Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991) is playing from June 1 - June 30, 2016 in the UK.
In an overview of the accomplished, fraught, tumultuous career of Terry Gilliam, The Fisher King (1991) can look like not just an artistic turning point, but an economic one. Gilliam had just finished a loose trilogy of comic fantasies—Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)—each visually baroque and laced with a kind of surreal, dark, absurdist humor that marked them as a natural extension of his time as the lone American in Monty Python. Time Bandits was a head-turning left-field hit, and Brazil, the subject of a legendary battle with Universal over final cut, is often cited as Gilliam's masterpiece. But Munchausen, though held dear by a cult following, was a blow to Gilliam's career. It went quickly over-budget (wildly so, by some accounts), and when the studio gave it only a minimal release, it branded Gilliam with a large financial loss. For years after, it was his proverbial albatross, a warning to studios and backers to be wary of trusting him with a budget.
Under the circumstances, The Fisher King, Gilliam's followup and his first truly American film, can seem like a kind of retreat, or a way of scaling back or toning down his act. It was his first time directing someone else's story; in this case, by a young Richard LaGravenese, who would soon become one of Hollywood's more in-demand writers, and whose script combines buddy comedy, romantic comedy, social conscience, and Arthurian legend into a strange modern fairy tale. The material is certainly up Gilliam's alley, though the prosecution does, at first glance, have a case for the final result being "Gilliam-lite." Whereas Gilliam's previous films had been largely defined by his wall-to-wall visual design, here he contents himself with only a few setpieces, preferring to re-frame the world we have rather than construct a new one. The seams of its pastiche have a tendency to show. A little too much is spelled out more than necessary. And most of all, so much in it seems so easy: a redemption narrative where love really does conquer all, an abundance of stock humor (New Yorkers are rude, parody porn titles are funny, etc.), and the broad manner in which Robin Williams dances naked, riffing wildly, ass cheeks in the wind.
But the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was right when he said, in his 1991 review, that the film "presents Gilliam as half seer, half snake-oil salesman, and defies you to sort out which is which." For every moment that seems obvious, telegraphed, or pandering, there's a lovely monologue, a striking image, a moment of quiet grace, or a fascinating wrinkle of subtext, generally all mixed together with a gleeful disregard for paradox. Even the film's chosen issue, homelessness in America, gets a strangely schizoid presentation, alternating between safely grand-standing and genuinely unsettling, between aspirations of real-world consciousness and an overriding desire (Gilliam's?) to use vagrants as comic figures or symbolic Holy Fools. This makes the film both tricky and pleasurable to deal with, particularly for fans of Gilliam's work, with a lingering question of whether it panders to pop sensibilities or makes a personal statement—never mind that commercial cinema has been doing both simultaneously since its inception. Given Gilliam's legacy as a contrarian, an artist/madman/dreamer who'll beat the system or go down swinging, The Fisher King is so content to work its own bizarre twist within the system that perhaps the easiest thing of all would be to underrate it.
In the Manhattan of haves and have-nots, where bums, yellow cabs, and black limos all rub up against each other, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is on top of the world. A crass and arrogant shock-jock DJ, his show is hot enough to launch him to fame and fortune, an appallingly modern high-rise apartment, and, god willing, a sitcom deal. But after one of his offhand, on-air rants inspires an unstable caller to commit a mass shooting, Jack's mental state takes a plunge. Flash forward to three years later, and Jack is now washed up, alcoholic, and miserable. He's living with Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), and though it's hard to imagine a more patient, loving, and no-bullshit mate than Ruehl, Jack regards her with barely hidden resentment: she's middle-aged and slightly coarse, far from the young, glamorous trophy girlfriends of his peak.
One night, in a drunken, suicidal stupor, Jack is rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a manic tramp obsessed with hunting for the Holy Grail, which he maintains is hidden in the Upper East Side. When Jack learns that Parry, who used to be a professor, had his life ruined by the very mass shooting Jack himself inspired, Jack feels responsible. Their fates intertwined, Jack vows to get Parry up on his feet, including setting him up with his dream girl, Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a shy office drone whom Parry admires from afar. The title comes from a variant on a medieval legend that Parry tells Jack, about a king and a fool, with the moral being that all that's required to find transcendence is a pure willingness to do so.
Gilliam doesn't generally focus on groups; his films are more commonly about solitary figures or duos who, when placed in a social situation, either feel lonely, wreak havoc, or do both. But LaGravenese's script provides a robustly written quartet, and Gilliam shows that, quite apart from his trademark set design, he was also always a shrewd director of actors. As the four of them bounce off each other—Jack with Parry, Parry with Lydia, Lydia with Anne, Anne with Jack—the ensemble picks up a sense of warmth and solidarity. The screen practically trades off, at different times belonging thoroughly to Bridges, to Williams, to Reuhl, or to Plummer. And to Gilliam or LaGravenese. LaGravenese's script reveals surprising layers and attentiveness. And perhaps the most intriguing thread, teased out nicely by Gilliam, is the role of media in people's lives.
Each of the four principle characters is associated with a version of media storytelling. Jack's radio show, not simply modern but intensely late 80s, sold a cheap misanthropic brand of humor, publicly humiliating callers for his audience's listening pleasure and generally standing for America's worst, most isolating instincts. Parry, the former Arthurian scholar, lives in a hovel surrounded by old books and theses about fairy tales, parables, and eternal narratives. Lydia works at a publishing house that specializes in, as she puts it, "trashy romance novels"—essentially a disposable mass culture outlet for very sincere human desires. ("There's nothing trashy about romance," Parry assures her.) And Anne is the owner of a video rental store, where the two genres that customers seemingly ask about the most are musicals and porn—two genres, in fact, with diametrically opposed views of male-female relations. But it is musicals that become the most important. As strange as it may sound, a musical—or rather, the idea of a musical—hangs over The Fisher King in beguiling ways, forever promising to break through.
Outside of animation and films marketed to children, musicals had essentially stopped being an A-list Hollywood genre by 1991, before they'd be revived (for better or worse) by Baz Luhrmann and company in the 2000s. But the case can be made that The Fisher King belongs in that oddball corner alongside Punch-Drunk Love (2002) as "non-musical musicals": that is, films that borrow textures, imagery, and ideas from the classical genre without actually having its main characters break out into song. As much as it has one eye on urban grime, The Fisher King has another on the carefree, uncynical, by-then anachronistic spirit which Old Hollywood musicals embody, dotted with several touches and knowing nods.
Lydia, lonely romantic that she is, insists on renting one when she visits Anne's store. Parry spends much of the movie trying to get people to sing along with a song called "How About You?", which originated as a duet between Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in a 1941 musical called Babes on Broadway, directed by Busby Berkeley with assistance from Vincente Minnelli. On a double date, Parry serenades the group with a rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," an old Groucho Marx number. When Lydia and Parry walk down the street together, the orchestra soundtrack swoons as sparks shower down from a nearby construction site. And for a moment, the march of urban industrialization—one of the things Brazil railed against—isn't fought, but co-opted in the name of lyricism. In the film's most famous setpiece, Grand Central at rush hour turns into a magnificent, fantastical dance, where commuters spontaneously pair off and join a giant ballroom waltz. The sequence was Gilliam's idea, and it belongs in any highlight reel of his work.
This use of musical tropes is eccentric, to say the least, because The Fisher King is certainly not lacking in negative imagery. By the end, the film has moved through trash heaps and dismal public health facilities, dwelt on suicide and sadism, made indirect reference to the fallout of Vietnam and the AIDS crisis, and showcased a nightmare sequence—Gilliam's permission to go all-out—that features a fire-breathing knight and the sight of Robin Williams spattered in blood. If The Fisher King seems like a film in conflict with itself, it is because its expressive fantasias have a more consistent success rate than its swings at addressing uglier social realities. Yet its two halves rely on each other for symbiotic effect: ecstasy and tragedy, bloodless slapstick and striking pain, Williams' mania and his vulnerability, New York as the uncaring urban jungle and the glamorous object of so many American myths.
So the film ends on a moment that relieves its character with one final touch of musical iconography. Parry and Jack lie in Central Park, both cured—Jack of his narcissism and guilt, Parry of his trauma—by no force more rational than the sort of wishful thinking found in timeless bedtime stories, cheap self-help books, and movie magic. As they look at the Manhattan skyline, the city lights up and transforms, looking not like a real city, but like a two-dimensional model, more of a handcrafted diorama than a chaotic mess of concrete and steel. This sort of blatantly fake backdrop is an archetype, a constant tool in Old Hollywood's arsenal. But here, in a more modern film, it reminds me of nothing so much as the Central Park moment in Minnelli's own The Band Wagon (1953). A cinephile touchstone, The Band Wagon is a direct defense of cinema's right to serve no purpose but undiluted optimistic pleasure, and in one of its most famous scenes, a number called "Dancing in the Dark," Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse enjoy a delicate waltz in the park, with the artificial Manhattan behind them like an enchanted village.
Like The Band Wagon, and countless lesser Hollywood films, The Fisher King dances on that thin line where all that separates art from hokum is a kind of spiritual sincerity. The film rises and succumbs to both in turn, though even at his most wrongheaded, sincerity has never been Gilliam's problem. If it was a con, it worked: the film was a solid box office success and a prime Oscar contender, including nominations for Williams and LaGravenese and a win for Reuhl. Gilliam would soon pivot to darker, more transgressive films in America, before ultimately landing in an exile from which we still hope he'll return. But for once, his recurring theme—an idealized battle of fantasy over reality—found a natural if uneasy partner rather than an antagonist in the Hollywood machine. His filmography is all the richer and more joyful for it.