Sarah Polley & Terry Gilliam, The Torturer’s Apprentice

Violence is everywhere these days. Excuse me for stating the obvious. I’ve recently seen an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus that plays with our imaginations, encouraging us to feel for the people getting hurt in the play. Sometimes it’s much more scary to do it offstage, to encourage our fear and our creepy thoughts rather than being gory and graphic…

So I have a question.

Did you ever buy a book, and immediately turn to the one passage you wanted to read?

One went to the piano, one went to Erika (Mary Trump) but first Sarah Polley.

That’s what I did when I got Sarah Polley’s essay collection Run Towards the Danger.

I wanted to read the section I first heard about in social media, concerning her work on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film.

What I am about to say may sound a bit like Friedrich Nietzsche talking about Richard Wagner, which is a really corny nerdy pretentious way of saying that something that seemed to have me under a magic spell no longer has that power, because the magic has worn off, and now I am turning on the one I love, perhaps upset that the magic is no longer working. I mention Nietzsche because when he turned on Wagner he denied the love that used to be there; and supposedly on his death-bed he repented his angry denunciation, and admitted his love, renewing his old vows.

So let me be clear, let me be honest. I don’t think any film has ever touched me so deeply as Gilliam’s Baron. The year I re-married I felt reborn. I saw the film multiple times on the big screen in 1989. And I saw it on video many more times in the 1990s, sometimes in the company of a daughter roughly as young as Sally, the character Polley played in the film. It’s a visionary film about fantasy and the power of story-telling. While my love for the film has now faded somewhat, its lustre tarnished by my recent discoveries, I won’t lie. I’m still mesmerized by a combination of the glamour of the Monty Python aura surrounding Gilliam and his friends, and the mad admiration I still have for his work. I think too that Michael Kamen needs to get some of the credit for how I experience Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen given that Kamen’s perfect orchestral score is one of the most impressive I’ve ever encountered, the music plus the poetry of the story twisting me around its finger.

But: as a parent it was hair-raising to read Polley’s account of her experiences making the film. I feel sick, disgusted. While there were moments when we saw young Sally seemingly in danger, I never suspected that the film gave her PTSD, that she repeatedly experienced danger at least subjectively. That is the least of it, that the young impressionable girl was terrified. But sometimes the danger was real. For years something as innocent as the slamming of a car door could trigger Polley’s flashbacks. If you read her book you will probably change your views of Gilliam.

His blithe rock-star swagger, arrogantly laughing off the wreck & ruin he caused over and over: makes me crazy. It’s so normal that we worship our idols.

My reaction, (or perhaps what I should more accurately call my over-reaction) is absurd on the surface. But I find myself scrutinizing the work of Terry Gilliam, disturbed by what I think I see.

In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Sally is not the only one having a rough time. There is actually an opera within the film called “The Torturer’s Apprentice”, ostensibly composed by the Sultan. It struck me today that this title could aptly go on Gilliam’s resume or bio, as he has seemingly been studying modes of torture, both in the content of his cinema and in the manner he treats his colleagues while putting his ideas onto film. Yes it’s consistent with the history of film & theatre, in a long tradition going back to Titus & King Lear. It’s profoundly troubling.

The opera within the film is being played by a fictitious keyboard invented in the film, whereby instead of the hammers striking strings, they hit slaves whose moans and cries make music. This link includes some of the screenplay.

See why I mention Nietzsche? I must seem like I’ve gone nuclear on poor Gilliam, but I can’t help thinking that –like so many artists—he’s repeatedly giving us a self-portrait. The sign outside his studio might well read “Torturers R Us”.

But this is not the only time Gilliam shows us torture.

Brazil (1985) is another film from Gilliam featuring torture. Depending on which version you see, (spoiler alert) the protagonist may or may not end up tortured to death; or perhaps he’s rescued from his torture at the end. But it’s very dark stuff.

Katherine Helmond’s portrayal of Sam Lowry’s mother Ida also features torture, although it’s the self-inflicted horror of plastic surgery. It seems very witty to put these two together in a film.

What’s recently freaked me out was her report that I saw purely by coincidence, suggesting that the suffering we see on screen that we normally presume to be fake, was actually a whole lot more painful than we ever knew.

The way I saw it reported, Helmond endured
“ten hours a day with a mask glued to her face. Her scenes had to be postponed due to the blisters this caused.” (from IMDB).

Sorry but that reminds me of what Sarah Polley endured.

Polley reports the most curious thing in her book, that several people she met got into film because of Baron Munchausen, and their admiration of Gilliam’s work. I’m certain that the film is ideal to me because of the way it melted together as the most ideal Gesamtkuntwerk, Wagner’s total art. I don’t bring Wagner up to praise him even if this is the consummation of his greatest dream, that text and music and all component parts cohere together into a perfect whole. I think I’m a sucker for this sort of film, particularly the ones where the director exerts perfect control over all the parts.

Is it any wonder that actors report suffering at the hands of tyrannical directors? I’m thinking of John Candy (over-worked on a set), or Heath Ledger (a sensitive soul playing too many nasty parts), Judy Garland (drugged as a child, her whole life stolen from her). Yes they’re paid well but: what’s the cost? I find myself revolted by my admiration for their films, when I see the toll on the performers.

My favorite films all seem to exemplify this ideal, even as I blush at the recognition, that I expect directors to treat their actors like puppets or objects. I hope the world is improving, but I’m not sure. Unions protect workers, so hopefully children too are safer now.

This book will help.

My favorite director used to be Kubrick, who was famously perfectionist in requiring many takes of his actors. His great achievement in consecutive films, was to dethrone composers. In 2001: a Space Odyssey instead of using his composer he uses his temp tracks (Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss Ligeti and Khachaturian). In a clockwork Orange he again uses old composers but via Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer, playing Beethoven, Purcell or Rossini. But none of this was hurting anyone.

In 2022 I’m still totally enamored of films similar to and likely influenced by Gilliam’s hyper controlled art-direction, such as Scorsese’s Hugo or Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. I admire the control I see from directors such as Julie Taymor or Robert Lepage, even as –in context with Polley’s book—I’m recalling their history. Taymor ran into controversy with her ambitions for Spider-Man on Broadway, demanding too many risks of life & limb of her cast. Lepage similarly crashed into resistant cast in his Ring cycle, singers unwilling to ride his huge machine, leading to its re-invention as a backdrop rather than its original purpose as a symbol & installation representing & enacting the ever changing world. Bravo to the ones like Debbie Voigt who pushed back.

After seeing Sky’s show, I’m also wondering about catharsis, how we are hooked by violent shows in a different way. When I’m scared shitless I care differently.

And yet I’m feeling gratitude for being stimulated, by Polley, by Sky Gilbert, and yes: by Terry Gilliam.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Psychology and perception and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sarah Polley & Terry Gilliam, The Torturer’s Apprentice

  1. Pingback: Sarah Polley – Run Towards the Danger | barczablog

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