Further thoughts (posted elsewhere on the web)
To elaborate, however, I will first refer back to an old standard of mine: a story about Georges Franju, director of Eyes Without a Face. Franju said the most terrifying film he ever saw was a medical film of an actual brain operation. The patient was wide awake and calm, his skull opened and his brain exposed. Scientists probed his brain. He just sat and smiled, perfectly calm. The narrator informed the audience that the patient could not feel the procedure and so was not in any discomfort. That was the thing: the audience’s terror was not shared by the film and those in it.
Tideland is a movie designed like that. Terry Gilliam has crafted something horrific, yet he sees it as charming. His characters are always naive to the horrible realities around them. There’s a terrible dichotomy here; the reality and the ignorance. If the film had employed fantasy constantly, using metaphorical imagery, it could have worked. If a child has died in a car crash and you’re taking pictures for the paper, do you photograph the blood-soaked teddy bear, or the child’s mangled body? This movie photographs the child’s mangled body. It’s hard to pretend everything is hunky dory (Bowie again?) when daddy’s dead body is right there in the frame. And the whole movie is directed through Jeliza-Rose’s eyes, so it thinks that every horror is charming. If the film had been shot through the eyes of a sane adult observer, it would at least let us have some objective distance from the horrors.
Terry Gilliam says that if things in this movie are shocking, it is because they are innocent. The man does not know the difference between innocent and ignorant. He fills this movie with horror after horror and then asks us as an audience to view them through the eyes of a child, who is apparently insane. He wants us to turn off our intelligence and common sense, and sanity, and pretend everything is perfectly fine when daddy is obviously lying dead in a chair, or when Dickens fondly recalls being molested by Jeliza-Rose’s grandmother, or when Dickens and Jeliza-Rose start kissing. When Jeliza-Rose puts makeup on her dad or tries to feed him peanut butter, the movie is mocking our horror at what we see. Terry Gilliam’s inner child is sick, and probably was molested and abused to make him think all of this is all right. And this movie molested my inner child, and then Terry Gilliam told me everything was all right and perfectly normal and that I should run off and play and not tell any adults about what his movie did to me. This movie is that offensive to my being, and I am not going to go along with Gilliam’s sick game and pretend that everything is all right. It isn’t. It’s wrong.
I know a movie that really is, in your words, “sympathetic to the realities of the experiences of children discovering more complex and grown-up emotions and desires.” It’s Welcome to the Dollhouse by Todd Solondz. It goes back to what being a child was actually like, with painful accuracy. It remembers the awkward, embarrassing events we often prefer to forget. Like when Dawn, age 11, unskillfully tries to seduce a much older teenage boy with junk food and even begins to suggest a hand job (the boy isn’t remotely interested and doesn’t perceive the come-ons.) It remembers the bullying, the feeling of helplessness, the awkwardness, the tenderness. Solondz’s approach is both sardonic and loving at the same time, and it works masterfully. Gilliam’s is perverse and ignorant, and it makes me sick.