Monday, April 09, 2007

174. Harrowing

I watched Terry Gilliam's Tideland (2005) the other night--Holy Saturday; on my way to bed, my sixteen-year-old daughter showed me a YouTube clip of Bill O'Reilley and Geraldo Rivera violently yelling at each other. That night I dreamed I attended a special screening of Tideland. We were a small group, and most of the other attendees reminded me of Eric Stolz's drug dealer in Pulp Fiction, but without the bathrobe. We were hanging around outside the theater, waiting for Gilliam himself. He never arrived, and I engaged in a strange shouting match with a fellow Gilliam-ite, in which we heaped invective upon all those who didn't like Tideland. Lucky me: my mind is a simple thing, taking two events--and adding on the side the central conceit of the world's most famous (and long-cliched) absurdist play--and simply gluing them together, like dried macaroni on a paper plate. Today, class, we're going to make a dream.

But my dream was right: There is strength in simplicity--maybe even simple-mindedness--and I'm glad to join Gilliam in exploring this fundamental urge toward--I want to say "innocence" with him; and for now I will, if only because,despite the need to cast off childish things, the fact remains that certain doors--perhaps even the Only Door--will remain locked to everyone but little children. This is a mystery, and a dream--much better than mine; and while it may seem too simple, it becomes a well-worn path, leading backward and worth following.

Tideland (2005) begins, at least on the DVD, with Gilliam, like some fey William Castle, talking to us about the movie we're about to see. He's shot in black-and-white, with his shadow looming off to the left, and he looks a bit "shagged and fagged and fashed," as Alex puts it in the Korova Milkbar, as he patiently--and maybe even a little more than mischievously--informs the audience that he has "bad news": that many of us will "hate" Tideland. He follows by asserting that others will love it, and the rest won't know what to think. He then enjoins us to go ahead and think, and talks about childhood, then--well, you can see it for yourself; I watched this little intro three times, once before seeing the movie, twice more afterward, and each time it seemed more important, as much a part of the film as any of the Misadventures in Wonderland Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) "enjoys" in the course of her "Christina's World" abandonment and literally explosive rescue.

In telling this deeply strange--and not-so-strangely familiar--story, Gilliam digs in all the way, and reaches the point he has been attempting his whole career: to make sense of Lewis Carroll's books. Look at his films:

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Jabberwocky (1977) (ahem)
Time Bandits (1981)
Brazil (1985)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
The Fisher King (1991)
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Many might argue that hiding in these movies is Don Quixote--a book he is famous for trying to film (like Orson Welles, who almost did it)--but for me there's more of the rabbit-hole than the windmill. So what is he looking for? I must admit I'm riding my own hobby-horse here, because the Alice books hold an embarrassingly firm grip on me. They speak more than most other books of the idea of Romantic dreaming, the pre-expressionistic world-building that starts from within, deeply personal, idiosyncratic--to the point of obscurity--and self-indulgent, then moves outward, to others, toward the public and the self-effacing. As we try to survive, we keep leaning on pride; but as we consider the view of children in Carroll--and Tideland--we are given the opportunity to feel the heat of that pride, until we draw away, pained, and, like Alice--and Jeliza-Rose--we lean on others.

And whose fault is it that those others so often uncoil like serpents, and smell like death? Not the child. When Alice/Jeliza-Rose feels the weight of dependence, it is the adult world that crushes. I don't want to say anything about Tideland; it is an unusual film that needs to be seen to be believed--and I mean that without sensationalism, if that is possible. But read about Alice with Tweedledum/dee, with the Walrus and the Carpenter, with the Queen of Hearts--or perhaps worst of all, the sleeping Red King, for whom Alice is "only a sort of thing in his dream"--and you'll see the book Gilliam has been trying to film all along. Carroll does offer Alice the kindly White Knight at the end--famously, the surrogate Dodgson walking into the dream--and perhaps, in his own scary way, so does Gilliam, albeit in epileptic frenzy and fireball eruptions. I will say this about Gilliam's pre-film introduction: He admits that, at age sixty-four, he has discovered "his child within," and that it is a "little girl." And he thanks us, three times a charm, as he fades into darkness to let the movie--the only one he has left--begin.

As long as I'm delving into the strangely compelling, deliriously fractal-freaky world of childhood, let's all join together:

"Happy birthday to you,
You belong in a zoo,
You look like a monkey,
And you act like one, too."

Happy Birthday, Cheeta. Seventy-five and still Boy's best friend.

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