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Loony Bin: Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland”

Loony Bin: Terry Gilliam's "Tideland"

It’s amazing the mental leaps one will make in attempts to compensate for a trusted filmmaker’s deficiencies. Delusions of mad, misunderstood genius fall away quickly in Terry Gilliam‘s “Tideland.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but what Terry Gilliam’s latest creation elicits from its first moments is that most unsubtle of reactions, for which not even the notoriously negative word-of-mouth quite prepares you, namely: “WTF?” Reducing the work of the director responsible for such heady contributions to cinema as “Brazil,” “Twelve Monkeys,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” to that single expression may seem glib, but there’s no other way to encapsulate the utterly baffling experience of “Tideland.”

And though I’ve sat through many a movie suffering from muddled meanings or meanderings, never have I emerged from a screening at such a loss. Attempting to untangle and address the mess, I’m beset by guilt: Do I really want to fault a filmmaker who—end result aside—clearly strives heartily towards the realization of some greater vision? Shouldn’t he be given credit for the attempt of something so unusual? No and yes, and yet, searching for some way to fit “Tideland” into my cinematic worldview, I come back each time empty-handed.

Adapted by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni from Mitch Cullen‘s novel of the same name, “Tideland,” according to the press release, “celebrates the resiliency of childhood and the power of the imagination.” Well, okay, but it doesn’t exactly play that way. You start off giving Gilliam the benefit of the doubt, looking carefully for signs of authentic subversion lurking beneath such affected depravity. A child, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), is left to fend for herself on an isolated farm after her junkie parents OD within days of each other. What with opening scenes featuring Jennifer Tilly‘s white trash mama hurling expletives willy nilly and Jeliza-Rose administering her dad’s (Jeff Bridges) daily fixes, Gilliam must be deliberately seeking to repulse, to prod his audience out of complacent viewing… right?

Yet such hopes are impossible to sustain under the weight of the nearly interminable amounts of time given over to Jeliza-Rose playing with the heads of her four dolls, each with its own place in the pecking order–British-accented Mystique being the favored friend. If that sounds as annoying as being forced to sit through a stranger’s home videos—albeit, some more arrestingly shot than usual—well, it is. And it doesn’t help that “Tideland”—with its young female protagonist, golden wheat waving in the wind, and iconographic train chugging across the screen—distractingly calls to mind and compares unfavorably with another Terry’s (Malick, that is) meditation, “Days of Heaven.” Periods of play are broken up only by encounters with the neighboring taxidermist (Janet McTeer) and her mentally challenged younger brother (Brendan Fletcher), and facile references to “Alice in Wonderland.” But since the imaginative buoyancy of childhood is a cliche, and the rest of the narrative terrain remains flat, basic questions arise: So what? Why should I care? And, more pressing: What is the point?

As Gilliam belabors his empty provocations (In a stab at shock-horror, the taxidermist embalms the father’s body right before young Jeliza-Rose’s eyes), a sense of being somehow violated intensifies. “Tideland” isn’t conscious exacerbation towards an enlightened end, but oblivious, bad-boy posturing. In this bizarro world, defining characteristics of the director’s work–comically exaggerated characters, aggressive angles, and lurid compositions–work against rather than for him; the in-your-face quality feels like an assault when combined with such grating grotesquerie. And much as a fan might wish to find some redeeming value in these proceedings, there isn’t much you can do with a film for which the best that can be said is this: At least we’re spared the little girl getting it on with the lobotomized kid.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]

A scene from Terry Gillam’s “Tideland”. Photo provided by ThinkFilm

Take 2
By Neal Block

Like the farting grandmother from “Duckman,” Jeff Bridges’s decaying, gaseous corpse stands (or slumps) throughout Terry Gilliam’s new film as a reminder that, in the eyes of the immensity of this world, we’re pretty much just organic material, always dying and always nearly dead. Mr. Gilliam forcefully opens our eyes, and our bile glands, to this truth with “Tideland,” his singularly nauseating trip through the looking glass, where a little girl”s imagination simultaneously helps her escape her morbid, frightening surroundings while drawing her into an even more morbid and frightening situation, this one complete with pedophilia and talking squirrels and train wrecks instead of dirty needles and dead moms and dads. Bridges’s body, dressed in pretty clothes and slathered with garish make-up by his daughter as the decomposition progresses, may as well also serve as a condemnation of Gilliam’s own filmmaking here, the odorous rot of which which no amount of expert photography or stunning scenery can possibly hide.

It would be easy to write this film off as, say, Gilliam’s “Gigli,” a laughable, easy to dimiss, groan-worthy mistake, if it weren’t so very hard to forget. The images are like shadows burned into your skull after a nuclear blast. “Tideland” isn’t the work of a director returning to the dark fantasy and abstract abnormlity of his previous films; it’s a nose-dive into the ill-advised direction Gilliam had been taking since “The Brothers Grimm,” and from which, after this, he very possibly might never escape.

[Neal Block is Reverse Shot’s business manager and works for Magnolia Pictures.]

A scene from Terry Gillam’s “Tideland”. Photo provided by ThinkFilm

Take 3
By James Crawford

“Tideland” takes house-of-horrors and dysfunctional family grotesquery and sublimates it, under the guise of “Alice in Wonderland” escapism, into a world of childlike wonder and ingenuousness. It might seem odd, then to describe the film as hermetic, but it is, because though Terry Gilliam exposes young Jeliza-Rose to any number of depredations, there’s very little evidence of motivation, internally or externally, why he needs to do so. Gilliam can be an ideologue, usually in the form of ruminating about the violent dislocations inherent in social structures (“Brazil” and “12 Monkeys” by way of evoking future dystopia; “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by way of Sixties drug culture), but if he’s making critical overtures in “Tideland,” then they’re pretty facile: a heroin addict couple to excoriate awful parents; an inescapable universe of death and decay to demonstrate the imagination and resiliency of children.

Having shot “Tideland” hard on the heels of “The Brothers Grimm,” Gilliam was no doubt steeped in the idea of myth, but his fascination seems to have is more on form and less on content—an obsession with its mechanics without the idea of having to delve beneath the monstrous surface to arrive at some moral imperative or lesson. At least a film like Rob Zombie‘s “House of 1000 Corpses,” and its nonstop spectacle of viscera, both inside and outside bodies, is built in homage to the horror genre with a lucid intelligence and understanding of its own outlandish hyperbole. Gilliam uses his narrative as a vehicle to exorcise his own demons and indulge his most eccentric preoccupations. If I’m going to be exposed to over two increasingly mundane hours of rotting corpses and taxidermy, not to mention threats of pedophilia, and necrophilia, I need to be edified at least a little bit.

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