Sunday, November 15, 2009

Today in terrible film history we watch:

Terry Gilliam's Tideland.

Spoilers below.
Neither of us had ever heard of it and it was a bit of a surprise when it dropped through the door. Presumably Netflix thought if we liked Brazil and Time Bandits and Monty Python, we'd be up for a bit more of Gilliam, an imaginative genius with a hole in his head where the other bits of Good Film Directing would normally go.

Apparently released in 2005 to mass walk-outs, it was re-released in 2007 with a plea tacked on to the front. This prolog is a film of Gilliam himself, looking seventy-ish, worn-out and whiskered, and pleading for us to understand that the movie we are about to see should be watched as if through the eyes of a child. The scary old man then goes on to say the movie helped him, Terry Gilliam, discover his inner child, and she was a young girl.

Hearing the grizzled geezer describe himself as a young girl gave me that shock of sexual horror that only the very, very best horror films can ever produce. It took me five minutes to recover from it. Gilliam's lucky he nailed it right at the beginning because over the rest of the 17.5 hour long borefest (subjective time) he never again reached that height of emotional involvement.

The film itself starts with Jeff Bridges, an older and even more slacker version of the Dude from The Big Lebowski, and his wife, Jennifer Tilly, as a caricature of all that is female and poor in films, a fat, bon-bon stuffing Methadone-using addict, and their eight year old daughter Jeliza-Rose, who is adept at preparing her parents' fixes. The wife, a giant of sexist and classist film-making, dies early on and Noah and Jeliza-Rose take a Greyhound for the family homestead, a little house on the prairie (the amber waves of grain being the tideland of the title). The house is utterly abandoned, except for sentient squirrels, and about to fall apart. Little Jeliza-Rose gets down to cooking some H for dad, he shoots up and dies peacefully. She's alone.

Anything can happen now, and in a proper film, most anything would. There's a rabbit-hole she falls down - but we don't get to see the absurdist creatures who live there. There are talking squirrels, but they don't tell her anything useful. There are neighbors, a beekeeping woman whose protective costume makes her look a bit like a witch, and her brother and lover, a retarded young man (his operation for epilepsy having gone wrong and left him with the mind of an eight year old).

The possibilities inherent in a character who has been eight for twelve years and would make a great guide to the girl are not explored. The witch aspect is not explored. Instead, they plod along as a Texas Chainsaw Massacre couple seen through the eyes of Jeliza-Rose. Finding her sitting on her dead dad's lap as his bloated corpse farts and belches from decomposition, they show her how to stuff dad and keep him in her bed, as they have done with their mother and a number of other people and what appear to be the contents of about three traveling circuses. The young man tells her he is a submarine captain and informs her in irritating slow motion (because his speech is affected by his brain damage) how much he hates the shark (the train that thunders through the fields each day). The young girl puts on makeup and plays boyfriend and girlfriend with the young man. I think it's here that people really walked out in droves in the cinema showings. It's filmed as perfectly innocent - they are both eight after all - and although there's always the adult fear at the back of the viewer's mind that his mind may be eight but his testicles are twenty, this could all end in tears, it actually doesn't.

Nothing else happens for about five hours. Jeliza-Rose, played excellently by Jodelle Ferland, gets to give us her inner narrative by having conversations with her dolls' heads (which she uses as finger-puppets). It's not a very interesting inner narrative. The slow young man has eternal, draggy, hesitant conversations with her that go nowhere. Dad turns black and rots a bit more. The squirrels giggle.

Eventually (spoilers) the young man manages to knock the land shark off its rails with a stick of dynamite he had sequestered away. In a very Brazil scene of wreckage, Jeliza-Rose is picked up by a survivor of the crash and the implication is she'll be adopted by someone and live a more normal life.

The film got off on the wrong foot with me by starting with such broad and insulting stereotypes. As an English northerner, I'm very sensitive to regional stereotyping and whereas I can stand, say, Deliverance, a great film with an actual plot, or at least great chase sequence, I couldn't bear the caricatures in this one, which isn't really set in the south and gets its Texas Chainsaw Massacre tropes turned up to 11 even though we appear to be in Idaho or somewhere. Jeliza-Rose's name and accent aren't really explained and I was just left on my own to develop the theory that everyone who shoots up, gets fat, eats bon-bons, stuffs people and marries their own sister is an honorary southerner. I realize that watching movies set in America through the eyes of an English class warrior is probably not the only, nor even the best, filter, but I couldn't help it. The pigeonholing was too strong to ignore.

I think it's funny the movie ends in a train wreck. It's almost like he knew.

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