Terry Gilliam And His Theorem
The Zero Theorem is the new movie by the US born but British by adoption director Terry Gilliam. It is due for release in Europe on December 19th, a day before its US release.
Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a computer genius engaged trying to resolve a formula to determine whether human life has meaning. Waltz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor last year for his portrayal of Dr. King Shultz in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. This was his second win in the category under Tarantino’s direction following Inglorious Basterds (2009) for a role which brought him international success.
Billy Bob Thornton was originally cast in the role Leth in 2009 when preparations for the movie were interrupted following the death of producer Richard Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox and did not resume again until 2012. Zanuck was a visionary of the cinema who collaborated with Steven Spielberg in The Sugarland Express (1974) and Jaws (1975). He also financed all Tim Burton films since Planet of the Apes (2001).
In The Zero Theorem Waltz appears with his head and eyebrows shaved. This altered appearance favours a strongly dramatized performance, where the expressiveness of the actor’s hairless face is heightened by the use of shadows.
In the film, Gilliam revisits the theme of human existence which, since Brazil, has been a recurring theme in his work. Together with 12 Monkeys these films form a distinctive thread in Burton’s aesthetic compared to other works. The main characters, Sam and James, are individuals crushed by a claustrophobic society under the control of a ruthless police state. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a state official and member of one of the city’s most influential families. His mother is obsessed with cosmetic surgery and the desire to maintain the status of her family name. Her costumes are reminiscent of Schiaparelli designs, so much so that the hat in the shape of the shoe in the restaurant scene is a blatant citation.
Sam has isolated himself from the rat race that surrounds him preferring to live in a dream world where he runs to meet the his secret love, whom he has not actually met yet. Jill (Kim Greist) is a truck driver who finds herself fighting against bureaucracy having committed some serious error in relation to the family living in the apartment below hers. In the midst of this gruelling battle she meets Sam, an employee in the department of ” Information Retrieval”.
Gilliam’s female characters are pragmatic, independent women whose aspirations have solid foundations: Jill wants to make amends for the injustice done to the neighbours and continue to working with her truck; Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) in The Fisher King (1991) is an Italian-American owner of a video rental store, who in addition to supporting her fallen-on-hard-times partner she also assists him in the his eccentric mission to make Lydia fall for Parry. In 12 Monkeys the psychiatrist Katryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) has charge of the sick James Cole. She not only falls in love with her patient but she joins him in his mission to save the world. Angelika in The Brothers Grimm (Lena Headey) is the sole survivor of a family fallen victim to the curse of the forest of Marbaden and is the only true warrior in the village. These women, and the list could go on and on, are mirror images of the typically male figures which appear in Gilliam’s films. Gilliam’s male protagonists are also individuals with extraordinary gifts of perception but their understanding of the world is distorted or filtered by an intense dream activity. Often it is these characters who describe themselves as “crazy”, even before society has marked them as such.
The figure of the outsider is the starting point for the film’s narrative and the perfect tool with which to bring out the idiosyncrasies the director harbours for a society, frequently American society, which tends to depersonalization in favour of the unchallenged advance of technology. Tools for the improvement of the quality of life are transformed into weapons of repression and state control: computers in Brazil, and in 12 Monkeys the scientific knowledge which allows James time travel. Such is the feeling of claustrophobia that Gilliam never omits the presence of cages: “There’s always been cages in my movies”. This is true even of the commercial shot for Nike The secret tournament (2002) set on a ghost ship where the players are imprisoned and forced to compete with each other to the bitter end.
Television is a recurring element; it is ever present and pumping out a stream of distressing images and promotions for products. The jingles are intermingled with sensual voiceovers offering holidays on Caribbean beaches. In 12 Monkeys in the floral paradise of the Florida Keys – an archipelago located just south of Miami – is transformed in the imagination of the character played by Bruce Willis into a haven from hatred and social breakdown.
“ I couldn’t distinguish my dreams from the dreams that were being sold to me. I couldn’t even experience reality without questioning whether I was really experiencing reality or somebody else’s idea of reality. A simple thing like walking down the beach – sun setting, birds flying, waves lapping, the sand beneath your feet: was I enjoying it because it was genuinely enjoyable to walk along the beach with the sun setting, or because I’d seen it in ten hundred commercials telling me, “This is what life is all about”? And I couldn’t tell. I had to get out.”
In this way Gilliam simplifies his decision to leave the US in an interview with Owen Gleiberman.
The couple is the true protagonist of Gilliam’s films. However couple is not only to be understood as a romantic pairing but also as two men sharing in the development of events. The theme of the double is of fundamental importance leading to a continuous dialogue on the coexistence of a dream world and reality. Perry in The Fisher King is a former college professor who suffered a breakdown following the tragic death of his wife, his character is perfectly modeled on that of the renaissance jester. Jack is the cynic of the duo who nevertheless ends up accepting his companion’s fantastical vision of life. In The Brothers Grimm Heath Ledger, whose untimely death robbed the cinema of an undoubted talent, plays Jacob, the dreamer of the story, while Matt Damon plays the skeptic, Wilhelm. In The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus the elderly protagonist is in a constant battle against evil in order to prove that it is imagination which is the life force of the universe.
This pattern recurs even in the set designs where mirrors and broken glass reflect the fractured or multiple images of the same character in crucial moments of introspection. Objects live in the narrative, where everything is functional: “I don’t like just having people walk into a room and do their dialogue. I want the chair to be a character, you know? I want a knife and fork to somehow be part of the scenery. It’s pantheism.”
Gilliam is an author of irony inspired by the English nonsense tradition of which he became an icon with the Monty Python comedy group active from 1969 to 1983. The sketches which make up Monty Python’s Flying Circus were broadcast on BBC channels in forty-five episodes over four seasons. The programmes achieved rapid international success and books, music albums and stage shows followed. Fame came with the small screen and it was also thanks to TV that Gilliam was able to refine his aesthetic sensibility even in childhood in the 50s: “I remember when television first came in. Just before we left Minnesota in the fifties, somebody up the road had a black and white television and I remember we were watching Sid Caesar’s The Show of Shows. It was brilliant. The writing was by the likes of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.” And it is with special attention that he deals with childhood to which he dedicates a number of films starting with Time Bandits in 1981. The film tells the story of eleven-year old Kevin who has a passion for history and who begins a series of time travels in the company of a group of dwarf thieves. While the fantastic narrative is directed to a mixed audience, the film it is not without its moments of stark reflection on the nature of existence. The young man is subjected to a true rite of passage which will lead him to greater self-awareness. Kevin, neglected by parents who are too busy buying electrical appliances, recognizes a father figure in the Greek hero Agamemnon.
“A few years ago, my wife Maggie said she’d never really though about mortality, and I found myself saying that every day since I was a kid I’ve thought about my own death.”
The Zero Theorem is the latest appointment with Gilliam and his always quirky vision.