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Book Review: "Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir"

As a filmmaker, Terry Gilliam has made a name for himself as a true iconoclast—instead of deploying his unique vision in the service of potentially lucrative franchises, he has stubbornly stuck to his guns to make the films that he wants, regardless of the consequences to his career. Even in his earlier days as a member of the dazzlingly original comedy troupe Monty Python, he was an iconoclast among iconoclasts in that he was the sole American element of the otherwise British group and, as the animator, he was the only member who was essentially able to produce his material on his own. Therefore, it may come as a shock to readers of Gilliam's recently published book, "Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir," that one of the great wild men of contemporary cinema was once literally a boy scout.

In a cheerful and breezy tone, Gilliam recounts that evolution beginning with a childhood that began in Minneapolis in 1940 and then shifted to Los Angeles when he was 10. He was the kind of kid that every Eisenhower-era parent would be proud to have—a well-mannered, church-going lad who got himself elected both class valedictorian and prom king. After graduating from Occidental College, he went to work as an editorial assistant for a new satirical magazine called "Help!" and also dabbled in advertising as well. As the Sixties progressed, however, the cheerful anarchy in his work began to take on a more anti-establishment tone. In response to the changing times and towards the end of the decade, he would finally leave his home country to relocate in London. There, he began working in television, where a collaboration with Eric Idle would eventually lead to his being asked to join a group of British comedians to form Monty Python.

This section of "Gilliamesque" is by far the most interesting of the book, if only because it deals with material that is relatively fresh to all but the most insanely devout fanatics. Gilliam has raided his archives for this project and the illustrations alone make the book a must-own for his fans. There are numerous examples of his early stabs at artwork that show how his unique visual style evolved over the years. For example, Gilliam includes the advertising graphics he designed for potboiler films produced by Universal (the very same studio that he would go to battle against years later over "Brazil"), and photocomic strips that featured the likes of Woody Allen and John Cleese. There are even examples of his very brief career as, of all things, a male model. 

Once the narrative gets to the Python years and his directorial career, "Gilliamesque" becomes slightly less interesting. Part of that is, I suppose, somewhat inevitable—Python has been the subject of so many books, documentaries, and memoirs that even with Gilliam telling the story from his perspective, it does feel a little too familiar. (That said, the part dealing with him going to America to go to court against ABC regarding the broadcast of Python episodes that had been reedited without their permission—a case that would lead to the group assuming full legal ownership of their work and setting themselves up financially for life—is quite entertaining.) Likewise, Gilliam doesn't really bring anything new to the table about the travails that beset him during the making of "Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and the never-completed "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." Anyone looking for in-depth coverage of such later projects as "The Brothers Grimm" (where he had constant battled the Weinstein brothers who he frequently alludes to without going into any significant detail), "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" or his recent mind-bender "The Zero Theorem" will be disappointed by the cursory treatment he affords them. It seems like Gilliam spends more time talking about accidentally slicing up his arm while attempting to change a lawnmower blade than he does discussing "Tideland," the highly controversial 2005 drama about a troubled girl that sharply divides even his most ardent fans.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more that "Gilliamesque" is reminiscent of one of Gilliam's own film work. It is visually extraordinary throughout, but a little bumpy when it comes to providing a clear narrative; in the same way that the elaborate details he fills the screen with sometimes derail the main action, the annotations for the illustrations at times feel more thought-out and detailed than the central text. While the end result may not exactly be the definitive look at the man and his career, it is nevertheless an occasionally eye-opening one that should prove to be an entertaining read for anyone curious to learn more about one of the most audacious filmmakers of our time. 

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