Happy birthday (1940) to Terence Vance “Terry” Gilliam, U.S. born, naturalized British screenwriter, film director, animator, actor, and member of the Monty Python team. Gilliam has directed several films, including Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). He is a rare example of someone I choose to celebrate here who is still alive.
Gilliam was born in Minneapolis to Beatrice (née Vance) and James Hall Gilliam. His father was a traveling salesman for Folgers before becoming a carpenter. Soon after, they moved to nearby Medicine Lake, Minnesota. The family moved to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Panorama City in 1952. Gilliam attended Birmingham High School where he was class president and senior prom king. He was voted “Most Likely to Succeed”, and earned straight A’s. During high school, he began to avidly read Mad magazine, then edited by Harvey Kurtzman, which would later influence Gilliam’s work.
Gilliam later spoke to Salman Rushdie about defining experiences in the 1960s that would set the foundations for his views on the world, later influencing his art and career:
I became terrified that I was going to be a full-time, bomb-throwing terrorist if I stayed [in the U.S.] because it was the beginning of really bad times in America. It was ’66–’67, it was the first police riot in Los Angeles. […] In college my major was political science, so my brain worked that way. […] And I drove around this little English Hillman Minx—top down—and every night I’d be hauled over by the cops. Up against the wall, and all this stuff. They had this monologue with me; it was never a dialogue. It was that I was a long-haired drug addict living off some rich guy’s foolish daughter. And I said, “No, I work in advertising. I make twice as much as you do.” Which is a stupid thing to say to a cop. […]
And it was like an epiphany. I suddenly felt what it was like to be a black or Mexican kid living in L.A. Before that, I thought I knew what the world was like, I thought I knew what poor people were, and then suddenly it all changed because of that simple thing of being brutalized by cops. And I got more and more angry and I just felt, I’ve got to get out of here—I’m a better cartoonist than I am a bomb maker. That’s why so much of the U.S. is still standing.
Gilliam started his career as an animator and strip cartoonist. One of his early photographic strips for Help! featured future Python cast-member John Cleese. When Help! folded, Gilliam went to Europe, jokingly announcing in the very last issue that he was “being transferred to the European branch” of the magazine, which of course did not exist. Moving to England, he animated sequences for the children’s series Do Not Adjust Your Set, which also featured Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.
Gilliam was a part of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from its outset, at first credited as an animator (his name was listed separately after the other five in the closing credits), later as a full member. His cartoons linked the show’s sketches together, and defined the group’s visual language in other media (such as LP and book covers, and the title sequences of their films). Gilliam’s animations mix his own art, characterized by soft gradients and odd, bulbous shapes, with backgrounds and moving cutouts from antique photographs, mostly from the Victorian era.
Here is a compilation of Gilliam’s Monty Python animations.
Besides doing the animations, he also appeared in several sketches, though he rarely had any main roles and did considerably less acting in the sketches. He did however have some notable sketch roles such as Cardinal Fang of the Spanish Inquisition, the bespectacled commenter who said “I can’t add anything to that!” from the Election Night Special sketch, Kevin Garibaldi (the brat on the couch shouting “I want more beans!” from “Most Awful Family in Britain 1974”, Episode 45) and the Screaming Queen in a cape and mask singing “Ding dong merrily on high.” More frequently, he played parts that no one else wanted to play (generally because they required a lot of make-up or uncomfortable costumes, such as a recurring knight in armor who would end sketches by walking on and hitting one of the other characters over the head with a plucked chicken) and took a number of small roles in the films, including Patsy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which he co-directed with Terry Jones, where Gilliam was responsible for photography, while Jones would guide the actors’ performances) and the jailer in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
With the gradual break-up of the Python troupe between Life of Brian in 1979 and The Meaning of Life in 1983, Gilliam became a screenwriter and director, building upon the experience he had acquired during the making of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Gilliam says he used to think of his films in terms of trilogies, starting with Time Bandits in 1981. The 1980s saw Gilliam’s self-written Trilogy of Imagination about “the ages of man” in Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All are about the “craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible.” All three movies focus on these struggles and attempts to escape them through imagination; Time Bandits, through the eyes of a child, Brazil, through the eyes of a thirty-something, and Munchausen, through the eyes of an elderly man.
Throughout the 1990s, Gilliam directed his Trilogy of Americana: The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), which were based on scripts by other people, played on North American soil, and while still being surreal, had less fantastical plots than his previous trilogy.
Well, I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it – I do actually like it because it says certain things. It’s about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we’re just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television’s saying, everything’s saying ‘That’s the world.’ And it’s not the world. The world is a million possible things.
As for his philosophical background in screenwriting and directing, Gilliam said on the TV show First Hand:
There’s so many film schools, so many media courses which I actually am opposed to. Because I think it’s more important to be educated, to read, to learn things, because if you’re gonna be in the media and if you’ll have to say things, you have to know things. If you only know about cameras and ‘the media’, what’re you gonna be talking about except cameras and the media? So it’s better learning about philosophy and art and architecture [and] literature, these are the things to be concentrating on it seems to me. Then, you can fly…!”
His films are usually highly imaginative fantasies. His long-time co-writer Charles McKeown comments about Gilliam’s recurring interests, “the theme of imagination, and the importance of imagination, to how you live and how you think and so on […] that’s very much a Terry theme.” Most of Gilliam’s movies include plot-lines that seem to occur partly or completely in the characters’ imaginations, raising questions about the definition of identity and sanity. He often shows his opposition to bureaucracy and authoritarian regimes. He also distinguishes “higher” and “lower” layers of society, with a disturbing and ironic style. His movies usually feature a fight or struggle against a great power which may be an emotional situation, a human-made idol, or even the person himself, and the situations do not always end happily. There is often a dark, paranoid atmosphere and unusual characters who formerly were normal members of society. His scripts feature black comedy and often end with a dark tragicomic twist.
As Gilliam is fascinated with the Baroque due to the historical age’s pronounced struggle between spirituality and logical rationality, there is often a rich baroque quality and incongruity about his movies, with, for instance, high-tech computer monitors equipped with low-tech magnifying lenses in Brazil, and in The Fisher King a red knight covered with flapping bits of cloth. He also is given to incongruous juxtapositions of beauty and ugliness, or antique and modern. Regarding Gilliam’s theme of modernity’s struggle between spirituality and rationality whereas the individual may become dominated by the tyrannical, soulless machinery of a disenchanted society, film critic Keith James Hamel observed a specific affinity of Gilliam’s movies with the writings of economic historian Arnold Toynbee and sociologist Max Weber, specifically the latter’s concept of the “Iron cage” of modern rationality.
Gilliam’s films have a distinctive look not only in mise-en-scene but even more so in photography, often recognizable from just a short clip; in order to create a surreal atmosphere of psychological unrest and a world out-of-balance, Gilliam makes frequent use of unusual camera angles, particularly low-angle shots, high-angle shots, and Dutch angles. Roger Ebert has said “his world is always hallucinatory in its richness of detail.” Most of his movies are shot almost entirely with rectilinear ultra wide angle lenses of 28 mm focal length or less in order to achieve a distinctive signature style defined by extreme perspective distortion and extremely deep focus. Gilliam’s long-time director of photography Nicola Pecorini has said, “with Terry and me, a long lens means something between a 40mm and a 65mm.” This attitude markedly differs from the common definition in photography which qualifies 40mm to 65mm as the focal length of a normal lens instead due to resembling natural human field of view, unlike Gilliam’s signature style defined by extreme perspective distortion due to his usual choice of focal length. In fact, over the years, the 14mm lens has become informally known as “The Gilliam” among film-makers due to the director’s frequent use of it since at least Brazil. Gilliam has explained his preference for using wide-angle lenses in his films:
The wide-angle lenses, I think I choose them because it makes me feel like I’m in the space of the film, I’m surrounded. My prevalent vision is full of detail, and that’s what I like about it. It’s actually harder to do, it’s harder to light. The other thing I like about wide-angle lenses is that I’m not forcing the audience to look at just the one thing that is important. It’s there, but there’s other things to occupy, and some people don’t like that because I’m not pointing things out as precisely as I could if I was to use a long lens where I’d focus just on the one thing and everything else would be out of focus.
[M]y films, I think, are better the second and third time, frankly, because you can now relax and go with the flow that may not have been as apparent as the first time you saw it and wallow in the details of the worlds we’re creating. […] I try to clutter [my visuals] up, they’re worthy of many viewings.
In another interview, Gilliam mentioned, in relation to the 9.8mm Kinoptic lens he had first used on Brazil, that wide-angle lenses make small film sets “look big”. The widest lens he has used so far is an 8mm Zeiss lens employed on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Gilliam’s first successful feature, Time Bandits (1981), earned more than eight times its original budget in the United States alone; Gilliam’s infamous box office flop The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) was nevertheless nominated for four Academy Awards (and won, among other European prizes, three BAFTA Awards); his $24 million-budgeted film The Fisher King (1991) (his first film not to feature a member from Monty Python) grossed more than $41 million at United States box office; and 12 Monkeys went on to take over US$168 million worldwide; whilst The Brothers Grimm, despite a mixed critical reception, grossed over US$105 million worldwide. Gilliam’s $30 million-budgeted film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus had also became an international box office success, grossing over $60 million in worldwide theatrical release.
Choosing a recipe for Gilliam is not easy. Practically all food images in Monty Python are revolting, most especially the sight of Gilliam lying on a sofa covered in baked beans (not to mention “it’s wafer thin,” “crunchy frog,” “albatross,” and, “but I don’t want ANY spam”). I’ll pass on giving you an image of the beans. Perhaps salmon mousse (The Meaning of Life) will do the trick provided you use fresh salmon and don’t invite the Grim Reaper. Here is a smoked salmon mousse appetizer. Should be safe!
Smoked Salmon Mousse
½ cup cream cheese
500 g/10 ½ ozs smoked salmon
1 tbsp chopped, fresh dill
juice of 1 lemon
fresh ground pepper
fresh dill for garnish
Blend all the ingredients (except the garnish) in a blender or food processor until they are completely uniform and smooth.
Spoon or pipe on to toast pieces, cucumber slices, endive leaves, etc. to make canapés, or serve in a bowl as a dip, garnished with small shreds of dill.