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VIDEO ESSAY: Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy

VIDEO ESSAY: Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy

In a 1988 interview with David Morgan for Sight and Sound, Terry Gilliam proposed that the most common theme of his movies had been fantasy vs. reality, and that, after the not-entirely-happy endings of Time Bandits and Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen offered the happiness previously denied, a happiness made possible by “the triumph of fantasy”.

That
triumph is not, though, inherently happy. Gilliam’s occasional happy
endings are not so much triumphs of fantasy as they are triumphs of a
certain tone. They are the endings that fit the style and subject matter
of those particular films. More often than not, his endings are more
ambiguous, but fantasy still triumphs. Even poor Sam Lowry in Brazil
gets to fly away into permanent delusion. Fantasy is sometimes a
torment for Gilliam’s characters, but it is a torment only in that it is
haunted by reality, and reality in Gilliam is a land of pain,
injustice, and, perhaps worst of all, ordinariness.

For
if there is, generally, an overarching theme to Gilliam’s work, it is
one familiar from fairy tales, comic books, science fiction stories, and
so many other works of popular culture: the yearning of an ordinary
person to be, in truth, extraordinary — a hero, a savior, a king, a
master of the universe. (Time Bandits is Harry Potter
avant la wand, and it’s no surprise that, according to Gilliam, J.K.
Rowling and others hoped he would direct one of the movies.) Gilliam is
especially sensitive to the ins and outs of this power fantasy, and as
much as he wants to maintain the pure, innocent wonder of children’s
experience, he recognizes that in adults such wonder may be far from a
blessing. Notice, for instance, how in many of his films, including his
most recent, The Zero Theorem,
there’s a component of gendered, heterosexual fantasy: an awkward (even
schlubby) male builds up a fantasy of a beautiful (often blonde) woman
who ushers him into his heroism.

Thus, the theme song for The Zero Theorem,
Karen Souza’s sultry cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”, is deeply
appropriate not only for that film but for so much of Gilliam’s work
overall. The point of view is that of a person who sees someone as “just
like an angel” and feels not merely inadequate but repulsive: “I’m a
creep. I’m a weirdo.” Some of Gilliam’s protagonists become heroes in
the world of the film, and get to trade in their status as weirdo and
experience the life of the lauded; others have their ideas of heroism
challenged and subverted, their dreams transformed so that they can
better live in everyday life, but still: the desire to transcend
ordinary existence is common to most of them.

For
all his love of fantasy, Gilliam is enough of a realist to know that
most creeps and weirdos don’t get the girl of their dreams, or the girl
of their dreams turns out to be more human than they’d bargained for,
and so what they are left with is the pure, perfect bliss of the dream —
the triumph of fantasy. Whether, in the end, we see such a triumph as
pitiful and escapist or heartwarming and nourishing — or somewhere in
between — is up to us. The greatest triumph may be the sort we see at
the end of The Fisher King,
where after all the delusions and madness and quests and tears and
dreams we are encouraged to seek not girls to fantasize about or dragons
to slay, but ordinary moments to infuse with wonder.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

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