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.