Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tideland

Terry Gilliam, the American Python, the only American member of the Monty Python, and the crazed genius behind the troupe's distinctive, surreal animation. When Monty Python split up, Gilliam established himself as an idiosyncratic director in his own right with such unique sci fi and fantasy movies as Time Bandits, Brazil, and Twelve Monkeys. He also delved into more dramatic fare with the likes of The Fisher King and Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, although even these films retained his bizarre visual style and sensibilities.

Tideland (2005), more in the style of those latter two movies, is distinctively Gilliam. A borderline horror movie in the vein of Psycho or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tideland plays as an extremely warped and some might say troubling variation of Alice in Wonderland, and like some of Gilliam's earlier work, it's about childhood and imagination and how those can be shields against the hardships of reality. Tideland also shows how too much imagination and denial of reality can drag someone into deep trouble. It's a hallucinatory meditation on the danger of innocence.

Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) is the 11-year-old daughter Noah (Jeff Bridges), an aging hippy musician with a heroin addiction, and Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly), a white-trash type who loves chocolate. When Queen Gunhilda overdoses, Noah takes Jeliza-Rose to the abandoned farmhouse of his dead mother to hide, but before long, he's dead too. Jeliza-Rose doesn't seem to notice her father continually decomposing and becomes lost in her little fantasy world along with her "friends," the disembodied Barbie doll heads she carries around on her fingertips. They all have different names and personalities (and are all voiced by Ferland): Mustique, Sateen Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter Gal. Jeliza-Rose also encounters another pair of strange characters: Dell (Janet McTeer), a one-eyed beekeeper mistaken for a witch, and Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), Del's lobotomized, epileptic brother.

In his introduction on the DVD, Gilliam says many people will hate this movie, many will love it, and many will not know how to react, and he's right. This is a challenging, alienating, dark, and often unpleasant film, especially when you consider the main character is a young girl. We see her perform many questionable actions: preparing the heroin for her father to inject, dressing up his corpse with a wig and makeup, and, in probably the most unsettling part of the movie, becoming the "girlfriend" of Dickens, who must at least be 30. We even see the two kiss. We see Jeliza-Rose engage in all this behavior without understanding what it means. Without any parental or adult guidance, she's left to her fantasies, and this distorts her perception of reality.

Gilliam's strong visual style remains on display. We get rather beautiful shots of wheat fields and a fantasy sequence of Jeliza-Rose swimming underwater. Then we get shots of that living spaces that Leatherface would feel right at home in: dank walls, rotten wood, filth, stuffed animals (as in taxidermy), flies buzzing on Noah's corpse (which is increasingly worse for wear and always propped up in his chair), and the warped angles on Jeliza-Rose's doll heads that make them appear larger than her.

I think my problem with Tideland is that there's too much of it. Gilliam is a famously indulgent filmmaker when it comes to style, but at two hours in length, Tideland is at least a half hour too long and repetitious. There's not enough story to justify the running time. I took similar issue with Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas; the same point is hammered home repeatedly without much variation while the on-screen depravity piles on. What begins as shocking but intriguing gradually becomes tedious and merely uncomfortable.

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