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Understanding Gilliam, and other men of a certain age

Oh, Terry Gilliam.

You were part of the counter-cultural movement that helped destroy the fusty hegemony of British society by laughing at it. You helped make the modern world a bit less shit. And now the modern world is not happy with you because you seem to have become the sort of reactionary, establishment prick you used to kick against.

For those who like Gilliam but also think he’s so very wrong, it can be a bit confusing. But it’s all quite simple really.

Terry Gilliam and his gang are, at heart, anti-establishment types. They came up in an era when “the establishment”, in the UK at least, was fuelled by the legacy of Empire and British exceptionalism whilst being undermined by the death of said Empire and the creeping realisation that the British weren’t that exceptional. That’s Monty Python in a nutshell - kicking the post-war establishment as it fell.

This was, of course, a good thing. But for them it became the norm. Anything establishment is to be attacked, and anything that resembles groupthink or dogma is dangerous. (His generation’s parents fought the Nazis too, don’t forget.)

Fast forward to the 21st century and while economically it seems like the right wing won, a curious paradox is that Thatcher and Reaganomics heralded a significant liberalising of the culture. Attitudes on sex and race have progressed remarkably over my lifetime to the point where, in the culture industries where Gilliam works, the status quo looks radically different to the 60s.

In Gilliam’s defence he has always had to fight for his work. Partly because he’s an insufferable prick, I’m sure, but also because his work never fits. He exists in that troublesome position of having just enough popularity that his films are worth funding, but not quite enough popular appeal for them to be funded effectively. He has a platform, but he’s still fighting for scraps, and consistently biting the hands that do feed him.

But that’s not an excuse. I think he’s wrong to be attacking “the #metoo movement” but I do kinda understand where he’s coming from. Rightly or wrongly he sees himself, and his peers, as outsiders fighting against the establishment. When the establishment declares progressive ideas around equality to be the ethical standard but still won’t support his work, he’s going to see those ideas as the problem.

It’s sad because people from Gilliam’s generation, especially those who haven’t gone to the dark side, do have a lot to offer today’s progressives. The veterans of the post-war counterculture may be scarred and twitchy but they fought the power and they know where it lies. It’d be lovely to think the generations could come together and learn from each other. Sadly, I can’t see that happening while everything is mediated by the commercial internet.

In 2013 I went to see the flawed but underrated The Zero Theorem with Jez and Tom. I had the distinct feeling we were seeing the modern world through Gilliam’s eyes. In some ways it was a parody of what an old man thinks of young people (the party scene lit exclusively by iPad screens was genius) but beyond the bluster and rage were messages and arguments I think today’s progressive counterculture warriors would find useful. Sadly I doubt any of them will give him the time of day…

Up next Grace Lee’s talk: Diary, Discourse and Demonetisation Short Reviews of Films
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