“Try to imagine that you’re innocent,” Terry Gilliam said as he introduced his latest film, Tideland at Cinematheque Ontario this past Monday night. “Try to get back to that place, where you’ve got no prejudices, or any of that stuff we let cloud our thinking as adults.”
These are the words of a man who knows exactly what kind of criticism audience members is likely to have for him. When Tideland premiered at TIFF in 2005, the response was mixed, but largely negative. No distributor would touch it. Finally, Capri Films picked up its Canadian distribution rights. What exactly compelled them to do so now is beyond me. As Gilliam acknowledged, “Some of you aren’t gonna like this film; some of you are going to really love it.” As the film began to unravel before me, it became quite clear the auteur was right—Tideland is the cinematic equivalent of Marmite.
Maybe it’s because I’m a huge Gilliam fan and I’ll forgive the aging Quixote and Monty Python alumnus anything, but I kinda liked this movie. It’s an inventive, playful, dark, funny and—despite a conscious disregard for naturalism—realistic exploration of the boundless childhood imagination.
In addition to its heady dose of outright gonzo, macabre strangeness, the real hurdle most viewers will have to surmount in Tideland is the kissing scene between 10-year-old Jeliza-Rose (Nanaimo BC’s Jodelle Ferland) and her lobotomized man-child playmate, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher). The second the scene began to play itself out, I could feel myself squirming. This was the scene Gilliam was talking about when he told us to imagine ourselves as innocents. Without the cultural baggage that goes along with the image of a man and a young girl kissing, the scene was completely harmless. Especially since Jeliza-Rose was the one initiating contact. She is curious about kissing. She wants to play the “boyfriend-girlfriend” game. She loves the romance of it. Dickens, meanwhile, is scared out of his mind. Though his own intellectual development has been arrested—he believes the trains that pass through the neighbouring fields are giant sharks that he, a submarine captain, must destroy—Dickens still understands that what he’s doing is wrong. In the end, you want to chastise yourself for squirming. This is an innocent moment, even a beautiful one. By interrogating our culturally-constructed response mechanisms, Gilliam has done something rather special.
That’s not to say that the entire movie is a success. As is true of so many of Gilliam’s work (and this may be the purest—that is, maddest—Gilliam—film I’ve ever seen), Tideland is a beautiful mess of a film whose few moments of genius ask us to forgive a cumbersome, feral whole. But that’s why we love him, right? The film centers on the experiences of Jeliza-Rose, a girl born into a home of drug-fuelled madness. Mom (Jennifer Tilly) is a washed out, invective spewing junky witch (she’s got Courtney Love written all over her) and Dad (Jeff Bridges) is a failed rock n’ roller who departs on daily heroin-inspired “vacations”—think The Big Lebowski‘s Dude meets Motorhead’s Lemmy. Jeliza-Rose preps Daddy’s needles and then rubs Mommy’s legs. But she also flees into a world of her own imagining, a world where the disembodied heads of old Barbie dolls are her glamourous best friends and rabbit holes into parallel worlds lie beyond every corner. When Mom overdoses, Dad and Jeliza-Rose pack off to his childhood home in the middle of the prairie. When Dad dies, the child is left all on her lonesome, with nothing but dusty old baubles and endless fields of wheat to keep her company.
Jeliza-Rose soon discover Dells (Tumbleweeds‘ Janet McTeer), a Jack Sparrow of the prairie, who keeps her mother’s skin in her bedroom upstairs and has her mentally handicapped brother Dickens do her bidding. Jeliza-Rose, it turns out, has been dropped into the middle of the only family madder than her own.
So yeah, it’s not for everyone. But Gilliam’s vision sure has its moments. It’s like W.O. Mitchell’s Who has Seen the Wind meets Tank Girl meets Psycho. No way you can say, been there, done that.
Tideland will be released in Toronto on October 20.
It was a big week for Canadian film. Not only did Erik Canuel’s Bon Cop Bad Cop become the highest grossing Canadian movie of all time (surpassing 1982’s Porky’s and earning $11,355, 487 to date), but the recently released Trailer Park Boys: The Movie emerged as the number one comedy at the Canadian box office last weekend. Despite mediocre reviews and fears that distributor Alliance Atlantis might not be able to mobilize the show’s core audience away from their bongs and change-filled couches, Trailer Park Boys: The Movie earned an estimated $1.3 million ($6,632 per screen), making it the highest grossing weekend in Canadian history for a domestic release (Men with Brooms $1.04 million in 2002. According to Alliance Atlantis,