Here's a set-up for you: imagine the character of the DJ-provocateur from Oliver Stone's Talk Radio (1988), causing havoc in the lives of lonely, impressionable listeners, and breaking the hearts of those closest to him. Don't kill him off (as Stone did), but have him cause a tragedy that stops him dead in his tracks. Then have him bump into one of those lovable nuts you often get in movies – a bum who talks to little, fat people, has paranoid visions of a Grim Reaper in red, and who dreams of stealing the Holy Grail out of a tycoon's mansion right in the heart of New York.
The DJ is Jeff Bridges, the bum is Robin Williams, and the film is Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King.
As its title suggests, The Fisher King takes a grand old mythology – the Arthurian code of romance, chivalry, honour and questing – and tries to revitalise it, rewire it for the modern world. Most of Gilliam's films, in fact, have been about the re-finding of an older, truer, more vital way of life. Love is re-found in the futuristic state of Brazil (1985); eccentric imagination is re-found by Baron Munchausen. And, insofar as Gilliam's quest for old values is a nostalgic one, it bears an interesting relation to the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Films like the Star Wars trilogy and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) desperately recycle any grand old mythology to hand – Arthurian, Christian, Greek, you name it. And they try to draw a connecting line between these mythologies and now 'classic' mass cultural mythologies of the twentieth century – those bequeathed to us by Disney, Capra, John Ford or Lucille Ball. Gilliam is involved in the same kind of cultural bricolage. To the timeless romance of the Fisher King legend, he opposes modern horrors like plotless porno video, screeching talkback radio and crass TV sit-coms.
But he also celebrates a sweeter haven of mass culture: Robin Williams sings the silly ditty "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" from The Philadelphia Story (1940 – one of those "Katharine Hepburny-Cary Granty comedies", as a character here says); clips from Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai (1948) play conspicuously on TV sets; and the whole cast sings along often to "I like New York in June – How about you?"
Like much entertainment, The Fisher King is (to use a moth-eaten term) escapist. But escapism works very differently here than in the extravaganzas of Lucas and Spielberg. Escapist fantasias are always under an obligation to indicate the existing social 'malaise' from which they are providing a blessed release. In films like E.T. (1982) and The NeverEnding Story (1984), such malaise is a given brief and mystified representation (a quick tableau of a troubled marriage, for instance), before we blast off into fairyland. But once this base has touched, such films usually never give it a second glance. The Fisher King, by contrast, takes the terms of the escapist contract seriously, and lingers long with its chosen malaise.
The film is about homelessness, poverty, senseless violence, AIDS, alienation, and a feeling (pervasive among one and all) of psychotic dissociation. That's pretty much the same inventory that comes up in Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, or in the weird, uneasy, running jokes that pepper contemporaneous John Hughes comedies like Only the Lonely (1991) and Driving Me Crazy (aka Dutch, 1991).
In one disturbing sequence, Tom Waits, as a subway vagrant, delivers a monologue about those people who, in their workaday lives, go past the red light of restraint and find themselves knifing their boss. It is in this graphically and vividly etched context that The Fisher King earns its right to romance, escape and wishful improbability – finally conjuring even Central Park itself as a free-space where chivalrous buddies can lay around naked contemplating the stars.
There are some pretty conventional feel-good moves in The Fisher King – alongside some murky character motivations and a few sleight-of-hand evasions. But Gilliam, who has been compared to Orson Welles, matches up to the Master not only with his low, angular, impossibly crowded images, but (more resonantly) with his infectious sense of inventiveness and surprise.
I had no idea, while watching three-quarters of The Fisher King, where it was going next. And any film that does that these days has got to be worth seeing.
© Adrian Martin November 1991