Category Archives: Terry Gilliam

Chivalry in the Cracks

The other Terry Gilliam movie I’ve been meaning to see for a long time is The Fisher King (1991), a modern take on the grail legend. It’s uneven and too long, but, as usual, gives you a lot to chew on. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a narcissistic radio hosts whose comments unwittingly compel a man to shoot up a restaurant. After his wife is killed in the massacre, Perry (Robin Williams) slips into homelessness, madness, and a quest to find the Holy Grail. To help him cope with his guilt, Jack tries to help Perry regain sanity and find love.

It’s messy, lovely, funny, and overburdened with too many scenes and too many outbursts. But it’s also got a very sweet theme. Despite the cold alienation and mundanity  of twentieth century life, moments of romance, imagination, and grace appear to those who look for it. The grail becomes a symbol for redemption and meaning in the flowing crowds and taxis of Manhattan.

Enough summarizing. Let’s recap the traditional Arthurian legend of the fisher king.

The Curse of Desolation

He’s called the Wounded King, the Maimed King, Lord of the Waste Lands, Pellam, and in my edition of the King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (Roger Lancelyn Green, 1953) King Pelles, lord of Castle Carbonek. According to Green’s sources, Sir Balyn the Savage was visited by an image of the Grail at Carbonek. A voice, presumably God’s, told him to quell his temper, but instead he grabbed a spear and stabbed Pelles, a reenactment of Christ’s stabbing by Longinus. This so-called Dolorous Stroke permanently wounded the king and turned his lands barren and fallow. In some versions he has a son who fishes in a river by the castle, hence the Fisher King and his father the Wounded or Maimed King.

Later, when the image of the grail revisits Camelot, the knights quest after it. Sirs Gawain and Lancelot arrive in Carbonek to find Pelles old and thirsty, his people distressed. As Sir Percivale approaches, Naciens the hermit proclaims:

King Pelles and all you people of the Waste Lands, rejoice and be exceeding glad. For Gawain has taken away the Curse of Desolation which Balyn brought upon you when he struck the Dolorous Stroke. Therefore be sure that the Grail Knight draws near, and the long penance will soon be ended.

Pelles is cured by the blood of Christ dripping off Longinus’s spear – it appears along with a lot of unaccounted for grail maidens in white. The body of the sovereign is the microcosm of the body of his people, his state. So his lands grow fertile again, and he doesn’t have to fish no more.

Enter Eliot

Jack’s sarcastic catchphrase on his radio show is  “forgive me.” Forgiveness for his rude and condescending behaviour to his callers, and later forgiveness for triggering the restaurant shooting. Like humanity waiting to be redeemed for their sins by Christ, like the people of Carbonek waiting for their crops to grow, Jack takes three years off from work to “sort out his emotional issues”. In exile, he drinks too much, mistreats his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) and spurns the rest of the world.

Pelles’ story has been frequently alluded to in art. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is a poetic reinterpretation of the Fisher King, setting the wounded Pelles in post-World War I London. There’s disillusionment here too, and a search for growth and vitality:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you only know / A heap of broken images.

Gilliam and Bridges amp up Jack’s desperation by making him a barren soul. His apartment is walled with glass and tiled in black; it has the studied nihilism of Patrick Bateman’s aesthetics in American Psycho. Visually the point is clear. Jack is empty, arid, a stony rubbish that needs some water. By forming a bond to Perry (Percivale) and losing himself in the troubles of another, Jack finds the grail of friendship. I think this is the humanist and slightly saccharine point Gilliam is trying to make: we are each other’s Holy Grails.

What’s pretty cool is how the set design shows the flowering of old stories in between the skyscrapers and asphalt of New York City. Gilliam finds classical figures like arches to introduce scenes when Jack encounters Perry:

Or placing important plot points such as Perry’s pursuit of the Red Knight and the monologue about the Fisher King (a little different from Green’s) in Central Park, a jewel of nature blossoming in the centre of a metropolis:

Or a Corinthian column outside the window of Perry’s hospital bed:

So there’s definitely a connection between antiquity, nature, and Perry, the deluded Grail Knight. He praises the romance paperbacks Lydia (Amanda Plummer) buys every two days:

There’s nothing trashy about romance. In romance there’s passion, imagination, beauty. Besides you find some pretty wonderful things in the trash.

This might as well be Gilliam speaking. The ex-Monty Python animator makes no distinction between “high art” and “low art”. His films are smart and crude at the same time. Perry’s mythical infatuations and hallucinations of the Red Knight are heavy in symbolism and folkloric history, but he’s not above letting a nude Robin Williams loose in Central Park, screaming “it’s good to let the little guy hang out”.

Eliot is more pretentious, seeking the self-contained order in literary works to stave off the “anarchy and futility of contemporary history”. Quoting Dante, he turns London into a congregation of soulless workers:

Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled. / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. / Flowed up the hill and down King William Street…

One last comparison. There’s a scene in Grand Central Station when Perry falls under the trance of Lydia, a woman who hasn’t met him yet. The flowing crowds suddenly pair up beautifully into waltzing pairs, turning the pulsating terminal into an elegant ballroom. Here’s the before and after.

In the end Perry becomes the ailing king, beaten by two very 90s street thugs into a coma. I’m not sure what the switch in roles means, only that Jack has to get himself in emotional order and break into a billionaire’s house to steal the cup of Christ – or a placebo of the cup of Christ – to pull Perry back into consciousness. Since I can’t resist quoting more Eliot, here’s are a few lines at the end of The Waste Land:

I sat upon the shore. / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?

Read a book, watch a good movie. It’s a good start.


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Filed under Jeff Bridges, Old Ones, Terry Gilliam

Religious Ideas in 12 Monkeys

I don’t know why it took me this long to see 12 Monkeys. I call myself a Gilliam fan, or a fan of 80s Gilliam. After the mild disappointment of Brothers Grimm and the stomach-churning shame of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I thought the man had derailed after The Fisher King, unable to face the headaches and crises of another shoot and another duel with the studios. Last night I saw 12 Monkeys (1995) at Cineplex’s Digital Film Festival. Part conventional thriller, part mind-bender, it blurs the same dreams-reality present-future border Brazil mined ten years earlier. Bruce Willis stars as Cole, a convict from 2035 sent to retrieve knowledge from a pre-viral past – hopefully you’ve seen it already so the following ideas will have some context for you. If not, read no further, there are some serious spoilers to be warned of. But see 12 Monkeys, it’s two hours well-spent.

James Cole = Jesus Christ

Is Cole a Christ figure? He’s sent to the past from the future to save humanity from a deadly virus, or at least allow the humans of 2035 feel fresh air again. He’s granted a pardon for helping the scientists find a cure. So he is meant to be a saviour who is pardoned for his early, unspecified sins by acts of altruism and suffering.

Cole and the eye of God?

These appear like fragments of Christian myth inverted and warped by Gilliam’s imagination. Cole doesn’t succeed in creating a new future for humanity, and for the film’s second act he tries to forget his duties. Only his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) r can convince him he’s perfectly sane, and she discovers that Dr. Peters is the real carrier of the virus. Cole is a very reluctant Christ. Even when pushed by Railly and Jose (the divine messenger from the future who gives him a gun) he fails to stop Peters from boarding his flight. While he is shot dead, he is not really dead: he is watching his own death as a child.

He can’t save the world from the apocalypse, which does not bring ultimate salvation. Humanity limps on under the ground, possibly a metaphor for hell. 12 Monkeys deserves a lot more views before a substantial thesis can be teased out, but there is clearly a postmodern angle, maybe even parody being played on the Bible. Cole does not want to save anybody, he wants to remain in the past/earth and forget the future. In a way, he wants to forget God; what better representation of an omnipotent being in science fiction than the unknowable, unfathomable, but all-powerful future?

The Flood

Also, the animals running around Philadelphia scream Noah’s Ark, as the virus does the Flood. Again, Gilliam has turned the Biblical story on its head: instead of a diety punishing humans for being sinful, a diety (maybe just karma) is punishing humans for mistreating animals. The Army of the 12 Monkeys protests animal testing. Humans are said to be “an endangered species”. A monkey is exploited to save a child at the bottom of the well. Animals go on to survive the virus and reclaim the earth, while the humans are driven underground like rats.


There are doubtless other mythical references at work – I’ve even read an argument that Cole is Osiris and the other characters Ancient Egyptian deities. Watching any of Gilliam’s films is like unpacking a T.S. Eliot poem, where allusions point to older allusions which point to ancient allusions.

The ending reflects Eastern theology and, tellingly, is a lot more optimistic than the gloomy Christian overtones. Kathryn and Cole and James are locked in a cycle of two presents: he witnesses his own death and looks into her eyes, though he does not know this until he grows up, gets thrown into the past, and walks into that airport on that particular day. Is this an endless journey, repeated infinitely, without James able to break it because, as a child, he does not understand what’s going on?  It’s a beautiful, mind-blowing conclusion. Maybe most touching is how Railly looks into the young Cole’s eyes and smiles, as if she knows she will see him again.

This could be the Sanskrit Sangsara: the endless wheel of life and death. According to Buddha we have all been in Sangsara for an indefinite period of time, continuously suffering, dying, and getting born, only to suffer and die again. Eliot probably had this is mind when he wrote “April is the cruellest month.”   Release from the cycle of mortality comes with Nirvana, a freeing of identity and end of the world. Has Cole reached Nirvana? The last shot is one of his eyes watching the Peter’s plane take off, suggesting grown-up Cole and young Cole have merged and he understands what is going on. Or he could be ignorant and go through the same cycle again.

From the 1962 Chris Marker film La Jetée, the inspiration behind 12 Monkeys

David Webb People and Janet People’s by-the-books script is an odd bedfellow to Gilliam’s flamboyant sets and cartoonish wide angles, but it’s a partnership that is mostly functional and sometimes brilliant. 12 Monkeys explores very human issues, which is maybe why there are so many religious allusions. The drive behind Cole’s story is the very human desire to reverse, escape, and finally defeat time. Cole might have reached Nirvana, but like the end of Inception, we are left without an answer because we have to fill in our own.


Filed under Old Ones, Terry Gilliam