in defense of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland

As I often do after I watch a movie, I read a selection of online reviews after watching Tideland earlier this evening.

And it seems to me that a whole lot of professional critics are quite adept at point-missing. (There will be a minor bit of spoilerage in this entry, so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading, if that matters to you.)

First: critics generally responded in an entirely wrongheaded way to what they were pleased to call hints of “pedophilia” in the movie. Although I wish it weren’t necessary (and I don’t know if it was in the theatrical release), the movie does begin with a Terry Gilliam talking head telling us audience members to please remember that this movie is to be viewed through the eyes of its main character, ten-year-old Jeliza-Rose, and that our adult view of things is not her view. So it is: when the brain-damaged adult character Dickens and Jeliza-Rose indulge in their “romance,” it is almost exactly as innocent as Jeliza-Rose thinks it is, in her fairy-tale ideal of romance. Almost: because Dickens is still a man, and a man who, despite his diminished mental capacity, still has a man’s urges…but also, inklings of a man’s conscience. If he’s smitten by the sweetness Jeliza-Rose shows him (and she, in turn, seems to regard him as an overgrown boy), it’s fairly clear that at some level he knows he should back away from any affection stronger than the “silly kisses” the characters indulge in. Gilliam does not relent in the face of the squeamish, but he is smart enough to know his characters, and know that even if both Dickens and Jeliza-Rose, in their own, very different states of innocence, went any further, we as audience could not follow.

Not that Gilliam doesn’t challenge us: most reviews seemed willing to close their eyes rather than confront Jeliza-Rose’s damaged world head on. As the film begins, her parents (Jeff Bridges – playing the dark side of “The Dude” – and Jennifer Tilly – channeling one’s worst nightmares of Courtney Love) are hopelessly washed-out junkies…and yet, calling them “abusive” (as several critics did) misses the point: Tilly alternates between contempt and spasmodic love, but Bridges seems genuinely fond of Jeliza-Rose…even if he has no idea what to do with her. That he has taught her (it seems) to assist him in his heroin fixes surely is abusive in a technical sense…but Jeliza-Rose seems to accept that this is simply Daddy’s way of taking “vacations” (as he calls them). Despite his pathetic and desperate incompetence at life, he seems to love her and be affectionate toward her. He’s simply incapable of being any kind of father to her.

And while the grotesqueries the film heaps upon us seem to bear little resemblance to anything we’d call “realistic,” such a complaint misses the point: Gilliam is a fabulist, and his story here (and many elsewhere) update the classic world of what we, rather obliviously, simplify and infantilize as “fairy stories”…stories whose content, robbed of the buffering of cliché and history, are often shockingly grotesque and cruel in content. Place those characters in a contemporary setting, and “realism” is beside the point…but resonance is not.

The clearest aspect of Tideland is the utter incomprehensibility of the adult world to the child…and the dangers to a child of that world, which we see in this film with queasy-making clarity, but which a child might be all but oblivious to (to her peril). As a counter to that, we also see the ways in which “innocence” can be extraordinarily harmful…when it essentially equates to a decoupling of cause from effect, of emotional understanding, here played out in the character of Dickens, whose fantasies culminate in dreadful, real-world form…yet it’s unlikely that any of that real-world terror ever entered his mind, except (again) as a sort of storybook fantasy: the brave submarine captain killing the monster shark.

It’s that counterpoint (and the extraordinary performance of Jodelle Ferland as Jeliza-Rose…and her four talking doll heads) that gives the movie its emotional force…and which makes the critical accusations that Gilliam’s worldview is capriciously sadistic so absurd – because I think what finally emerges from this movie is how fragile even the most resilient child might be, ultimately, and how much we as adults need to make sure children can negotiate the desperate and immense gap between their world and our own. We see Jeliza-Rose as extraordinarily resourceful, capable of transmuting (or ignoring) the most horrific situations imaginable…yet the most villainous character in the movie (the “witch” Dell) is clearly presented as an adult warped and undone by her own childhood trauma…and Dickens, too, suffered abuse at the hands of an adult, abuse which scarred him beyond the physical and mental scars of his apparent lobotomy. The fact that nearly all the adults in the film are tremendously damaged suggests something about Jeliza-Rose – and that something isn’t pretty: that the trauma she’s now able to transmute into storybook fantasies may eventually well up and overwhelm her psychic defenses. (The movie might be said to literalize the way the past brutally insists upon its physical presence beyond its supposed passing…)

The other striking aspect of this movie is the sheer isolation of its world. Bridges and Tilly begin the film in what appears to be some sort of derelict hotel (Bridges is apparently a rock musician…though whether the scenes of him playing to an enthusiastic crowd are current, past, or sheer fantasy remains unclear), in which their noisy playing-out of their pathetic yet perversely domestic routines goes on without the slightest interest from anyone else. The southern gothic set of decayed houses in which most the movie is set, too, exists in utter, desolate isolation from the rest of the world. Only two scenes in the movie are set in any sort of social world: one, in the bus on which Bridges and Jeliza-Rose flee the scene of their girlfriend and mother’s death (during which the passengers’ annoyance at Bridges’ drunkenly oblivious carryings-on is kept, for the most part, to an uncomfortable distance); two, the aftermath of the movie’s closing scene (which critics were all too cheerfully apt to label self-referential: it’s a train wreck). This isolation only emphasizes the idiosyncratic view of its ten-year-old protagonist: only one character in the entire film acts at all like a responsible adult, and even her regard is tainted a bit by the desperation of the scene.

Tideland is unquestionably a difficult movie to watch (this despite cinematography that is frequently achingly beautiful). I’m just glad someone’s bullheaded enough to refuse the imperative to make movies “watchable” – while also resisting the equally stupid urge to glory in unpleasantness for its own sake under cover of its “reality.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “in defense of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland

  1. Chalupa

    Thanks for the review. I definitely had a very hard time watching it, even though I knew it was supposed to be seen through a child’s eyes. I didn’t really have much good to say about it. I also enjoy some of the “weird” movies out there, so I can appreciated where you’re coming from with this review.

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