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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

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

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