Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Terry Gilliam's film career


Terence Vance Gilliam, the well-known film director, has been in the news recently, for trying yet again to film his movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. This movie started back in the early 1990s, and has now been up and down like a yo-yo for more than 25 years. Maybe he will complete it this time, which he didn't last year, or in 2010 or 2008 — and it is cinema legend what happened back in 2000 (as shown in the documentary Lost in La Mancha).

It has been said of Gilliam that "his directorial vision has secured his rightful place within the pantheon of substantive filmmakers as well as appreciative, if selective, audiences throughout his career." This means that his films often do well, but not all that well; he is more than an art-film maker, but not quite a mainstream director. You either love his movies or you don't — there is little or no middle ground.

Gilliam is probably best known for wanting to make what are called "independent" films but which require studio-scale funding, and then fighting with the studio executives over the finished product. He clearly wants to be an independent auteur but without the tight budget that normally goes with it. In other words, he makes his own bed and then has trouble lying in it


Being a director of some renown, there are plenty of people who have been interested in providing retrospectives and commentaries on Gilliam's career. After all, that sort of thing seems to be the principal activity in the arts world — you are either a creator or a commentator, or sometimes both (such as film commentator turned film director Peter Bogdanovich).

So, it might be worthwhile to look at what some of these commentators have thought about Gilliam's career, as represented by his directorial repertoire of completed films. This ignores his involvement with television animations and various commercials.

To date, the Gilliam directorial oeuvre consists of 12 feature-length movies:
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
  • Jabberwocky (1977)
  • Time Bandits (1981)
  • Brazil (1985)
  • The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988)
  • The Fisher King (1991)
  • Twelve Monkeys (1995)
  • Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)
  • The Brothers Grimm (2005)
  • Tideland (2005)
  • The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009)
  • The Zero Theorem (2013)
and 5 short films:
  • Storytime (1968)
  • The Miracle of Flight (1974)
  • The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983)
  • The Legend of Hallowdega (2010)
  • The Wholly Family (2011)
In the modern world, arts commentators tend to provide rankings of works of art, telling us which work is "best" and which "worst". If nothing else, this allows a mathematical analysis, although I am never quite sure how one goes about actually ranking works of art in some linear series.

The available commentaries that contain ranked lists of Gilliam's films include some personal choices:
some compilations from members of the public:
and some compilations from professional critics:
There is also a list based on the adjusted US box office grosses (Box Office Mojo); there is a combined score from multiple sources (Ultimate Movie Rankings; and the Top 10 Films site does not rank three of the films. I will ignore these latter three lists, since they are not directly comparable to the other lists.

Few commentators have included the short films in their discussion, and so I will start my analysis with the two sources who have done so. Here is a time-course graph of the 17 films as ranked independently by both IndieWire and IMDB.


Note that both lists agree that Gilliam was at his best (ie. he produced the top third of his works) during the middle period of his career; and that he hasn't produced anything of note this century. This does not bode well for the future success of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. [Note: The failure of this movie to be made is responsible for the large gap between films from 1998 to 2005.]

We could now use a phylogenetic network as an exploratory data analysis to display the consensus rankings of the feature films (only), from all of the commentators listed above. As usual, I first used the manhattan distance to calculate the similarity of the different films based on their rankings. This was followed by a neighbor-net analysis to display the between-film similarities as a network. Films that are closely connected in the network are similar to each other based on their critic rankings, and those that are further apart are progressively more different from each other.


The network shows a straightforward pattern from the highest ranked films at the top-right to the lowest at the bottom-left. In the graph, the films are numbered in the order of their production (not their ranking!). So, six of Gilliam's first seven films as director are the highest-ranked ones, by consensus, with Jabberwocky plus his final five films as the lowest-ranked.

Most of the commentators selected Brazil as their number one film, with occasional votes for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. More than a half of the commentators selected The Brother Grimm as the worst film, with Tideland running a strong second.

There is nothing unusual about any of this, of course. It is a truism of social history that most people, whether they are artists or scientists, do their most interesting and influential work during the earlier part of their career. From Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, most scientists coast through their careers after age 35, sometimes in their later years still collecting awards for the useful work they did 20 years before. The best-known exception was Louis Pasteur, who made significantly different major contributions to chemistry and biology during his 20s, 30s and 40s.

Well, artists are no different. Very few of them become famous during their later life, but instead continue to be "interesting" without being either as original or influential as they were in their earlier career. They are often well known and well respected, although just as often completely forgotten, or even unknown to later generations. Gilliam, at least, has not suffered the latter fate.

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