Wed, 24 May 2000

Gilliam's fantastic vision on display at film center

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): Bless Terry Gilliam for transporting our dreams to the movie screens. Many a filmmaker has claimed such an achievement, but none has ever quite done it like he has, delivering richly textured, visually striking dream vistas before us and for brief moments, making us believe they are really occurring next to the reality we perceive as our absolute existence.

Gilliam's films are often funny, surreal, outlandish as well as scary, depressing and somewhat nightmarish. But more than just thrilling, two-hour spectacles, his movies tend to offer profound, thought-provoking ideas that are bound to linger in the memory.

His most unforgettable work is his 1985 film, Brazil, which cemented his reputation as one of the world's most significant filmmakers. The film depicts an Orwellian world where individuals are trapped in dull, routine lives while an authoritarian government keeps a watchful eye.

The film's central figure is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), an employee at a sinister ministry of information, whose life is divided into his uninteresting work and thinking about a beautiful blonde (Kim Greist) who keeps appearing in his dreams.

His life suddenly gets a jolt when he spots the woman in real life and proceeds to pursue her, only to realize that she may be part of a terrorist movement wanted by the government. Sam is torn between staying loyal to his employers and getting the woman of his dreams.

This short description of the film gives a false impression of a simple storyline. In fact, Brazil has a complex, nonlinear structure with deep, ambiguous meanings that keep the audience guessing and may offer multiple interpretations with each viewing.

Gilliam wrote the film with Charles McKeown and playwright /screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who last year won an Oscar for co- writing Shakespeare in Love), and this insane collaboration resulted in a zany but frightening piece that gave the trio an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Although the story is obviously inspired by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984 -- Gilliam at first even thought of naming the film 1984 -- the film leaves a more lasting impression than the filmed version of 1984, which was released the year before.

Gilliam followed Brazil with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1989, and it is just as lavish and as visually striking as the earlier film, and similarly structured around another well-known fantasy story. With the title role played by British actor John Neville, years before he became famous as the well-manicured man in The X-Files, Gilliam once again explores the thin border between reality and fantasy and embellishes it with jaw-dropping effects and a wicked sense of humor.

Brazil, Munchausen and an earlier film Time Bandits are generally considered Gilliam's most important trilogy, because they bring out what is quintessentially Gilliam, i.e. his storytelling style and his favorite themes and elements, and they were all written by Gilliam himself.

Born in 1940 in Minnesota, Gilliam worked as a cartoonist before he moved to England and joined the comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus. He worked as an actor and director for the group's regular comedy sketches before moving on to directing the group in big-screen motion pictures.

After Monty Python and The Holy Grail and Monty Python's Life of Brian, Gilliam's directorial style got more recognition with the release of Time Bandits.

Even if he is now involved in more Hollywood projects, his later films, albeit no longer written by himself, still retain his signature mix of ambiguity and mind-boggling excursions into the surreal, as is evident in The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

To relish this filmmaker's unique vision, The British Council is screening two of his films, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, at the Usmar Ismail Film Center on Thursday, May 26, and Friday, May 27. The films will be subsequently rescreened at The British Council Surabaya on June 3 and June 7.