by J.R. Hammerer
This column will highlight the films playing in New York City independent theaters and repertory houses each week.
If anything could be said about Terry Gilliam, it’s that his imagination is unbound. Beginning with his surreal, stream-of-consciousness cartoons for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” his odd juxtapositions and wryly absurd humor fit in perfectly with the British comedy collective. But once he set out as a live-action filmmaker, his complex visuals and skepticism of bureaucratic, rigid modernity resulted in a series of films that delight in magic casting abilities with a sober smirk.
Time Bandits, his third feature and one of his rare absolute hits, is ample evidence. One of the most creative and unconventional family films ever made, it laid out Gilliam’s principal theme of outsiders rebelling against a narrow-minded normality. A young boy meets a troupe of dwarves who’ve stolen a map of holes in time and space, riding with them as they are pursued by both the Supreme Being and a devil who wants to transform the universe into computers and machines. Gilliam uses the setup to not only toy with history (Robin Hood turns out to steal from the poor), but with an adult society easily seduced by game shows and kitchen appliances.
Anther family classic that celebrates rebelling against convention had an unconventional choice of director. Rising to prominence in the indie boom of the early 1990s, Richard Linklater broke onto the scene with a series of rambling, wordy, almost literate films that were more interested in character and theme than plot and action. They were often philosophical, and often featuring subcultural characters journeying towards nowhere in particular. In other words, he was the last guy you’d expect to take on a mainstream Hollywood comedy.
Which he happened to do with the criminally underrated School of Rock. Developing a script written by Mike White specifically for his friend Jack Black to star, he latched hard onto Dewey Finn, a rocker/slacker who sneaks into a substitute teacher position. The hard rock riff on the inspiring-teacher movie not only put the Dead Poets Society formula to shame, but also joyfully and hilariously celebrated the power of music and the romance of rock & roll rebellion. It’s one-of-a-kind, and Jack Black’s charisma as frontman is still a career high.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum– in tone, style, and subject– lies the legendary Ingmar Bergman. Bred from a distinctly Scandinavian strand of modernist, existential drama, his films are intimate and deliberate chamber pieces that aimed to probe the meanings of life and the core of human experience. The existence of God, the problem of evil, coldness and darkness, loneliness and light– he was always asking how to live in a mad world that humans keep messing up. He rarely found answers, but the questions were intimate, haunting and provocative.
The Virgin Spring was a turning point in his career. Working with new cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it has a less theatrical, more immediate feel that both calms and shocks. It is more direct, staring right into the ugly side of human nature. A group of nomads rape and murder a young teenage girl, only to unknowingly wind up at her father’s door. He is shaken by the random brutality of his daughter’s fate, but driven to a revenge that breaks his spirit. The violence is un-exploitative, but stark, cold, and remorseless. And all the while, the troubled ask why–but God is silent, and remains so even as we stare into the void of ourselves.
Time Bandits plays from Friday, May 24 to Sunday, May 26 at IFC Center (323 6th Ave). School of Rock plays Sunday, May 26 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St). The Virgin Spring plays from Thursday, May 23 to Monday, May 27 at Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Ave).
J.R. Hammerer is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.