One of the trickier things about art – whether it’s painting, writing, or moviemaking – is for the artist to ensure that the message he or she intends to make is the message people take away. When that connection doesn’t happen, it’s disappointing for everyone.
A case in point is Terry Gilliam’s much-maligned Tideland, which was savaged by many critics and audiences but has a small contingent of supporters. I’m a longtime fan of Gilliam and really wanted to champion this movie. But while it’s not the unmitigated disaster its detractors claim it is, neither is it a success. It’s an interesting failure, and the reason for its failure is not its stylistic excess or controversial subject matter, but because the movie Gilliam wanted to make doesn’t synch with what’s on the screen.
The Tideland DVD opens with a brief, black-and-white introduction by Gilliam in which he suggests how to watch the movie (with an open mind, through the eyes of a child). It’s a gutsy maneuver, not least because he comes across as almost daring people to not like the movie and suggesting that if the viewer doesn’t like it, it’s the viewer’s fault. I respect Gilliam’s audacity but it’s a misguided tactic – a finished work needs to stand on its own and should not need an introduction to tell the audience how to feel about it.
Tideland tells of young Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland). She’s the daughter of has-been rock star and heroin addict Noah (Jeff Bridges, a gone-to-seed Lebowski) and bloated harpy Queen Gunhild (Jennifer Tilly makes Courtney Love look like Grace Kelly). Jeliza-Rose’s life consists of prepping her father’s fixes for him and looking after her mother, who alternately slaps Jeliza-Rose and then smothers her with affection. When her mother overdoses, Jeliza-Rose and her father flee to her grandmother’s house, an abandoned farmhouse adrift in empty fields. Noah promptly overdoses and sits rotting in the easy chair for days on end, leaving Jeliza-Rose to explore the house and nearby fields, talk to the collection of doll heads that are her only friends, and read Alice in Wonderland. Eventually Jeliza-Rose takes a peek at her only neighbors: Dell (Janet McTeer) a black-clad, veiled woman whose hobby is taxidermy, and Dell’s brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), a brain-damaged epileptic.
There isn’t much technically wrong with Tideland. The cinematography is gorgeous, if too prone to tilts and spins, and contrasts the loveliness of the fields with the filth and squalor of the abandoned farmhouse. The acting is mostly fine (Tilly’s the exception, but fortunately she’s not in the film for long), and if the characters are annoying or repulsive at times it comes across as the way they’re conceived, not the actors’ performances. The only technical misstep is the score, which feels like it came from another film.
The subject matter of Tideland and the situations Jeliza-Rose encounters are what many dislike about the film, and it’s not hard to see why. Even in the beginning of the film, nothing is good for the girl as she endures her parents’ passive neglect. Later, she’s on her own with a corpse for company and only an ant-riddled jar of peanut butter for sustenance. Things don’t improve much when she meets Dell and Dickens, both of whom are just as unbalanced and unfit to look after a young child as Jeliza-Rose’s parents (things get particularly uncomfortable when Jeliza-Rose and the much older Dickens start playing “silly kisser” games). It’s no wonder that Jeliza-Rose takes refuge in unreality, and it’s here where the film fails.
It’s clear not just from his introduction but from the repeated references to Alice in Wonderland that Gilliam means for Jeliza-Rose’s fantasies to be an escape measure for survival. But her fantasies aren’t escapist – they are heightened, funhouse-mirror versions of her reality. The talking doll heads don’t become imaginary friends – they are just blinking, creepy doll heads. Likewise, the few fantasy sequences all showcase the same syringes, corpses, and abusive adults that plague Jeliza-Rose in reality. Compare this to the fantasy sequences of Jonathan Pryce’s character in Brazil – even the darkest ones gave the character a chance for escape if not outright heroism.
None of this would matter if the escapism serves Jeliza-Rose well. Gilliam believes that it does but I can’t agree. Throughout, Jeliza-Rose seems so unaffected that her plight inspires pity rather than sympathy. (The one time she has an emotional reaction – when she tries to get comfort from Dell and is rebuffed – is heartbreaking, but it’s an isolated moment.) At the end of the film, Jeliza-Rose encounters a scene of human pain and misery and has no reaction to it. She makes contact with another person, but this seems to be less a re-establishment of human bonds than to hide from Dell (who has turned against Jeliza-Rose). What is supposed to be uplifting is troubling. Just as the story has no arc – things happen and it ends abruptly – Jeliza-Rose herself has very little character arc. Her experiences haven’t changed her, and she may have less empathy and humanity at the end than she did when she was preparing her parents’ fixes. Again, this would be fine if it was the story Gilliam was trying so hard to tell. In the film’s haunting last image, there’s light in Jeliza-Rose’s eyes, but it looks not so much like transcendence as it does madness.
Because of the disconnect between what it wants to do and what it does, Tideland isn’t a successful film. And yet I thought about it for days afterward, which is more than I can say for many movies these days, and I would like to watch it again some time with the commentary by Gilliam and co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni, to understand their choices when making the film. I’d also like to read the novel by Mitch Cullin, which I’ve got somewhere on the slopes of Mount To-Be-Read.
The extras on the set’s second disc are plentiful enough that I’d recommend the film to Gilliam fans – there’s a documentary on the film that even has a Gilliam commentary track and which includes the film’s bumpy production road and its brutal reception by critics (including being rejected for the Cannes Film Festival twice). There are also deleted scenes, interviews, and more behind-the-scenes footage.
I admire Terry Gilliam tremendously, and few films have affected me as deeply as Brazil and The Fisher King. I respect his failures such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and even Tideland. I want him to make a great movie again. Here’s hoping that he does.