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April 01st 2016 print

Symeon Thompson

Imagining the World

Woody Allen: A Retrospective
by Tom Shone
Abrams, 2015, 288 pages, $65

Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir
by Terry Gilliam
HarperCollins, 2015, 352 pages, $65

 

In the screenwriting bible Story, Robert McKee argues that the professions that once gave meaning and guidance to our lives—philosophy, religion, politics—have been eclipsed and in their place stand the storytellers—the novelists, the playwrights and the film-makers. Stories and storytellers certainly have a significant part to play in making sense of the world. But this is not a new thing, and McKee ignores the fact that stories and storytellers still have to get their meaning from somewhere.

Stories are a medium through which messages of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood are communicated. In the past they drew not just on our common humanity, but also on the values that were commonly held, the philosophies and religions and the makeup of civil society itself.

In an age when common beliefs and understandings seem less and less common, stories aimed at the masses, particularly cinema and television, play a significant role in shaping and explaining society. Two radically different but significant film-makers are Woody Allen and Terry Gilliam. Their singular visions of the world are the subject of two books: Gilliamesque by Gilliam himself and Woody Allen: A Retrospective by Tom Shone.

Woody Allen turned eighty last December and it seems fitting that he be subject to critical reflection. He has had a long career, with more successful films, both financially and critically, than unsuccessful ones. There is no suggestion that he’s about to slow down, with his most recent film, Irrational Man, being premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Amazon has commissioned him to produce a television series for their Amazon Prime streaming video service—despite Allen not owning a computer or even knowing what streaming is. And there’s another film in the works.

Tom Shone’s Woody Allen: A Retrospective is part coffee-table book and part critical commentary. A solid and hefty work, lavishly illustrated, it covers the entirety of his career from his early years writing jokes for columnists and celebrities to his most recent films. Shone’s research is extensive, including his own interviews with the principals. It is clear that he admires Allen and he goes so far as to say: “No American dramatist has done more to document the pleasures, pitfalls, and withdrawal pains, of imagining the world other than it is.”

The book opens with a description of Allen’s daily working habits and glides between his way of working with actors, writing scripts, dealing with producers and his place in the pantheon of great film-makers. From there it introduces us to the young Allen, as he makes his way to his after-school job, writing jokes for celebrity columnists and comedians, and his taste for scamming schoolmates and sleight of hand. His great love, his great escape, from humdrum life, a boisterous home and an overbearing mother, is the cinema with its dreams and adventures and happy endings.

The prose continues to flow effortlessly as Allen gains more writing gigs until he starts performing his own material. Allen wasn’t a natural performer. He was shy and anxious and unsure of himself, but with the encouragement of Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe—who went on to produce many of his films—he became more confident, as he accepted that the audience had paid to see him and hear his jokes. And from there he developed the typical Allen style, full of self-questioning and dread, but also a deadpan wit that could see the absurdity of the situation without taking away any of the pathos. His live shows sold out and he began to appear on television, his neurotic but somehow confident persona charming the public. Allen went into analysis early and became the embodiment of a generation unsure of itself, unmoored from the traditions that had given meaning to life for centuries, and seeking answers from the new religion of psychotherapy with its many and varied denominations. As Shone puts it, he was “the Me decade’s pint-sized court jester, a Chaplin for the era of Freud”.

Hollywood came knocking, first with adaptations like What’s New Pussycat? and acting gigs in big-budget farces like Casino Royale. With Take the Money and Run Allen got his first shot at the “triple-threat combination”: actor, writer and director. His ability to bring in a film under budget and under time, and without offending the powerful—unlike that other legendary triple-threat, Orson Welles—earned him the respect of his producers and set the pattern for how he’s operated ever since.

Shone goes on to consider each of Allen’s films in turn. He does not avoid criticising his hero, but for the most part it is gentle criticism, quiet unlike Allen’s own views of his work. The illustrations are beautiful, with abundant stills, promotional shots and behind-the-scenes pictures delicately inserted, showing the full range of Allen’s visual mastery—from the absurd humour of Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) to the poignancy and pathos of Broadway Danny Rose or the sultry seductions of Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Shone’s remarks throughout are insightful and illuminating, drawing on film critics, actors and other collaborators to add zest and depth to his own comments. It is clear that he agrees with the general consensus that Woody Allen is a guru for an irreligious world, and that, at the very least, his work has a cathartic quality. It shows what folk feel, about how their relationships come and go, about the challenges they face in making sense of their lives. His films resonate with many, and even, in some senses, act as a sort of psychotherapy for the intellectually and artistically minded, for anyone who’s had a bittersweet romance or wondered where their life is going.

Woody Allen is a master craftsman whose films have a classical quality to them. Even at their worst they are well put together and have lines or images of beauty and wit. But they are all about the meaninglessness of existence. At their core is emptiness. Shone quotes Allen as saying: “reality is an extremely ugly and horrific experience, and … any respite from it or alternative is welcome”.

If we accept Allen’s genius but then step back and ask about the world he depicts, we see that it is full of materially comfortable people who rarely stand for anything. Sure, there are decent folk throughout, and there’s rarely an actual villain, but there are rarely any actual heroes either. Academics are preening and pretentious, artists are overwrought, and almost everyone is worried. There are no great battles, just the everyday drudgery of existing. It’s a strange thing, because there is beauty in Allen’s work—beautiful cityscapes, beautiful architecture, beautiful cinematography, beautiful music, beautiful women—but there is no wonder. It’s as if Allen’s response to the marvel of creation is: “Is this it?” This doesn’t detract from Allen’s achievement, but it should give us pause. If we are what we eat, artistically speaking, what is the result of a diet of self-obsessed worry?

Terry Gilliam is a very different beast. In what seems like a delicious irony for the colourful director and his “Pre-Posthumous Memoir”, Variety accidentally published their obituary of him, leading the Python to apologise for his own death. Where Allen has a reputation for elegance, magic realism and intense psychologising, Gilliam is famed for extravagance, seeming insanity and atrocious luck. His creativity, however, has seen him labelled a visionary director; and while his canon may be smaller and more uneven than Allen’s, it’s just as fascinating, if not more so.

Gilliamesque resembles a Gilliam film—unexpected, elaborate, frustrating in parts, but beautifully designed and constantly fascinating. The opening is sharp and unexpected: “I was always frightened to take acid.” The book cuts back and forth between the chronological narrating of Gilliam’s life and any stream of thought that takes his fancy. There are factual errors and idiosyncratic digressions, but it is compulsively readable.

Gilliam had a happy childhood and a loving family. He started to draw from an early age and loved to read, including the Bible, which he repeatedly states that everyone should know, if only to understand culture. Much like Orson Welles, he thinks it crucial for one’s education and understanding of the world, even if it’s not seen as the Word of God.

Gilliamesque, to the frustration of those wishing to understand his film-making method, is mostly about his time growing up. We learn that young Gilliam, in addition to experimenting with art and the theatre, was a cheerleader at school, leader of a church youth group, valedictorian, and went to college on a missionary scholarship. He was a bright kid, loved by his friends, teachers and his church. There was little warning about what he was to become.

At college he remained popular, but the academic discipline that got him there was replaced by continual antics and the editing of the student paper. He went on to New York to work at Help! magazine, was drafted and found elaborate ways to avoid doing any military service—including setting up a mail forwarding system with a friend in Europe, allowing him to claim he was never around.

On moving to England he worked on Fleet Street and became part of the group that founded that most anarchic, surreal and English of comedy troupes—Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Gilliam was the cartoonist, and went on to co-direct The Holy Grail with Terry Jones—an experience much less enjoyable than the television series as the tension between the Pythons continued to mount. After this he tried his hand at making a non-Python film, Jabberwocky, followed by Time Bandits, with some more Python escapades thrown in.

Gilliam established creative control and copyright for the Pythons over Monty Python broadcasts worldwide. As the only American, he took the American ABC to court when they recut the shows to suit themselves.

Gilliam then made Brazil, a film at once fantastical and prescient, darkly comic and simply dark, co-written with Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard. Brazil is set in a totalitarian dystopia that’s overwhelmed by paperwork and institutional incompetence. It’s a place where the disappeared are charged for their interrogations and where guerrilla heating engineers operate illegally. It’s also a terribly English place, with tea and biscuits and where terrorist activity is put down to “bad sportsmanship”. The film was inspired by a mix of IRA bombings, increasing civil bureaucracy and the way in which increasing consumerism and empty materialism become a blanket to ignore injustice. Brazil doesn’t give answers, but it poses ruthless questions about how society operates.

These themes went on to dominate Gilliam’s work. In The Fisher King he snipes at a perfect society that ignores the poor, the homeless and the deranged, with a scathing cameo from Tom Waits as a begging ex-serviceman remarking that “they give money so they don’t have to look at you”, all the while reinventing the quest for the Holy Grail. 12 Monkeys takes aim at the cult of psychiatry and the dangers of fanaticism, via a future society trying, through time-travel, to stop a global terrorist attack. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Gilliam captured Hunter S. Thompson’s hallucinatory writing so well that when the journalist saw the film, he relived the acid trip that inspired it. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus pits Christopher’s Plummer’s sage/con-man against Tom Waits’s sardonic Devil, in a duel for his daughter’s soul. His most recent film, The Zero Theorem, targets the social media generation and their preference for relationships mediated by technology, with surveillance cameras replacing the head of Christ on a crucifix.

Gilliam specialises in baroque philosophical thrillers. They are rough and imperfect pearls, extravagant and vivid, inspired by rage at a world that prefers comfort and superficiality to facing its own dark side. Here genteel mediocrity becomes a shield for unspeakable barbarity, brilliantly shown by Michael Palin’s ordinary family-man torturer in Brazil. Instead of cynicism being the sophisticate’s virtue, Gilliam argues that it “can often be a way of covering up one’s inability to do great deeds”.

Gilliam’s politics are as messy as his films, and just as interesting. In many ways he is, as other reviewers have pointed out, an Eisenhower conservative. He believes in the importance of religion, the importance of the Bible, of fairy tales, great art and classical mythology. He thinks kids should spend time outside, and that corporal punishment is not a bad thing. But he detests what he sees as the dehumanising influence of neo-conservatism, unrestrained free-market capitalism and the idolisation of technology.

Gilliam is often compared to Jorge Luis Borges, with his literary allusions, labyrinthine plots and taste for obscure but ornate ideas; but a writer he more closely resembles is G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton’s fictions are philosophical thrillers full of outrageous technologies, opposed to inhuman ideas masquerading as progress. His prose is full of vivid imagery, nightmares and dreams come to life. His output is uneven, but constantly fascinating. He loved England, but loathed the way it was exploited by the rich and those contemptuous of ordinary people. His love of fairy tales and detective stories came from his belief in their power to tap into eternal truths. Chesterton saw life as a great battle between good and evil, the human versus the inhuman. He was both profoundly conservative and resolutely radical, a paradox for an age which prefers watching boxes rather than thoughtful reflection.

Like Chesterton, Gilliam delights in the power of the imagination, the power of stories. This is not the imagination as an escape from reality, but the imagination as a way to see deeper into reality. The world is full of terrors but also full of wonders. The baroque is full of this—blood and gore and filth, but also awe and beauty and love. There is meaning, even if we can’t quite capture it in words.

Gilliam and Allen have radically different understandings of the world. But their work still resonates on a broader scale. They both deal with the challenge of living in the modern world. Woody Allen: A Retrospective is a fitting tribute to his elegant and expertly crafted films, a handsome book that captures Allen’s pathos and humour. Gilliamesque is the sort of hyperactive, barely disciplined extravaganza one expects from Gilliam. Both works are insightful explorations of significant film-makers and the meaning of their worlds.

Symeon Thompson is a Sydney writer.