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Gilliam on Gilliam

Even if he hadn’t been one of the founding members of Monty Python, a group considered The Beatles of Comedy by none other than George Harrison, or if he hadn’t directed several unique and influential masterpieces – though opinions vary as to which of his movies are masterpieces – Terrence Vance “Terry” Gilliam would have lived a life worthy of a memoir. It’s wasn’t just his coming of age in interesting times that makes the memoir, it’s his uncanny sense of knowing where to be during those times.

It’s a life that encompasses having to use an outhouse as a boy in Minnesota and playing Grand Theft Auto as an old man, aware that the game is having an effect on him even as he enjoys it. Between those two poles he wanders around Harlem with Robert Crumb while he sketches the people who live there, is hit on by the man who was the original model for Mattel’s Ken doll, gets chased out of a restaurant because his hair is too long, and spends a tense night in a hotel room with all the furniture barricading the door.

gilliam-bookcoverGilliam has had an interesting life, but one that was hardly unexamined. In addition to his frank DVD commentaries, much of Gilliam’s story has been told before: in the exhaustive oral history The Pythons; in Gilliam on Gilliam, a book-length interview; in the “making of” books The Battle of Brazil and Losing The Light; in the documentaries The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys and Lost in La Mancha. It’s a relief to find that Gilliamesque: A Pre-posthumous Memoir, written by Gilliam with Ben Thompson, isn’t a rehash of stories told elsewhere.

In fact, the most compelling material comes from Gilliam’s life before joining the Pythons: his trouble-free childhood and adolescence, working for his hero Harvey Kurtzman, traveling around Europe in the mid-60’s before expatriating himself and moving to England. It seems to be the pattern with memoirs that once a person finds success and becomes the persona that we know, their observations about the world around them cease and they only write about themselves and their work, perhaps with some juicy gossip thrown in if you’re lucky.

Concerning the latter, it’s a relief that at last Gilliam has put in print for all eternity Martin Scorsese’s honest appraisal of what it was like working with Bob and Harvey Weinstein: “It’s a horrible experience, but if it’s the only way for you to make the film, you’ve got to do it.” “Horrible experience” and “only way to make the film” are two phrases which tend to come to mind when discussing Gilliam’s work over the last 15 years. The text of Gilliamesque can’t help but have a rueful tone as the successes of his mid-career give way to the frustrations and disappointments of his later work.


However, there is a book within the book, one that consists of the images found on almost every page. It’s Gilliam’s autobiography told through family photographs, cartoons, production artwork, set photography, story boards, cards given to friends; a small history of a compulsive creator. According to the introduction, Gilliamesque was originally conceived as an art book, but Gilliam got carried away while recording descriptions of the pieces and the project slowly turned into a memoir. Hopefully someday someone will publish a compendium of Gilliam’s artwork, similar to his long out-of-print Animations of Mortality. Ironically his success with Python and as a director has meant that his cartooning has been remained underrated. We know the story of his life and the stories behind the making of his films. Get the words out of the way: we’re not yet sated with his art.

John Hanlon was born in Wilkes-Barre, PA and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.