[This article was first published on Flixist]
It's not a good sign when a director decides he needs to explain a movie to his audience before they've even watched a frame of it. A narrative experience should speak for itself, allowing its audience to take away their own interpretations and insights. As tempting as it is for the creator to go public and define the experience in his or her own terms, doing so can only ever make the experience smaller, tying down its meaning to the opinion of a single person rather than allowing it to blossom in unspoiled minds.
If ever it were understandable for a director to take such a step though, it would be for Terry Gilliam's Tideland. The US release was beset with problems, which Gilliam blamed on distribution company ThinkFilm, who opted to only release the movie in nine screens and then screwed with the aspect ration of the DVD. The film's critical reception could be generously described as bilious, with descriptions ranging from 'extrememly unpleasant' (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader) to 'creepy, exploitive [sic] and self-indulgent' (A.O. Scott). Gilliam has rarely been a director who finds popular appreciation easy to come by, though, and Tideland represents perhaps his most esoteric and misunderstood movie to date.
Gilliam's introduction may limit possible readings of the film, but is an understandable step to have taken considering scathing reviews suggested widespread misunderstanding of what the director was trying to achieve, almost to the point of poisonous misrepresentation. Critics seized on the horrific world which child protagonist Jeliza-Rose (played by the astonishing Jodelle Ferland) must navigate, from preparing her father's heroin shots to a pseudo-romantic relationship with man-child Dickens, as evidence of Gilliam cynically exploiting controversial subject matter. In truth, the movie's grim Southern Gothic trappings are an instrumental part of an intimate work of rare bravery, turning the traditional cinematic representation of children as defenceless and vulnerable on its head.
Here's Gilliam's introduction to explain it in his own words:
"I suggest you try to forget everything you've learnt as an adult," Gilliam says. That detail is undoubtedly what the movie's detractors were missing in their misreading of Gilliam's intent. When adults watch Jeliza preparing drugs for her father (Jeff Bridges as a viciously twisted variation on his Dude persona), the adult reaction is to be horrified, even though the girl herself, who has known no other life, sees it as nothing more than a part of her everyday existence. The second major point of contention, her 'relationship' with Dickens, is more complex, but I'll get to that later.
Tideland is not a film about a child suffering, or even enduring hardship. It is a paean to a child's imagination as a defence mechanism, perhaps the most subtle and brilliant in existence. This is a long way from an egregious purple dinosaur gargling out corporate-approved ditties about bringing marketable objects to life with the power of a young brain and a long-suffering adult's spending power. It's about imagination's power to protect an unprepared mind from the horrors of the real world, providing a safe place to hide until things take a turn for the better.
Children of Jeliza-Rose's age are in a constant state of processing the world around them, determining what they will need to do to survive into adulthood: who will protect and feed them, who will cause harm, where it is safe to go and where it is dangerous. This is simple for most, who have loving parents and carefree existences. The process is still at work, though, even within the safety net of happy family homes: the dark, for example, remains unknown and scary, so the mind fills it with brat-devouring monsters to stay any ambitions of venturing in until the risk can be properly understood.
If the imagination is protecting even in relative safety what happens when a child is born into a world consisting only of darkness, where there is no light for protection? Adults are mentally frail enough when it comes to even the most mundane of 'hopeless' situations ("I've lost my phone! OMG!"), so if we're to understand the popular interpretation of children as weaker and more dependent, growing up in a life of drug abuse and death should be enough to drive a young mind to the most extreme forms of insanity.
It doesn't, though, because where adults deal with threats by analysing them against the experiences of a rational mind, a child's survival instinct is the ability to redraw the danger in a manner providing just enough comfort to prevent total collapse. This ability weakens with age and experience, forcing us to come to terms with the difficult realisations accompanying the onset of maturity. "Children are strong, they're resilient, they're designed to survive," explains Gilliam. If they haven't got strength or speed or knowledge on their side, what can a child do but turn that innocence into strength?
To give a brief outline of the plot, Jeliza is taken by her father to a dilapidated house in remote Texas farmland after her mother dies of an overdose. Her father, too, soon dies of the same cause, and Jeliza goes exploring the outside world, contextualising what she discovers through conversations with the doll heads she keeps on the end of her fingertips. She soon comes across a weird family living not far away, consisting of a half-blind woman named Dell and her mentally handicapped younger brother, Dickens, who seems as deeply engrained in his imaginary world as Jeliza is in hers.
Jeliza's friendship with Dickens, a grown man with a child's mind, caused a lot of controversy when the film was first released, because while nothing but a few childish kisses ever transpires between them, her behaviour towards him certainly moves into heavy flirting. As much as it appalled critics at the time, anyone who has seen the way a little girl acts around boys, particularly older, will understand what is going on. Many adults, particularly these days, are barely able to distinguish between affection and sex. If Jeliza is playing husband and wife or exchanging pecks on the cheek with Dickens, it's assumed Gilliam is suggesting something unhealthy is going on. For the record, Dickens is strongly implied to want something more, but as with many interactions between young girls and boys, the girl is the more mature and always in control of what is allowed and what is not.
Where Jeliza might, in a normal family, have got what she needed through the occasional adorable look towards her father, those instincts are forced to adapt to a different set of rules in Tideland's Grimm farmland. She identifies Dickens as someone who can understand and protect her in the way her father should have, were he not sitting dead in the drawing room chair. To gain Dickens' compliance, she needs to act differently around him than she would a male to whom she is related. To her, it's all the same, though: innocent flirtation. Sex has nothing to do with it. She selects Dickens because they share enough of a bond - their mutual dependence on fantasy - to establish a connection, then does just enough to keep him around to look after her and help make sense of her surroundings.
If Jeliza uses Dickens as a means of safely coming to terms with the outside world, her imagination allows her to handle her inner questions through a series of conversations with a set of doll heads, each representing a different part of her psyche. Since her mind is not yet developed enough to understand the full implications of what is going on around her, dividing up her thought processes allows her to interpret everything she's seeing and experiencing in a manner she can handle, building a set of links that will eventually, with the right guidance, coalesce into an adult mind. When one of the dolls is threatened, so too is her entire ability to make sense of the world. Through Dickens and his family, she grows into someone capable of interacting with others. Through her dolls, she finds a way of piecing herself back together.
It's not a perfect film, with the invocation of Alice In Wonderland an appropriate if obvious touchstone, and an ending which broadly fits Gilliam's themes but is the only moment threatening to merit the accusations of exploitation. Looking back, even had it received the distribution and appropriate marketing (poster tag line: 'The squirrels made it seem less lonely.' Seriously?!) it deserved, the film's reception probably wouldn't have been much warmer. For anyone who has suffered in childhood, it's an elegant and even heartening parable about a child's ability to find strength and a path to safety in even the most terrible of circumstances. Tideland is a tribute to that strength, heartening to those who have been forced to draw on it, but utterly alienating to the many who have thankfully never needed to and mistakenly see all children and frail and breakable.
Tideland is in many ways the film Gilliam appears to have been trying to make all his career, incorporating the 'child making sense of a big, scary world' motif from Time Bandits (right down to the lead character being orphaned); Brazil's conceit of imagination as freedom; 12 Monkeys' questioning of the nature of insanity, and just a little of The Fisher King's character arc from tragedy to recuperation. It's the ultimate cult entry in the canon of one of modern filmmaking's most naturally divisive and opinionated directors, a film seemingly made to be appreciated only by those few to have stood on that melancholy tideland, all littered with the flotsam of hopes and dreams.
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