Terry Gilliam & the Meaning of Life

Some say you should never meet your heroes and, in this case, they are at least partially right.

life of brian 88 (photo credit: )
life of brian 88
(photo credit: )
Some of you, and especially the Brits of a certain age, will empathize with me when I admit to an outrageous degree of fandom for the comedy of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a pioneering satirical troupe comprising five Englishmen and an American, Minnesota-born Terry Gilliam. Perhaps the rest of you will indulge me for the next paragraph. My brothers-in-law and I have staged our own true-life versions of the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch in which the participants struggle to outdo each other in exaggerating the impoverished circumstances of their childhoods (sent down the mines as soon as they could walk; sleeping in a cardboard box, etc.). I sat by my embarrassed wife in a Tel Aviv cinema in 1983 laughing uncontrollably at the (frankly disgusting) Mr. Creosote wafer-thin-mint stomach-exploding scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life while most of the audience walked out in disgust. Lines from the Pythons' finest work, 1979's Life of Brian, pepper my everyday conversation. But they say that you should never meet your heroes and, in this case, they are at least partially right. Gilliam, the Pythons' innovative animator, and now a fiercely creative filmmaker (Time Bandits, Brazil, 12 Monkeys), has spent the last two weeks in Israel. For reasons still not entirely clear, he agreed to direct - more accurately, he says, "assist with" - a production of Diabolo by the Russian dramatic clown Slava Polunin that was premiered at Jaffa's Gesher Theater ahead of its more lavish opening next year in Moscow. "He's the master; I'm the novice," said Gilliam of Polunin. The show, it should be said, is quite extraordinary - diabolical entertainment from another age, or another world. Concerned with the hero's protracted struggle with the devil, it is dark, forbidding, utterly compelling and quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. The largely Russian audience, to whom the riveting and elastic Slava is a superstar, received it ecstatically. My nine-year-old daughter understood everything long before I did. Gilliam graciously consented to be interviewed immediately after a lengthy rehearsal ahead of the penultimate performance. "It's been a long day," one of the producers warned me, "so just ask him light stuff. Don't try and get him onto politics." And we actually began by discussing the Nike soccer commercials he'd directed outside Rome - the world's top players performing outrageous tricks with a silver ball in a steel cage and a tanker, that part of the Gilliam oeuvre of by far the most interest to my sons. But the man was a groundbreakingly irreverent satirist, and a former political cartoonist who says he left America for Britain in the late 1960s "because I thought I was going to start throwing bombs if I stayed there because of the Vietnam war... I'm a better cartoonist than a bombmaker. I'd rather create than destroy." And here we are now, embroiled in the world's first cartoon war. He co-created Life of Brian, which was widely banned and furiously branded by some spiritual leaders as a blasphemous assault on Christianity. And here we are now, watching people die during outraged protests against a purported blasphemous assault on Islam. How could we not get onto politics? The thing is, Gilliam had evidently spent much of the "three days I had off" from theatrical work here immersing himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or rather a part of it. He had spent time at refugee camps, Palestinian villages and army roadblocks. And though he capped many of his comments with his distinctly manic laugh as though to minimize their import, and included plenty of ostensible caveats about his lack of familiarity with the conflict - "I just report," "I have no solutions," "I'm just repeating what I'm told" and "I'm still assimilating all this" - he nonetheless charged insistently onto the political battlefield, to acutely dismaying effect. He reassured me that the terrorism we've endured here was no worse than the "IRA blitz" in London and looked disbelieving when I told him I grew up in London and there was no comparison between the two. Having visited Israel once before, in the mid-1980s, he pronounced that the big difference on our side of the divide today was how much "more bourgeois" we had become, and "how skilled at shopping." He told me that, given our "military might," we had no justification for our paranoid fear of being pushed into the sea, and that we need not take too seriously "the idiot" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pursuit of a nuclear capability and threat to wipe us off the map. Ahmadinejad, he said, unveiling his second Hebrew word of the conversation (the first was "balagan"), was talking up our elimination "davka" - simply because he could, not because he really meant anything by it. He pronounced that Ariel Sharon "hasn't changed. He's always been a very clever military man - or maybe not clever, but brutal military man. He knows how to stake out the territory, then claim it and move on from there... A lot of people I talk to say, 'Oh, he's really changed.' I don't think Sharon has ever changed." He explained that the West Bank security barrier had not made life any safer for Israelis. "If you want to get somebody across, you can... It may give the illusion of safety," he allowed, but terrorism had dwindled, rather, "because Hamas or whoever has decided we're going to calm things down and see where this leads. I don't know. Enough of my one-day expertise." Meanwhile, he reported, the "humiliated Palestinians" are desperately trying to maintain a sense of community as they drive through the West Bank avoiding the checkpoints, all the time nursing the sense, as "this really good, smart, intelligent guy" told him, that "Palestine is going to be just completely crushed," that Israel is going "to squeeze... what is Arab" until the Palestinians are gone. Let me stress that Gilliam was friendly and personable throughout, and didn't always talk over my objections and arguments. He just had no hesitation, on the basis of only the sketchiest acquaintance with our reality, in detailing his conception. What I found still more surprising, given his background and true expertise, was Gilliam's effort, initially at least, to depict the cartoon eruption, and the wider issue of religious intolerance, in a relatively forgiving light. "Hysteria about Islam is making me crazy," he declared, and went on to assert that the demonstrations against the Prophet Mohammad cartoons - drawings which he said he hadn't actually seen - had been largely used for political purposes and distorted by the media. "Does anybody know what the demographics are - how many people are really angry in these countries?" he asked. "I've read too many stories about demonstrations where there are the signs up - you know, 'kill...,' and right next door there is a moderate demonstration of Muslims trying to say 'We're angry, but this is not Islam.' The cameras weren't pointed at those. That's boring. We know where the camera points. That's my problem with media now." Ultimately, though, he did rally behind free speech. "I've always believed in the right to offend," he said, and then repeated the phrase. "Offense often leads to dialogue. It also might lead to other people threatening to kill you," he went on, chuckling wildly as at many points in our conversation, "but it might lead to dialogue." He stressed that "I can't defend people going out and saying 'I will kill for my religion, I will kill you because you have said something that has offended me.'" He then highlighted his own personal encounters with "blind fundamentalism," saying he had actually intended at one point to become a Christian missionary but had been deterred when his own humorous comments about the faith had fallen on such stony ground. "I went to university on a Presbyterian scholarship," he said. "But the problem is I always told jokes about God and Jesus, and the other people found this offensive... I thought, well, what kind of God is it that you believe in that can't take a joke? This is what you worship? Come on! My puny little jokes, my little laughter is going to bring down this whole cosmic edifice? To tell a joke is lack of respect? In many ways it's a sign of respect." Life of Brian, actually a comic assault not on Christianity but on some of the absurdities of Christian literalism and blind extremism, he recalled, wound up banned in parts of the US Bible Belt, in Britain, Ireland, Norway. The Pythons, he said, set out to satirize how Christianity had been abused. "We were pissed off at organized religion. We weren't going to take on Christ, so Christ was treated with respect. But the whole idea of what religion is about and how it works... the sex, the heresy, the persecutions. We knew what we were doing and that was what was so exciting about it. "Our triumph was that in Variety magazine, the trade paper, there it was: A whole page devoted to us. Two columns, the Protestants protesting. Two columns, the Catholics protesting. Two columns the Jews protesting. We got everybody evenly." Aah, but not the Islamists. No, he acknowledges, the Pythons had the good sense not to lampoon them. "We didn't go for the Muslims, did we. We were smart." But that's what Islam needs, he finally conceded. "It's got to be [someone] from within the Islamic world" to go after the death cult extremists. Someone "to start saying, 'Stop being so defensive about it,'" and to make plain that "there are flaws in all of this stuff. 'We've got a lot of guys out there who are wacko and they shouldn't be encouraged...' I've been bothered by that in England: how the imams are all very cautious. They are so defensive. They won't let anyone criticize Islam." HIS DIABOLO engagement completed, Gilliam left Israel on Wednesday for the Egyptian holiday resort of Sharm e-Sheikh for a break and a rest. He said he had spent time in the past in Morocco and filming Brian in Tunisia, and had always found that in these Arab countries, "the people are incredibly civilized, incredibly nice, incredibly generous. More so than a lot of other places on the planet. That's my experience." He said he took his daughter for a birthday treat to Fez for a few days, soon after 9/11, to experience the peaceful face of Islam, because "the paranoia was beginning to bother me: Islam, Muslims, dangerous." In Morocco, "Everybody we bumped into said, 'We are embarrassed, we apologize, Islam is peace.' I've never seen a group of people, a city more apologetic about what happened. And what I hate is the way the fundamentalists, the militant, the angry side of Islam is getting all the press and the other people are not." I hope Gilliam never directly experiences the other face of Islam, and that the moderate side, the only side he says he's encountered, prevails - for all our sakes. And I hope he'll come back to Israel and spend more time, next visit, delving deeper into the Israeli experience.