April 17, 2007

Tideland (Gilliam, 2005)

The critical response to Terry Gilliam’s Tideland has been, to put it nicely, unfavorable. The film was almost universally disparaged upon its premiere at the 05’ Toronto Film Festival, and as a result, received only a brief theatrical run. After viewing Tideland, I feel terribly sorry for Gilliam, because he has crafted a very good, very fascinating film, and perhaps the most personal film of his career.

Stylistically, the film is pure Gilliam. It is beautiful to look at. Though the film is all Dutch angles, warped perspectives, and Steadicam shots, the hyper-stylization is suited to the material. It feels organic, not overindulgent. We are viewing a grotesque world through the eyes of a child whose only defense is to “skew” reality. The visual style is essential to both the film’s meaning and its effectiveness.

Unfortunately, it is the film’s visuals that have caused it to be grossly misunderstood. Gilliam’s Tideland takes place in a perverse universe. The subject matter is extremely dark. As a result, the images we are presented with are seemingly distasteful. People are so put off by what they are seeing that they forget, or more likely refuse to examine the film in a deeper way. This is understandable (this is an ugly film, and to find beauty in such ostensibly reprehensible images is a scary proposition), but unfortunate. Yet, if you take the time to examine the ugliness in the context of the film’s deeper narrative, you will discover a film more heartbreaking than offensive.

This is a film about the resilience of a child’s mind. It is about the ability, lost in adulthood, to transform the incredible pain and sorrow we experience in life, into something approaching beauty. It is about subverting the horrors of life in order to survive. This “substance” infuses the images with meaning beyond their repulsiveness. This is an extremely hopeful film.

Tideland is a film to be discovered. It needs time. Time to find an appreciative audience, and time to truly sink in. It is frequently unpleasant, and always challenging. It is a work that is obviously close to Gilliam’s heart, and I urge everyone to watch it with an open mind. I imagine that the critical opinion will be drastically revised in the future, but only time will tell.

*I would be remiss not to mention Jodelle Ferland. Eleven years old when Tideland was filmed, she is brilliant as Jeliza-Rose, imbuing the character with a sadness that never tumbles into sentimentality. Ferland is mature beyond her years, and anchors the film. It is the best child performance I have seen in years, far better than Abigail Breslin’s this year.

**The DVD of Tideland, released by THINKFilm, is a travesty. The film has been cropped from its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 to 1.85:1, against Gilliam's wishes. As a result, the compositions feel very crowded. For a film as visual as Tideland, this is truly sad. No corrected version has been announced as yet.

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