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Tideland (2006)
Director: Terry Gilliam

review by Paul Higson

Picture this! The Texas chainsaw parents are off down the local and need a family film to keep the hyperactive, hard to please young Leatherface quiet for the night for yet another new babysitter. Terry Gilliam's Tideland is that DVD rental.

The director accompanied a preview screening at The Cornerhouse in Manchester on the 8th of August, wearing a rainbow massacre of a shirt, and spoke of his disappointment with critics and audiences who had walked out at festivals or given his little film indecently weak write-ups. So used to bad reactions is he that he saw a resolutely satisfied audience as a failure. I am deeply sorry, Terry, old lad, but I have to report that for me Tideland was immensely enjoyable and in no way at all did I find it 'difficult'. I took one of the nightmare seats three rows from the front but believe now that my proximity to the screen may actually have assisted my submersion in this fantastic film.

Gilliam is a director who, in my opinion, has rarely failed. Even when the critics took him to task over The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, I, upon eventually seeing it, appreciated the spectacle and the imagination. I prefer Hans Albers' Munchausen, but that is not to say that Gilliam's take was not also great.

Film history has been coloured by the lengthy production processes and anticipation for Gilliam's films, the magazine writers highlighting unhappiness behind the scenes over the finished work. Anthony Quinn's one-star review for Tideland in The Independent is not only preposterous but likely has more to do with the pressure critics are under today to deliver copy on an increasing number of cinema releases. I am more relaxed. What, as a teenager, I thought would be a dream job, I now view as a living hell and I am thankfully not committed to it. Broadsheet film critics are cracking up under the pressure and torture of having to watch too many long and awful movies.

In the mid-1980s you might only have as many films released theatrically in a month as you could in a week now and the quality today is better, the running times more demanding and the content of the films often super frenetic. It results in ludicrous statements like the critics recent chiming of Haneke's, in truth, merely interesting Cache as the first classic film of the millenium, when Haneke, alone as a filmmaker, has given us at least two better movies since 2000 (Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher). Sadly, the signs are that the poor demented broadsheet critics will only accept a film as a 21st century masterpiece if it fellates itself with its own post-modernity. A sad state of affairs, indeed...

I am a Gilliam fan but no sycophant. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas has proven to date un-watchable, but it is the only blunder in his cannon (though I have yet to have the pleasure of The Brothers Grimm), with Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Monty Python's The Life of Brian, Brazil, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys great joys and classics. Other directors have made as many wonderful films but how many of those directors were more prolific with the result only of a greater number of bad flicks. Lumet's first 20 years of great cinema was followed by 20 years of stinkers. Gilliam's ratio for success is perhaps unprecedented.

Tideland was found in a slushpile at Gilliam's London office in a break from play and funding torments. Author Mitch Cullen was looking for a quote and Gilliam gave him a film. Nine-year-old Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) looks after her junkie parents, an aging rock singer Noah (Jeff Bridges) and couch-to-bed-bed-to-couch mother, Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly), even cooking the shit up for them. When mother ODs Jeliza-Rose persuades her Viking obsessed father not to turn the double bed into a funeral pyre as it might just burn down the entire tenement building. Their solution is not to report the death but skedaddle to the country and take up residence in the dead grandmother's rundown house, but it is only a matter of nights before Noah doesn't return from the hypodermic deep.

Loved and neglected in equal measure, the little survivor was already expert at escaping into fantasies she had accumulated from a diet of children's books and daytime television. She holds conversations with a quartet of dolls heads, her favourite the glamorous, blonde, sassy and cruel Mustique. Ferland multi-tasks the voices for the dolls heads and one wonders there if any on-set advice came from Tilly. As father rots in his chair, Jeliza-Rose investigates her outside environment, the sweeping yellow fields of corn. Her neighbours are a brother and sister, Dell (Janet McTeer), a taxidermist who doesn't know how to let go of the dead, and Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who has a retarding head injury, which would appear to have something to do with the upturned rusting carcase of a school bus near the railway tracks. He has the mental age of a child close to Jeliza-Rose's age.

Dickens hunts the monster shark, a train that hurtles through the middle of the landscape, in what might be construed revenge for his condition. When Mustique disappears down a rabbit hole, Sateen Lips, Glitter Gal and Baby Blonde are happy to see the back of the plastic bitch. Jeliza-Rose attains a relative form of acceptance by her nearest neighbours who preserve her father in formaldehyde for her, clean up the house and snare the talking squirrel in the rafters. With everything looking up Jeliza-Rose ruins it by pushing for a melodramatic romance between her and Dickens, an intimacy that is thankfully interrupted, so hurrying this Southern gothic horror show to its startling and devastating conclusion.

Jodelle Ferland's central performance is quite remarkable. She has a supernatural acting talent. Gilliam tells of his own wonder when she came through on a casual "I can do that!" against the expectations of all when for one scene in which the camera had to be cranked up or down, Jodelle delivered her lines at a different speed at the close of a long take while suspended on wires. British actress Janet McTeer is a superb, fiery harridan, a dark shadow in the golden seas of sheaf, a likeable scary, a confusing monster both loving and considerate and dangerous in turn.

Brendan Fletcher sets out in textbook mentally disabled fashion but makes the role his own. The more innocent a character is in this movie the deadlier they become. The monstrous Dell may be hands-on when it comes to gruesome tasks, be it gutting and stuffing the corpses or bartering herself for the groceries, but she is only trying to keep those and that already dead alive. Noah and Queen Gunhilda stupidly kill themselves, and Jeliza-Rose, by cooking up their heroin for them, in her innocence, contributes to their demise. It is the childlike Dickens that ultimately has the deadliest effect in the near fields.

To Gilliam's credit, this terrific small human cast is at least doubled as screen-time is given to the doll's heads, the taxidermy jobs (who thankfully don't speak) and a squirrel. Most critics have neglected them as characters, yet I (perhaps because of a particularly deranged susceptibility) began to see them as integral participants in the plot. This is particularly so of the dolls, individually representing aspects of the girl's inner psychological trappings. The doll's heads argue and banter, and as they meet their respective fates so to does it threaten a change in Jeliza-Rose who must then transfer that trait to another piece of plastic or allow it to manifest in her person. At one stage feeling free and in a family unit again, she sacrifices most of the remaining doll's heads to a sewing up into her father's stomach, only to have that comfortable family unit immediately removed again rendering her vulnerable again.

Gilliam co-adapted the script with Tony Grisoni, one of the unsung heroes of British film. Grisoni has been operating in dark cinematic territory for a quarter of a century now going back to the short chiller Dark Water. More recently there was experimental work like Vanished! A Video Seance and Palermo. Next month sees another script and film open in cinemas, a mockumentary film about Siamese twin rock stars, Brothers Of The Head, and maybe his star will finally shine. The most controversially spoken of scenes in Tideland concern the relationship between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens but this has been over-inflated by the critics. The two are innocents and the relationship is not allowed to reach a disturbing peak.

As I have stated before, primetime television plotlines are more likely to feed the despicable fantasies of sickos. It is safe to go and see this film. Not a frame or sentence is wasted in Tideland. It is teeming with content yet it does not feel too much, it is not bloated, it trots along leisurely trickling out its horrors. Paradoxically, there is an immense beauty to this film at the same time that it is one of the grimmest of tales. It takes someone mighty clever to do that. This film is bountiful in scenes of wonder.

Watching Jabberwocky the night before, I realise it has much in common with Tideland. The loving detail, the constancy of the eccentricity, a compact vision, a strangely comfortable blend of the unfair, the earthy, the horrific and the beautiful, a difficult and fantastic balancing act, are all something both films share. Tideland could have shelved the bus journey sequence in which the comedy is reduced to fart and puke gags, but other than that I find it impossible to find a complaint in the film, and the trivial wrongs are more than made up for in everything that is right about it. Tideland is an absolute gem of a film.
Tideland

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