Hello there - I'd like to talk to you about ducts

Dark Knights and Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam by Bob McCabe Orion pounds 20

In an age when directors are given films because they're capable of stringing together effects-shots for car commercials, Terry Gilliam's rise to fame is a refreshing reward of talent. From his first appearance on Harvest Kurtzman's HELP! magazine (a kind of Madison Avenue MAD that featured the then-unknown talents of Dick Van Dyke and John Cleese) to his cut-out cartoons for Monty Python, Gilliam exhibited a unique flair for visual absurdity.

He is too polite to add much spice to the often-recounted memories of working within the Python troupe, save to point out that Graham Chapman was drunk for most of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Besides, those years have been mythologised in countless volumes. Where Gilliam comes into his own is in his replies to Bob McCabe's gentle probing about his hopes, dreams and disappointments. Everything he imagines is recycled; nothing ever goes to waste, so that over the years some of his earliest fantasies are still being incorporated into new films. This means that even though no two movies he directs are alike, as a group they achieve a remarkable consistency of vision.

Gilliam's first non-Python film, the underrated Jabberwocky, showcased a wonderful performance from Max Wall, and capitalised on his fascination for all things medieval. His search for the Holy Grail has resurfaced in varying forms throughout his career, from Jonathan Pryce's desperately- sought freedom from bureaucracy in Brazil, to Robin Williams tilting at phantoms in The Fisher King, and his cinematic world, which once looked a bit silly (a reasonable criticism aimed at a member of Monty Python), now seems surprisingly mature when compared to the increasingly juvenile mentality of Hollywood.

He refused to condescend to children in Time Bandits, approaching the project as "a film that no one would be embarrassed to see". For a fantasist, Gilliam treats his audience with unusual honesty, and instinctively knows how to repay our attention with a good scene.

Gilliam's determination to prevent the destruction of his film Brazil was subjected to detailed examination at the time, so the account is largely excluded here to avoid repetition. Tom Stoppard provided the early drafts of that script, and it shows right from the opening address ("Hello there. I'd like to talk to you about ducts") through to the disorienting power of its closing image - an image the studio lopped off in favour of a perkier ending. Released at the same time as the drably earnest 1984, Brazil pointed up Orwell's message with a dazzling lightness of touch and remains Gilliam's most perfectly realised film.

When Gilliam turned the picaresque exploits of Baron Munchhausen into an eerie meditation on youth and age, the film was seized upon by critics seeking to scapegoat him as a spendthrift lunatic visionary. The plot's weaknesses are acknowledged here, but the nightmarish working conditions finally paid off, because Baron improves with each fresh viewing. Oliver Reed's bellowing, blood- pressured turn as Vulcan (a role that had been earmarked for Marlon Brando) provided him with a definitive late role, just as Uma Thurman's ethereal sky-waltz remains her finest moment.

Each chapter, one for every film, concludes with Gilliam in conversation with the author, and answers key questions about the development of ideas - though for my money not nearly enough time is spent on the practicalities of productions that often resulted in major changes. McCabe also misses a chance to ask the director why he has so infrequently created roles for women.

Fewer illustrations and more text would have been nicer, but the material is succinct and illuminating. As a displaced Minnesotan working in Hollywood, Gilliam is ideally positioned to see America through unsentimental eyes, although his attempt to realise a cinematic version of Hunter S Thompson's Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas was poorly received by critics and audiences who, one senses, still might not be ready for such an audaciously jaundiced portrayal of chemical abusers.

This volume also covers some of the projects that fell through, often because jittery financiers feared Gilliam's reputation as a maverick film- maker. One wonders what he might have made of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. It's an excellent primer for anyone interested in how such a fertile mind can survive the big-budget movie system, and sends you to the video shelf to renew acquaintance with many memorable scenes and characters.

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