Books: Paperbacks Somewhere between Breughel, Bergman and Richard Lester

The death of Stanley Kubrick after finishing Eyes Wide Shut, and the resurrection of Terrence Malick with The Thin Red Line, have swung the spotlight firmly onto the figure of the maverick director. And if there's one contemporary film-maker who defines the auteur theory by managing to air a consistent stylistic and thematic vision within the boundaries of commercial cinema, it's Terry Gilliam. Accordingly, Faber have wheeled out one of their biggest guns to take on the man and his movies: Ian Christie, co-editor of essential film-shelf volume Scorsese on Scorsese, author of Arrows of Desire, the definitive study of Powell and Pressburger, and writer of the BBC centenary of cinema series The Last Machine - presented by Gilliam.

Thankfully, Gilliam doesn't seem to have much time for being an autocrat. Yes, he took out a famous full page ad in Variety addressed to the head of Universal Pictures: "Dear Sid Sheinberg. When are you going to release my film, Brazil? Terry Gilliam." Yes, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen almost doubled its budget from $23m to $40m, and was taken over first by completion bond company Film Finances and finally by Lloyds of London. But amid all the grandiose concepts, abandoned scenes, studio wrangles and lost footage, the image which frequently comes to mind is Gilliam the harassed summer camp drama teacher, cancelling his ambitious production of Alice in Wonderland because he realised he'd bitten off more than he could chew.

Born to an Episcopalian family in Minnesota, home state of the Coen Brothers and their Fargo, the rebellious liberal arts graduate got his big break early. As assistant to Mad editor Harvey Kurtzman on humour magazine Help!, he was surrounded by satirists from Robert Crumb to Woody Allen, and at one point a couple of guys touring with the Cambridge Footlights: John Cleese and Graham Chapman. A month at film school (he couldn't stand the politics), a stint in the National Guard (to avoid Vietnam) a trip round Europe (a sort of cultural Disneyland), and a period with the LA Free Press (selling cartoons all the while) ended with a flight to England, a reunion with Cleese, and a meeting with Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle. And the rest is Python.

Until 1977, that is, when he tired of sharing directing duties with Jones and wanted to have a go on his own. Jabberwocky, co-written with the man he replaced at Help!, Charles Alverson, built on the gore and grime of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to produce the prototype Terry Gilliam movie: the reluctant hero, the eccentric heroine, the uncertain quest, and a background somewhere between Breughel, Bergman and Richard Lester. Time Bandits, the second production from HandMade Films following Monty Python's Life of Brian, took him further away from Python and closer to Brazil, the movie which, even after the success of The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys and the controversy surrounding Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, still defines his career.

So far, so fascinating. Unfortunately, because another book has covered the same ground - The Battle of Brazil by Jack Mathews, from a rival publisher - this one has edited out the episode which shows Gilliam at both his most reasonable and most pugnacious: the epic struggle to rescue his dark 130-minute final cut from executives demanding an upbeat two-hour movie. However, when it comes to themes - ie the stuff that really matters - there's no faulting either of them, and as Spielberg polishes his second Oscar, it's interesting to read why Gilliam prefers 2001: A Space Odyssey to Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Kubrick ended with a question rather than an answer, and mysteries are more intriguing than explanations.

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