Report on the Oct. 5 Tideland screening in DC (with Terry Gilliam)

Jefferson Morris

Supporting Actor
Jun 20, 2000

With C.H.U.D. vitriolically panning this film, I thought I'd offer a second opinion. Terry Gilliam himself introduced the D.C. premier of Tideland on Oct. 5, and did a Q&A afterward. I sat in the front row. Here's my (somewhat lengthy) review and report:

Washington, D.C. is not the worst town for a movie lover to abide in, but it's far from the best. Sure, we get our fair share of celebrities passing through, but your average Joe film fanatic typically doesn't find out about such visits until after the fact. And even when he has advance notice, it makes little difference--public access to exotic moviefolk during their D.C. visits is a rarity.

But sometimes, just sometimes, D.C. is a cool place for a movie nut to live. Like on the night of Oct. 5, 2006, when I got to see Tideland for free about a month before it's due to open here and participate in a live Q&A with its director, Terry Gilliam.

For those who can't wait, here's the executive summary: Tideland is a compelling, fascinating film that no doubt will continue to divide audiences and gain resonance for those willing to see it more than once. His best film in many years, I suspect, although I will have to see it again to confirm. Oh, and Jodelle Ferland could be the next Natalie Portman.

The first-come/first-served screening took place at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn museum on the National Mall. MP3s of both Gilliam's introduction to the film and the 30-minute Q&A held afterward are available at the Hirshhorn's website, but I warn you, the plot is quite thoroughly spoiled by the discussion:

(Toward the beginning of the Q&A you may faintly hear the voice of yours truly asking Mr. Gilliam whether Jeliza-Rose fully grasped what happened to her father. His answer was yes.)

Before the film, Mr. Gilliam took to the stage, clean shaven but retaining his now-familiar rat-tail. Though in his mid-sixties, he has the energy, demeanor and infectious enthusiasm of a man at least a couple of decades younger.

Mr. Gilliam has no illusions about Tideland making any money. That's not why one makes a film like this. His only real ambition for the film, he told us, was to provoke debate. Mission accomplished. He also predicted before the screening that the film would resonate with some viewers after they've seen it, and that he would be more interested in hearing their opinions of it the next morning than when they're still flush with the experience. And he was right. It's a film that's tough to shake, which may be a good or bad thing, according to the viewer's tastes.

His prefatory remarks were brief. The lights went down. Plot spoilers begin in three, two, one…

Young Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) lives in squalor with her junk-addicted father (Jeff Bridges) and former junk-addicted (now chocolate-addicted) mother (Jennifer Tilly). Mom makes an early and darkly humorous exit from the story, at which point Dad and Jeliza-Rose take off for an unspecified Midwest location where Jeliza-Rose's fabled Grandmother has an old house, floating in an ocean of golden wheat. Grandma is long gone, but has left behind some interesting artifacts for Jeliza-Rose to discover (including an apparently hyperdimensional wardrobe evoking both C.S. Lewis and the opening of Gilliam's own Time Bandits).

Before much longer, Dad makes his exit as well via drug overdose, and his daughter is left to fend for herself in this cockeyed, isolated world, with a trio of beat-up doll heads as her only confederates. She encounters a precocious squirrel and two odd neighbors—the semi-lobotomized Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who quickly becomes her friend, and the intimidating Dell, Dickens' older sister (Janet McTeer), who evolves into her quasi-stepmother and occasional tormentor.

Through continuous play and fantasy, Jeliza-Rose maintains her precocious innocence despite her increasingly macabre and dire situation, while uncovering dark secrets about previous ties between Dell/Dickens and her own family.

Tideland, in some sense, is a horror film told from the point of view of a protagonist who refuses to acknowledge the events around her as horrific. There are echoes of Psycho and other serial killer tales in the ambiance of Dell/Dickens' house, with its stuffed wildlife decor, and the remote Midwest location seems a perfect setting for a horror thriller.

Much of the imagery is concerned with death and decay, whether it's a decaying corpse or a rotting sofa chair. But of course a horror film is not really what Gilliam has made. Instead he's created a testament to the resilience of children, and the transformative power of the imagination--familiar themes to fans of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with which Tideland shares an odd kinship (The sight of Dell with her carving knives preparing dinner somehow reminded me of Katharine Helmond in Time Bandits preparing human cuisine for her ogre of a husband).

The film, while disturbing, is not a relentless gross-out (at least not by my somewhat desensitized standards). Your average horror film offers worse imagery. What's disturbing to audiences is not so much what they're seeing, but the proximity of the innocent Jeliza-Rose to these events. How often do you see a little girl dutifully preparing her father's heroin shot for him, complete with nurse-like affectations such as flicking the syringe with her finger? It's bracing stuff, but also darkly funny--Mr. Gilliam encouraged the audience to laugh during the film, and they did, albeit somewhat nervously at times.

Seeing Jeliza-Rose in the midst of this madness is a bit like watching her walk blithely on the edge of a cliff for two hours. She seems surefooted and carefree, but the viewer worries about her nonetheless.

As mentioned, the film is oddly reminiscent of Time Bandits, only in that film, as Mr. Gilliam pointed out, he waited until the end to kill off the parents. But as coming-of-age stories go, Tideland and Time Bandits are also dissimilar in one interesting aspect.

Time Bandits' Kevin matures over the course of the film as he is systematically disappointed and disillusioned with almost all of the historical personas he meets, up to and including God himself. Jeliza-Rose, on the other hand, appears to remain an innocent to the last. But is she really? This point can be debated. Through her relationship with the older Dickens, she seems to become conscious of her own budding sexual power. The scenes between them, verging queasily on the erotic, may cause more squeamishness among viewers than anything else in the movie. But Gilliam doesn't push this angle too strenuously. This is not a retelling of Lolita, although one can see how it might have veered in that direction.

Gilliam has always loved to throw audiences for a loop with his endings, and Tideland is no exception. The film appears to simply stop, although upon reflection the dramatic and thematic significance of the ending becomes clear. But any film that consciously and deliberately leaves as many plot threads hanging as Tideland is bound to get viewers bowels in an uproar. A lack of conventional narrative resolution remains the cardinal sin in feature filmmaking, worse than any transgression in content.

For this reason, I suspect Tideland will meet with the same mixed-to-negative reviews here in the U.S. that it has apparently been greeted with elsewhere, despite the skill with which it was made and the uniformly excellent acting. Nothing new for a Gilliam film. It will take a few years for it to find its audience, during which time I believe its status will quietly but steadily grow, a la Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. As with all his films, Criterion Collection treatment on DVD (or high-def disc, please) will be a must.

Of course, Gilliam doesn't made didactic entertainment, but there is a moral to Tideland, of sorts: Don't let your 10-year old cook for you.

The Q&A

Gilliam re-emerged after the credits with a mischievous expression on his face. He was clearly in his element, making the audience laugh, dropping a couple of well-placed F-bombs for effect, taking one light jab at President Bush (saying he's going to sue him for ripping off the totalitarian regime of Brazil), and listening patiently to everyone's questions even when they rambled or skirted incoherence.

The curator of the Hirshhorn said that after watching the film a few days earlier, his 13-year old daughter had proclaimed it her favorite movie. Gilliam deemed this further testimonial to the inherent toughness of kids, which is Tideland's subject. He mentioned a real-life news story he'd read in which some children had spent two weeks in their house alone with their mother after she had died. The physical horrors they witnessed must have been worse than anything in the film, he said, admitting that he had consciously pulled back from depicting the full effects of decomposition on the human body.

It's only during adulthood, he suggested, that we learn to be disturbed by natural and inevitable events in life--to fear loss and mortality. Gilliam said he never truly felt fear until his children were born, and he began fearing for their welfare.

Jeliza-Rose doesn't fear for herself after the death of her father, in part because she denies the death its traumatic power. There is no trite scene of her crying over her father's corpse or begging him to return. His death is quickly, almost seamlessly, processed and incorporated into her fantasy world.

One attendee asked Gilliam if Tideland was in part a deliberately anti-commercial palate cleanser after his experience on The Brother's Grimm. Gilliam said yes, in part, although he had actually tried to make Tideland first. In a sense, Grimm was more a reaction to his frustrations with mounting Tideland, and not vice versa, he said.

He said Tideland very nearly didn't happen because casting Jeliza-Rose was so difficult. As the deadline to start shooting loomed, he nearly called producer Jeremy Thomas to tell him that it had all been for naught. But then at the 11th hour he found Jodelle Ferland, who stood out because of her feisty, unsentimental approach to the part. Thinking at first she was a remarkable discovery, he later found she had been acting since the age of four.

Most of the questions were specific to Tideland, but a few asked about his general oeuvre. The film he expects to be remembered for: Brazil. Unfortunately, no one quizzed him about future projects before the Q&A was over.

All in all, a terrific night, and the full audio of the event is available at the link I listed above. My only regrets are: A) Mr. Gilliam got hustled backstage to meet the press before I (or anyone else) could ask him to sign anything. I had brought my Criterion Brazil DVD and a green Sharpie.

And B) when I asked my question I forgot to thank him for making The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, one of the best films of all time, and the movie that kindled my passionate interest in cinema.

--Jefferson Morris

Don Solosan

Supporting Actor
Oct 14, 2003
I'm glad you liked it. I saw it in Los Angeles last weekend, and found it, for the most part, boring. There's lots of quirky behavior, a few interesting visuals, and not much of a story. As for Gilliam's urging people to laugh (he makes the same request in a filmed introduction that preceeded the print I saw), there's just not much here to laugh about. It's not dark-funny, just dark weird. People who hate Hollywood narrative will love it. Most everyone else will hate it or just avoid it.

Jefferson Morris

Supporting Actor
Jun 20, 2000

Can't argue with any of that. It is most certainly not for everyone. Narratively speaking, though, I actually find it more coherent than Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. I love F&L, though it always feels like a three-hour film to me.

--Jefferson Morris


Who do we think I am?
Dec 1, 1999
Gulf Coast
Real Name
Tony D.
i was going to start a topic on this film.
i havent seen it and wont until it hits dvd but i've noticed its getting killed in most reviews.
like this one that calls it "a cinematic suicide note."

whats going on with gillaim

its great to make the films you want to make but they still have to e good to some extent.

bros grimm was a big dissapointment and really was just lifeless and had no soul so to speak.

fear and loathing was a mess and a bore.

i rented it years ago and couldnt finish it.
rented the hd dvd last week and couldnt wait for it to be over.

brazil is one of my favorite movies

fisher king is brilliant and
twelve monkeys is also a very good movie.

is he trying to make a point or what?

Jefferson Morris

Supporting Actor
Jun 20, 2000
I would urge fans to give this a chance and approach it with an open mind, as Gilliam urged us to during the screening. Reaction there was pretty positive, although we were hardly an unbiased representative sample of the moviegoing public.

I'll admit perhaps my starstruck enthusiasm at having seen this film with the director in attendance colored my reaction to it - I'll be able to gauge the film purely on its merits when I see it again, which I still intend to do. But I think its eminently worthy of discussion and consideration.

As for "what's going on" with Gilliam, he may be moving, relatively late in his career, into a more experimental period. Experiments, by definition, sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. This is the point where filmmakers are often said to be "losing touch" with their audience. Kubrick entered a similar phase, in which he consciously tried to expand and tweak narrative form with each film he made, and alienated many viewers and critics in the process. Is Gilliam moving into brave new territory, or into an artistic dead end of convoluted formalism? It's up to each viewer to decide.

I will probably always prefer Gilliam's fantasy masterpieces of the 80s to anything he will produce for the rest of his career. Most artists have a vital creative period that ends. But I think he's far from out of gas or out of ideas, and I'm intrigued to see what he does next.

As for the review you linked...well, everyone's entitled to their opinion, but that wasn't the most thoughtful piece of film criticism I've ever read.

--Jefferson Morris

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