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January 2001
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by Kathi Maio

101 More Uses of Enchantment

LOST IN LA Mancha (2002) was a depressing (although nonetheless fascinating) documentary to watch. The film, directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, detailed the troubled pre-production and even more disastrous and aborted shoot of a film by Terry Gilliam called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. In it, a modern ad executive (played by Johnny Depp) slips through a time warp and ends up being mistaken for Sancho Panza by that squire's boss, the delusional old "knight" who calls himself Don Quixote (the role to be played by French actor Jean Rochefort).

Between budgetary woes, bad planning, and a string of mishaps that bordered on the biblical (floods and hail destroyed sets and equipment, the older leading man developed a double herniated disc and could no longer mount a horse, and on location, every time the cameras rolled, NATO fighter jets roared by, performing their sound barrier-breaking maneuvers), Gilliam's film seemed like a dream quest destroyed by the harsh realities of modern life and business practices.

Ironically, this isn't even the first time a Don Quixote film has floundered and failed to be finished. As the documentary mentions, earlier auteur Orson Welles was also obsessed with a troubled Don Quixote project. He began shooting his in 1955. And he was still talking about completing it when he died in 1985!

History repeats…with a vengeance.

To call Terry Gilliam's saga of his aborted film poetic justice might be a cruel overstatement. Still, there is something oddly apt about the sad fate of this particular film and this particular director.

Gilliam, ever since he was weaned from the Monty Python troupe, has been more than a little quixotic in his approach to filmmaking. The conflicts and high drama related to the production, editing, and release of films like Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) are truly legendary. (That's another thing he has in common with the late great Mr. Welles.)

Gilliam's feverish and fabulous visions for what he hopes to capture on film seem impractical and a little mad at times. And his ever more wildly inventive storylines have become increasingly difficult to make on the cheap. But Terry Gilliam has never been a company man. He is relentless in his pursuit of his movie, his way. He has never taken kindly to the controls of studio heads and accountants, even though his ambitious film projects now appear to demand the kind of hefty front-money that could only come from major studios, where nervous suits try to filmmake by committee.

What a nightmare scenario! The questing hero was sure to be destroyed by the literal-minded bureaucrats who held the purse-strings and the controls.

Gilliam seemed to be playing out one of his own dark fantasies. When The Man Who Killed Don Quixote never managed to get back into production, some feared that the career of Terry Gilliam might be in jeopardy. That is, until we heard he had taken the helm of the Ehren Kruger (Ring One and Two [American Versions], Skeleton Key) scripted project, The Brothers Grimm.

Now that we've seen it, some of us still fear for the career of Mr. Gilliam.

It's sad, really. For, like the story of Don Quixote, a film related to the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm seems like it would be right up Gilliam's alley.

The two brothers with the all-too-appropriate name were (among other things) librarians, scholars, teachers, legal historians, philologists, Germanic studies founders, translators, and academic human rights activists, as well as the collectors and editors of traditional folktales from Germany (and also Scandinavia and the British Isles). As anyone who has ever read anything close to a reliable translation of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (also known as KHM or Nursery and Household Tales) can tell you, the Grimm "fairy tales" are nothing like the Disneyfied retellings to which twentieth and twenty-first century audiences are more accustomed.

The Grimm tales are gruesome little stories, filled with matter-of-fact accounts of murder, torture, dismemberment, self-mutilation, familial violence and abuse, and even folks chowing down on the flesh of their own kin; haunting stuff that taps into primordial fears and forbidden dreams. And beneficial! At least, according to psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim in his classic study, The Uses of Enchantment.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Psychologists of various stripes, Marxists, theologians, structuralists, literary historians, critics, folklorists, feminists, and PTA conservatives have been debating the accuracy and social efficacy of the Grimm tales since they were first published in the early nineteenth century.

But whether these are reliable recordings of oral and literary sources or even appropriate moral instruction for young and old is rather beside the point. They are undeniably powerful stories that are both other-worldly and resonant. And that's why I was so excited by the idea of Terry Gilliam taking a crack at them.

Unfortunately, he doesn't. Not really, anyway. For although there are repeated visual references to some of the best-known tales—a child in a red hooded cape, others scattering breadcrumbs to lead them home, a beautiful woman lowering her long hair down the window of a tower—the story told by the film The Brothers Grimm has very little to do with the KHM, and even less to do with the brothers themselves.

And it should have something to do with the Grimm siblings, since they are the anti-heroes of the movie plot. As told by Kruger and Gilliam, "Jake" (Heath Ledger) and "Will" (Matt Damon) Grimm were con men who preyed upon the superstitions of stupid and utterly gullible villagers by exorcising (through the duo's amazing yet completely fake pyrotechnics and theatrics) the witches and goblins the peasants most feared.

The brothers appear to be making a lucrative living, until an occupying French General Delatombe (Gilliam regular Jonathan Pryce) and his Italian henchman and master torturer Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) decide that their vaudeville routine is counterproductive, irrational, anti-French, or something else that's inappropriate. It's never quite clear why French troops should care about a couple of minor hustlers. And that's not the only thing about the movie and its characters that will strike a conscious audience member as incomprehensible.

Let's start with the brothers, who were, in real life (if historians have a clue), as far from street hustlers as you can get. Older brother Jacob was a shy and retiring type with a rigorous scholarly mind. After his father's death when he was twelve, Jacob became father figure and major breadwinner for the Grimm family. Younger brother Wilhelm was a lively and sociable fellow, despite being sick with asthma and heart disease most of his life. He was bright but not as methodical as his brother. Wilhelm was considered more of a poet than his older brother.

Reverse that, sleaze it up a lot, and throw some dirt on it, and you have an idea of how the film portrays the two. Even the age of the two players is off-kilter. Damon is almost nine years older than Ledger—and looks it. Yet he plays the younger brother, a strapping and lusty chap who likes nothing better than to steal money from the poor.

Are there no heirs of the Grimms still around to sue for defamation of character over this pathetic movie?

The slanderous portrayal of these two well-intentioned professors wouldn't have bothered me if the movie had been more playful. If it were full of Gilliamesque absurdities and pointed anachronisms, it would have been clear that these were not the real Brothers Grimm being depicted. And, more to the point, it probably would have been a much more lively and entertaining movie.

But, no. The Brothers Grimm is cheerless and awkward almost all of the time. The tone is neither impish nor surreal. So Pryce's over-the-top General just looks like bad acting. And Cavaldi's instantaneous metamorphosis from sadistic torturer to the brothers' sentimental and devoted sidekick will leave you shaking your head. As for the grimy and uncomfortable sibling heroes, they look—from beginning to end—like they're not quite sure who they are or what their motivation is.

And, okay, I guess I should say something about the folktale-ish subplot. It involves the disappearances of numerous sweet young girls from the village of Marbaden. It soon becomes apparent that the disappearances are not a hoax. Marbaden really does have an enchanted forest that makes kiddies go poof, as well as a mythically vain "Mirror Queen" (Monica Bellucci)—think Snow White's nasty stepmom crossed with Rapunzel.

Only a stoical trapper named Angelika (Lena Headey) seems to have any clue about what happened to the girls, including two of her own sisters. With her reluctant help, the Grimm brothers—under threat of death by Delatombe—successfully investigate the cursed village's plight.

There are a few grisly scenes of man-chomping trees and child-chomping horses, but they are neither played for Gilliam's standard sick laughs, nor for genuine terrifying suspense. It all comes off like a flat horror movie in period costume. Likewise, the secret identity of the evil Queen's consort, which I saw coming a mile off, contains no emotional power. I kept thinking that this character, although powerless to resist the Queen's sexual enchantment, should have retained some awareness of his evil actions. His self-loathing as he sacrificed his own children would have been potent fairy tale plotting.

Too bad Gilliam and Kruger couldn't be bothered.

In various interviews, Gilliam admitted that the project (first greenlighted by MGM and later micromanaged by the Weinstein brothers of Dimension Films) was offered to him as a "commercial" film, and you can almost feel how ill at ease he was making it. Although he has said many times that he abhors the standard macho adventure film, The Brothers Grimm was clearly devised to be exactly that.

Action movies of the standard Hollywood variety do not suit Terry Gilliam's considerable gifts as a filmmaker. Let him fashion a fractured fairy tale from these bits and pieces and we might have had a film worth watching—something farcical and fun, but with an unsettling cynical edge. That's the kind of fairy tale movie Gilliam might have made. Has made, in fact.

Whether in the out-and-out wackiness of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), co-directed by Terry Jones, or the more subtle and very subversive Jabberwocky (1977), Gilliam has done some wonderful work in twisted takes on traditional legends. In fact, no one does that kind of revisionist fable better.

The problem here is that someone who is considered one of the great cult filmmakers succumbed to the practical notion of making a living as a director for hire. Everyone deserves to make a buck. But how can a bad movie like The Brothers Grimm not be an even more bitter disappointment coming from a "visionary" director like Terry Gilliam?

I would think dire and depressing thoughts about the career of dear Terry, were it not that his next film—shot during a six-month unofficial strike against the editing suggestions of the brothers Weinstein—Tideland is about to appear, starring Jeff Bridges. A more intimate and lower-budgeted indie-ish film, it is one that (if advance accounts are to be believed) allowed Terry Gilliam to make a Terry Gilliam film.

I look forward to seeing it. In the meantime, take a look at the Criterion director's cut of Brazil, or rewatch Jabberwocky. And forget about even renting The Brothers Grimm. Instead, marvel at the social commentary of Gilliam's earlier films that seems even more pertinent today than when they were made, twenty or more years ago.

Gilliam let us know that terrorism is a tool of the state, good for big business, and handy for a government that wants to keep its people fearful and dependent. That's a message that packs quite a wallop these days.

If, however, he was trying to tell us something about life on Earth (past, present, or future) with The Brothers Grimm, I have no idea what it might be. Except that Hollywood studios are no place for an honest director to make an honest dollar.

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