squirrel butts don't glow

Even though the consensus has been crumbling over the last decade, everyone knows that Ed Wood is the lousiest filmmaker of all time. Even people who’ve never seen an Ed Wood film seem to know this, as if Plan 9 From Outer Space were so terrible that it had irradiated the blood of a generation and looped our proteins into a mutant judgment on an obscure Z-grade 1960s director. And then there’s Tim Burton’s biopic, which dramatizes precisely why his films were so bad: Wood had such a passion for his films that his heated ambitions for them overshadowed what he shot on set and even what he saw onscreen. I would guess that Wood thought of filmmaking as a kind of alchemy, the transformation of celluloid by incandescent will. Substitute a garden shed for an alien spaceship? No problem. Throw a bunch of night shots and day shots together in a single scene? Minor detail. Replace an old and shrunken Bela Lugosi with a six-foot dentist, mid-shoot? Why the hell not? It’s all the magic of cinema, yes?

And so it is with Terry Gilliam’s Tideland.

Just out on DVD, filmed in 2005 in the city where I live, Tideland finally came to town for an eight-show run at the local arthouse theatre. Tideland gave jobs to a number of my friends, brought in experienced film techs who provided much-needed set training for local workers, and generally raised the spirits of film geeks all over the province. This is a small, flat city parked on the prairies, but Terry Gilliam’s presence put some gas in its sputtering engine. If nothing else, Tideland populated all the sushi bars and faux-Irish pubs in town with skeletal, huge-teethed women and men in baseball caps and promotional windbreakers. Blackberries littered restaurant tables for months.

Last year the reviews came out. By all accounts, Tideland was uniquely bad. The total nadir of Gilliam’s work. The absolute bottoming out of his moral and aesthetic imagination. People seemed to hate nearly everything about it, from its flatulent junkie father (played by Jeff Bridges) who spends most of the movie as a rotting corpse, to the queasy quasi-sexual relationship between the prepubescent main character and a brain-damaged man in his twenties. Here was a Terry Gilliam movie, filmed right in my back yard, that pushed the boundaries of taste and craft. So hell yeah, I was going.

That seemed to be the predominant mood among the crowd that night as everyone filed in, threw off parkas, swung their heads around to see who else had shown. Film profs, industry professionals, art students – what you might call a target audience for this kind of film. Hell yeah, their eyes seemed to say. We don’t care what Roger Ebert and his shadowy hordes proclaim. We were an audience united in the faint belief that the critics had overstated their case, had smelled Gilliam’s blood in the Hollywood pool and dove in, madly thrashing their acumen.

Afterwards we gathered in the lobby, carefully avoiding too much talk about the film. A friend of mine asked my opinion, but voiced it so delicately that I could not tell if he had watched the film or just shown up moments ago. People shifted their weight from one foot to the other, avoided eye contact, studied the beams in the ceiling or the tile floors. We were engaged in a collective effort to strip our minds of having watched what will likely be remembered, if at all, as Terry Gilliam’s Plan 9.

One good thing I can say about the film is that it presents a strong argument for shooting in Saskatchewan. The exterior scenes in which the characters run and dive through shafts of wheat are absolutely gorgeous. There are great wide shots with Jodelle Ferland’s face filling up the centre of the screen with crenellated gold hills bisecting the background. The opening shocks us with close-ups of locusts balanced on wheatstalks in the manner of Terence Malick, then a sudden cut to a nightclub full of coke-snorting metalheads and nightclubbers.

In between these scenes, all sky and space, are Gilliam’s familiar cluttered interiors, impossibly overdecorated sets shot in wide-angle takes that fill the screen with detail. It’s the overheated dream of a manic packrat, and at first it’s funny, over-the-top and comically grotesque. But after a while it’s just grotesque. Scenes that should cut back and forth to reflect their manic energy go on too long with one camera setup. Takes that should have been discarded, for their distractingly uneven performances or confusing blocking, are kept in. To compensate for the stillness of the camera – likely the result of a compressed shooting schedule – the actors rocket around the frame, their faces and bodies in constant spastic motion. It doesn’t quite work, and it seems like a strange misjudgment for a director who’s been working in film as long as Gilliam has.

But Tideland seems full of strange miscalculations. The weight of the film rests on Jodelle Ferland, the eleven year old actress who plays the hyper-imaginative Jeliza Rose. Some people have said that she gives a terrible performance; others have said that she gives a great performance for such a demanding role. The truth is that no eleven year old could give the kind of performance that the film demands. Jeliza Rose is innocent and wanton, childish and preternaturally adult, a quicksilver persona shifting registers and voices from scene to scene. Disturbingly, we rarely see her fantasy world; instead we are witness to a wacked-out girl talking to doll’s heads, feeding globs of peanut butter into the mouth of her father’s corpse, and trying to make out with a brain damaged adult. Really.

Jeliza Rose is intended as an updated Alice, a character whose rabbit hole is the long dark tunnel of her sanity, but she bears a closer resemblance to Terry Gilliam: manic, unflagging, burning on a reservoir of conviction so pure that the real world is just another fantasy, ultimately of less significance than the inverted worlds that his imagination conjures. Maybe Gilliam saw Tideland clearly, but it’s likely that he was watching an entirely different film.

And I bet that film is awesome.