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Vintage Thoughts on Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (from 2007)

Back in 2007, I saw Terry Gilliam’s Tideland. It was one of the most miserable movie-watching experiences I’ve ever had. I wrote this when my memory was fresh. Details that I had since forgotten are preserved in this review. I haven’t been as thorough in recent summaries.

Terry Gilliam’s Tideland is a terrible, horrible film.

Ok, let’s set this story up. We’ve got a girl named Jeliza-Rose with an annoying-ass Southern accent. She prepares heroin for her junkie rocker father Noah, and she endures a junkie mother who claims to love her. Her friends are dolls’ heads (removed from their bodies) which she puts on her index fingers and has unpleasant conversations with; some of the heads speak abusively, others are spoken to abusively. I have to make it clear how comfortable she seems with all of this. It’s a shame to see a child in this kind of situation.

Mother overdoses and dies early on. Obviously because he can’t be caught with drugs, Noah takes his daughter to an abandoned country house in the middle of nowhere that used to belong to his mother. It’s a run-down, dusty, graffitied old house. A gothic aesthetic sets in. And soon after getting there, Noah has a fatal overdose, though Jeliza-Rose doesn’t seem to notice that he’s dead. Indeed, she puts a blond wig on him and applies make-up to his face. Cuddles up with him, talks to him, tries to feed him peanut butter. And when he begins to smell, she thinks it’s just flatulence. She’s so completely naive to the seriousness of what’s happening around her, and it’s terribly unpleasant to watch.

Now it turns out Jeliza-Rose has some neighbors, but they’re white trash caricatures. Indeed, the entire cast is white trash caricatures. It’s sickening. So who do we have? We have Del, a woman in black who tells of the bees that stung her mother to death and would do the same to her. She walks around in black like some kind of witch, which Jeliza-Rose mistakes her for. And with her is her retarded, lobotomized, epileptic brother Dickens, a man-child with a fantasy world in which he’s the captain of a submarine and his enemy is a monster shark, the train that regularly passes through. He wants to kill the shark, and apparently once got in trouble for leaving a bus on the train tracks. We don’t see any of this through the lens of imagination. Indeed, we rarely see anything through such a lens. Instead, we see everything as it really is: gaudy, ugly, bathed in yellow tones. Jeliza-Rose thinks this is all dandy and charming, and she becomes very fond of Dickens. This leads in a very disturbing direction.

But what next? An episode with a delivery boy. When I saw him, I thought, “Thank god, a sane human being to give me a break from all this ugliness!” But no. He turned out to be a stuttering country bumpkin who brings Del free shipments of goods in exchange for sex, which Jeliza-Rose witnesses. Actually, this thread kinda dies for the most part. There are some references to it, but it doesn’t do much other than unsettle the audience, like everything else.

Moving on, Del discovers Noah’s dead and decaying body. As it turns out, this is the man who left her so many years ago. She mummifies him so that he can be part of the family. She fixes up the house, becomes Jeliza-Rose’s new mother figure, briefly becomes less creepy. But now Noah is a mummy whom Jeliza-Rose still blithely talks to and cuddles up with. It never, even by the end of the film, seems to occur to her that he’s DEAD!

But then new kinds of creepy arrive. Jeliza-Rose decides to make Dickens her boyfriend. They kiss, which pushes the pedophile button so hard it made me contort in pain. Then they have a creepy exchange in which Dickens reveals that the woman who used to live in the house, Jeliza-Rose’s grandmother, used to kiss him. And sometimes she’d use her tongue when they kissed. Pedophile button again! Then he and Jeliza-Rose kiss a little more. Jesus Fucking Christ! The actress was 10 years old! Turned 10 during filming! Jeliza-Rose decides after this point that she and Dickens are husband and wife. And she decides that the kissing has made her pregnant. Charming. This leads to a scene in which Dickens “listens to the baby,” which sounds more like an empty stomach to me.

Dickens has a secret. Dynamite. He plans to use it to kill the monster shark. And what else? Del and Dickens’ mother lies mummified in a bed, with Dickens believing that some day a new pill will be able to “wake her up.” And some extra creepiness that doesn’t amount to anything or go anywhere. Then the big ending. Dickens really does it. He blows up the train. Jeliza-Rose goes down to find him, thinking this is all wonderful. She doesn’t even notice all the injured people. How can she be so blind?

I think I’ve summed up the story arc pretty well. Not like any kind of professional essay, but I got the points. Just a few things. The dolls’ heads that I mentioned earlier are kind of their own story. They act as parts of her own psyche. At first, we can watch Jeliza-Rose doing their voices for them. After a point, they talk independently of her, suggesting perhaps that she’s going insane. Mustique, her favorite, is an abusive blond with a British accent. Abusive to her, abusive to the other dolls. Baby Blonde is the baby, the sensitive one, the subject of abuse. Abuse from the other dolls, abuse from Jeliza-Rose. Sateen Lips doesn’t do much. Glitter Girl is a kind of best friend. The dolls all meet different ends, and I felt grateful when the last one was finally disposed of. They were truly an annoying bunch. But it seems I’ve made them almost appear compelling. I must make clear how unsympathetically ? indeed, how misanthropically ? they are used.

Also, Gilliam references various things throughout the film. Alice in Wonderland comes up a lot: specifically, the part about Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Indeed, Jeliza-Rose is falling down several metaphorical rabbit holes. And Mustique falls down an actual rabbit hole, symbolizing… what? Probably just another step into madness. Then there’s the work of Andrew Wyeth, particularly his painting “Christina’s World,” which many shots seem to emulate. Then there’s Del’s bad eye, blinded as a result of a bee sting, which feels just like Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” But this implies a kind of depth, or even redeeming qualities, when the fact of the matter is that most of this movie is spent showing Jeliza-Rose in disturbing, uncomfortable, unpleasant, even boring situations: talking to her father’s corpse; taking verbal abuse from her dolls’ heads; walking through overgrown fields of grass; having romantic, even sexual feelings for a retarded adult; being parented by creepy parental figures. Every once in a while, there’s a fantasy sequence resembling the work of The Brothers Quay, but even that doesn’t bring the film up from the muck, or escape the ugly gothic visual aesthetic.

After the film, I started listening to the commentary. I remember Gilliam being in fine form for the Brazil commentary, and after this film, I needed some answers. First of all, what the hell was Terry Gilliam thinking? Which could turn into another question: what the hell was Terry Gilliam smoking? And then, how the hell could he defend this shit? But I didn’t listen very far before I’d had enough. Gilliam, in his intro to the film, talked about how we should see this film with the eyes of a child. He said that if parts of it were shocking, they were shocking because they were innocent. All through the film, I had been thinking, “Innocent my ass! You have seriously perverted innocence!” And then in the commentary, Gilliam started talking about how a child wouldn’t really be judging any of this. And I realized a terrible thing: Terry Gilliam didn’t know any better! And he, without understanding what he was doing, wanted us to watch this film as if we didn’t know any better! Guess what, Terry! We do know better! We know how genuinely terrible the situations were, and we’d be idiots to turn our adult intelligence off like you did!

What the fuck, Terry Gilliam? What the fuck?

3 responses

  1. Jeliza-Rose knows that Noah is dead right from the beginning. She’s processing the deaths of both parents right from the outset, but she is doing so from the vantage point of a 7-year-old. Why do you think it is that the first time she sees Dell, she imagines her to be the ghost of her mother Queen Gunhilda? In my opinion, the film examines the strength of the human imagination/mind to endure in impossible circumstances; it examines loneliness, mortality, our need for death rituals, and our unwillingness to let go (of the dead). In “civilized society,” we drain the fluids and remove the organs of the deceased, sew their orifices shut and lay them out in, for all intents and purposes, a display box for several days… even though their spirit (if one believe in such a thing) is no longer with the body. None of this is for them; we do it for ourselves. What motivates Dell is really no different when you think about it. Even Jeliza-Rose is acting out this need: 1) by refusing to acknowledge Noah’s death, and 2) in her decision to “reincarnate” Mustique after the doll falls in the rabbit hole. The characters are not “white trash caricatures.” They are amplified, hyperreal manifestations of humanity. And they aren’t real… though there are real people right here in the US who do live lonely, remote existences; take a drive cross country sometime and you will see it when you hit certain parts of the Midwest. But none of Gilliam’s films are done within the conventions of psychological “realism.” They are Absurdist and Grotesque (those are not carelessly chosen adjectives btw; they are styles — look them up). Finally, the cinematography is gorgeous. The film is a masterful work of art.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    • I’ve gotta go point-by-point here.

      Jeliza-Rose knows that Noah is dead right from the beginning.

      But she doesn’t. Even when her father gets mummified, she still thinks he’s alive. There is nothing to suggest an understanding of the world around her. Gilliam might have wanted her to be processing her father’s death, but if that’s the case, it isn’t in the performance.

      She’s processing the deaths of both parents right from the outset, but she is doing so from the vantage point of a 7-year-old.

      She’s 10.

      In my opinion, the film examines the strength of the human imagination/mind to endure in impossible circumstances…

      Gilliam keeps saying that, but he really doesn’t understand his own film. Jeliza-Rose does not endure. She gets broken. She goes insane. Besides her inability to grasp reality (bordering on retardation,) she quite simply goes insane. You know she’s going off the deep end when her doll’s heads start talking without her moving her lips. Jeliza-Rose is insane, perhaps with no hope for ever being normal. She gets picked up by the random woman on the train at the end of the movie, but all the damage is still there. She still thinks it’s acceptable to dynamite passenger trains, or give your father heroine. She’s sick. Serial killer-level sick. The kind of sick that goes out and kills people with no comprehension or remorse.

      In “civilized society,” we drain the fluids and remove the organs of the deceased, sew their orifices shut and lay them out in, for all intents and purposes, a display box for several days… even though their spirit (if one believe in such a thing) is no longer with the body. None of this is for them; we do it for ourselves. What motivates Dell is really no different when you think about it.

      No, there is a very big difference. After the funeral, we bury our dead. We don’t keep them around. We put them in the ground and don’t exhume the bodies ever (barring the occasional necessity for DNA testing or something like.) This is one reason we have zombie movies: our need to bury the dead and hide the decay. But I digress. We don’t keep our dead above ground. Know who does? Norman Bates. Or in reality, you have Ed Gein, who exhumed bodies in order to preserve parts of them and make crafts for his home. Really, Norman Bates is the closest counterpart. (If anyone out there doesn’t know the plot of Psycho, there are plenty of resources for you out there.) Keeping your dead in the house and treating them like they’re still alive is a sign of a seriously disturbed human being.

      Even Jeliza-Rose is acting out this need: 1) by refusing to acknowledge Noah’s death,

      Actually, she’s not refusing to acknowledge anything. She’s just that stupid. There is nothing in the film to merit the position that she understands what is going on.

      and 2) in her decision to “reincarnate” Mustique after the doll falls in the rabbit hole.

      I don’t remember that happening. As I recall, when Mustique fell down the rabbit hole — and I was SO glad to be rid of that nasty, vile creature — Jeliza-Rose just turned to Glitter Gal to be her new best friend.

      The characters are not “white trash caricatures.” They are amplified, hyperreal manifestations of humanity.

      No, they are white trash caricatures. Repulsive, repellant, revolting, and other words that mean that their very essence pushes you away. The ugliest stereotypes of poor white people, magnified to horrifying proportions.

      And they aren’t real… though there are real people right here in the US who do live lonely, remote existences;

      Those real people don’t keep the mummies of their loved ones about ground. And so what if the characters aren’t real? Doesn’t mean anything. Maybe you want to argue that the people are metaphorical representations of ideas, but if that’s what you think, you have to do a damn good job of making that case.

      But none of Gilliam’s films are done within the conventions of psychological “realism.” They are Absurdist and Grotesque…

      But there is a difference. If a movie is grotesque and knows it is grotesque, then it can be macabre, and that is a kind of beauty in itself. If a movie is grotesque but thinks that it is charming, it’s just plain disturbing. That’s the kind of thing that makes your skin crawl and your insides squirm.

      The film is a masterful work of art.

      This film is a monstrosity. It made me more uncomfortable than any film I can recall. Terry Gilliam talks about how he found his inner child with this movie. Well, his inner child is sick, and my inner child feels like he’s been molested. And if I ever meet Terry Gilliam, my inner parent is gonna give his a firm talking-to.

      August 18, 2011 at 7:26 pm

  2. Wow. As I said, the film is not psychological realism by any means, but it seems you have the ability to see it no other way. I find it fascinating that people are so passionately hateful of this film and I have to wonder what resonates that’s so repellent. You might read Mitch Cullin’s novel. Btw, the actress was 10 (9 actually); her character was not. And yes she does know her father is dead but I’m not going to argue the point further 🙂 The fact that the film made you so uncomfortable, does not make it a bad film. Quite the opposite, I would say. I’m not sure why you think this film “thinks it’s charming.” There’s nothing remotely self-conscious about it to begin with. And I don’t think you understood what I meant by the style “of the Grotesque.” The only thing that makes sense to me is what you said is in your second to last sentence of this rebuke: you’re a “he.” And so, I can see why you were unable to relate to the film on the same level. I am a she, and the character of Jeliza-Rose resonated with me on many levels. I cried for Dell. And you are incorrect (imo) – a death ritual is a death ritual is a death ritual. And yes, some people do keep their loved ones… you know, ashes in an urn? 😉

    August 19, 2011 at 8:08 am

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