The Preoccupations of Terry Gilliam
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter charts Terry Gilliam's artistic quest to create worlds and his insistence on “trying to control them”. The craft of deconstruction and reconstitution of elements of “the real” can be seen in Gilliam's early career as an animator for the television series Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969–74). His early directorial venture with the Monty Python team in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is a restructuring of Arthurian mythology, lampooning all the allegorical high-seriousness of the Grail quest. But beyond its parodic intent, Gilliam distilled a thematic template from it: the heroic pursuit of the Grail object, and the faith invested in it.
Terry Gilliam begins the film Time Bandits (1981) with an image of Earth spinning in space. As the camera tracks slowly towards the planet, this celestial perspective evokes a timeless quietude yet curiously, at the same time, an over-abundance of historical description by which humanity has sought to appraise it: metaphysical, scientific, philosophical and mythological. It invites contemplation of the vast project to understand the operations of our world and elicit meaning for our experiences, and announces something of the order that the filmmaker – no less than the scientist, historian, theologian or philosopher – constructs a model of the world. This chapter charts Gilliam’s artistic quest to create worlds and his insistence on ‘trying to control them’ (Dening 1998). This statement suggests that there is an invitation to megalomania implicit in the filmmakers’ craft. I argue here that it is with both an exploitation of this creative licence and a concomitant gravitas that characterises the fantastic and diverse territories that Gilliam builds.
The celestial perspective at the beginning of Time Bandits perhaps most readily connotes an ultimate creator or supreme architect for such a world. For the time-travelling child protagonist Kevin (Craig Warnock) in Time Bandits, it is indeed the Supreme Being that he is contrived to meet. There is a detectable self-reflexivity on Gilliam’s part of his own status as filmmaker in his superintendence over a cinematic world of his design. In his ambitious visions for the cinema, Gilliam is pre-eminent among time bandits, plundering the troves of history and myth to construct surprising, unsettling and gloriously incongruous domains: the baroque fantasy of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988); the hallucinatory probing of the near-present in The Fisher King (1991), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) or Tideland (2005); the retro-futuristic compositions of Brazil (1985) and Twelve Monkeys (1996); or the fantastic theatre of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009).
(p.33) A Terry Gilliam film is a site of a particular imaginative combustion of ideas and forms disturbed from their original historical contexts and set in collision, challenging conventional cinematic expectations of continuity and temporal cohesion. Scouring these worlds for clues to the personality of their maker – or supreme architect – conjures something akin to a cartoonist-animator as God, with a propensity towards exaggeration, distortion, shock and a delight in the absurd. The seeds for this were planted in Gilliam’s early career as animator for the television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–74). Unbound to mimetic representation of ‘the real’, the animator is not beholden to crafting worlds with fidelity to natural laws and temporal cohesion; instead, such limits are more frequently used as points of departure, the art being one of disturbing the familiar, combining the incompatible and confounding expectations.
The craft of deconstruction and reconstitution of elements of ‘the real’ is neatly summarised in a description by Gilliam of his working processes for Monty Python. He tells of a cabinet in which he built up the imagery for his animations, saying, ‘backgrounds would be in one drawer, skies in another, and buildings over there. It was a kit of parts that I could reassemble over and over again in different combinations, adding new things to it’ (Christie & Gilliam 2000: 50–1). The ‘kit of parts’ can be extended as metaphor to Gilliam’s subsequent forays into the cinema: his art emerging from a vast Wunderkammer, its heterogeneous contents sourced in the stories and symbolic vocabularies of time past, their visual motifs and narrative tropes reassembled into strange and fantastical worlds. Yet, for all the play and chaos that this liberation of form implies, Gilliam has a countervailing drive in his reluctance to abandon the tasks of narrative construction and meaning-making in the cinema. Given the complex, de-familiarised worlds he builds, it is no surprise that his narrative formulations so frequently take their cue from the ancient tale of ‘The Quest’.
Ian Christie, in his introduction to Gilliam on Gilliam (2000), recognises the critical anchorage of Gilliam’s expression in stories of ‘The Quest’. He describes Gilliam’s characters as the ‘latter-day descendants of the Grail Legend’ whose quests ‘lead them into perilous worlds of illusion, poetry and nonsense’ (Christie & Gilliam 2000: viii). There is rich appeal for a filmmaker of Gilliam’s historical and mythopoeic sensibilities in the tales of King Arthur and his knights and their search for the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. While the tapestry of interpretations and appropriations of the Grail legend throughout history serves as genealogy for such a vision, a more contemporary parentage exists in Gilliam’s own early directorial venture with the Monty Python team in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). The film is effectively a redeployment of the ‘kit of parts’ of Arthurian mythology (as discussed by Jim Holte in chapter three of this volume) lampooning all the allegorical high-seriousness of the Grail quest. But beyond the parodic intent of the excursion, Gilliam seems to have distilled a thematic template from it: the heroic pursuit of the Grail object, and the faith invested in it, coming to be explored with greater seriousness and more complex expression in subsequent films. In Time Bandits and The Fisher King, the quest for the Grail is enacted in literal form. Kevin and the bandits exploit time holes in the universe to search past history for ‘the Most Fabulous Object in the World’. And, as (p.34) Jacqueline Furby discusses in chapter five, Parry (Robin Williams), believing he is a medieval knight, recruits Jack (Jeff Bridges) in the cause to retrieve the Holy Grail in the metropolis of New York. In other films, the Grail object is given a stand-in, either material or ideological, but always ascribed with the same importance. In Twelve Monkeys, the time-travelling Cole (Bruce Willis) believes his quest to find the source of a viral outbreak will save the world from a catastrophic future. For all the drug-fuelled mayhem in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Duke (Johnny Depp) is on an urgent, self-appointed mission to locate the source of the rot in capitalistic America and to re-find the American Dream. However the ‘Grail’ is represented, it is signified as no less hidden and elusive as the holy object of archaic myth; similarly, the quest to find it is no less imperative nor less epic in its undertaking, with mortal dangers to be confronted and adversaries to overcome.
From its beginnings in oral storytelling and the emergence of its written heritage in the twelfth century, and in its reinterpretations across time, the Grail legend has held as its central premise the vision of a land that has become blighted: the kingdom is ailing, its prosperity is gone, where once order prevailed, now only chaos and confusion reigns. In Christian formulations, it is a world to which God is no longer tending, diminished of spirit, without comfort or shelter, where humankind has set upon itself in conflict and war. Regardless of their temporal locale, Gilliam’s films incorporate versions of such a conflicted and blighted land. In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the townsfolk are struggling to save themselves in their war with the Turks. Brazil is racked with bombings as ‘terrorists’ battle the State. Televisual imagery of the Vietnam War pervades Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Science is at war with the natural world in the themes of animal (and human) experimentation in Twelve Monkeys. In The Fisher King, random street violence and shooting massacres characterise 1980s Manhattan, the bewildered Jack trying to comprehend a world ‘where people get gunned down in Dairy Queens’. The consistent application of the metaphor of the blighted land across Gilliam’s films points to more than play with the tropes of the Grail quest; detectable throughout these films is a didactic intent concerned with articulating the conditions of the ‘historical now’. Despite their frequent temporal infidelities, his films are all presented as costumed dramatisations of the social and cultural conditions of late twentieth-century and millennial (post-)modernity.
Interpretations of the Grail Legend – historically – have been both constituted of and enjoyed renewed popularity during periods of cultural uncertainty: Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) emerged in the upheaval that was the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses; renewed interest in the myth coincided with anxieties during the encroachment of industrialisation in nineteenth-century Victorian society. Gilliam imaginatively reconstitutes the tale to express the anxieties and tensions of our own epochal moment, more pertinently, those that surround the supposed ‘shelter’ we have installed in the form of the structures and operations of modernity. Peter Wollen describes Gilliam’s films as an urban vision, expressing the ‘horror of standardisation, regimentation, (and) instrumental reason’ (1996: 61). Even when not specifically referencing the urban experience, such as in Tideland or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the theme of the modern dystopia exists as a shadow presence (p.35) that inflects the story regardless. Indeed, Gilliam locates the latter film in the opening titles at the wellspring of its source in the ‘Late Eighteenth Century’ and the dawning of ‘The Age of Reason’, effectively flagging his cinematic manifesto – evident in all his films – of opposition to the perceived dominance of rational thought. Gilliam’s antipathy is directed at the vast apparatus of contemporary modernity constructed on the Enlightenment faith of progressive liberation from the capriciousness of fate through technology, science and systems – social, political and economic – to the detriment of other stories that once explained experience of the world. It is in the technological pastiches of Brazil and Twelve Monkeys that Gilliam gives full expression to the invidious and stultifying hegemony of these forces, using all the tools of exaggeration and distortion at a cartoonist’s disposal. They are environments in which our technology and systems have turned malignant, producing their own brutality, terror and chaos. Disorientation is the leitmotif of the Gilliam film, the root of which is a world overburdened with complexity, such that it is irrational.
This portrayal of the experience of contemporary modernity is exaggerated by Gilliam to the point of grotesquery. The filmmaker’s conjuring tricks and mastery of illusion meets a socio-cultural environment engaging in the same. Nancy Steffen-Fluhr notes that Brazil is filled with ‘interconnected visual puns and mirror images’, which represent how ‘the whole force of industrial technology is turned to creating masks and screens to cover the incompetence and rot at the core of consumer capitalism’ (1994: 18). The individual must navigate the multiple instrumental forces of commercial culture that seek to eviscerate the imagination and coerce the dreaming mind towards the corrupted fantasies of their own projection. It is an all-pervasive presence that Gilliam depicts satirically: in the television-game-show-addicted parents in Time Bandits; the fashion fetishes and shopping ‘muzak’ that play throughout Brazil; the plagiarised and distorted titles of pornographic videos in The Fisher King (Ordinary Peep-holes, Creamer vs. Creamer); the frenetic spewing of cartoons and advertisements from the television in Twelve Monkeys (‘The future can be yours … last chance!’). Gilliam states of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: ‘It’s trying to get visual nightmares going where it’s not extreme psychedelia or distortion, it’s real’ (Anon. 1998). Duke and Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) are mired in a hallucinatory universe generated by their drug consumption, but the horror lies in how benign it is in comparison to the cynical derangement of the senses promoted by Las Vegas and its casinos.
In Gilliam’s formulations, contemporary modernity presents a labyrinthine world of phantasms, threats and false Grails that is no less bewildering than the tangled woods and or dangerous wastelands of lore. For humankind, it is an estrangement from a world of its own making: a conflicted state that Gilliam dramatises in his depictions of the city. The modern metropolis, as constructed by Gilliam, is frequently a schizophrenic site: a bastion of architectural triumph with towers of stone, concrete, steel and glass, and simultaneously an entropic wasteland of abandoned infrastructure, slums and ruins. As Fred Glass articulates effectively, Gilliam’s worlds can be generalised as ones of ‘historical regression’, where progress is but a ‘mask for actual decay’ (1986: 24). More pointedly, Gilliam uses the multiple spaces of the city to expose the operations of progress in the oppression of the human and displacement (p.36) of those that will not meet its prescriptions to its most marginal domains. Gilliam’s characters occupy tiny apartments, slum tenements, shacks, basements, wagons, or have no home and are seeking refuge where they can in the derelict infrastructure of the ‘wastelands’. The territories of the homeless in The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys are imbued with a distinctly medieval squalor as their inhabitants attempt to improvise shelter in the blighted kingdom. For characters who have been complicit with machinic modernity, like Sam (Jonathan Pryce) and Jack, their fate is to be suddenly cast-out into the margins and the flux and uncertainty of a world of precarious shelter. In the post-apocalyptic-underground world of Twelve Monkeys, humankind, through its own operations, has managed to displace itself entirely from the sanctuary of its constructions.
It is an existential horror that Gilliam so effectively renders of the (post-)modern experience in his films, his characters seeking redemption from their alienating, fragmented and discontinuous worlds. A lamenting Jack expresses the yearning for a simpler, more cogent order, and a higher authority to provide it, when he states, ‘I wish there was some way I could … just … pay the fine and go home’. Yet, wherever Gilliam’s protagonists probe their temporal reality for explanation for their circumstance, they meet only incomprehensibility. Trying to find the source of their persecution only reveals others caught in the operations of the machine. What they believe to be malignant reveals itself as benign, and vice-versa. There is no higher authority to which to make such an appeal. John Orr, discussing modernity in the cinema, states that the ‘mature industrial age’ cannot ‘be idealized as the age of heroic resistance or noble transcendence’, rather, ‘it is fragmented, uncertain, painful and at times formless’ (1993: 15). The loss, as experienced by Gilliam’s protagonists, is the authority of any narrative that can bind their experiences, providing coherence of meaning and a guide for action. The compensatory psychological reflex in all of Gilliam’s films is the seeking of such a narrative from time past and the symbolic paradise it offers of a more accommodating world – of the world re-enchanted.
Whether it is the Baron’s (John Neville) ‘memories’ of his old crew and their fantastical adventures, the nostalgia of Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) for the height of his magical and romantic powers, Parry’s delusions of himself as a medieval knight, Cole’s desire for a permanent return to the pre-apocalyptic twentieth century, Sam’s myth-inflected romantic dreams, Kevin’s time-travelled meetings with his historical heroes, or Jeliza-Rose’s (Jodelle Ferland) fantasies of womanhood – they are all fantasies of a richer, more meaningful world than the dysfunctional material circumstance in which they are embedded. Each is a rebellion, a psychological flight from reality and investment of faith in the dreaming mind. In this, they are kindred with the ancient seekers of the Holy Grail whose quests, too, were sustained by an imagining of time past and the dream of a more coherent realm. As the inheritance of the Grail tale promotes, the quest, no matter the form it takes, has ‘a spiritual goal representing inner wholeness, union with the divine, [and] self-fulfillment’ (Matthews 1985: 5). The hope invested in the story of the Grail – the lost object of the past – is that its finding will restore the grace and benevolence of its mythological origins, old orders will be reinstalled, the flux and indeterminacy of material reality will be transcended. The psychological (p.37) lure of the past story is the romanticised offer of reparation, of a means for integrating experience in the simple stratification it makes of the world.
This attraction to a romanticised, mythologised past is something that Gilliam recognises in himself: ‘Knights, castles, princesses, dragons, things that have to be slain, quests to go on … Nothing changes, I’ve always liked that’ (McCabe 1999: 64). For the Baron and Doctor Parnassus, the stories they keep of the past invoke a simple mythological world of heroic action and tangible adversaries – where one can negotiate directly with the Devil. The ‘medieval knight’ Parry has found in archaic myth is a bulwark against the trauma of the death of his wife, the disorientating loss supplanted in his fantasy with the codes of medieval lore – duty, chivalry and honour – by which he is able to survive. Sam’s fantasy obsession with Jill (Kim Greist), anchored in romantic Hollywood films and mythic tales of fated love, inures him to the complex bureaucratic forces that are contriving his fate – and to which he will ultimately sacrifice himself rather than abandon the dream. Cole sustains himself in the dystopian future through his dream of the flawed, but relatively paradisiacal twentieth-century world: ‘That’s why they chose me. I remember things.’ For Gilliam’s child protagonists too, their simple imaginative conceptions of the world enable them to transcend the dysfunction of their material circumstances. For Kevin, it is the stultifying life of his parents; for Jeliza-Rose, the horror of the putrefying corpse of her father (Jeff Bridges).
It is in the connection that Gilliam makes between the proclivity to fantasy and the survival of his characters that his cinema articulates much more than a Romantic idealism of escape from the temporal world or a valorisation of the nourishment available in the dreaming or unconscious mind. It is also more than nostalgia. There is an active assertion of the imagination on the part of these characters to reconfigure the chaos of reality in order to endure. But the dream of a transcendent realm is not, as Gilliam knows, to be mistaken for the quest. The elusive Grail relic is foremost evidence; only when it is found will faith be finally rewarded. Until that time, belief is under assault because its negotiations with reality bring multiple challenges and false Grails.
The complexity of Gilliam’s fantasy constructions come to the fore in his depiction of the burden of occupying multiple temporal realms and the faltering of faith it entails. Past stories, past structures, old orders re-imagined in absentia of the worlds that produced them, have no ultimate ground for their veracity. In rationalistic modernity, with its demand for facts, they are particularly vulnerable. The Baron and Doctor Parnassus have kept faith in their fantasies, but they are also old, tired and worn down by a sceptical world that has marginalised them, to the point that they are ready to take their leave. Assaults, however, also come from within. As those who venture behind the curtain of Doctor Parnassus discover, the dreaming mind is a dangerous terrain with its own irrational terrors. In his attraction to Lydia (Amanda Plummer), Parry is tempted to rejoin the real world, a desire that unleashes the full terror in his psyche of the Red Knight. Gilliam creates a world where imagination and reality are in a state of unstable tension, the shelter to be found in either but crushingly provisional.
Twelve Monkeys, particularly, encompasses Gilliam’s preoccupations with the fractious interplay of the psychological construct with reality. The time-traveller Cole (p.38) arrives from the future, sent by scientists to find the source of the viral outbreak that has wrought the apocalypse; in the present, he finds himself institutionalised as a paranoid schizophrenic. Unable to sustain the brutal wrenching of his mind back and forth between two temporal locales, he applies his rationality to try and determine where the self-deception lies. But there is no stable ground for assessing which is his madness. He is enmeshed in a perpetual scanning for clues, his faith oscillating with the constant reappraisal he has to make of his cognitive structures. In Gilliam’s world, no matter how robust and hermetic a character’s dream world may seem, there is, in the swirl of new information, the ever-present threat of collapse. Our imaginative constructions are subject to a double-guessing, the multiple avenues for self-deception as insidious as a world that will not cohere: as Duke decries of the overlay of his hallucinogenic mind with the hallucinatory reality of Las Vegas: ‘Madness! It made no sense at all! I desperately needed the facts.’
All of Gilliam’s protagonists occupy this liminal overlap of dream and reality, where the yearned-for structures of past time – inscribed in myth, legend, poetry, literature, art and stories of history – must confront the indeterminacy, flux and change of the material present. The clash of the past with the present, the mythical with the modern, of dream with reality, and the irrational with the rational, lends itself to the sort of cinematic spectacle that brings glee to an animator. Gilliam’s nefarious ‘kit of parts’ is re-evoked by Steffen-Fluhr’s comment on Brazil that ‘all versions of security are devastated repeatedly – their fragments reconnected, each time in a new and more powerful form – only to be shattered again’ (1994: 187). This is the case, but the impulse is not as nihilistic as this suggests. Gilliam’s cinematic vision, I propose, is orientated towards how those fragments are reconnected and recomposed, founded in the pragmatic utility in composing meaning from experience.
This vision has fermentation in Gilliam’s own methodological processes: as the supreme architect of his cinematic domains, charged with hammering out a dramatic structure. On Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he describes how Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1320) provided a structure for interpreting Hunter S. Thompson’s novel. As incompatible as Thompson’s novel may seem with Dante’s fourteenth-century Christian allegorising may appear, the overlay of its conceptual universe distills a framework: ‘Nobody understands most of this stuff’, Gilliam says, but ‘there’s a structure there, with biblical overtones. You keep hoping that some people will spot things and make connections’ (Christie & Gilliam 2000: 252). Discussing the making of Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam describes the increasing influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in the development of the film, and the ultimate incorporation of it: ‘You begin to think there must be Platonic scenes already in existence, which just have to be remade’ (2000: 233–4). Whether consciously or unconsciously applied, Gilliam recognises the role of past narrative constructs, genre patterns and symbolic vocabularies in structuring and eliciting meaning from the material at hand.
At work in a Gilliam film is the awareness that the imagination does not conjure things up out of thin air. The sub-strata of imagination comprise both memories of past individual experience and a vast trove of received cultural memory. It is an amplification of a cognitive reality that Gilliam dramatises with his characters; that is, how (p.39) reality is perceived and the meaning that is derived from it is dependent upon the narratives that we carry. We are always overlaying our conceptual maps upon the chaos of experience – our stories of what the world is – and we look for connections, symmetries and patterns that can create islands of coherence and meaning. We are engaged in the dynamic application of our own ‘kit of parts’ in composing experience, adding new understandings to the kit and remodelling our maps as we go. The veracity of ‘lived memory’ is unimportant in the enactment of this process.
In the imagination, personal memory is porous with all the tales we have learned of the world: of science, history, myth, art and literature. Inscribed in them are the past human strivings to construct models for the world and maps for navigating experience. Whether fact or fiction, archaic or modern, they are all products of the human imagination seeking to wrestle meaning from the world and are all available for appropriation: the obsolescence of gods and monsters is of no consequence if the imagination finds pragmatic utility in them. It does not matter whether the Baron or Doctor Parnassus are giving truthful accounts of their past lives, for the crucial gift they bestow in their fabulist tales is the opening up of imaginative possibilities and cultivation of the awareness that the world’s ‘parts’ can be assembled in different ways.
Gilliam gives expression to this idea in his films through a recurring fascination with junk objects. Parry speaks on behalf of the filmmaker when he declares in The Fisher King, ‘There are some pretty wonderful things you can find in the trash.’ In his medieval reconfiguration of the world, Parry has recycled an old car hubcap as a shield and a hood ornament as a sword. In Tideland, the mentally-impaired Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) has built a ‘submarine’ out of salvaged objects to hunt the Monster-Shark. Similarly, Jeliza-Rose has constructed her coming-of-age fantasy by reusing the vintage clothes, wigs, make-up and jewellery of her Grandmother’s estate. In Twelve Monkeys, the technologies of the ‘future world’ are assemblages of found objects scavenged from the historical detritus of multiple eras: ‘including the Renaissance, the Victorian Age, World War I and II, and the Fifties and Seventies’ (Pizzello 1996: 38). The ability to rummage in the trash of the past and to appraise objects not for their lost utility, but for the creative potential in a recasting of their function or the construction of something new in combination with other (frequently incompatible) objects, is at the foundation of Gilliam’s narrative, aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations. It is a valorisation of the power of the imagination’s will to find form: the creative possibilities extended and enhanced by drawing the perceived ‘obsolete’ into its range. Importantly too, it is an assertion of presentness: of the pragmatic necessities of dealing with ‘the now’.
The junk object is a rude reminder of the passing of time. The structures in which it had functionality have faded. It invites an eddy of nostalgia for the world of its origins, nevertheless, its materiality as a fragment of that world accentuates awareness that the past is lost and cannot be resurrected. Gilliam’s junk aesthetics operate to remind us that we are embedded in the processes of time and a universe of changing conditions in which forms arise and disappear. Functionality for an old object can be reanimated, but never restored as per its origins; changed conditions dictate that it is activated anew, its utility extending only so far as that which present circumstance chooses to (p.40) imbue it and imagines building from it. The junk assemblages in Gilliam’s films are expressions of an evolutionary sensibility: the past affords us building blocks, but their value resides in how they are rearranged and redeployed to meet the conditions of ‘the now’. For the underground citizens of the future in Twelve Monkeys, evolution has proceeded very badly. Yet, evident in their makeshift, jury-rigged machinery, is an ingenuity applied in improvisation with the materials at hand, and it has enabled them to survive, albeit precariously. The fantasy projections of Parry, Dickens and Jeliza-Rose onto the world of objects are no less expressions of the pragmatic utility of the imagination in adapting to a world of flux and change: to be able to creatively rearrange the building blocks and – psychologically – survive it.
As totems of past worlds, junk objects and old stories are synonymous. Gilliam is aware that the making of meaning in the present takes place in a field of possibility established by the stories of the past. Dante’s Divine Comedy and Hitchcock’s Vertigo cannot be remade, but they can provide building blocks for something new: the imaginative appropriation of them is a process that is epiphenomenal. As with the junk object assemblage, Gilliam’s cinematic allusions, citations and overlays of tales past – mythic and modern – are not just a reprisal of function, but are ventures to create new structures of meaning: the dramatisation of a quest to find metaphorical shelter that will meet the pragmatic demands of the now. On Brazil, Salman Rushdie writes: ‘We are being told something very strange about the world of the imagination – that it is, in fact, at war with the “real” world, the world in which things inevitably get worse and in which centers cannot hold’ (1985: 52). Rather than ‘war’, however, the strangeness lies more perhaps with the enactment that Gilliam makes of the reciprocity of imagination with the real world: a correspondence that emerges from the interplay of the evolutionary processes of each. There is no war that can be won. Deep evolutionary time shows that ‘centers’ do not hold in either the natural world or the human constructed world, and nor does it necessarily proceed in an orderly or benign fashion: volcanoes erupt, animal populations suddenly drop into extinction, civilisations collapse. At the same time, however, the real world rearranges its building blocks to evolve new structures and new orders: a countervailing drive that is a will to form. Rather than an inevitable ‘getting worse’, the world is marked by chaos and order, discontinuity and continuity, unpredictability and stability, but with all states relentlessly subject to change. The imagination tasked with adapting to this fluxional reality cannot hold its centres either: its constructions are necessarily contingent and provisional. The temporal world – always on the boundary of the emergent – mandates that the quest of the imagination to wrestle meaning from the universe is a perpetual and unceasing one. The shelters we construct, literally and symbolically, are always precarious.
The world that we see spinning as the frontispiece to Time Bandits is not one of timeless quietude. Gilliam’s films rally our imaginations to engage with the full complexity and experience of it, with all its monstrosities and enchantments. It is a world that can appear to reward, in symmetry and pattern, human faith in an inherent design and purpose. In the Nevada Desert, Duke has a temporary epiphany: ‘Well! This is how the world works. All energy flows according to the whims of the great magnet. What (p.41) a fool I was to defy him.’ But just as the Grail and the promise of transcendence may seem to be near, the world and its operations can again become opaque, arbitrary and seemingly governed only by happenstance. In trying to apprehend it, we are all, as the dispirited Duke laments, ‘permanent cripples’ misled by the ‘old mystic fallacy [that] something or some force is tending the light at the end of the tunnel’. No matter how complex and extravagant his cinematic bricolage is, Terry Gilliam’s strident, maverick vision is the amplification of a simple truth: our familiar structures can be lost to us, without compensation, at any time. Even the comic exploding of Kevin’s parents at Time Bandits’ conclusion has the pathos of this existential truth. The blight suddenly upon us, the burden of the quest to find shelter anew will be ours. The tracks we make, however, join the tracks of all those who have searched before, and it is from the vast historical detritus left behind of their journeys that the imagination can summon a ‘kit of parts’ that may temper fluctuating faith and hold the world momentarily still enough such that we can adapt to its demands.
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