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.
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.