Terry Gilliam: the obsessions of this brilliant madman, from wide angle to goofy characters

On the occasion of its 80s, return to the obsessions of filmmaker Terry Gilliam, known for “Brazil”, “Monty Python: the Meaning of Life” or “The Army of 12 Monkeys”.

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It is with Brazil that Gilliam gives free rein to her cravings for crazy settings. This third feature film from the filmmaker creates a retro-futuristic universe with huge rooms filled with computers that would not be without resembling the open spaces of today’s large companies. The decor of Brazil is difficult to describe as it is visually rich and original, filled with pipes, robotic devices, cylindrical parts, curved walls … These decorations, Gilliam partly imagined them alone, thanks to his training as a designer.

As a child, the director always drew, then began to make cartoons which can be found in the Flying Circus of Monty Python. If Gilliam has a reputation for knowing exactly what he wants visually on a set, it is because he sketches and storyboards all or part of his films. His visual delusions are also allowed on the screen thanks to the use of make-up and prostheses on certain actors, real credible sets (see this excellent period document on the set of Brazil) and real accessories (like the armor with wings and the sword from the movie).


The inclined plane in “The Army of the Twelve Monkeys”

These delusions are also embodied in the bestiary of the Brothers Grimm (2005), the hallucinogenic trips of Las Vegas Parano (1998) or in the cartoonish costumes and sets of Baron de Münchausen (1989). Again in Don Quixote, the false advertisement staged by Adam Driver at the beginning of the film uses the heads of giants actually made at “real” size. We also find the filmmaker’s taste for colorful outfits during a baroque reception, a veritable masquerade that allows Gilliam to convey emotion and create the viewer’s empathy for the character played by Jonathan Pryce.


Gilliam loves playing with perspectives, which he accomplishes with the use of the “wide angle” lens. This process is used in the majority of his films of Las Vegas Parano at Tideland. Technically speaking, the wide angle increases the effect of depth and gives a “rounded” shape to the edges of the frame. Gilliam uses this to isolate characters or create twisted, weird, dreamlike worlds. Applied to a landscape, this wide-angle lens distorts the image, giving a setting a surreal and fantasized side, and applied to close-ups of faces, conveys the madness of the characters. This madness may be due to drugs (Las Vegas Parano), mental problems (The Army of 12 Monkeys) or life circumstances (Brazil).

Gilliam thus described his fascination with the wide angle (in Sequences n ° 124, in 1986): “(…) These techniques create very disturbing effects. The distortion or the mutation of space intrigues me enormously. I think it’s like trying to get the film out of the frame of the screen, like the catapult into the room. The wide angle reveals a lot of space, but at the same time creates a claustrophobic effect. The only problem is to manage to conceal the light sources “.


The wide angle in “Las Vegas Parano”

The inclined plane, also very present in Orson Welles, is another technique that Gilliam uses to reinforce the madness of his films. The fact of coupling these inclined planes with an often dynamic staging and a moving camera (by numerous recourse to the tracking shots) allows to destabilize the spectator and makes him enter more easily into a world (at least partially) imaginary.


With his first feature film (Jabberwocky, 1977), Gilliam leaves room for the viewer’s imagination by not revealing the title dragon until the very end of the film. And if he uses this technique, it is because Gilliam has always refused to give all the keys to his films to viewers. It also involves the inclusion of “twists” which often leave audiences leaving a Gilliam film with questions. The director told us in 2005 about Brothers Grimm : “Like all of my films, fairy tales are dark, funny and disturbing. And they make you think. That’s what all directors should do: entertain viewers and encourage them to think.”

This ode to the imagination is also present in Münchausen and Bandits, bandits (1982), which for its part presents a fantastic and absurd atmosphere. A sort of pastiche fairy tale borrowed from poetry and humor. It is no coincidence that it is to Gilliam that the studios have entrusted the reins of Brothers Grimm (even if the end result is not really his) or that he co-created with Charles McKeown The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009).


Chivalry and love from the past in “Brazil”

Brazil can be seen as a film about a dreamer’s struggle to escape oppressive reality, in the same way as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote maintains that it is necessary to embrace the imagination and even to appropriate it. This is what is offered thanks to the narrative arc of the character of Toby (Adam driver). The disconcerting Tideland (2006) presents him with the limitless power of the imagination with a world entirely constructed by the thought of a little girl, giving rise to wacky characters and very offbeat sequences.

The heroes “Gilliamiens” contain a part of fascinating mystery leaving the imagination of the public to fill the voids, they are marginal (Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer in Fisher King) of the deranged (Brad Pitt in The Army of the 12 monkeys , Pryce in Don Quixote) or people from the show (in Parnassus or Adam Driver in Don Quixote). These characters encourage the viewer to enter their very particular world and try to apprehend it. Gilliam enjoys this game with the public, since he told us last May: “Once I put their imagination to work, I can play with the spectator’s mind, trap them, shock them, surprise them”.


There emerges from Gilliam’s cinema a certain passion for chivalry and the medieval (even junk) with Jabberwocky, Sacred Grail or Don Quixote. We can also think of the winged armor of Brazil, in which the hero seeks to find the woman of his dreams (a princess?). In Bandits, bandits, a little boy travels through time from the time of the Titanic to that of Robin Hood, passing through an encounter with Napoleon. We also find the Grail, a castle and a king (symbolic) in King fisherman via Langdon Carmichael Tower and the character of Jeff Bridges.

Even when he embarks on futuristic worlds, Gilliam gives them a “retro” aspect. This is the case with the sets and accessories of Brazil : Jonathan Pryce’s car – very close to the 2 CV, the presence of advertisements from the 1930s and 1950s and antediluvian pipes. We also find in the post-apocalyptic world of The Army of 12 Monkeys equipment worthy of the early twentieth century. These two films are considered today as major influences of the “steampunk” current, mixing science fiction and technologies of the XIXth century. Gilliam has always been interested in this and was even for a time attached to an animated film called 1884, a story of espionage in the era of the steam engine.


The retro-futurism of “The Army of the Twelve Monkeys”

This retro-futurism is also present in Zero Theorem (2014) whose technology is revamped to the old by Gilliam. In particular, there are sheet metal pipes reminiscent of the pipes from Brazil and the pneumatic tubes of the 1980s which were used to send mail. Gilliam clearly has a nostalgia for these devices and sets.

With twelve feature films made solo, Terry Gilliam will have nourished our imagination, built a universe, given a visual identity to each of his films and made the viewer think. Isn’t that the mark of great directors?

Details hidden in Army of the Twelve Apes, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt:

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