Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A cinematic WST test

For those who haven't been reading my blog since around when it started, WST is a term I made up that stands for "Weird Shit Tolerance". The subject of today's movie review is a good test for your WST.

Tideland (2006, directed by Terry Gilliam):

This is one pretty fucked-up movie. Here's the basic premise: a little girl lives a pretty horrible life, but she has an active imagination that helps her get through it. The obvious movie to compare it to is Pan's Labyrinth, although this is much weirder, in Gilliam's garishly loud style. Also, Pan had some ambiguity about the premise, as it events could be taken as supernatural, but could also be the main character's imagination. Tideland makes it pretty obvious that its fantastical scenes are imaginary. However, it has plenty of weird shit that is supposed to be real. Gilliam does an introduction on the DVD, saying that to "get" the movie, you have to view it through the eyes of a child, and those who don't like it obviously are not able to do so. The guys at Penny Arcade spoofed this kind of attitude quite a while ago, but apparently Gilliam is still sore about the poor critical reception for The Brothers Grimm, so it looks like he put up some emotional shielding against any more harsh words. Anyway, I guess everything in the movie has to be filtered through Child-Vision, so maybe some of the weirder stuff would make more sense. But probably not; it's kind of batshit-crazy no matter how you look at it.

I guess I should explain what I'm talking about. At the beginning of the movie, little Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Farland) seems to be the mature one in her family, taking care of her junkie father (Jeff Bridges) and ex-junkie (?) mother (Jennifer Tilly). She likes to read Alice in Wonderland with her dad, before cooking up his heroin so he can go on a "vacation", as he calls it. Tilly seems pretty crazy and obsessed with not sharing chocolate bars with Jeliza-Rose, but then she dies of a methadone overdose (I think). So father and daughter run away to his mother's farmhouse out on "the prairie", where Jeliza-Rose has a bunch of adventures in the creaky old house and the surrounding wheat fields, accompanied by her friends, a bunch of doll heads that she wears on her fingers and has conversations with (at first, we see her talk for the dolls, but later we just hear their voices). Well, things get freaky soon after they arrive [SPOILERS start here], as Bridges goes on one of his vacations and never comes back. Jeliza-Rose keeps playing around the house, sitting on his lap and talking to him as his body starts decaying and attracting flies. It's pretty gross. Funny, though, in a morbid way. In one scene, she enters the house and reacts to the smell, saying, "What died in here?" [End Spoilers, for now].

Jeliza-Rose also encounters their neighbors, and this is where the Child-Vision filter fails, and the movie just turns strange, in my opinion. First, we meet Dell (Janet McTeer), a middle-aged woman who always wears black from head to toe whenever she ventures outside. She even wears a black veil. Jeliza-Rose thinks she's a ghost, even after talking to her, when Dell explains the black by saying she's scared of bees after being blinded in one eye by a bee sting. Later, we meet Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), Dell's retarded/brain-damaged brother. He stumbles around the fields pretending to swim, and invites Jeliza-Rose to his "submarine", which is a tent/fort filled with junk. He also says he's hunting a "monster shark", which travels along the train tracks that run through the fields. Most of Jeliza-Rose's adventures involve playing around with Dickens and avoiding Dell. Dickens and Dell are weirdos, and I don't think their strange nature can be explained away by viewing them as a child would. But I guess it becomes a matter of taste here, and either the weirdness works for you, or it doesn't. I'm actually somewhere in the middle, as I enjoy weird stuff, but find some of it to be too loud and obnoxious.

For added weirdness, we get a scene where [SPOILERS again] Dell and Dickens discover Bridges's body and decide to take care of it. There was an earlier scene in which Jeliza-Rose wandered into a shed next to their house and discovered a bunch of stuffed animal carcasses, establishing that Dell is a taxidermist. So when she finds the body, she decides to clean it up and preserve it, emptying it of its organs and covering it in some sort of lacquer. So Jeliza-Rose gets to keep her father around, in mummified form. I don't need to emphasize this, but, man, it's pretty fucking weird [End Spoilers].

To tell the truth, I'm not sure what to think of the movie. I guess the theme/message could be that children are resilient and able to cope with trauma via their imaginations. Or maybe that children can find a sense of wonder even through the most horrible circumstances. Whatever it is, it's kind of overwhelmed by the weirdness. It's definitely worth watching though, as Gilliam is a filmmaker who can come up with some amazingly striking visuals. The shots of the farmhouse in the middle of a field of golden wheat are beautiful, as are some of the fantasy scenes Jeliza-Rose imagines. You just have to have a high WST to get through to the end.