Terry Gilliam has a reverence for failure. In his movie The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges talks (ruefully) of Nietzsche’s “bungled and botched…expendable masses” who “get close to greatness, but never get there.” In a Gilliam movie, the hero is always either a fool or a madman, someone who sees much but blows his chances, aims high but is often speared by the world. As screen alter-egos go, these characters are candidly self-lacerating. Alexander Pope’s aphorism “To err is human…” is like a dare to Gilliam. He needs to conceive of movies that can’t work in order to prove that they can. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a case in point.
Watching a new zombie movie recently, I was reminded of Bret Easton Ellis. Put a pair of Wayfarers on any reanimated corpse and they come to resemble one of Ellis’s creations; the blank indifference to life, the remorseless appetite. For over twenty years, Ellis has been hacking away at our world, again and again writing “tan” when he means “damned” and “tried to smile” when he knows one verb cancels the other out. There are no characters in Ellis’s books, there are only bodies. Much the way a zombie looks at the world and callously notes a holocaust, so the rich kids of Less Than Zero stare indifferently at the death of their souls.
Contrary to what Terry Gilliam movies teach us, going mad is no fun. The only thing real madness makes you aware of is how you should prize sanity. There are no life lessons to be learned, sadly, from slipping out of your head. Real madness is a hell with no dimensions: ungraspable and unkind. There’s something especially pitiless about a disease that corrupts thought. The new movie, The Soloist, tells the true story of a schizophrenic Julliard-trained musician named Nathaniel Ayers. He is, by turns: loquacious, gentle, intriguing and capable of snapping your neck. He is not changed by the movie’s end, and the movie is better for it.