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The highs and lows of being a Terry Gilliam fan in the #MeToo era

Contributed by
Oct 8, 2018

For a very long time, it was very easy to root for Terry Gilliam.

The one-time member of the Monty Python team went solo for a directorial career that included such genre cult hits as Time Bandits, Brazil, and Twelve Monkeys. His filmography is packed with the most incredible and uniquely esoteric stories, told in such fantastically surreal ways but with a hefty dose of bleakness that such works can only be described as “Gilliamesque.” Of the endless array of dystopian fiction that has permeated cinema, it may be Gilliam’s Brazil that stands as the genre’s true creative peak as well as its most piercingly perceptive. Gilliam’s work is oft-misunderstood or subjected to the sorts of industry-driven bureaucratic nightmares that wouldn’t be out of place in his own movies. He famously fought for final cut of Brazil with Universal, who dramatically re-edited the film and gave it a happy ending, but not before the release was delayed for so long that Gilliam took out a full-page ad in Variety asking for the film to be released as originally intended.

Then, of course, there's the near-mythic drama surrounding The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a magnum opus close to 30 years in the making, one that started shooting but was suspended when seemingly everything possibly went wrong — a dream project that looked set to be forever unmade. The film finally exists, although it is not out of the drama just yet. Gilliam got to premiere the movie at this year's Cannes Film Festival, a moment that clearly meant the world to him. Watching it, both as a film lover and someone who's watched a lot of Terry Gilliam films, it was a bittersweet moment tinged with an increasingly overwhelming sourness. Here was a filmmaker, one I admired immensely, finally reaching the end of a very long road, and all I could think about was what he had said about #MeToo.

In March of this year, two months before The Man Who Killed Don Quixote premiered at Cannes, Gilliam, while denouncing Harvey Weinstein as a "monster," called those who had been associated with the disgraced producer "adults with a lot of ambition" and that "mob rule" had taken over in the discourse surrounding the scandal. In the dishearteningly bleak context of the industry’s stubborn refusal to fully acknowledge systemic abuse within its own confines, Gilliam’s words probably weren’t the most extreme or shocking. Then again, that was partly the problem, that what he said sounded so mundane and simply repeated what we’d been hearing for decades from men like him in those positions. Some people played the game, so why are they mad now that the unfair rules have been exposed?

This wasn’t the beginning of Gilliam’s unnervingly sexist comments, nor was it the last time he spoke with such baffling callousness. The following July, Gilliam appeared at a press conference at the Karlovy Vary film festival and was asked to comment on the BBC's unveiling of its new comedy programming that promised a more diverse range of voices. Gilliam said, "I no longer want to be a white male, I don’t want to be blamed for everything wrong in the world: I tell the world now I’m a black lesbian... My name is Loretta and I’m a BLT, a black lesbian in transition."

Longtime Gilliam fans will also remember the rather shocking way he talked about actress Michelle Williams in relation to her late partner, Heath Ledger, with whom Gilliam had been working on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when he died. Gilliam and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini lashed out at Williams as an awards-obsessed manipulator who overwhelmed Ledger and the stress from her custody issues over their child was what partly contributed to his death.

This piece does not exist to be a collected list of Gilliam’s worst moments. Unfortunately, a post like this could exist for any number of beloved Hollywood figures. Anyone who’s ever been a fan has been through this spiel at least once: The discovery, the adoration, the defenses, the discomfort, and the realization that yes, something is problematic. That’s a simplification of the narrative, mostly because it would be a lot easier if such things were this simple to map out. We all deal with that nagging feeling, especially when, say, your favorite director releases that film you’ve been waiting half your life for and you try to figure out what to do with that voice in the back of your head that says to exercise caution. You spend a lot of time wondering if there’s even a way to balance your fandom with the need to not elevate those voices that continue to exacerbate systemic biases and oppression.

For what it’s worth, I do think it’s possible to love someone like Terry Gilliam and still denounce the absolute bullsh*t that leaves his mouth. It’s not even a “separate art from the artist” issue so much as it is a survival mechanism. The issue becomes more tangled when you start thinking about your own individual power. You financially support the things you love but you also put a lot of yourself into such defenses. It’s emotionally taxing to throw your weight behind someone you love and respect but know doesn’t really need or deserve it. It makes you consider everyone before you who’s gone through the same routine, and how many people before you have decided someone’s repeated instances of misogyny or dismissals of marginalization are a price worth paying when the art is so good.

Liking or defending Terry Gilliam will not drastically change the #MeToo movement or any other demands for social change in Hollywood. But that’s not to say that things will be fine because of that. We seldom do such defenses for one person at a time, and eventually, that builds up. It wears you down. What should be a zenith of your fandom — holy crap, we’re actually going to get to see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote! — becomes a nadir because his voice is one of many ensuring the status quo retains its sturdy and unimpeachable structures. One voice may not make much of an impact but thousands of them saying the same thing will drown out a lot of dissent.

The #MeToo era hasn’t made it more difficult to be a fan. Rather, it’s amplified the things we worked a little too hard to ignore, things we could sweep under the rug because they weren’t relevant or just harshed our buzz. It’s forced us to think about our own culpability in strengthening certain voices and those who become further marginalized as a result. It’s made us wonder about the things we place so much importance on and if the cost is really worth it. We could have this discussion about any number of people in genre fiction we admire. The literary world of science-fiction and fantasy is chock full of such instances. Every Marion Zimmer Bradley fan or lover of Lovecraft knows this all too well. Talk to any NCIS fan about the New Orleans showrunner’s misconduct and you’ll hear the same struggles. These are more extreme examples, but the recent glut of celebrities who are now exercising caution against #MeToo “going too far” feel cut from the same cloth as Gilliam. It’s the microaggressions that get you. When someone is openly horrid, you can quickly and easily decide to say no to whatever they’re selling. When it’s more benign but no less problematic, your mind instinctively wants to defend itself, and doing so for years on end will chip away at you until there’s nothing left.

I haven’t decided if I will pay to see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in cinemas yet, although its lack of a release date does make such issues easier to toss aside. I still get excited when I hear about the new projects Gilliam wants to do, but it’s always been simpler to think about abstracts than reality. Part of me misses the days of petty ignorance when I could just like what I like and not have to think about the bigger picture. It’s good those times have passed and we should think more about what we want and the parts we play in this tangled web. It shouldn’t be easy, but I miss not feeling so tired.

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