Like many misfit American kids of my generation, my brain was permanently rewired when I discovered the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS in the 1980s. Monty Python, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy formed a triumvirate of British pop culture that gave dorky anglophiles like us a pool of clubby shared references.
But I suppose my interest waned over the years, aside from catching Spamalot on Broadway in 2007, being happy to see Michael Palin pop up in The Death of Stalin, and of course periodic rewatches of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, still one of my all-time favorite movies. Even when the surviving members of Monty Python reunited in 2014 for a series of live shows at London’s O2, I wasn’t motivated to go see the global theatrical simulcast or rent the subsequent DVD. But no more excuses, now that Eric Idle and Aubrey Powell’s film Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go has appeared a click away on Netflix.
I’m not sure if I’ve grown out of Monty Python, if Monty Python has grown out of Monty Python, or if this reunion show was just rubbish. I sat through the film mostly stonefaced, when not cringing (except during Terry Jones’ befuddlement in the “Nudge Nudge” sketch, which is still funny). Part of the appeal of their earliest work was that it was done on the cheap and on the fly. But Monty Python has long since become Monty Python Inc., and these shows’ high production values come across as insincere and inauthentic — in other words, professional. It’s a nostalgia trip, like a veteran classic rock band on a yet another greatest hits tour.
At over 2 hours, it’s also somehow simultaneously too much and not enough. I realize the Pythons are all over 70, and even youngsters would need time to change costumes between sketches anyway, but I wasn’t expecting so much filler. They rely heavily on excerpts from the Flying Circus TV series and some of the movies. A large troupe of young dancers and singers often take over from the stars for big production numbers like “Penis Song (Not the NoÃ«l Coward Song)” and “The Silly Walk Song”. This preponderance of musical numbers suggests the show was Eric Idle’s baby. Notably, I don’t think there’s any material at all from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, perhaps to avoid overlap with Idle’s Spamalot musical.
Watching Monty Python’s greatest hits now, in the cold light of adulthood, the makeup of their humor seems pretty easily broken down:
5% university-educated wit (philosophy, religion, world history, etc.)
15% bodily fluids & noises
20% naked or scantily-clad ladies
50% exaggerated regional accents
10% gay men talking and walking funny
Which brings me to the difficult subject of how so much of Python’s material struck me as offensive. The cheeky insouciance of their original BBC TV series The Flying Circus was genuinely boundary breaking in the late 60s. But a surprising percentage of the same material lands with a dull thud in 2018. The lumberjack and barrister sketches are transphobic, the “I Like Chinese” song and Mao cartoons are racist, many sketches (including Gilliam’s mincing in the Michelangelo sketch) are homophobic, and the Doctor Who “RETARDIS” gag is not only cringeworthy but also simply a really lame pun. Only “Penis Song” is substantially updated to be inclusive, now expanded to include additional genitalia.
Perhaps I am hypersensitive after living the past few years under an ascendant sexist and racist ruling class — emblematized by Trump — and how movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have further exposed the exploitation. All this has left me exhausted, making it hard to tell the difference between juvenile rudeness and expressions of greater societal ills, and predisposed to not laugh at any of this.
The ground is also shifting in popular culture, as it grapples with its depictions of gender, race, and sexuality. The world’s increasing tolerance is being abused by conservatives that would like to silence comedians (such as the recent vilification of Kathy Griffin). So I want to be careful when I try to explain how I now find some of the Python’s classic material offensive. Perhaps comedy should never be polite, and is under no obligations to be gentle to anyone. But as contemporary comedians like Sarah Silverman and Mike Birbiglia have explored, the potential of comedy to offend is one of its biggest strengths, but also its biggest a minefield. This paradox is explored at length in Birbiglia’s one-man show “Thank God for Jokes” (also available on Netflix).
Blundering right through this minefield comes Monty Python’s original material, transplanted mostly intact from the late 60s to today. Even though this show was put together years before Trump and Brexit bulldozed through the world order, the show is disappointingly apolitical, aside from a dated Mao reference and quick jabs at Putin and the Daily Mail. But I suppose its fair to note that even in their heyday, the Pythons usually steered clear of politics, instead being more eager to skewer class and religion.
Sadly, these septuagenarians come across as dinosaurs clueless as to how the world has changed while they’ve been in semi-retirement.
But maybe if a bunch of legendary comedians want to throw a farewell party for themselves, and fool around on stage one last time, I should just relax. They seemed genuine in their fond ribbing of each other, their tributes to the late Graham Chapman, and spotlighting collaborator Carol Cleveland.
Despite being the ostensible protagonist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is remarkably out of control of his destiny. Throughout, he survives various calamities equipped only with only a Babel fish, towel, and implausible happenstance. But most of its cast of characters are equally adrift in a senseless universe: Zaphod Beeblebrox is the ultimate irresponsible slacker, just hanging out as the universe unfairly happens to produce everything he needs. Ford Prefect just barely clings on to a dead-end travel writing gig in the backwaters of the galaxy. Mr. Prosser and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz are mere salarymen dispassionately dispatching their duties, too jaded even to evilly enjoy their cataclysmic impact upon others (the symbolic mirroring between these characters was laid bare in the original radio series, where they were both portrayed by the same actor — curiously not the case in the TV show, when it ought to have been trivial to do likewise, considering how much alien makeup was involved).
If you’re just joining our trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.
If the many misfortunes that befall Arthur seem meaningless, and his escapes equally arbitrary, maybe it’s because Adams was one of the world’s most famous atheists. He was friend and matchmaker to outspoken debunker of supernaturalism Richard Dawkins — indeed, he introduced to him to his future wife Lalla Ward (who played Romana during Adams’ tenure on Doctor Who, and is still revered today as “the lord high queen of the nerds” by Topless Robot). It would be extremely convenient to draw connections between Dawkins and the Hitchhiker’s character Oolon Colluphid, were the chronology not so inconvenient: the series was written long before Adams discovered Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, and before they became friends after Dawkins wrote Adams an admitted “fan letter.” Colluphid, of course, wrote the highly influential and controversial trilogy Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God — an oeuvre only slightly less pointed than Dawkins’ own.
Absorbing Hitchhikers’ in prose, on stage, TV, or radio has long been the first baby step for many current and future atheists. The first few moments of all versions of the story feature numerous gags about God, the most well-known of which involves the infamous Babel Fish. When I first read the novel as a kid, I was of course pleasantly grossed out by the notion of sticking a fish in your ear. Whether or not a child reader grasps the overt allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel, most would be versed enough in science fiction to recognize that Adams was mocking the accepted convention that English is spoken throughout the universe. Star Trek and Doctor Who both made offhand comments to explain the language barrier issue in pseudo-scientific manners, which is perhaps the healthiest narrative approach — why get bogged down in technicalities, which only get in the way of telling a good story? But Adams decided to confront the conceit head-on, and not only subvert it but also take it to a startling philosophical conclusion. In literary theory, this would be a casebook example of deconstruction. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the original radio show:
The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain; the practical upshot of which is that if you stick on in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language – the speech you hear decodes the brainwave matrix. Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this:
“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy” says Man, and for an encore he proves that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.
Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Coluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.
Meanwhile, the poor Babel Fish, be effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
— The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, Douglas Adams, p29-30
The above excerpt is from The Guide itself, the book within the book (another gift to literary theorists). The Guide is full of useless information, when not outright incorrect, but one wonders if Adams was wistfully imagining a more advanced alien society possessed of greater secular wisdom than our own — one in which even lowly travel guides take it as a given that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster, Invisible Sky Daddy, or Ceiling Cat watching over us. What is especially remarkable is how economical the above excerpt is. It’s elegant, concise, and above all, funny. In only a few lines, Adams co-opts two common theistic arguments into a logical equation that â‰ God: so-called “irreducible complexity” and the ultimate get-out-of-any-argument gambit, faith. To him, faith and belief aren’t enough when it comes to the really important questions:
“Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say ‘no’ for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it […] As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for […] I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance.” — Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist, quoted in Douglas Adams and God – Portrait of a Radical Atheist by Nicolas Botti
To the above, I say “can I get an amen?” The word “belief” is appropriate for matters of superstition, but not for matters of science. The self-professed “radical atheist” we hear from above is considerably more gentle and breezy when he playfully tweaks religion in Hitchhiker’s. But it’s easy to imagine how these books might incite the ire of the easily offended Religious Right currently dominating the US political scene. That is, if they were literary-minded enough to sit down and actually attempt to read a book — any book — which clearly they aren’t. Consider how the Monty Python film The Life of Brian was famously protested against for precisely the wrong reasons. Its detractors assumed the film mocked Jesus (when it is in fact quite respectful), but failed to recognize that the Pythons’ true target was organized religion itself. This also fascinated Adams:
“I am fascinated by religion. (That’s a completely different thing from believing in it!) It has had such an incalculably huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it represent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.” — Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist
The same Christian fundamentalists that decry the ostensible witchcraft at the core of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (whether they acknowledge Rowling’s own Christian faith or not) would surely object to the capricious, overtly godless universe in which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is set.
Speaking of literary-mindedness, for a man who wrote for the all-ages adventure program Doctor Who, Adams incorporated very little actual physical violence into Hitchhiker’s. It’s interesting that when Arthur and Ford are tortured on the Vogon ship, the means is not waterboarding, electrocution, or solitary confinement, but rather the reading aloud of poetry. For all the power of language to harm, Arthur and Ford are unable to talk their way out of their predicament. This suggests that in the Hitchhiker’s universe, literature is either obscure and irrelevant (as seen in some of more unhelpful Guide entries, or when Arthur fails to enlighten some cavemen with a game of Scrabble), or outright hostile (such as the aforementioned Vogon poetry, and the official documents that doom Arthur’s house and planet to demolition).
Adams had diverse interests beyond tweaking the noses of theists, and incorporated many gags into Hitchhiker’s that would appeal mostly to physicists and statisticians. Two things in particular that preoccupied him were metaphysics and computers, and he was able to put them together in the Deep Thought subplot. Curious humanoids outsource their philosophical questions to a sentient supercomputer tasked with calculating the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The answer “42” is just as meaningless as the question “what do you get if you multiply six by nine?” According to my reading, mathematicians might make sense of this equation if calculated in base 10 — AKA the decimal system — and gamblers would recognize 42 as the sum of all sides of a pair of dice. Unfortunately, these clever mathematicians and gamblers would be no closer to an understanding of the universe as anybody else. The pursuit of the answer and then the question wasted billions of years and immeasurable lives. Thus in one single plot twist, Adams pins a donkey tail on entire religions and whole schools of thought — they’re not just absurd, but also extraordinarily harmful.
The supposed irreverent nature of British humor is a tired topic among American geeks that came of age quoting Monty Python and Doctor Who in outrageously fake accents — even the most crass gags (I’m thinking here of Mrs. Slocomb’s tales regarding her “pussy” on Are You Being Served) sound more witty, sophisticated, and erudite to us when spoken in foreign accents. Here’s Adams on this very topic (regional humor that is, not cats):
“I think too much is made of the difference between US and UK humour. I don’t think there’s a difference in the way those audiences are treated. […] There are things the British think are as English as roast beef that the Americans think are as American as apple pie. The trick is to write about people. If you write about situations that people recognize then people will respond to it.” –Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94
The alleged great divide between American and British humor came back into relief again recently as Ricky Gervais closed the first of his Golden Globes hosting gigs in 2011. Most of his allegedly uncensored celebrity barbs turned out to be merely tired stabs at low-hanging fruit (certain Scientologists are gay, Charlie Sheen is a junkie, Hugh Hefner is an old creep that gets laid more than you ever will, etc.) that only resulted in more rolled eyes than bruised egos. But what upset outwardly pious Americans most was his closing quip “…and thank god for making me an atheist.” Anyone given to appreciating Adams’ cocktail of absurdism, logic, and philosophy would recognize Gervais’ brand of humor here. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the current American landscape are holy rollers with persecution complexes.
Perhaps Adams’ atheism was the motivation behind his personal appearance as an archetypal modern man experiencing an existential crisis in the beginning of episode two of the Hitchhiker’s television series. If you believe Neil Gaiman, Adams stepped in simply because the original actor was stuck in traffic that day, but I prefer to imagine a greater significance. Just as Radiohead would later employ Marvin the Paranoid Android as a metaphor for the themes of paranoia and depression in their acclaimed album OK Computer, Adams plays a nameless everyman beset by the modern condition. Taking the long view of someone educated in evolution (which an alarming number of Americans believe to be more science fiction than actual sci-fi), he decides that it was all a mistake for life to leave the oceans in the first place.
But there’s a note of optimism to be had at the end of the series, which thanks to the wonderful narrative possibilities of time travel in science fiction, is not really the end but rather the beginning. Arthur, Ford, and the undesirable dregs of an ancient humanoid civilization land on prehistoric Earth and intermingle with brutish cavemen (interestingly, very much the same thing happens at the controversial conclusion to the 2003-09 TV series Battlestar Galactica, except much less funny). The series signs off with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” — which works as both a sarcastic comment on humanity’s humble, decidedly not divine origins (we’re descended from interbred hunters & gatherers, hairdressers, and telephone sanitizers) but also as a sincere comment on Arthur and Ford’s begrudging friendship.
Thanks for reading Part Three of our look back at Hitchhiker’s. Catch up with Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.
Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted and extended into virtually every media yet conceived by humankind — if more advanced species elsewhere in the galaxy are able to plug the story directly into their brains, they haven’t yet shared the technology with us earthlings. Back on Earth, Adams personally wrote the radio series (which many of those involved consider the definitive ur text), novels, a television series, and computer game. Although nowhere near the level of cultural saturation of its rough contemporary Star Wars, it is fair to state that it is something personally beloved by millions, but also a rather valuable franchise that placed quite a burden upon its creator. Like George Lucas, Adams spent the rest of his life shepherding and protecting, and yes, profiting off Hitchhiker’s.
If you’re just joining our trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV.
Before and after Adams’ untimely death in 2001 — not that there is such a thing as a timely death — Hitchikers enjoyed a complex parallel existence in stage shows, licensed merchandise (including towels and rubber duckies), and additional written works by other authors. The now-superstar author Neil Gaiman’s second book Don’t Panic — only slightly less humble than his first, a Duran Duran hagiography — was a combination biography of Adams and history of Hitchhiker’s as a whole, cleverly written in a reverent pastiche of Adams’ own style. DC Comics adapted the original stories into comics form 1993-1997, after which things went relatively quiet until a 2005 feature film failed to catch on with American movie goers. Director Garth Jennings’s movie has many flaws, the largest of which may simply have been showing up too late to the fading Hitchhiker’s party. But much of the casting is inarguably excellent, particularly Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent and the voices of Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman as The Guide and Marvin the Paranoid Android, respectively. The movie may have failed to reignite fan fervor at its peak, but the neverending trilogy got even longer when the Adams estate posthumously authorized a sixth prose novel by Artemis Fowl creator Eoin Colfer in 2009.
But the vast influence of Adams’ original works is incalculable. I can’t speak to his influence in his home country, but he was an integral component of the holy trinity for a particular strain of Anglophile geeks growing up in America in the 1970s and 80s: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the holy Doctor Who, forever and ever amen. Rolling Stone magazine gave away 3,000 free copies of the first novel in 1981, guaranteeing countless young unsuccessful bands called Disaster Area, one successful band called Level 42, and a generation of college kids heeding Ford Prefect’s sage advice to enjoy “Six pints of bitter, and quickly please, the world’s about to end.” The BCC television comedy Red Dwarf is a direct descendant (albeit, if anything, even more bitterly bleak and nihilistic). As a cultural institution, Hitchhiker’s was still hip enough in 1997 to inspire the Radiohead song title “Paranoid Android”.
Adams, together with fellow imp Tom Baker, forever stamped Doctor Who with its signature blend of hard science, absurdist humor, and barely submerged darkness. The ideal recipe is still debated to this day, perhaps most evident in Christopher Eccleston’s particularly bipolar vision of the character as swinging wildly between anguished and giddy — at once grieving his complicity in the death of his entire species, but not so despairing that he couldn’t fall in love with a cute young blonde earthling named Rose Tyler (The Doctor! In love! Almost as unthinkable as the romantic misadventures that would befall Arthur after the largely sexless early installments of Hitchhiker’s). But in 1979, for those British fans that preferred wit & whimsy over reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, they could switch the telly over to BBC Two to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As my frequent Doctor Who asides above prove, it’s virtually impossible to discuss Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without a few detours into Whovian matters — not least because Fifth Doctor Peter Davison famously cameos in the television series as the exceptionally rare (and chatty) steak served at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I first read the novels as a kid, completely unaware of their radio or TV incarnations. I quite literally pictured Ford Prefect as The Doctor (specifically, the highly eccentric Tom Baker’s unforgettable performance as the Fourth Doctor). When my local PBS affiliate finally ran the TV series, I was quite disappointed to find that David Dixon is very nearly the physical opposite of Baker; and not nearly as… well, alien.
Trillian, who appears for the first time in episode two, was another huge disappointment. Whether by her own acting choices, contemporary cultural mores, or the whims of a randy costume department, actress Sandra Dickinson pitches the character as even dumber and more sexed up than a typical Doctor Who companion, which is really saying something (thankfully, 21st Century Who Girls generally enjoy much more substantial characterization). She and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox both sport exaggerated American accents that make me scratch my head as much as our silliest mock British accents must irritate actual Britons (addendum: I have since learned that Dickinson is actually American, so I don’t know what it means that her accent sounded fake to me). Dickinson would later marry Davison, and their daughter Georgia Moffett would in turn wed actor David Tennant (making the Fifth Doctor the Tenth Doctor’s father-in-law — and this is without any real-life time travel). It’s as if Adams is still working beyond the grace as the behind-the-scenes matchmaker keeping it all in the Doctor Who family — and I haven’t even gotten around to discussing Lalla Ward and Richard Dawkins yet.
But the single greatest repercussion of Hitchhiker’s has nothing to do with Radiohead songs, the relative eccentricity of Doctor Who leading men, or spinoff merchandise. It is, simply, the Apple iPhone. Allow me to be approximately the millionth person to point out that the eponymous guide itself has since become a very real thing, collecting lint in the bathrobe pockets of millions of Earthlings. It took a number of iterations of numerous interlocking components for it to happen, and it’s not hard to imagine that Adams was a direct influence on the visionary nerds that invented and assembled them. Computers were networked together in the 1960s, an infinite number of Ford Prefects began to crowd-source Wikipedia in 2001, and then devices small enough to carry all of this around began to appear in the 1990s (I remember really lusting after the magical Palm VII, which was capable of retrieving your email out of thin air). These elements finally came together in 2007 with the first truly usable portable information device, Apple’s iPhone — an invention I’m sure Adams would agree is more useful than even the towel. Wikipedia’s theoretically infinite hyperlinked database full of persistently and instantly available information proved about as reliable as the Hitchhiker’s Guide, loaded as it is with dense entries on fripperies like where to find the finest Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, while having little comment on an entire lifebearing planet like, say, Earth. To quote the first edition: “Harmless.” Second, extensively revised & expanded edition: “Mostly harmless.”
So what is it that makes Hitchhiker’s so enduringly popular? It’s not too difficult to decode its DNA: Adams’ involvement in Cambridge University sketch comedy groups, his writing collaborations with Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and his appreciation of classic science fiction (particularly Kurt Vonnegut and the British institution Doctor Who). But Hitchhiker’s is not a sequel, parody, adaptation, or pastiche of anything in particular. Although it plays with many tropes of science fiction, it was a genuinely new thing. Adams had the following to say of American TV audiences, but I think it’s valid as a universal statement:
“Audiences in the US (through no fault of their own) are treated as complete idiots by the people who make programmes. And when you’ve been treated as an idiot for so long you tend to respond that way. But when given something with a bit more substance they tend to breathe a deep sigh of relief and say ‘Thank God for that!'” –Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94
Adams gave people something with a bit more substance, and they seized upon it. His ideas were so original that Adams spent most of his latter career patiently explaining where they came from. NPR’s Marc Hirsh has a more pessimistic take, equating James Cameron’s recent announcement that he would only make films set in the Avatar universe to the trap that Adams found himself in:
[Adams] spent the last 23 years of his life, starting from the original 1978 radio broadcast, continually rewriting the same story over and over for different media. And as much as I love the books and have enjoyed many of the different iterations, I can’t help but think that that’s an almost tragic waste of talent. — Marc Hirsh, NPR (via Neil Gaiman)
True, he must have been frustrated to not be able to move beyond Hitchhiker’s for most of his career, but one need only look at bookstore shelves today to see almost everything he wrote still happily in print, including two novels in a new series starring holistic detective Dirk Gently. Writing and managing the Hitchhiker’s empire was evidently a slow and painful task for him, and he wasted a lot of time struggling to bring Hitchhiker’s to BBC TV and Hollywood, with mixed results. But outside of his nominal career as a writer, he would seem to have lived a rich life full of close friends (including luminaries as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Dave Gilmour), good deeds (q.v. his book Last Chance to See, on endangered species), and thinking deep thoughts.
Thanks for reading Part Two of our trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.
Terry Gilliam is burdened with a number of unfair reputations. First, as a visual stylist more than a storyteller or director of actors — the latter, at least, obviously refuted by the fact that many high-profile stars will repeatedly work with him for pennies. He’s also known as an unpredictable hellion and spendthrift, which are, from the point of view of those that hold the pursestrings, the two least desirable characteristics in a director. He may in fact be concerned more with the integrity of the work than with the business angle, as any artist should be, but he is no wastrel. In fact, all but one of his completed movies came in on time and under budget. A better way to describe him would be as the most unlucky person in the movie business.
After the multiple calamities and misfortunes (that even an atheist might characterize as acts of god) that befell The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam made The Brothers Grimm as a commercial concession. Despite it still bearing his unmistakable imprimatur, it remains the sole Gilliam film I actively dislike. One good thing to come of it, however, was a genuine friendship with its star Heath Ledger. Interested in filmmaking himself, Ledger stuck around on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus even when not needed on camera, serving as Gilliam’ apprentice and pitching in whenever possible.
Gilliam’s fabled bad luck first reared when he was hit by a bus and cracked a vertebra, as reported in Wired. Ledger died during production, followed by producer William Vince before post-production could begin. If one untimely death could possibly be said to be any more of a shame than another, Ledger’s accidental overdose at the age of 28 might be truly unfair. He was riding the crest of a wave of appreciation for his performances in Brokeback Mountain and Batman: The Dark Knight, and had just begun to stretch his muscles as a director with music videos for Ben Harper and Modest Mouse.
The production was very nearly halted, but Gilliam realized it could be salvaged and re-conceived if Ledger’s part were partially recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Gilliam stuck to one simple and absolute criteria: all three actors must be personal friends of Ledger, leading him to reportedly turn down an overture by none less than Tom Cruise on the basis that he hadn’t known Ledger. Depp and Law actually do quite resemble Ledger onscreen, at least with the aid of eyeliner and costuming. However, Farrell most captures Ledger’s physical presence and mannerisms. Charmingly, the movie is credited not to Gilliam but to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”
The eerie synchronicity between Ledger’s death and the film’s themes of mortality are, remarkably, coincidental. Gilliam co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown (also of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which this movie most closely resembles). According to Collider, the story is based on Gilliam’s own feelings of artistic frustration, particularly after the reception of his controversial film Tideland, which many found not just difficult but even offensive.
As its title makes plain, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is set literally in a world of imagination, a place we have visited before in nearly every single Gilliam film. Most famously, Brazil riffs on James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The few exceptions include Jabberwocky and The Brothers Grimm, in which fairy tales exist matter of factly in the real world. In 12 Monkeys, it remains ambiguous if James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) future (his present) or the present (his past) might be real or delusions.
It would be a huge mistake to expect any Terry Gilliam film to make total logical sense. Such pedestrian expectations would weigh down an artist we love for his unique, vivid flights of fancy. But perhaps even the wildest Gilliam fancy ought to be internally consistent to a degree. If something doesn’t make sense, is it a tantalizing conundrum left open for the viewer to mull over, or is it evidence of sloppiness? The central question left unanswered for me has to do with the core conceit of the film itself: people are drawn into the mind of Dr. Parnassus through his magical mirror. In his mindscape, they must choose between entering a building maintained by the Devil (Tom Waits), or… what, exactly? Of those few that reject the Devil, we see their blissful, unencumbered state upon leaving Dr. Parnassus’ mind. What exactly happens to them that makes them happy? Also, there’s the side effect of them shedding their possessions. They may have been freed of their own earthly materialism, but that doesn’t stop Parnassus from conveniently enriching his own troupe’s coffers, giving the whole process an air of a scammy confidence game instead of spiritual awakening. Reflecting the theme of insincerity is the cornball tune “We Are the Children of the World” which appears as a ringtone in the film, and at the end of the closing credits.
The apparent protagonist turns out to be an unredeemable villain, unlike virtually all of Gilliam’s previous heroes, in particular Kevin in Time Bandits, Jack Lucas in The Fisher King, Sam Lowry in Brazil, James Cole in 12 Monkeys, and Jeliza-Rose in Tideland. Which leaves us with Dr. Parnassus, who ends up a little bit like Parry (Robin Williams) as we meet him at the beginning of The Fisher King: homeless and seemingly permanently locked in a position of want. Both are hobos, rendered apart and invisible from a world of beauty and wealth. Parnassus’ longings are embodied by the beautiful Valentina (Lily Cole), whom may or may not be his daughter, now seen ensconced in an enviously blissful nuclear family. Parnassus remains forever tempted by the Devil.
Terry Gilliam’s mad, brilliant yarn The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a strongly anti-war fable to which every kid (and adult!) ought to be exposed. Like the best of its kind (including Ratatouille and Gilliam’s own Time Bandits) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen works on multiple levels and is accessible to all ages. It is, however, a Gilliam film, as as such possessed of a certain degree of darkness and naughtiness. But depictions of tobacco, decapitation, and brief nudity (of the young Uma Thurman variety… thank you, Terry!) were evidently A-OK for kiddies in its era, and merited a mere PG rating. Special mention must also be paid to the spirited performance by a very young, adorable (but in a non-cloying way) Sarah Polley.
What must be the most ironic caption in cinema history, “The Late 18th Century: The Age of Reason,” is followed immediately by harrowing imagery of warfare that wouldn’t be out of place in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Further driving the point home for the slower members of the audience, a trip to Hades finds Vulcan (Oliver Reed) forging ICBMs out of hellfire. In a theme straight out of Noam Chomsky, the military industrial complex (personified by Jonathan Pryce’s hilariously accented bureaucrat) imprisons the people within the walls of their own city with a sham state of perpetual war. In the end, the Baron (John Neville) defeats these villains not with more violence, but by inspiring the people to throw open their doors and thus their minds.
Must read: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen fun facts from Dreams, the Terry Gilliam Fanzine
What’s this? Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? A film written and directed by Terry Jones? I didn’t know he made anything after Erik the Viking. Wait, and it stars Jones & Eric Idle? With cameos by John Cleese and Michael Palin? Why, it’s practically a Monty Python movie… the only two missing are Graham Chapman, because he’s dead, probably, and Terry Gilliam, because he’s… American, perhaps. How could I possibly never have heard about this movie?
OK, let’s take a closer look at the DVD box. Released by Disney? Hm, that’s not necessarily a good sign. How about a quick web search. Wait, the original title was The Wind in the Willows? Why did Disney change it for home video? Did it not get a theatrical release? (A user comment on IMDB indicates Disney went straight to video with a different title)
Now let’s start playing it. Jones was never the visual stylist in the Python films (that was left to the other Terry). Willows looks kind of expensive, yet kind of cheap at the same time. Where’s Steve Coogan? He got first billing, but I don’t see him anywhere. Hey, there’s Eric Idle, with a silly rubber tail! Oh no, he’s not going to start singing a song, is he? Oh god, it’s a musical…
Ninety minutes later, my brains are dribbling out of my nostrils. This has got to be one of the worst movies ever made. Steve Coogan is practically unrecognizable (that’s him as The Mole). The great Stephen Fry shows up for a few blustery lines of dialogue but fails to elevate things. Terry Jones looks ridiculous in green face paint and a fat suit (I hope) that I suppose is meant to read as “toad.” And sure enough, it was only a matter of time, he winds up in drag.