I finally managed to see Tideland, the most recent offering from maverick auteur and Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam. The almost nonexistent buzz around the film focused on its controversial themes (drugs, child abuse, bodily decomposition) and on the film's difficulties in finding an audience. In a post-production response to its hot-button issues, the DVD release opens with a black-and-white disclaimer from Gilliam. Squarely framed and somber-faced, he intones: "Some of you are not going to like this movie. Many of you, on the other hand, are going to love it. And some of you are not going to know what to think after the movie is over."
As I sat in rapt awe, with a transfixion that only Gilliam's work seems to inspire, I came to the realization that this movie represents something very important to the filmmaker. He is imparting a message at the same time that he is making cinematic history, and he obviously went to great lengths to do so.
It occurred to me that the blockbusting attempt of his previous title, the innocuous Matt Damon/Heath Ledger fairy tale adventure The Brothers Grimm, wasn't a Hollywood sellout bid for lack of imagination, or for purely selfish reasons. As any follower of Gilliam's career understands, his films are challenging both as a social critique for the intellectual viewer and as a serious risk for potential investors. (The sprawling 1988 fantasy classic The Adventures of Baron Munchausen remains an industry reference for a colossal box office flop.) It was suddenly very clear: Gilliam made Grimm as a business move to bankroll one last hurrah, his magnum opus and a project he knew would not be tolerated by those who typically foot the bill for the Academy's fodder. When I popped in Disc 2 to see the interviews, Terry and his producer confirmed my thoughts. Tideland reflects his true genius, both on its own merits and as a peek into the passion that drove its creator to see his artistic vision realized against the odds.
I don't want to spoil anything too much here. But when you view Tideland and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan's Labyrinth in juxtaposition, you should notice what I did -- a very apparent thread that connects them at their deepest levels. Both tell the story of an orphaned young girl who suffers the hells of life but relies on a connection to the mythic, nonmaterial world to survive and retain her childlike wonder. In both films, she carries with her a treasured book that speaks of this fantastic world, and both films show us this realm of hidden fantasy through a child's eyes as it manipulates and enlivens the bleakness of rational "adult" existence. There are insects-turned-faeries in both; there are monsters and terrors. And there is abomination -- war, death and destruction -- painted in the palette of our modern dystopic lives. Yet these two girls, in their purest Blakean innocence, can see the brilliant magic that underpins the darkness, and it is salvation to them.
The correlations are uncanny and numerous, salient to the extent that one begins to philosophize on the implications of the two films’ contemporaneous emergence. It is safe to assume that neither director had a foreknowledge of the other’s project as these pictures went into production, yet they seem to echo one another almost deliberately. It is almost as if the filmmakers are channeling the same inner vision, crafting dense and visually arresting allegories of our own miasmic world as it wobbles on the brink of self-annihilation. Tideland and Pan’s Labyrinth represent a cultural transmission akin to Edward Edinger’s archetype of the Apocalypse, a meme that has begun to surface prominently in recent months across the spectrum of popular entertainment, with media icons from Trent Reznor to Leonardo DiCaprio heralding the end of days. Yet there is something more sanguine than nightmare scenarios of Orwellian autocracy and meteorological chaos in the vivid dreamscapes of Gilliam and Del Toro. In the films’ closing scenes, at the height of the drama when mankind’s callousness is at its most unrestrained, the little girls escape with their faeries into another stage of consciousness –- a magnificent oblivion.
As the catastrophes of our own society converge and threaten to engulf all hope, as violence and hatred boil over and ecological devastation speeds up, these films offer us a timely lesson: Look to the magic of the hidden realm to make it to the other side. The word "apocalypse" translates to a revelation or unveiling. That invisible realm of mythic kingdoms and unseen intelligence glows brighter day-by-day, illumining the curtain between the material and the divine. Films like these are like modern day fairy tales, rekindling our dulled imaginations to a connection with the mystical. One day, our own spirits may depend on it.