Thursday, August 03, 2006

Terry Gilliam's Tideland

Terry Gilliam's Tideland and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho have a lot more in common than some might immediately think.

There are old houses filled with secrets, displays of stuffed birds, mummified corpses, countless familiar trappings, but deeper beneath the gothic textures, even beyond Gilliam's name checking of the Hitchcock classic in discussion of his film, the connective tissue runs deep. While they may not have been kind to the film overall, to give 'the critics' their due, in some strange way they've closed in on the similarities between the two - just like Psycho before it, Tideland has been heavily drubbed by the professional moviegoers, often with the exact same language, and both goes around, the slurs are shamefully misguided.

Jeliza Rose, the resilient, pre-pubescent daughter of junkie parents was the narrator of Mitch Cullin's Tideland novel and remains at the heart of Gilliam and co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni's adaptation. Within just a few minutes, Jeliza Rose is depicted, clearly and matter-of-factly, in the act of cooking up her parents' smack. Notoriously, this was the catalyst for the first wave of walkouts in some early screenings but I found it impossible while watching the scene to fathom what - other than the most reactionary of attitudes - could prompt such a glib dismissal. There is nothing sensationalist or exploitative about the scene, not a hint of anything cheap, wanton or gratuitous. I came to wondering if it was the lack of mystery, and therefore any spurious glamour, in the cold, plain rendering of heroin abuse that hit the nerve; or perhaps it was simply the result of an endemic belief that children are fragile little gossamer doilies that should never, ever be allowed into even the same room as a syringe, let alone be expected to touch one, no matter if they are only acting, only playing a role.

By the way, anybody watching the first wave of walkouts in Psycho would have found them similarly timed, coincident with the scenes of adultery and thickening schemes of theft. Appalled at the behaviour of Janet Leigh's character, I believe these supposed protesters were showing more sexual discrimination than Hitchcock, the alleged misogynist, just as it looks to me like the deserters from the Tideland screenings show less genuine sympathy, certainly empathy, with the child than Gilliam does.

Before many more minutes of film have passed, Jeliza Rose has lost her mother (Jennifer Tilly in a grand, grotesque cameo) and been swept up by her father (Jeff Bridges, appearing authentically bombed-out) and taken away to rural Texas and what was once grandmother's house. They find it derelict, vandalised and graffiti daubed but quickly settle in with it just that way - the father into a heroin-induced blackout, Jeliza Rose into her play, imagination and adventure. Jeliza Rose has four dependable friends in the dolls heads she gives voice to, wearing them upon her fingers so that they might accompany her in play and exploration. Cullin went some way to showing how the dolls reflected Jeliza Rose's shifting, questioning personality, and Gilliam has taken it further, made it clearer, more telling.
With a pair of career-best performances, Janet McTeer and Brendan Fletcher play Dell and Dickens, the brother and sister at the next house across the wheatfields. Each of them moves in the same kind of out-of-phase reality as Jeliza Rose, their three strands of bent subjectivity getting knitted closer and closer together the more time they spend together. Fantastical notions, odd explanations and a skewed understanding are passed back and forth between them, proving their mindsets sufficiently compatible that the slant will shift further and further, rather than cancel each other out. Sure enough, as the film progresses, the characters lock into a recognisable family unit. Not the 'typical' family unit, of course.

Like Fear and Loathing before it, Gilliam tells Tideland with a balance of two overlapping narrative voices. Jeliza Rose embodies a rather innocent perspective and while we are allowed to see the film's world and characters from her very particular point of view throughout, the 'other reality' is allowed to show through just enough to remain forever in frame, if out of focus - much as with Depp's Thompson in the previous film. Perhaps the key example of jarring perspectives being meshed is how Gilliam juxtaposes the pre-pubescent view of sex with the adult one. Where Psycho expertly exploited Freud for chills and thrills, Tideland shows a more interrogative interest in ideas of sexual psychology. Here's a question for you - and answer it honestly: Is sex dirty? Tideland provocatively threatens a criss-cross transgression of the line between a pre-pubescent view of sex and an adult one, but, more pointedly, all of the adult sexuality we see is secretive and guilty.

Of the two voices, the more literal perspective is kept afloat and in constant tension with the tides of Jeliza Rose's imagination, the balance subtly shifting until, during the film's final five minutes - the film's crowning glory - the needle swings deep into the red and reality pierces the protective boundary of imagination.

Curiously, these last five minutes include another odd echo of Psycho, of the infamous finale - but where Hitchcock double-exposed Norman and the skull to finally suggest the inside of the killer's mind on screen, the last moments of Tideland help get our best look at Jeliza Rose from the outside. Wendy Anderson gives a pitch-perfect performance as a crucial character that appears only in this scene who, unlike Dell, Dickens, Jeliza Rose and her parents, remains so stubbornly in the most concrete here-and-now that she offsets Jeliza Rose very sharply.

Now the second of Gilliam's narrative voices takes precedence for the first time. The effect is powerful, and moves to conclude the film with an important question - could Gilliam be suggesting that Jeliza Rose's dream-bubble has finally been burst? And what would that mean? The very last image of the film, an image that has already haunted my sleep, is the most enigmatic of clues.

Of course, there's another connection between Psycho and Tideland. They're both amongst the greatest of masterpieces.

Revolver are releasing Tideland in the UK on 11th August. For more details, visit the official site.

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