Duncan Jones, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his parentage, appears to be concentrating his directorial attentions upon films in the sci-fi genre. First there was “Moon,” which a lot of people rated very highly indeed. Personally I thought it was a fine piece of filmmaking, with a great Sam Rockwell performance at the centre of it, but that the storyline was a bit too referential for the genre. Only a few weeks ago I was talking about the science-fiction genre in relation to “Never Let Me Go,” and one of the major excitements about sci-fi that I hinted at was the fact that the imagination can indulge itself to a far greater extent than in any other genre when devising stories. Naturally certain thematic elements will recur, but to me “Moon” was so closely related to elements of “Silent Running,” “Solaris” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” that it failed to achieve a strong enough individual identity, and felt somewhat in the shadow of those works.
His newly released follow-up, “Source Code,” is similarly indebted to several other films, but in a much more thematic than dramatic way. The plot feels unique and original, and thus it feels like a much more accomplished and dynamic showcase for Jones’ considerable talents behind the camera. “Source Code” is a highly impressive exercise in suspense, with really good acting from Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga, which also finds the time to hint at prescient issues such as the impact of our choices, the morality of technology, the horror of warfare, the tedium of the modern world, the fragility of human relationships, and the terror of random anarchy present in our post-9/11 Western world. Go and see it.
As mentioned, though, the film shares important ideological and narrative elements with pre-existing films, most obviously with “Inception” and “Groundhog Day.” Of course, the amount of time it takes to make a film means that this work will have been well under way before “Inception” came out, but both films definitely tackle the idea of entering a dreamscape to affect our actual reality, thus questioning the nature of what truly constitutes a world being “real.” The “Groundhog Day” comparison naturally encompasses the playing with repetition in narrative, exploring how the same day, or the same eight minutes, replayed again and again can effectively engage an audience over ninety minutes. It’s an apparent shunning of linear narrative in favour of something which resembles a kind of bold circular narrative.
What ties all three films together is an almost meta-cinematic contemplation of the process of filmmaking, by which I mean the idea of fabricating a virtual reality or the replaying of an event until its perfect, resembling the many takes required to film a scene as best as possible. In “Inception,” there already exists a theory that the building of a dream world is a metaphor for the filmmaking process, with Saito as the producer, Ariadne as the production designer, Arthur as special effects expert and Cobb as the director. In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray represents an actor given limitless takes to get his performance of a long scene absolutely perfect. In “Source Code,” the two are combined: the source code technology creates a virtual film set, and Gyllenhaal has a finite amount of takes to perform his role in the scene to perfection.
All of this is quite interesting, and by mentioning it I’ve sort of given you a whistle stop tour of essays I could have written (and might one day get around to covering.) What I actually wanted to say, though, is that the other film “Source Code” reminded me of is “Twelve Monkeys,” and by proxy Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” (which for anyone who’s interested in films should be very high on your list of things to see, since along with Martin McDonagh’s “Six Shooter” it’s probably the greatest short film ever made.) But back to “Twelve Monkeys,” and we see a definite link in the way both films feature a protagonist continually sent back to the past, or a version of the past, to influence the future, in the process developing troubling romantic attachments to women who occupy an irretrievably different time and place. I then got thinking further: everything I really like about the sci-fi genre, the boundless imagination of the stories, the potential visual spectacle, the rich realisation of an alternate world, and the ability to comment allegorically upon our own world, are all tropes abundant in the work of the director of “Twelve Monkeys:” Terry Gilliam.
Gilliam is still largely ignored as a director, by which I mean he isn’t really appreciated as the great filmmaker he has proved himself to be. If I ask you to name the greatest living American directors, or the great visionary or visual directors in the world, you would be forgiven for forgetting about Gilliam. After all, he actually hasn’t made that many films in a career which has been going for over thirty years now. Yet he is an undoubtedly revolutionary and influential creative artist, and not just in one field. As an animator with the Pythons he was an integral part of their anarchic irreverence and comic progression, using his animations to link sketches together, and his cut-out style is a clear influence upon “South Park.” As a director, perhaps his most indelible contribution to the form is his ability to find cohesion and logic in out-of-control imaginative fantasy worlds, which are themselves palpable recreations of animated universes that always seemed impossible to physicalize.
The examples of this last point are abundant in his work. Consider the star-studded warped historical nightmares of “Time Bandits,” or the grungy underground dystopia of “Twelve Monkeys,” and especially the darkly comic, sprawling bureaucratic mess that is the world of “Brazil.” Returning to what I was saying last week about the failure of CGI to convincingly portray visual imagery, I am always struck by the ambitious scale and uncompromising imagination of Gilliam’s art direction, and perhaps “Brazil” is his most celebrated film because it is the best example of Gilliam’s ability to reinforce the reality of the fantasy through intensely palpable sets. In “Brazil” alone, you need only think back to the endless rows of filing cabinets and corridors at the Ministry, or to the towering metropolitan cityscapes, or to the horrific vastness of the torture chamber.
As well as cramming his films with arresting and fantastical visual images, Gilliam has proved equally adept at employing a bizarre, at times boldly avant garde tone to his films with engaging cohesion. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is filmed in a style which is completely in synch with the drugged-up ramblings and escapades of Hunter S Thompson, facilitating a film which captures both the distinctive narration of the source material with considerable faithfulness, and the deranged mad style of its maverick director. Gilliam’s trademark techniques of offsetting camera angles, distorted close-ups and the remarkable energy of his moving camera are omnipresent in the director’s work, but his ability to coerce excitingly stylised performances from his actors is quite stunning. There was some discussion on this blog about Johnny Depp a few weeks ago, and his performance in the aforementioned stoner’s odyssey is perhaps his most effective embracing of the cartoon physicality he has since indulged in. Brad Pitt is even more impressive in “Twelve Monkeys” in a jittering, nervy, intense yet hilarious role as a deeply disturbed individual. Robin Williams is equally disturbed in “The Fisher King,” and oscillates between the comical and the terrifying to electric effect. Indeed, the film itself is a wonderful, powerful blend of dark fantasy, surreal comedy and even darker psychological trauma, and really is an underrated gem. The actors of course deserve credit for their performances, but in every case Gilliam’s forceful hand is unmistakably present.
What’s more, Gilliam is a director of admirable and uncompromising artistry. The documentary “Lost in La Mancha,” which covers Gilliam’s doomed attempt to film “Don Quixote,” shows a director struggling against the uncontrollable and desperately pursuing his vision by any means necessary. He is probably the only director in the world who could have harnessed the tragic death of a leading actor to improve his film: replacing Heath Ledger in the dream sequences of “The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus” with actors who represent the dreamer’s ultimate male fantasy adds a fascinatingly subjective touch to the way the dream-world is formed, and gives the film an added element of imagination it would never otherwise have had.
So go and see “Source Code,” try and track down “The Fisher King,” and as we enjoy a wave of films which tackle intelligent stories with bold imagination, just remember that Gilliam got there first, and has remained there for some time.