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Having watched Terry Gilliam's Tideland just a few hours ago, I sat down to write a review and find that I can't. I'm still too angry.
Not at Gilliam, no. I am angry because I half-dreaded turning on the movie to begin with. Critics largely reviled Tideland on its (minimal) American release -- Rotten Tomatoes calculates its positive receptions at 27%. And a fair number of online commentators, even fans of the director, have branded the movie as "awful," "a mess," "disappointing," etc., etc. So, while I felt interest in Tideland, I put off watching it. The reviews made me wary and I hated to see Gilliam flop. But today it came from Netflix and I thought, why not, and popped it in.
And now I am angry -- angry because I cannot believe this beautiful, scary, funny, mesmerizing, heart-wrenching movie is the same one discussed in all those reviews. Have I stumbled on some unique director's cut that no one else got to see? Or have I misunderstood the purpose of movies?
At the beginning of the movie Gilliam himself appears, in black-and-white, like Edward Van Sloan at the beginning of Frankenstein, to inform us that we may find the movie shocking, but that it should be seen as through the eyes of a child -- innocent. One can take this prologue either as a bold stroke or a move of desperation, but either way, he's right. Little Jeliza Rose (played by an astounding Jodelle Ferland) goes through absolute hell, set adrift in a bare landscape by a heroin-addicted father (Jeff Bridges). Having no protection, no support, no food, and nothing to do, she builds a new reality out of, simply, play.
The redemption of imagination is Gilliam's Great Theme, and has featured in all his movies, but never I think with the depth of feeling displayed here. The camera glides and bobs and darts, low to the ground, a child's eye view, and the tone of the movie stays true throughout, without a whiff of sentimentality. Jeliza's situation is bleak and terrifying, but she's occupied with other and more pressing issues -- conversing with squirrels, squabbling with her dolls, and befriending her alarming neighbors: a witchlike taxidermist and her mentally retarded brother.
But she's no fool, and Gilliam isn't either. The dreadful reality is always present, and Jeliza knows what's what; she possesses that paradoxical childhood perspective that allows a doll's head to be "just a doll's head" and at the same time a living person with an identity. The movie shows us the world as her imagination transforms it; she spins terror and tragedy into fable.
This movie staggered me; it's a genuine work of art, and it left me in tears. If that puts me at odds with 75% of the critical consensus, I'll live with that. When I think of the endless trite garbage that these same critics routinely praise, garbage that often wins awards or breaks box-office records, comfortable and self-congratulating hackwork that rarely has a scrap of the kind of creative courage or honesty of something like Tideland, it frankly makes me question what a good movie actually IS. Do feel-good escapism and drearily unnatural "naturalism" really comprise the height of cinematic expression? And does the idea of being made genuinely uncomfortable by art, genuinely challenged -- surely art's primary function -- have any current market value?
In short, if Tideland is not a good movie, then what are movies for?
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