Terry Gilliam Movies Are All About Imagination
November 13, 2020
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Over the course of a nearly 50-year career, Terry Gilliam has established himself as one of the film industry’s most original directors. Humor writer Tom Gerencer has been a fan of Gilliam since the days of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Time Bandits.

“I’m envious of this guy who was born with this fantastic, fertile imagination superpower, and then was able to make a living off it, and make so many great works of art out of it,” Gerencer says in Episode 440 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “My hat’s really off to him. I think he’s an astounding human being.”

Science fiction author Matthew Kressel admires Gilliam’s creative vision, but is sometimes frustrated by his lack of structure. He thinks that many Gilliam films overstay their welcome or become needlessly complex.

“He’s an incredibly creative director, and I like that he’s not doing these traditional Hollywood plots,” Kressel says. “That being said, I think that one of his weaknesses is when he goes too far into his imagination, and then you lose the thread of the story.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley says that Gilliam’s whimsical worlds work best when there’s plenty of witty banter to liven things up. “His sensibility works really well when it’s really funny, and I think that Brazil and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote both have some amazingly funny character interactions,” he says.

Fantasy author Chandler Klang Smith feels that some of Gilliam’s films, such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, go too far in suggesting that imagination can overcome all obstacles. She prefers the world-weary nuance of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

“It seems like in some ways The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a more grown-up Terry Gilliam movie,” she says. “Instead of the dreamer being up against this non-existent opposition or completely our hero, it seems like dreams themselves are something that can tug in both positive and negative directions.”

Listen to the complete interview with Matthew Kressel, Tom Gerencer, and Chandler Klang Smith in Episode 440 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

David Barr Kirtley on maps:

“My favorite interview growing up was with Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series. The games all came with this actual cloth map of the fantasy world that you would explore. He said that when Time Bandits came out, he was really mesmerized by the map in the movie. There was a dollar movie theater, and he would just go over and over again, and every time the map came on the screen he would try to draw it in a spiral notebook, to figure out if there was any logic to it or not. … That always just struck me, that dedication and passion. ‘I’m going to watch the whole movie over and over again, just so I can copy down the map during the five seconds that it’s on the screen.’”

Chandler Klang Smith on imagination vs. reality:

“In [Gilliam] films there’s always a fabulist character—an escapist character, a character who represents the imagination—and in his strongest films that character meets meaningful opposition. I think that Terry Gilliam probably in his own life, in his own artistic career, has so often felt that he was battling against these opposing forces that he sometimes doesn’t want to put those forces in his stories, because he loves his characters too much. He doesn’t want them to have to endure that struggle. But when he does it, when he has the unstoppable force of the imagination run up against the immovable wall of reality, that’s when he just completely shatters me.”

Tom Gerencer on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote:

“My read on it was that Don Quixote was never a person, but Don Quixote is such a strong concept and character that he becomes this kind of independent spirit that can possess people, and so down through the ages maybe he’s just been skipping from person to person. He possessed [Jonathan Pryce], and then when his body wore out he moved into Adam Driver, and he was building that through the whole movie, getting ready for that transition. … If there would have been one more thing about ‘There was this guy who used to think he was Don Quixote in these parts as well, but he just died,’ then that would have cemented it a little more.”

Matthew Kressel on Time Bandits:

“I saw this movie in the theater, and two things scared the crap out of me. The first was when [the dwarves] come into his bedroom and start pushing on the wall, and the wall goes further and further back, and then the Supreme Being’s face comes out. ‘Give me the map.’ I think I was six years old. I was terrified. And then at the end, you’re like, ‘Oh, he’s back home.’ Then basically it ends like a horror movie. His parents touch the piece of Ultimate Evil and they vanish, and then the movie ends. And you’re like, ‘Wait, the fire department left, everyone left. This kid’s alone. He just traveled through space and time. What does he do now?’ As a kid that was horrifying.”

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