Terry Gilliam tends to make movies that are frighteningly whimsical, like a Grimm fairy tale. Even when his movies stink, he has enough of a vision to make you at least consider where he was trying to go with his story, such as with his own take on the Grimm brothers. Last night, I watched his new (and universally reviled) Tideland. I'm still not sure what I think of it, but I know that it disturbed me enough to have to write about it.
The story begins. A little girl lives with her junkie parents in what looks like a church. She reads lots of Alice in Wonderland and prepares the needles for her father. The mother junkie dies from an overdose, ostensibly of methadone, so the father junkie takes the little girl to go hide out in his own mother’s house way out in the middle of nowhere. His mother has been dead for many years, and her house has been abandoned and has apparently at least onece been used as a party-central. The father then promptly overdoses and dies in the middle of the living room, leaving the little girl alone with her Barbie dolls’ heads, who are her best friends and who start talking back to her.
The girl soon befriends the neighbors, who consist of a mentally damaged brother and a mentally deranged sister. They keep their dead, mummified mother in her bedroom upstairs. The brother has fantasies in which passing trains are huge sharks that he tries to kill by placing various items such as shotgun shells and dynamite on the tracks. He seems to have had an affair with the little girl’s grandmother when he was a child. The deranged sister is a zealous taxidermist. She was once in love with the little girl’s father, and when she discovers that his dead body next door, she stuffs him as if he were a deer. Crazy things go on for far too long, then a train blows up and one of the survivors appoints herself the little girl’s protector. The little girl by this time seems to have gone a bit insane.
I’m not sure if I enjoyed this movie, or even think it is any good. “Ghoulish” is the word that comes to mind. In fact, even without the bad southern accents, the overall mood is reminiscent of what “A Rose for Emily” or As I Lay Dying would have been if William Faulkner had taken acid. Also, the pacing and length seem a bit like a short story stretched out over the length of a novel because the artist became a bit too enamored of whatever personal demons he was exercising. Indeed, the DVD began with a commentary from Terry Gilliam saying that, in making the movie, he had discovered himself in the little girl. This makes me wonder about his own childhood.
Gilliam is quite hostile to women in this movie. Most of them, be they the cartoon of a mother or the taxidermist neighbor or even the dolls’ heads, are vile creatures, antagonists toward the little girl rather than allies or protectors. The exception is the woman from the train in the final scene, yet even she is portrayed as much more in need of the girl’s company than the reverse, and comes across as almost predatory. The men aren’t much better, consisting of a delusional junkie who has trained his daughter to prepare his fix and the mentally damaged neighbor; but the little girl allies herself with the men. The women seem to represent active forces that willfully damage the girl, while the men do the same out of neglect or ignorance.
Gilliam's rendition of childhood, however, is quite touching and frighteningly accurate. In this movie, childhood is an incredibly lonely and dangerous place. Children, he seems to say, are willing to accept any manner of insanity as normal. They are not idiots. He seems to contrast the neighbor brother, whose mental deficiencies stem from some sort of surgical procedure to his brain (possibly performed by his sister) and who seems to lack any internal warning signals. His warning signals seem to stem from external, learned sources, such as when he compulsively repeats admonitions to stay away from a wrecked bus (which he himself seems to have wrecked). The little girl’s internal warning system, however, plays out in conversations between herself and her dolls’ heads, which speak in her voice. She, of course, dismisses them in the interest of curiosity, adventure, and her longing for affection.
Longing for affection, ultimately, drives this child. She gravitates toward even the smallest suggestion of attention, but without seeming needy or herself damaged. Her need for love, be it from the abusive human adults, the squirrel hiding in the walls of her house, or her doll’s heads, seems as natural as her need for food.
Indeed, food and affection are connected in several scenes. In one, the girl attempts to feed her father’s corpse peanut butter, telling him “you don’t have to eat if you don’t feel like it.” In another scene, she sits down to her first meal in days with her new family of the neighbors and her father’s stuffed body, barely able to restrain herself from both her happiness at having this family and from the tarts set in front of her. Yet, this scene in which she satisfies her hungers retains a sinister note in that the main course is rabbit, possibly the rabbit that she had earlier befriended. These hungers make her vulnerable, as suggested by a scene in which she first sits down to eat that peanut butter, the only food in her house, and is bitten by ants. At the end, the woman from the train lures the girl to her side by offering the girl and orange.
Love like food, is a basic need and the lack of it places the girl in danger. Being a child, she cannot protect herself. By placing this need in the character of a child, Gilliam removes hardened adult judgment from his observation that human affection is a necessity that can be warped through misuse.