Terry Gilliam
By: David Smay | Categories: HiLo Heroes

A scene from Terry Gilliam's <em>Brazil</em>.

A scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

TERRY GILLIAM (born 1940) first worked with John Cleese (and Gloria Steinem) in the early 1960s, on Harvey Kurtzman’s Help, collaborating on a fumetti: “Christopher’s Punctured Romance.” After Help’s demise he moved to England where he was drawn further into the orbit of proto-Pythons on Do Not Adjust Your Set, and from there became a founding member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Gilliam was, with Terry Jones, the chief conceptualist of Python’s assault on the punchline, the easy capper which defuses comic anarchy. Gilliam’s scabrous, surreal, Ernst-like animations stitched the skits together, torquing rather than relieving the weirdness. While his films retain a Grimm edge, and are unafraid to go very dark indeed (Brazil, Tideland), they are equally fearless (if Quixotic) in their faith in the imagination. Gilliam crowds his dark worlds with fantastic detail, shadows curling with menace in the depth of his frame. His vision aligns curiously with that of his generational peer, Angela Carter (also born 1940); they play with the dark fantastic as a way into the horror of the world. But in Gilliam’s films even the worst can be staved off by that slim, private space we hold between our ears, the capacity to imagine which even Michael Palin’s genial torturer is unable to destroy. Gilliam will burn a child’s life down (in Time Bandits), his parents blown up by a chunk of concentrated evil smoldering in the microwave, then conjure Sean Connery up from the past to pull the boy from the fire. The boy’s future is no less bleak but Gilliam provides the child with the one essential thing: the knowledge that what he imagines is true. And we believe this for two reasons: the unrelenting darkness of Gilliam’s vision, and its vivid realization on the screen.

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David Smay is the co-editor of two books about pop music, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, and Lost in the Grooves. He's also the author of Swordfishtrombones, the 33 1/3 series entry on Tom Waits. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.