Well, I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it – I do actually like it because it says certain things. It’s about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we’re just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television’s saying, everything’s saying ‘That’s the world.’ And it’s not the world. The world is a million possible things – Terry Gilliam
Fantasy is a big Terry Gilliam theme, if not the single most important theme in each of his films. He encourages a broad and high level of fantasy because, after all, isn’t fantasy infinite? Why should we keep our imaginations in a box and except certain levels of fantasy and others be beyond our understanding? Can fantasy ever be too fantastical? Fantasy is so important to understanding ourselves and our own identities, which is why an active imagination in children is so important to how they deal with life as they grow older; Gilliam addresses this to an extreme level, or in other words, a highly imaginative level in Tideland.
I had never seen Tideland before I started thinking about what to write for Terry Jilliune. I have seen Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975), Time Bandits (1981), The Fisher King (1991), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and The Brothers Grimm (2005) so you think I’d be pretty used to Terry Gilliam’s highly imaginative films. No such luck. Tideland follows a young girl, quirkily named Jeliza-Rose, as she deals with the death of her mother and her junkie father when he ships them both off to an old house in the countryside to escape the implications of her mother’s death. Out in the countryside she meets strange characters and deals with her loneliness and helplessness the only way a child can.
If we think back far enough we’ll all remember the kind of games we played when we were younger with our toys and what we had at our disposal. I built dens at the bottom of my garden, played with Barbies, and Polly Pockets and had water fights and cuddled soft toys. I made up scenarios and talked to the toys and made my own alternate universe with them. Pictures were drawn and painted, which I wasn’t good at but enjoyed. Pretty normal, creative, imagination-led stuff.
But I had a normal, happy family. Jeliza-Rose’s imaginative play, being subjected to horrors she wasn’t old enough to even identify as horrific yet, was often hard to watch and upsetting. Films like this for me are particularly hard to watch when kids are being looked after by unsafe adults. I can’t watch Bad Santa (2003) because Billy Bob Thornton’s shopping mall Santa treats the little kid he starts living with like dirt and takes advantage of his good nature.
One scene that really stands out is when the crazy Bee-Witch says she can look into Jeliza-Rose’s soul with her eye she can no longer see out of because a bee stung her. I can’t remember the exact line but she seems scared of Jeliza-Rose’s imagination and the things that she can think. This caught my attention for a couple of reasons. This lady, the crazy Bee-Witch as she will henceforth be known, the lady who wears funeral garb and embalms dead people herself so that they can keep on living as normal, is terrified of little Jeliza-Rose’s imagination capacity. I find this amusing because it mirrors how Gilliam feels the regular film-viewer reacts to basically any film that uses non-standardized versions of fantasy, cue my initial reaction to Spirited Away (2001), but also the disturbing fantasies that Jeliza-Rose has built for herself to deal with her turmoil.
This girl administers her father’s heroin. When he’s high, she refers to it as her father ‘being on vacation.’ Her mother dies right in front of her and she doesn’t cry. She does not react to the turmoil like a normal child would. This is her norm. You’re starting to see why this film is currently rates something like 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. I first heard about this film last year when I studied Fantasy film and this blog does not do justice how far reaching the fantastical genre is, or even Fantasy according to Terry Gilliam.
But you know what? I won’t be watching this film again in a hurry, because it was to much for me. Has my imagination been dumbed down by too many Disney fairytales and Superheroes? Possibly, which is why I’m really glad this film exists and that I watched it, because fantasy is a powerful thing for all of us to help us balance our often troubling reality and we must never, never lose our imaginations.
Other films I’d recommend if you want to delve further into how imagination is important for ourselves and particularly for children are The Fall (2006) and Where The Wild Things Are (2009).
Have you ever seen Tideland? Do you think it’s misunderstood like I do?