Show Hide image

The NS Interview: Terry Gilliam

“Making films is just a cheap version of being God”

Do you vote?

Yes, I do.

You renounced your US citizenship in 2006, partly in protest against George W Bush. Did you vote there before that?

I haven't been in America for 43 years. It didn't seem to be my country any more. It wasn't just a protest. There was the fact that my wife would have had to sell the house to be able to afford to pay the taxes when I died.

You have no plans to go back?

No, no. Even though America has been blessed with possibly the best leader the world has got at the moment, I don't feel the need to go back and help him. He's on his own.

In all your films, you spill your imagination on to the screen in a way other directors don't.

Maybe they're just more cautious and career-oriented. I just do what I do. Things take me over, then I want to get them out of my system. My films are exorcisms, auto-exorcisms!

Your new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is also about imagination, isn't it?

I find it hard to describe my films. That's why I always find it difficult to raise money, because I can't give a tidy little explanation. Yeah, it's about encouraging imagination in those who watch it. I hope they come out saying, "More things are possible." I think that, if anything, is what I'm trying to do -- not just get my imagination on the screen, but to try to encourage other people to develop their own. And that's one of the problems of having an imagination: trying to communicate it and keep people interested.

There's a political element to that -- the idea that another world is possible.

It's that kind of social statement that's really political. I grew up in the 1950s, with the threat of communism and the bomb. The 1960s opened it up, and now we're back in a very closed state with fear outside the gates.

So do you think human history swings between fear and optimism?

Roger Miller sang, "England swings like a pendulum do". He's a great singer in America! I don't know -- it's either a pendulum or, in the east, it's a circle. What it isn't, though, is linear.

You talked about the east there. There's a kind of metaphysics implied in the film. Passing through the imagination is like passing through the veil of illusion into something like the Buddhist realm of truth or a Platonic realm of eternal forms.

I don't subscribe to any particular religious belief any more, but I tend to believe that, to break through Maya -- the veil of illusion -- you see it. That's very much what I believe. And then there's enlightenment. When in the film those women come back from the Imaginarium, they've been enlightened - that, or that they've just been fucked! But there's been an orgasmic moment. The creative moment is orgasmic, whether it's enlightenment or sexual energy. I didn't realise it -- good Presbyterian kid, going to college on a scholarship -- but over the years, little by little, I've drifted more eastern because I just find their view of the world more enlightened, more interesting and more open. Polytheism is so much more interesting than monotheism. Monotheism is all about control. Polytheism is: "Oh there's that, there's that over there." It actually seems to be amazed at the world.

Do you see films primarily as a visual medium or as a narrative medium?

I try to make narrative films, but the narrative is only part of the tale. The problem is trying to link together a lot of different ideas -- some are visual, some are musical, some are aural . . . It's kind of a battle of all these elements.

You also art-direct your own films, don't you?

I have to, because you've got to create the world. This is just a cheap version of being God. And you've got to do it in six days. It's never enough time, just like there wasn't for him.

What about technology? Have technological developments in cinema - CGI, for example -- liberated you as a film-maker?

It hasn't liberated me, it's just made things easier. That's all it's about. You can do the same thing with people with two pieces of paper, but there's a certain visceral quality. What I really like about CG work is what the camera can do. Because we used to do the static frame, and we'd do maps, and so it was very clunk, clunk, clunk. But now I can swing the camera all over the place in front of a blue screen and the computer can track what the camera does, and then when we see the CG background or a model background the camera can replicate that move. I couldn't do that before, and that, to me, is the greatest advancement that computers have done for me.

What are the continuities between your early work for Monty Python and your film-making?

I look back at my old cartoons and the stuff is all there. I just get better at some things and worse at others. I never reach any great heights.

Did The Imaginarium come to feel like a monument to Heath Ledger, after he died?

We were just trying to make something worthy of being his last movie, and I think, in the end, we did it. In a sense, it's a monument to how much he was loved and admired. We just saw the tip of the iceberg of what he was capable of. Everyone was willing to do whatever it took to finish that film. For Johnny [Depp], Colin [Farrell] and Jude [Law] to come to the rescue -- that's never happened. Heath's last film was something that will never happen again in the history of motion pictures.

How did it come about, getting those three in the film?

That was the very difficult part of it. The first person I told when Heath died was Johnny. I was commiserating with him 'cause he was a friend of Johnny's as well, and I said, "We have to pull the plug on this whole thing," and he said, "Well, whatever you do, I'm there, I'll help you." And that was a kind of turning point. Johnny was really serious. Everyone was involved in other projects, and trying to juggle their schedules was a complete nightmare. In the end, thanks to Michael Mann's film being delayed by one week at the very last moment, Johnny popped in.

How do you think Heath Ledger will be remembered?

We just saw the tip of the iceberg -- we saw so little of what he was capable of. He was just an extraordinary actor. He was fearless; whatever he did, there was a reality and gravitas about it. It's hard to know. He was nipped in the bud. I'm glad that Parnassus is getting released because I think what Heath is doing in Parnassus is a bit more of who he was as a person.

In what sense?

He was playful, he was charming, he'd do anything. He was just so generous. The character himself is very chameleon-like; his voice is changeable. He's Aussie one minute, cockney the next -- he's everywhere. That was what Heath was capable of and a million times more. As an actor, he could shape-shift, and that's what I love about all actors. I can't do that, and they fascinate me and convince me that what they're doing is real.

Did Dickens and Hogarth inspire the film's vision of London?

They did subconsciously, because those images of London still entrance me. I remember when I first came here, I used to love walking around Shad Thames, which now is a very prosperous place; but then that part of London was so amazing and so derelict. I was seeing Chuck Dickens everywhere.

Do you think London has changed for the better or worse in those 40 years?

I find it a lot worse. It may have been my youthful romanticism, but I felt there was a greater sense of community then. When I got here in the Sixties, it was a costume party. Then you got strikes and socialism - everything seemed to be changing. And now, I don't know what it is; it's a kind of amorphous society. I think I preferred the world of three or four television channels. Now it's so diffuse. I miss that sense of society. Margaret Thatcher got rid of it very successfully.

Was there a plan?

The only plan was a negative plan. When I quit my last proper job, doing the night shift on the assembly line at the Chevrolet plant, I said I'd never work for money again and I would only do things I had control over. That was pretty much the end of my career. It closed all the easy roads that would have been more lucrative.

What would you like to forget?

I don't have a problem with that: my memory is just gone. The one thing I don't forget is the name of the problem I have, which is "nominal aphasia" - I can't remember people's names.

Are we doomed?

Oh, yes. As human beings we're built to be doomed; we can't seem to stop ourselves. But we also have resilience and we love rebuilding. We have to reach the highest part of the cliff and fall off, and then start again.

DEFINING MOMENTS

1940 Born in Medicine Lake, Minnesota
1958 BA (politics), Occidental College, LA
1967 Moves to England
1969 Starts animating Monty Python's Flying Circus
1975 Directs first film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1986 Brazil receives Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Art Direction
2006 Renounces US citizenship
2009 Receives Bafta Fellowship award

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (12A) is out on 16 October.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain