Monday, June 01, 2009

Swept Away By Tideland

Not since the days of Hitchcock has the director been the star of a movie, and if it wasn't for the fact that Terry Gilliam chooses such good actors and coaxes spellbinding performances out of them, he would be. He's a divisive director, but one who is able to create entire worlds within his films, from the grey, bureaucratic "somewhere in the 20th century" maze of 'Brazil', to the wide open spaces and eternal orange sunset of 'Tideland', what makes his films so rich and deep and genuinely beautiful is his ability to completely erase any trace of a world we know and to plonk us slap bang on what seems like another planet.

I've been sitting on "Tideland" for a while now. Gilliam's work is one that needs a person's full attention, particularly on first viewing, and some days you just don't feel like being challenged. I remember watching "Brazil" for the first time in my teens and not getting past the twenty-minute mark, thanks to my shortened attention span. My own frighteningly intelligent mother, having been intrigued by my theory that the most recent Willy Wonka movie would have been forty billion times better had Gilliam directed it, was completely silent when I sat her down in front of 'Brazil', eventually calling it "the most bizarre thing I've ever seen" as the credits rolled - and she didn't mean it as a compliment. One needs to totally immerse oneself in Planet Gilliam in order to enjoy the ride, and be actively willing to do so. Having finally watched "Tideland", I think I can safely say that it's not a movie that one can "enjoy", only 'experience'. I won't be recommending it to my Mum, that's for sure.

In a nutshell; pre-pubescent Jeliza-Rose is daughter to two heroin addicts and, in the only life she knows, helps them shoot up. The high is "a vacation". It's clear that both parents love her and that she's the only responsible one in the relationship, but it's also clear that it's a lifestyle that's headed for disaster. So, when that disaster strikes, it strikes hard. Jeliza-Rose and her father escape to a deserted family farmhouse in Texas when her mother accidentally overdoses on methadone, and it's here that her father overdoses. Obviously well used to her father's unresponsive "vacations", Jeliza-Rose doesn't initially notice that he's dead. She spends several days talking to him and smearing peanut butter into his mouth whilst enjoying her childish flights of fancy, involving several talking doll-heads as playmates. As the film progresses, it gradually shifts from third person perspective to that of Jeliza-Rose's, enveloping the viewer into her fantasy world.

Eventually, she comes across the neighbours, an odd witch-like woman called Dell and her mentally challenged brother Dickens. Dell, already Dickens' primary care-giver, becomes a maternal figure to Jeliza-Rose, owing mostly to what appears to have been a relationship with her father at some point in time, and the realisation of his death. It's not fair to tell you what happens to her father's body, suffice it to say that it is shocking, to the extent of literal jaw-dropping. (mine, not his)

The blossoming relationship between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens, although I believe it to be entirely innocent within the circumstances and the context, is particularly uncomfortable to watch, and reminded me very much of Dennis Potter's pitch-black play "Blue Remembered Hills". It's easy to immediately snap into thought process that their relationship is one of sexual attraction, but I don't see it that way. And I'm married to a former Child Protective Services social worker, so my sense of inappropriateness is often above and beyond the average person's. By this point, we are completely inside Jeliza-Rose's world, in her head. A child of that age is unlikely, hormonally or intellectually, to seek out a sexual relationship. Instead, within her world of eternal playtime, she would be acting out the superficial aspects of the things she's seen adults do. She's pretending to be a grown-up and whilst her talk of marriage and love and babies is unsettling, it's merely a child's representation of adult relationships. Combined with Dickens' disability, which gives him the mental capacity of a child, it's all play. Not that that makes it any less cringe-worthy, of course, but that context does soften the blow somewhat.

As an actor, there's a boat load of pressure put on Jodelle Ferland to run through some bizarre and intense emotions, but she handles it extremely well. Normally, I detest child actors, but her performance is captivating, even with a few minor faults. Gilliam, I think, understands that a child who is given adult lines and actions is often what makes them unconvincing, and thus, Jeliza-Rose is often irritating. But most children are, so it's irritating in the context of the character. Brendan Fletcher is worth the price of admission alone, putting in an intense and unwavering portrayal of the mentally challenged Dickens, a role that could very easily have been played for cheap laughs. Jeff Bridges was decent, but I often felt like he was recycling "The Big Lebowski".

If it's on your radar, do your best to watch it with an open mind. Fellow Python Michael Palin said that he couldn't decide whether it was Gilliam's best work or his worst. Critics hated it, but film festival audiences gave it a standing ovation, so there are no guarantees - even to the Gilliam faithful. If your Netflix queue consists of "Pew! Pew! Pew!" parts three through seven, avoid it. If, however, you appreciated, say, "Man Bites Dog" or "Eraserhead", chances are you'll be blown away by "Tideland". I did, and I was.

It made me laugh, it made me cringe, it made me gasp... but most of all, it made me want to run home and hug my six year old daughter.


Paul Higginbotham said...

I'm dead and my daughter is putting peanut butter in my mouth, so I'm getting a kick out of this post.

JDB said...

I love Gilliam, but I just couldn't get into Tideland. Maybe I wasn't in the right mood for an "experience" movie? I'm eager to see what his new one is like, tho'.

Spike Nesmith said...

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnissus? Yeah! It looks interesting, a lot more like a 'traditional' Gilliam movie, which is probably where "Tideland" came into more criticism, it was different in so many ways. NO midgets, for example. He *always* had at least one in his movies!