis in Ambleside showed that the film I wanted to see had been on last week, or was due next week (or, sometimes, both), but the one playing now wasa pile of poop.

Brazil was the exception, yet even that didn’t break the sequence. The film that week was indeed a pile of poop, but there was a one-off, late night showing, starting at 10.30pm and ending close to 1.00am. It was strangely fitting: a wide-open space, a small audience, a big screen on which to watch Terry Gilliam’s astonishing, coherent, fully-integrated vision unroll to its stunning ending, and coming out into the silent night, slipping quickly through empty streets I’d never seen at that hour before or since, into bed to get the hours needed before another day in the open air.

No matter how often I’ve re-watched it, knowing now where that unbelievable final section leads, Brazil never disappoints. Indeed, thirty-odd years onwards, in an era that makes its effects look primitive for all they are utterly convincing, it remains an immersive experience, one that takes several minutes to shake off after the credits finish running.

As a story, the film is surprisingly simple once dissected. Due to an unforeseeable error, the wrong man is arrested. Jill Layton, a neighbour, attracts suspicion by protesting this. Sam Lowry, a wilfully bored minor bureaucrat tries to save her from this attention. The outcome is disaster. Put like that, it’s an awfully skeletal story, but so is ‘A group of seven mercenaries, for their differing reasons, agree to defend a village from Bandits’, and we know what classic film was built on that foundation.

What Gilliam does is to bring an especially powerful visual imagination, allied to a hatred of bureaucracy, and bound into a hybrid of dystopian SF and slapstick comedy, to life on the shoestring of this plot. There are psychological levels driving the story, and changing its course, homages to other classic films, a strong cast (when Robert de Niro plays a bit part, you have a strong cast), and a complex mosaic of of incident, display and example that places the insane society of the film onto a well-grounded and completely believable footing.

The film’s most obvious inspiration is 1984. The year is never given but the film was made in 1984 and released the following year, and Gilliam very intelligently places the look of the future in the style of the past, specifically that of 1948, when Orwell wrote his legendary book. Over this, he lays an Orwellian dictatorial bureaucracy, based upon suspicion and paranoia, Nazi-imagery in security uniforms and building construction, with an information technology equivalent to the then-modern age but expressed in Heath Robinson-esque equipment: small screen television style monitors fitted with magnifying glass screens, keyboards like pre-War typewriters and largescale cabling like gigantic spaghetti in its profusion, contained in ducts, ducts, ducts, everywhere.

Yes, and a fully-maintained pneumatic tube communication system, which is glorious.

What starts the insanity is the tiniest thing possible. This is a fly, that annoys an anonymous bureaucrat into swatting it. It falls into his machine, changing the name on an arrest warrant, from freelance Heating Engineer Archibald Tuttle to cobbler Archibald Buttle. Buttle is arrested, in an horrific scene of home invasion by gun-bearing, black-clad, jackbooted, black-helmeted officers, bursting through ceiling, door, window, wrecking a small, cheap apartment, fitting Buttle into a straitjacket, making his wife sign a receipt for him (in duplicate), and bearing him off, leaving his wife and two small children. The replacement hole-plug for the bored-through ceiling – which is the floor for upstairs neighbour, truck-driver Jill Leyton (Kim Greist) – is the wrong size.

This becomes a mini-theme for this world of bureaucrat, form-filling comprehensiveness. Quite apart from the obvious drawbacks of a fascist system, it keeps making minor mistakes. The nature of the system makes correcting them almost impossible, and indeed their effects multiply rapidly, and as we’ll see, fatally: there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s clearly enemy action, this Government has been fighting against terrorists for thirteen years. Bombs keep going off, but the terrorists are never seen, or identified. Their invisible presence means that anyone drawing attention to themselves in this horrific world is automatically suspected of being a terrorist. And, in a sadly accurate prefiguration of today, suspicion is proof of guilt, especially when interrogation is torture. The torturer, all white coats, surgical precision, happy, secure, family man, Jack Link, is played by Michael Palin, whose smiling niceness does nothing to hide his total amorality.

One of Jack’s friends is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce in a role he says was the highlight of his career). Sam is a minor bureaucrat, a very clever one, with total command of all his systems, whose boss, Mr Kurtzman (Ian Holm) utterly depends on him. Sam is in an anonymous backwater and loves it: his mother (Katherine Helmond), who is otherwise obsessed with cosmetic surgery to reduce her age by decades, is ambitious for him and wants to get him promotions. Sam just wants to be left alone. He lives alone, isn’t interested in mother’s attempts to fix him up with the awkward Shirley, daughter of her best friend, wants to maintain the emptiness of his existence.

But Sam dreams and daydreams, and in his dreams he’s a flying warrior, in silver armour, soaring the clouds and coming to the rescue of a lovely long-blonde-haired damsel in distress, floating in the air, dressed only in a long diaphonous white dress. She’s constantly under threat, from escalating dangers that symbolise Sam’s real-life experiences. She is being played by the short, spiky-haired Greist in a floaty wig, which gives us a clue towhat’s going to happen.

The Buttle mistake results in an unprecedented thing – a refund cheque. It’s finagled into Kurtzman’s department where Sam, kind-hearted, agrees to get rid of it by the unorthodox step of actually taking it to Buttle’s widow and getting her to sign a receipt. Whilst there, he sees Jill, his dream girl.

In a subtle foreshadowing of the film’s ending, Sam cracks up. From here until the end of the film, he is driven entirely by obsession over Jill. She’s a perfect stranger, from an entirely different social strata, an American in Britain, and she has a phobia about having her personal space invaded on top of her loathing of the bureaucracy that has crushed the Buttle’s and which Sam represents, but she’s literally the girl of his dreams. Even if the girl of his dreams is a helpless, Rapunzel-like damsel, existing only to be saved.

But not only is Sam driven by his obsession with finding Jill, and protecting her from the state that sees her as a terrorist (and he can’t be sure she isn’t), but his every act is that of the noble warrior. He’s already living in a fantasy, of getaways and shoot-outs and the hero winning the day without any thought of the chaos he causes that has to be mopped up immediately behind him. Sam will save the girl, the day, the world.

Watching this morning, I began to wonder exactly when the fantasy takes over. Sam is knocked out and arrested for being too close to another bomb. He’s released (?) back to his new role in Information Retrieval, where he blows the pneumatic tubes, Jill turns up at his apartment all lovey-dovey, he takes her to his mother’s whilst he erases her from the system for her protection, comes back to find her in a long, flowing, blonde wig. They shag each other senseless.

Then, in the morning, the same home invasion scene is re-enacted. Sam is taken prisoner, processed through the system. His only thought is Jill. It’s all a mistake, he’s not a terrorist. The disabled Deputy Minister who’s been his (sinister) sponsor, Mr Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), tells him Jill was killed resisting arrest. Sam laughs it off: no, that was him. Oddly, she seems to have died twice… Then it’s torture at the hands of Jack, furious at Sam’s selfishness in putting him through this.

Until Jack is shot through the head. Tuttle and the resistance rapelle into the chamber from above, free Sam. There’s a running gun battle as the break out of the Ministry, a bomb to destroy it, triggered by a glorious old-fashioned plunger. Sam and Tuttle go on the run through a shopping centre, but the floating papers attach themselves to Tuttle, swathe him entirely, and when Sam tears them off, there is no body.

The black-clad troopers chase him to the funeral for his mother’s friend. His mother is surrounded by young men, eager for her rejuvenated body: she now has Jill’s face. Sam is surrounded and fall through the coffin into the streets of his daydreams, surrounded by nightmares. He steps through a door in a wall, finds himself back on Jill’s truck. She’s driving it. She’s alive. They drive off into the sunset, set up home in the country.

Until Helpmann and Jack’s heads appear across the sky.He’s got away from us, they sadly agree. And Sam has, in the only realistic way he could: into catatonia. It’s the ending of The Prisoner again, only this time explicit. The mind – insanity in an insane situation – is the only escape.

As I said above, the film takes a turn into a less certain reality even earlier. Clearly, Sam’s mind snaps at the moment Jack Link is ‘shot’. But Sam’s balance is lost, irretrievably, as soon as he sees Jill, and I now have trouble accepting that anything from his first knocking out until the moment he’s pleading with Jack to spare him is real, on the same level of reality as before.

If I’m right, then Gilliam has been even more subtle than I’d previously realised. The return to Information Retrieval, his destruction of the system, the lovely horribleness of Tuttle’s comeuppance for the two official Heating Engineers (Bob Hoskins in a very effective cameo), and the whole thing with Jill suddenly wanting nothing more than to be all over him like a cheap suit, that too is not real. It’s just a daydream. As Sam tried to take his daydreams into his real life, with disastrous results, now he’s incorporating his real life into his daydreams. But his success has a trap door in it: sooner or later, we always wake up.

No matter how little we want to.

Waking up from Brazil is a difficult process. Though it creates its effects by being an alternate past in an alternate future, like The Prisoner it is incredibly prescient about our real future and present. There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned, like the homages to The Third Man, and even Fantasia, which come in the reality-daydream sequence, and Battleship Potemkin, after that. And apparently Gilliam was unhappy with Greist, who was something like eighth choice for the part, and cut or edited some of her scenes, but I enjoyed her performance.

I enjoyed it all. From the Ambleside streets long after midnight to South Reddish on a cloudy Sunday, and everywhere between and to be. And why is it called Brazil? For that, you have to wait until the film’s very last word…

Film 2018: Time Bandits


I’d originally planned to start Terry Gilliam’s ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ next week, what with today supposed to be a working Sunday. But what with other, larger changes elsewhere, that obligation’s been lifted, and here we are.

Like several films in this series, my first introduction to Time Bandits came through Barry Norman and Film 81. It was also highly rated in NME, which I was still taking weekly, and I approached it expecting good things, and Gilliam provided these in bulk.

The film’s credits list its copious stars, famous folk throughout, though Katherine Helmond might need a bit of explaining to contemporary audiences (she had starred in the massively popular US spoof-soap, Soap). But almost without exception, these are cameo roles, stars of their own scenes through which the title characters plummet headlong. These are Kevin, an 11 year old boy, played by Craig Warnock, and six dwarves, Randall, Wally, Vermin, Strutter, Fidget and Og.

Time Bandits, written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, is a brilliant romp through time and space. It’s an expansively ambitious film made on a shoestring budget that makes maximum use of imagination to cover the gaps in he budget for the kind of heavy-duty SFX/CGI you’d get today. Without ever looking cheap, the direction spurs the audience into using its own imagination to help complete the illusions the film has to suggest rather than rub in your face.

Kevin’s an 11 year old boy at that stage of eager enthusiasm for knowledge. He’s an information sponge, anxious for more, fired by everything he reads, whereas his parents are pure materialists, interested only in newer ‘labour-saving’ gadgets. It’s all very mundane, until a horse ridden by a knight in armour gallops through his wardrobe door, jumps his bed and races off down a tree-lined country lane that turns out to be a photo on his bedroom wall. After that, mundanity doesn’t get a shout.

The next things to emerge from Kevin’s wardrobe are six dwarves, dressed in various sets of ragged clothing, bearing a map of creation. Sorry, Creation. They’re supposed to be filling in the holes but have decided to exploit them by robbing all of history. When the Supreme Being (‘you mean God?’ ‘well, we don’t know him that well…’) as a disembodied head and voice comes in pursuit, they push Kevin’s bedroom wall about a hundred yards down a hitherto unsuspected hallway until it falls off and, with a terrified Kevin tearing after them, fall into a timehole.

Here is where the fun starts, Gilliam wisely goes for fun and crisp cameos over the first half of the film, with the Bandits flipping back and forth in time, robbing as they go. Ian Holm plays a Napoleon self-conscious of his height who loves Punch & Judy shows for the ‘leetle creatures hitting each other’, John Cleese is a decidedly upper-class Robin Hood, in Prince-Charles-visiting-a-factory mode, amongst dirty, slovenly, brutish Men whose Merriness is decidedly dubious, and Sean Connery plays a gorgeously straight role as King Agamemnon, whose adopts the abandoned Kevin as his son before Randall & Co steal him back.

(I recall an interview many years ago about Connery’s participation in the film, in which the Producers sent him a copy of the script to read, confessing to not having the budget to pay him: Connery loved it so much, he said he’d do it for whatever they could afford. And he was right.)

There’s also recurring cameos for co-writer Palin and Shelley Duval as unfortunate lovers, Vincent and Pansy, which are mini-delights.

Now the film could keep doing this as long as it wanted, and the budget lasted, as far as I was concerned, butthere’s no ending with that, so Gilliam introduces Evil, played with characteristic cartoon nastiness by David Warner. Evil wants to get hold of the map so he can overwrite Creation: after all, he’s got a better idea ofwwhat to do with it that the Supreme Being, none of this 43 different kinds of parrot, it’s going to be lasers, 8.00am Monday morning.

So Evil starts bending things towards leading the Bandits into the Time of Legends, via the Titanic, of course. Which is where things start to get seriously goofy. Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond cameo as ogres on a sailing ship that turns out to be the hat of a bulky giant walking underwater, who leads them into a desert with an invisible wall that, in my favourite effect of the film, shatters when a skull is thrown against it, as if the filmscreen itself is shattering. Behind it is the mega-gigantic Fortress of Ultimate Darkness which, sorry Peter Jackson, from the first instant I saw it was my personal vision of the Barad-Dur.

And Gilliam piles on visual excitement after visual excitement as Evil confronts the Dwarves in a ghastly gameshow parody above a humungous walltop maze, the dwarves escape from a locked cage swinging above a massive emptiness and return with historical reinforcements – knights, cowboys, spaceships, archers, a tank, all of which prove spectacularly ineffective against Evil.

It’s a glorious compendium of toys turned real: a sharp eye can detect every single thing that appears in the film among the toys in Kevin’s bedroom. The pure, unfettered imagination of a kid, something Gilliam’s always been superb at conjuring up, is what drives this film.

And then, somewhat bathetically, Evil turns into a carbon statue, is knocked over and destroyed, by the Supreme Being, only this time it’s Ralph Richardson in a suit, giving a acerbically disdainful, Superior-than-thou performance. He’s pleased at the test he’s given his Creation, especially Evil. But now, back to work.

The incredulous Kevin does challenge God on why so many people have had to be killed to test his creation, but that’s a deeply-loaded theological question and 11 year old Kevin is just the latest to get a determinedly deaf ear turned to it by the Supreme Being. Then he’s left behind, with an overlooked bit of Evil starting to smoke, sulphurously.

Which turns into his house on fire and his bedroom door being smashed down in a deliberate echo of the beginning of the film, and rescued by a fireman who turns out to be Agamemnon. And Kevin finds all his polaroids of his trip in his satchel, proving it to have been real. The fire’s been started by something left in the microwave all night, something black and carbonised: the last piece of Evil. And despite, or more likely because of his horrified shout not to touch it, his Mum and Dad touch it. And they explode.

The fireman drive off. Kevin is left outside his burned out house, his parents now two wisps of smoke curling upwards from their scorched slippers. It’s a weirdly downbeat, even frightening ending, showing Kevin losing everything real, yet excluded from Time and Creation.holy Grail

I now understand that at one point, Gilliam planned a sequel. He certainly left himself a solid base on which to build one but his plans were abandoned after the loss of David Rappaport (Randall), who committed suicide, and Jack Purvis (Wally), who was paralysed after being crushed against a wall by his own car.

Time Bandits was Gilliam’s third film as a Director, after Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky. It was, as I said, the first in a ‘Trilogy of Imagination’. This was the vhild’s imagination, and it was great and flowing. Next week, we’ll have the second film, which is even better.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus


You could possibly say that I had a deprived childhood. There was this programme on BBC TV, late on Sunday evenings, with a weird title, that made me curious. All I had to go on was the name in the TV schedules: what on Earth could it be about? When I mentioned it to my parents, said I’d like to see it to see what it was about, they said it was rubbish. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

That wasn’t much by itself. It was at school where it got serious. By this time, the programme had moved to Thursday evenings, I think (I could look all this up, but when you’re in the shadowy areas of distant memory, it’s best not to let facts taint anything). And Friday morning would come round and I’d arrive at school and it was like a nightmare. Spam? Spam? Why’s everybody going round saying spam all the time? And what’s this sudden fascination with being a Lumberjack?

I had no idea what it was all about, and my status at school was sufficiently shaky as to deter me from asking questions. I was already so far behind everybody when it came to knowing things about the outside world that being confessedly outside this… this… hell, I had no idea what it was but it was obviously so massively popular that I didn’t dare ask what the thing was.

Well, eventually, I came to know that these Friday morning mystery obsessions were sketches – long long since classics – from the oddly named Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Not that I still ever got to see these things for myself, since my parents still thought it was rubbish and wouldn’t have it on. They’d been pretty hip about Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In but this was another order of things.

But it means that, seemingly alone among all my contemporaries, I was immune to the fascination and hilarity of one of the seminal comedy programmes of all time. I missed the whole thing when it was there to be experienced, I was further ostracised through ignorance and, when I did finally get to see these programmes and sketches and insanity for myself, I couldn’t relax into just watching and laughing. I was self-conscious about my massive gap in knowledge, and I couldn’t just take in any sketch when I was constantly going, ‘oh, so that’s what they were talking about’.

If I’d watched Monty Python in the ordinary way, probably I’d have been in hysterics at what I was seeing. I was already developing an antic sense of humour that took delight in anarchy and improbability, and I had a burgeoning loyalty towards the even more seminal comedy that inspired the Pythons themselves, The Goon Show.

To the best of my recollection, I’d actually only heard one Goon Show by that time, a Saturday night repeat that included a gag that I remember to this day which had me rolling on the floor laughing. But I’d been introduced to the Goons through the wonderfully silly puppet version, The Telegoons, and its comic strip version in TV Comic.

I wouldn’t properly get into the Goons in their serious form until the Seventies and, truth to tell, they hold the place in my funny bone that those of my generation reserve for Monty Python. That chance was missed, and it can’t be created retrospectively.

The only Monty Python I did see when it came out was the fifth and final John Cleese-less series, which everyone agrees wasn’t up to their standards. I’ve seen the films, two of them in the cinema, I heard the Live at the Hollywood Bowl album innumerable times (the fact that I relatively quickly got bored with shrieks of ‘Albatross!’ suggests that I might not have been the ideal receptive audience after all), and I’ve seen most if not all of the programmes.

I’ve even seen all the unwiped episodes of the two series that fed into Python, the BBC’s At Last the 1948 Show and ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set, the later of which I’d watched and loved when it came out.

That one featured Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. And Terry Jones is why I’m rummaging through these memories today. Terry Jones, a very funny man, a very intelligent man, a very likeable man, whose family yesterday disclosed that he is suferring from progressive primary aphasia, a form of dementia.

Why do these things happen to the best and the brightest? Though the tide seems to have rolled back in recent months, this has been a devastating year for the loss of the immensely talented, and it is as bad to hear of someone like Terry Jones being affected in this manner as it would be to hear of his death. There are those who would say that dignity and being a Python are things that should never be placed in the same sentence, and they’re not only those who, like my parents, found nothing of what the Pythons did to be funny. But dammit, I may not have the attachment to Terry and the gang that my generation owns, but he doesn’t deserve this.

Nobody does. But some don’t deserve it more than others.

Memories die. Times fade. I will always remember the sheer, hopeless bemusement of those Friday mornings as Terry and the Pythons moved the world away from me on a weekly basis.