Has anarchic auteur Terry Gilliam finally left his senses? According to Judge Bill Gibron, his latest fractured fairytale about an abandoned little girl and her frequent flights into fantasy just may be the director's last glorious gasp for artistic air.
The squirrels made it seem less lonely.
What exactly is wrong with fantasy? Why are we so afraid of it? Sure, one can point to the people perpetually lost in it, stick our all-knowing noses straight up into the air, and argue that they are insane, but is that really a fair categorization? Reality can be more than a little perplexing, and there isn't a single one of us walking amongst the chaos and clamor that hasn't daydreamed their way to a much happier place. But is it wrong to go there often? Why should frequent visits be frowned upon when such an emergency escape is applauded, even championed? It really doesn't matter how one views the world—through lenses of lucid authenticity or from a perch high inside that inner castle in the sky. What matters is how we judge said individuals. It really is more of a reflection on us rather than a condemnation/complimenting of them. Perhaps no other filmmaker in the history of the art form understands this better than Terry Gilliam. From the future-shock surreality of Brazil to the '70s as horrifying hallucination of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his is an oeuvre loaded with such reflective efforts. Now, he offers us his most challenging film to date, a purposefully mystifying movie that he himself insures us will cause cheers, jeers, and much, much confusion. But is Tideland as terrible as the critics have made it out to be, or is it just another case of over-thinking by under-qualified stuffed shirts? The answer is as intriguing as the movie itself.
Facts of the Case
After her mother dies suddenly, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland, Kingdom Hospital) is secreted off to the country by her heroin-addicted musician father, Noah (Jeff Bridges, Starman). When he also passes away, the child is left alone, isolated in a rundown farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. With only the heads of her dolls to talk to, Jeliza-Rose begins fading into a fantasy world, lost among her own ideals and realities. Then she meets Dell (Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds), a dour women who makes her living as a taxidermist. The hermit-like lady also takes care of her retarded brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher, Freddy vs. Jason), trying—unsuccessfully—to keep him out of trouble. Jeliza-Rose and Dickens strike up a friendship, and soon the two are thick as thieves, sharing secrets and private affections. Unfortunately, Jeliza-Rose is only nine and her constant disappearance into fantasy has made her vulnerable to the possible evils in the world. As she wanders along the shores of Tideland, that place between truth and treasure, she may not realize where the real horror actually lies.
Tideland is definitely not the worst movie of 2006. Sadly, it is not the best either. Existing somewhere between a failed masterpiece and a fabulous disaster, this anarchic adult fairy tale is like Pan's Labyrinth without the painstaking attention to history and detail, or David Lynch's backhanded version of Alice in Wonderland. It represents a kind of coda for director Terry Gilliam, a cathartic artistic experiment that goes wildly out of focus in places and stumbles into substantial genius along the way. It is not a smooth or simple ride. There are dozens of caveats required to enjoying this movie, little cinematic roadblocks that may prevent you from connecting with this director's deranged, depressing vision. In the most basic terms possible, Tideland is the story of a small child's discovery of love and death. In the jaunty Jeliza-Rose (played with problematic pluckiness by Silent Hill's Jodelle Ferland), a supremely sheltered youth living within an alien, insular world, we are supposed to see the competing emotional elements of a kid far more wise than her years profess, yet incapable of the maturity or lack of innocence one needs to survive her struggles. Instead, we are presented with a wicked will-of-the-wisp, a fascinating flibbertigibbet who may or may not be suffering inside.
It's this character and the way that Ms. Ferland plays her that will become the first hurdle to enjoying this film. It has to be said, and acknowledged by even the most faithful fan of this movie, that Jeliza-Rose is pure fiction. She is the creation of a writer, not a recognizable human being. No individual, no matter the age or defect, can come across as so completely guileless while staunchly manipulative. There are scenes where Gilliam gives us authentic stagings (Jeliza-Rose prepares her Daddy's heroin shot, she argues with him over an embarrassing moment in a bus), but for some reason, the truth is offset by syrupy saccharine statements. Anyone who sat through the horrendous Children on their Birthdays and remembers the repugnant Lily Jane Bobbit, played by the talentless Tania Reynolds, will instantly recognize the kind of Peachtree pariah our heroine is honed after. The strange Southern accent (something not shared by either of her parents, or the people she meets up with), the fixation with fantasy, and the drama queen histrionics (Jeliza-Rose is always "dying" from something) remind one of the kind of tricky faded flower that Tennessee Williams made a career out of. If you like her, you'll love the movie. If she grates on you like a feral cat's mucus-laden tongue, you won't be able to survive the first 15 minutes.
Similarly difficult are the people Jeliza-Rose meets once she's on her own. In Dell and Dickens, the terrifying female taxidermist and the slightly sinister idiot boy, respectively, we have even more narrative convention. Along with their iconic home (more on this in a moment), we are supposed to see the daring dichotomy existing inside each one of them. Dickens is the easiest to get behind since he's a lot like Arnie Grape, except without Leo DiCaprio's baby-faced beauty. In true Gilliam style, Brendan Fletcher is rendered unrecognizable, his mouth tainted with a set of sickly teeth that are painful to look at. In addition, there's a massive scar running down one side of his head, the remnants of an epilepsy operation. The symbolism is simple—here's a young man, once vital and viral, who had part of his brain removed to keep him from "acting up." Dell is also flawed, wounded in the eye by an errant bee, giving her an injury that renders her partially blind. Naturally, we get the big speech about how her wounding has made her twice as observant, the old "sightless, but can still see" sermon that seems to follow any visually impaired character. Yet Gilliam still gives these characters much more room to breathe than poor old Jeliza-Rose. Thanks to Fletcher, and an equally flawless turn by Janet McTeer as the Wicked Witch of the Wasteland, we actually long for the moments when this eccentric brother and sister turn up onscreen.
The final facet of the film that you will have to get over is its lack of a closing focal point. In comparison to something like Pan's Labyrinth, which itself positions precociousness against peril in order to render some manner of universal edict, Tideland inevitably adds up to very little. This is odd, especially when you consider that Gilliam spends inordinately large amounts of time tying up the narrative threads into a nice, neat emblematic ball. When the final act denouement is revealed, the "slaying of the monster shark" accomplished and evident, we wait for the final line of dialogue that wraps up the entire storyline. It's the kind of closure that Brazil lacked until Gilliam decided to dump the happy ending and reconfigure the finale as a dream in the damaged head of Sam Lowery. Here, we are given a gorgeous shot of fireflies reflected in Jeliza-Rose's beautiful eyes, and you can just sense that the director is providing that final element of symbolic shut down. But apparently we haven't been paying enough attention to the cues or realized how important Dickens's desire to defeat his nemesis was. What looks like nothing more than a typical tragedy is somehow supposed to turn poetic. But the conversation that ends the movie is really underwhelming, and Ferland's frequent outbursts don't add up to a cohesive position. Maybe we're simply supposed to be happy that, after two hours of gut-retching interpersonal horror, some well-earned comfort is finally coming her way. But it's also possible that Gilliam is suggesting something different. Maybe Jeliza-Rose is less innocent than we think. Perhaps she's simply looking for another emotional patsy to play to. As the final credits arrive, it looks like she may have found her latest maternal mark.
If you can overcome these flaws—and this critic managed to do so with flying colors—Tideland eventually reveals its wonders, turning into a terrific motion picture experience. Gilliam is in exceptional form here, using interesting visual cues to illustrate his varying narrative themes. Most viewers probably won't notice the difference between the two houses—light vs. dark, heaven vs. hell? Jeliza-Rose's home represents the possibilities of self-imposed exile—the freedom, the luxury of leisure, the liberal ability to dream. The fragile wooden frame, given over to nests for all manner of wildlife, seems to suggest nature and naturalism, elements as basic as life itself and as necessary as death. Then there is Dell's and Dickens's home. It's made out of stone—hard, immobile, cold. It looms like a large shadow over the overgrown wheat fields, its foreboding shape suggesting something both solid and sinister. Inside, it's overdone with frills and fixtures, suggesting decadence, decay, and innumerable family secrets. It's an intriguing comparison, one that Gilliam pulls off like the master filmmaker he is. Along the way, he tosses in tiny hints of even more disturbing horrors hiding beneath the surface. Dickens describes his days with Jeliza-Rose's grandmother with nauseating sincerity, and the pair plays pretend passion in a way that's unsettling in its directness.
In fact, it sometimes feels as if Gilliam is holding back. The sexualization of children is indeed the ultimate motion-picture taboo, and not even someone as daring as he would be willing to push that point. Anyone who has read Mitch Cullin's book understands that part of Tideland's scandal surrounds Jeliza-Rose and her budding passions. In the film, she is definitely years away from puberty—physically and mentally. In the novel, she is right on the cusp, and Dickens does delve a little deeper. But with Gilliam, this is only part of the film's purpose. Indeed, the director has stated that he wanted Tideland to act as a kind of motion-picture purgative, to tear away the media-induced veil that hangs over even the slightest indication of underage affection. In his eyes, Jeliza-Rose is the real predator—she's the desperate child looking for a connection amongst individuals unable to provide one, and she's not taking "no" for an answer. Instead, she pushes and pushes, revealing unsettling information and personality traits inside the people she desires. It is obviously how she was raised. Her initial home life was an open book—Dad doing drugs in the living room, Mom requiring leg massages before she shot up in the bedroom. Dickens may seem like a simpleton pervert in training, but Gilliam believes him to be a confused innocent. This is a movie viewed through the eyes of a child, and at such an early age, there is more faith in people than fear.
This is the main reason Tideland trips up most viewers. Like Spirit of the Beehive, Gilliam demands that the movie work from a single, subjective focus. Jeliza-Rose is our main character, our eyes, our inner thoughts, and our outward responses. To her, Dell is a witch, a woman who uses her skills with a needle and sawdust as a way of keeping the dead from actually dying. In Dickens, Jeliza-Rose finds a kindred spirit, a mentally damaged man who can still be a child, like her. Both become conduits for her dealing with death—Dell the reality, Dickens the confirmed fantasy. Together, they create a trio of unforgettable characters, a tantalizing triptych which holds the rest of the movie's multifaceted genre-hopping together. This is Gilliam at his most fiendish—mixing horror, comedy, tragedy, and the avant-garde into a determined expression of the human heart. And he does so without ever once selling out crucial creative facets. It is easy to see why those who love Tideland literally worship the celluloid it sits on. Improving over multiple viewings and easily working as both character study and a coming of age, this is filmmaking at a level most artists could never expect to approach. In an introduction to the film, Gilliam says the reason we find Tideland so shocking is because it's so innocent. That's only partly true. We find it distressing because no one makes movies like this anymore. As the last of a dying breed, Gilliam refuses to go gently into that good night. Tideland indicates he's still kicking and screaming. Thank God.
From a purely technical standpoint, THINKFilm's needs to be commended for taking on what had to be a pretty perplexing title. Indeed, from a fan expectation stance alone, they had to be fairly overwhelmed—especially when you think about how Criterion handled Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Still, they aren't without controversy in what they have done, at least from a visual standpoint. The web is abuzz with rumors that the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio has been cropped for the DVD release, the anamorphic widescreen image now playing at 1.85:1. It is clear, from a purely mathematical perspective, that the transfer is indeed playing back at the much smaller proportion. For those fans who feel gypped by this discovery, all one can say is: complain to the company. Gilliam doesn't. Nowhere in any of the information provided as part of the extras does he once suggest the movie wasn't how he originally envisioned it—and that includes the digital mastering for the disc. One has to assume he was happy with it, or it may simply be a case of accepting an incorrect print for the sake of getting the film distributed. Whatever the circumstance, the picture is a stunner—colorful, loaded with detail, and radiant with Gilliam's resolved visual genius. This is one of the most unique-looking films in a very long time, and we have the director (and this particular package) to thank for that.
On the sound side, Tideland is also first-rate. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is magnificent, overflowing with ambient elements and sonic situations that really sell the film's freefall into fantasy. When the train that skirts the countryside whirs through the frame, we hear every grinding gear, witnessing the directional spectacle of the aural aspects. As amazing as it is optically, Tideland is just as impressive sonically. And then there are the extras. As it is with almost every Gilliam release on the DVD format, THINKFilm goes overboard to deliver a definitive cinematic overview of the movie and its maker. Beginning with Disc One, we are immersed in the story behind the film, Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni starting it all with a fabulous full-length commentary track. As usual, our Monty Python man is a stitch, unable to watch the entire film without mocking himself and his creative choices, and expressing the unbridled zeal he feels for the project as a whole. Grisoni acts as sounding board, fact checker, and pleased partner in crime. Together they flesh out the film's many themes, discuss the casting process, and revel in a flawless shoot that resulted in what they feel is a major masterwork. Between the humor and the insights, we end up with a fascinating alternative narrative.
Disc Two does an even better job of putting the film into perspective. Vincenzo Natali, a Canadian filmmaker (best known perhaps for Cube), was on set during Tideland's location work, and his compelling documentary Getting Gilliam, is a 45-minute dissection of the production as well as the problematic career of the director. It is excellent, showing how the filmmaker achieved his irregular reputation and how Tideland failed to support any of those previous misconceptions. Adding to the enjoyment, Gilliam joins Natali for another commentary track; this time the subject is the movie's many premieres and outright dismissal by critics. It's an amazing track—loaded with bitter jibes at those who don't "get" the movie and unyielding dismay at the state of the film business. Perhaps the best part of the conversation comes when Gilliam explains the road the film took—from rejection (twice!!!) at Cannes, to a no-go for Venice, to a blistering post-viewing bloodbath at the Toronto Film Festival.
In addition, we are treated to six minutes of deleted scenes (some of which Gilliam mentioned in the first disc's discussion), and a look at the green screen work. Both feature the filmmaker as a kind of narrator/interpreter. Next up are the standard five-minute EPK "making-of" and a pair of informative interviews. Gilliam is again featured, this time describing the book and his need to stay true to its tone, while pal and longtime producer Jeremy Thomas sings the endless praises of everyone involved. Toss in the aforementioned intro and a trailer, and you've got a pretty exhaustive catalog of context. Even for those who may find the film flummoxing, the bonus features here really complement and complete the Tideland tale.
Maybe the point is survival. After all, in his monochrome introduction, Gilliam gives us an indication that everything in Tideland might just add up to a freaked-out formula for individual endurance. "Children are strong," he says, "When you drop them, they tend to bounce." Perhaps we are catching Jeliza-Rose on the upswing, her first time face-off with mortality requiring the initial ebb, then offering a fantasy-laced flow. Maybe for a child who never had boundaries, who lived in a world overpowered by drugs, ambivalence, and ennui, the flight into her head was the only means of feeling anything remotely real. Call it a confused condemnation of the ethic this director once stood for, or yet another example of a motion-picture painter's incredible gifts, but you cannot simply dismiss Tideland outright. There is just too much amazing cinematic spectacle here to consider this fascinating film a failure. You can disagree with the story it tells, but it's hard to pick on the man behind the lens. After all, he's merely following his own inner daydream, and we should let him have his fun. It usually turns out pretty good in the end.
Not guilty. Tideland is an amazing motion picture—not perfect, but far from the failure it has been labeled. THINKFilm is warned about the OAR issue, but is hereby acquitted on any other DVD release charges. Court adjourned.
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• An Introduction from Terry Gilliam
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