Knight Aberrant



The Red Knight is a Rorschach blot!

To the Cameo, where celebrity guest programmers are introducing favourite films. My friend, actor Gavin Mitchell introduced THE FISHER KING, which I hadn’t seen since it came out. I recall Terry Gilliam saying the access to real human emotion he was permitted by Richard LaGravanese’s script made him feel his previous films were kind of superficial. I didn’t agree, but I liked this one too.

Then I remember a couple of friends criticising Gilliam for the way he films extras, specifically those cast as the homeless and/or mentally ill. He seems to use them as compositional elements rather than human beings — perhaps a consequence of his love of medieval painting. There’s clearly both a visual excitement and a social commentary in the way Gilliam creates a medieval atmosphere in modern New York here, and when the figures are active it works great. But the bad quality reaches a climax with the catatonic patient whose job is to hold a newspaper and then get wheeled out of shot, a combination of expositional device and visual gag, depending for its effect on the dehumanization of the individual. This unexamined tendency crops up again in TWELVE MONKEYS a bit and DR PARNASSUS a lot.


Serious bit over. I enjoyed the film, and Gav’s intro, which was a whole show in itself. Gavin met Robin Williams on BEING HUMAN, Bill Forsyth’s ambitious, career-trashing reimagining of INTOLERANCE, and became friendly with him — he spoke hilariously and touchingly about the pressure he felt when Williams wanted to riff with him. Gavin can do great impersonations — and is possibly the funniest person I know — and found himself roped into an impromptu Mick & Keef crosstalk.

“Bobby Carlisle had been given the job of getting some Scottish actors, so he found fourteen of us. Fourteen actors — two wankers. That’s not bad going.”

Makes me think I need to give BEING HUMAN another try.

THE FISHER KING works great when Williams is around. There’s a real danger in the film’s presentation of the homeless man as redemptive plot mechanism, but Williams skirts the troublesome areas and somehow defuses the risk. It’s not so much that the performance is free of the sentimentality that was a Williams weakness, it’s that he has enough mania and rawness to compensate and make the character seem credible.


Jeff Bridges is playing one of the most obnoxious characters of his career, and to his credit commits absolutely. Still, there’s a drop in interest whenever the film has to do without Williams. The satire of talk radio and TV is sometimes ham-fisted, and one particular moment, when Bridges is pitched a TV sitcom about the homeless, is eggy in the extreme. The script is so tautly structured it just can’t resist making this scene, which is about Bridges becoming disgusted with his former success and rejecting it, also be about the Williams plotline. Something less on-the-nose would have served better: It’s a big coincidence in a script already brimming with them, and one can’t help feeling that some of the TV exec’s odious pitch could apply, with slight modifications, to the film we’re watching. Using issues like homelessness and mental illness in an entertainment is such a delicate thing.


The film’s secret weapons are Michael Jeter, delivering a to-the-edge-and-beyond showstopper melding pathos and grotesquerie, and Amanda Plummer, who has never, it seems, been exploited so well. The energy released when she and Williams eventually get together is… quite considerable. Mercedes Ruehl is also awesome (best line: “If I had to live with my mother I would stab myself six times,”) but she’s a wide shot actress and Gilliam gets too close too often. I flinched a few times when her eyes opened wide.

The BBC, I believe, did a fine documentary on the making of this movie, which Gilliam didn’t like — this may be why it’s not available. Gilliam didn’t appreciate the way it took the producers’ view, which had a sense of “taming the beast” — redeeming Gilliam after BARON MUNCHAUSEN and getting him to make a film on budget. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating doc and deserves to be seen.

11 Responses to “Knight Aberrant”

  1. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen deserves “Shadowplay” attention. It’s my fave Terry next to Brazil

    Robin Williams is a complex cinematic figure. Sometimes he’s very good, sometimes he’s insufferable. His suicide makes him more of a curiosity than ever — a postmodern “Pagliachi”

  2. I really love it when Williams plays it unlikable, as in Dead Again or Insomnia, where he’s the best thing on show. And then when he’s just crazy, as in Munchausen, stepping into a role originally planned for — gasp! — Sean Connery.

    I made a strange discovery about Munchausen here:

  3. I venerate Gilliam’s depiction of mad worlds.
    I’m not a big fan of his depiction of mad people.
    “Munchausen” deserves a fan edit or two. It’s stunning but the scripted jokes seem overloaded and then timed through treacle. (Cutting from “The Age Of Reason” to a cannon firing is surely a better joke than cutting from “The Age of Reason” to “Thursday”, then to a cannon firing.)
    Have I made it up that the Rorschach Red Knight is meant to resemble the explosion of his wife’s head? I guess that’s the thing with Rorschach Red Knights, you always make it up.

  4. Plus, the Thursday joke is recycled from Life of Brian (About tea-time). Munchausen is delightful and marvelous. I wish I still had the screenplay, which gives a full account of the original moon sequence, which had hundreds of extras losing their memories, and one of the best lines that never made it into the film (have lost my own memory so can’t tell you what it was).

    Plus the big deleted scene, Munchausen’s horse getting bisected by a portcullis, with him galloping off on the front half and not noticing anything amiss until he stops at an oasis and the water it drinks trickles out the back end. “That was the reason I wanted to make the film,” mourned TG.

    It’s possible the Red Knight directly relates to Williams’ wife’s exploding head — a flashback connects the two. It’s certainly red to suggest blood, and is maybe a pun on “red night,” the night of his wife’s death.

  5. Sarah Polley, by the way! One of my favourite performances by any child.
    I wish he could have got O’Toole though. These tales are jokes, and without a physical comic like him (Or Williams, or Reed) they never entirely make sense. Zeman’s Maunchausen – the man, not the film – had a genuine slapstick suavity to him which made everything that happened to him more believable. Jonathan Pryce would have been great, now I think of it. Maybe Pryce thought so too. His performance certainly suggests he wanted more to do.
    “A spot of tiffin”.

  6. Regarding Gilliam’s “real human emotion” remark: what sticks 20+ years after my only exposure to FISHER KING are the two set-piece male-female scenes, Bridges-Ruehl and Plummer-Williams, as fundamental and non-baroque as if Gilliam were directing Arthur Miller text and really liking it.

  7. There’s no doubt that Gilliam really loved the script (and has spent years trying to make The Defective Detective, also scripted by RLG) and maybe felt some of the pressure lift when he could just sit back and shoot good actors in rooms talking.

    Sarah Polley is great (still), yes. TG spoke of finding the American girls too saccharine and the Brits too abrasive, or something, and so a Canadian was just right. Like Baby Bear’s porridge.

    I never heard about O’Toole. Crazy that they couldn’t get him. The producer embarked on a quixotic quest to get Brando, didn’t he?

  8. Gilliam spoke to Michael Hordern and Richard Vernon about playing the Baron, but age prohibited them both. He met with Brando a few times about playing Vulcan, but his price ($3m) was too high

  9. Thanks. And then Bob Hoskins was cast as Vulcan and replaced by Ollie Reed, who is better than Brando and Hoskins could have been put together, if they could have been put together.

  10. Gilliam had elaborate plans for the moon sequence that the budget couldn’t accommodate. So he turned his drawings and sketches into sets and props.

    Valentina Cortese is an amazing cinematic presence in everything from The House on Telegraph Hill to Juliet of the Spirits, Day For Night and The Legend of Lylah Clare

  11. And Secret People, from which TG may have lifted an idea.

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