Tideland (Canada, 2005) * * * 1/2
D: Terry Gilliam
Tideland is the bravest, most personal, and most harrowing film Terry Gilliam has ever made. But it didn't work out so well for him. First there was the accusation, from former Gilliam child star Sarah Polley ("Sally" in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), that he recklessly endangers his child actors and shouldn't be guiding a young actress through the dark, adult material found in Mitch Cullin's novel. Gilliam, dumbfounded by her complaints, talked to Polley, and they seemed to work it out. But then it was screened in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival--just a month after the box-office failure of Gilliam's studio movie The Brothers Grimm--and received a disastrous reception, even worse than the reception his film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas received at Cannes. Nobody liked Tideland. Everyone complained that it was interminable, too unhinged, too bleak. A year passed and the film was not released. Finally, just last fall, it received an extremely limited release. Gilliam became desperate. In an unusual move, he filmed an introduction to be screened with Tideland in which he says to the audience, "Many of you will hate this film," but says that the film is about innocence, and asks that the audience view the events through the eyes of a child. "Children are resilient," says the ex-Python. "When you drop them, they bounce." When his film opened in New York, he greeted a line of people waiting for Jon Stewart's Daily Show dressed as a bum with a sign begging people to see his movie. He happily introduced himself to his fans. He'd talk to anyone. Just so long as they would give Tideland a chance.
In a way, the ordeal is now over: Tideland is out on DVD, and anyone can watch it, learn what the controversy was about, and draw their own conclusions. It can now become a cult film, which is most certainly what it's destined to be: a film that the majority will not understand (or will actively detest), but that a small, appreciate group will come to love. When Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--a film that's already followed this path--was released, Gilliam enthusiastically proclaimed that yes, people can hate the film, and that's a good thing: it's good to get a real emotional reaction, when so many films intend complacency. Of course, now Fear and Loathing has become something of a classic. It helps that Terry Gilliam's never made a movie that's at its best on the first viewing; it usually takes a couple to appreciate the film's density--and to see past the grittiness.
And Tideland is all about the grit. Although the film is quite often beautiful to look at--the sweeping shots of the prairie, with a lonely house nestled within and propped up against a blue sky, are just as visually arresting as anything in the canon of this noted visual stylist--it is also a film that deals with hideous subject matter with a wide-open gaze. It's the innocent gaze of a child, and it's what transforms this film from a simple fantasy into something more complex and difficult. The plot concerns Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), a child who is accustomed to preparing the needles for her drug-addicted parents (Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly). She dislikes her mother, who guards all the candy. She admires and tenderly cares for her father, Noah, who fronts a rock and roll band, encourages her imaginative world through his own rudderless delusions and hallucinations, and is absolutely not worthy of the admiration. But as the film opens, her mother dies of an overdose, and Noah takes Jeliza-Rose out to the prairie to a deserted, dilapidated farmhouse--where he promptly overdoses. Jeliza-Rose is now orphaned, and copes by taking refuge in her imagination. She talks to the severed doll-heads that she carries on her fingers, seeks out a squirrel that's hiding in the roof, and dresses up the corpse of her father, whom she leaves in his rocking chair. Eventually, she discovers a "ghost" in the fields outside her home--actually Dell (Janet McTeer), a taxidermist who lives with Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), a young man with a lobotomy. While the young girl is frightened of Dell, she finds a fitting companion in the childlike Dickens, who has envisioned the prairie as a vast ocean occupied by a "monster shark" which is actually the train which periodically disturbs the landscape's serenity. Together all three form a makeshift and temporary family unit--solidified when Dell takes over the farmhouse and does something rather disturbing, which I won't reveal here, but which prompted one Tideland admirer to mention that it's best to take it in as a comedic version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wouldn't go that far.
But it does, indeed, borrow many of the qualities of a horror film, particularly in some of the grisly moments toward the film's end. It starts ugly and it gets ugly. It's not an easy film to sit through. But if you turn it off--if you look away--you break the trance which the film is attempting to create. Tideland requires active attention and active thought; Gilliam is true to his hatred of complacency-inspiring films. And consider that if Gilliam wanted to wallow in ugliness, he would not have cut away from the film's one vomit scene (perhaps the only time he's done so in his career!). If you're open to this movie, if you're meeting its gaze, I think you're rewarded.
Take the film's acknowledged framework: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Jeliza-Rose is reading the book--presumably it's her favorite book--and not only does she quote lines from it, but at one point Dell does, as though the taxidermist were a creation of Jeliza-Rose's imagination. So you have a child who falls down a hole, meets some strange characters, and emerges, "waking," at the end. This is its structure, but it is not a movie "about" Alice in Wonderland; there is no point in making a direct connection of this-character to that-character. It's simply the foundation for a recurring motif on which to dress its themes. Tideland is, instead, a film about transforming reality through a child's eyes as an act of survival. It's about coping. It's about how the awful can be transformed into something sacred, even transcendent. It's about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity--and how objective meaning can be irrelevant behind the sheer will of one's subjective point of view. The events that surround Jeliza-Rose do, indeed, belong in a horror movie, or at least a Requiem for a Dream sequel, but in the eye of this hurricane exists, imperviously, Jeliza-Rose. She doesn't change; she doesn't deteriorate. She adapts to continue existing, yet retaining a relatively innocent viewpoint. This is something only a child can do, and it's the miracle of which Tideland is an intensive study. This isn't to say that Jeliza-Rose is traumatized by the deaths of her exaggeratedly horrendous parents and escapes into fantasy because of it; instead, she sees everything as it happens with an open, understanding gaze. She doesn't mourn her parents, for they were awful parents, but on the other hand, Noah was her world. When he's dead, she sleeps in his lap, brags about the song he wrote for her, and retains his vision of the "tidelands," which gels fortuitously with the imaginative world of Dickens. Her behaviour in the film will only seem extraordinary if you're not considering the imagination with which she was born and the parents with whom she's been sequestered all her life. Those are the elements, and when she's orphaned and set loose upon the adventure of Tideland, it's as though a grand experiment is taking place: to see just how far a little girl can go into the darkness while retaining her essential innocence.
Faithful Terry Gilliam fans--and we're a cult of our own--will immediately notice how few are the moments of outright fantasy in this film. It's particularly unusual given that it's the film's subject. In Brazil, when Sam Lowry retreated from his dreary office life into the make-believe world of his daydreams, it was an exhilarating experience, launched with the spreading of his silver wings. In Tideland, we only have one toe in the water of dreams. Everything seems mostly-true, like the world seen through the hazy veil of a hypnagogic state, caught between sleep and waking. There are only a few brief moments of outright fantasy, the most prolonged a vision of the prairie transforming into the "tidelands" as Jeliza-Rose swims against the current. That's maybe a minute-and-a-half. Only once do you see one of the doll heads become animate in the features, although a few float around the air. The squirrel talks, but not much. When Jeliza-Rose spies upon Dell having sex, it seems like a conspiratorial, sinister encounter suited to a dark fairy tale--and it's funny, but only modestly unreal. No, we are seeing events more or less as they happen. Children, after all, are not delusional. But events, to a child, are just a little bit magnified, and the meaning can be completely distorted. This is the eye of Tideland, and in that respect I believe it's completely accurate.
It gets even more interesting. Every character in Tideland is in the act of transforming the world into a reality with which they can cope; it's only that Noah does it less imaginatively by shooting up. Dramatically, Dell, by applying the art of taxidermy, hopes to reconstruct the world into her own ideals, even constructing her own semi-imaginary family. Perhaps this is why the setting is so flat, so empty, this corner of the prairie: it's a relatively blank slate upon which these identities can stamp their dreams. All of this comes together in the final scene, the "waking" of sorts, which promises escape from the landscape--and rescue--just as we've witnessed the most absurd, and blackly comic, transformation of all.
It is a really, really tough film to watch--or appreciate--for two principal reasons. (1) Because the film is essentially narrated by Jeliza-Rose, you may overdose on precociousness really fast. It's nothing if not honest in its depiction of a young girl's feverishly romanticized vision of her life. (2) Her relationship with Dickens threatens to become intimate late in the film. Perhaps speaking to this, Gilliam has said that the film plays better on a second viewing because one knows that nothing bad will happen to the girl. Nevertheless, Gilliam is well aware that he's playing with fire, and you can hold that against him, or appreciate how fearlessly he's scrutinizing the properties of a child's innocence. It's supposed to be harrowing--but when he grants these scenes a romantic tone (he's that committed to the girl's point of view), you might find it too much to stomach. I'll tell you this: it's the edgiest material Gilliam's ever attempted. Rest assured he pulls back at the precipice.
Gilliam had always been so easy to categorize, primarily because he did it himself, identifying for critics that three of his films fit into a "Dreamer Trilogy,"* and that the next three fit into an "America Trilogy."** But where does Tideland fit? Is it the middle part of a third trilogy which began with Brothers Grimm? Not at all--Tideland is nothing like anything Gilliam's done before. I always likened the filmmaker to Pasolini, who also had an earthy sense of the fantastic, and exuberantly sought the contrast between scatalogy and transcendence. This one is actually much closer to Pasolini's earlier, more intellectually-charged films. It's a true art house movie, in that it's a piece of art, not entertainment. You see, whether or not this movie "works" for you is kind of beside the point. It is a brave and indispensable piece of cinematic art.
And I dock it half a star for the fart jokes.
* These are Time Bandits (the dreamer as a child), Brazil (the dreamer as an adult), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the dreamer in old age). Tideland works upon a similar theme--actually, Gilliam's pet theme--of the thin line between fantasy and reality, but with a completely different technique, as noted above.
** These are The Fisher King (his first film made in the United States), 12 Monkeys (his bona fide Hollywood studio film), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the film in which he turned on the U.S., scathingly delivering Hunter S. Thompson's satirical venom as his characters go in search of the real America). The Brothers Grimm was an international production. Tideland was produced in Canada.