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December 14, 2005

The Film Director as Tory? Terry Gilliam and the Death of The Enlightenment: The Brothers Grimm - Terry Gilliam

Posted by S. J. Masty

The Brothers Grimm
Directed by Terry Gilliam
certificate 12A, 2005

As has been frequently stated, the Social Affairs Unit does not take a corporate view; it does not dictate a "line" to its reviewers or writers. In view of two of our recent books, this review should make this abundantly clear. Needless to say, this review reflects the opinions of its author - not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

If Ridley Scott is Britain's most commercially successful filmmaker, Terry Gilliam is our most cerebral, but his career resembles a plot from one of the Grimms' own fairy tales. As though cursed by some cruel witch, his films are handsome and entertaining enough to deny him credit as an intellectual, while their serious thought alienates the gum-chewing punters. He lives in a shadowland of his own manufacture: neither dependably profitable enough to guarantee funding for his pictures, nor given the reputation for intellectual depth that he would have received long ago, had he made films that were intentionally pretentious and less entertaining.

In The Brothers Grimm he remains true to his muse. While two brothers named Grimm appear in this movie, they are not quite the brothers Grimm of literary history. Accompanied by a rich layering of images and plot elements borrowed from myriad fairytales, the two brothers are half fact and half fiction, there to show us something infinitely more interesting and important, exploring a consistent philosophical message that Mr Gilliam began more than a generation ago.

Grimm Reality
Meanwhile the real brothers Grimm were equally fascinating, and while not very dramatic, they reach from the 18th Century to the Nuremburg Trials of 1945-1949. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born to a German court official in the mid-1780s while, half a world away in Bengal, a British civil servant named Sir William Jones, rumoured to be the first Englishman to learn the sacred language of Brahmins, published The Sanskrit Language (1786). That, plus his translations of classical Indian writers such as Kalidasa, gave birth to linguistic and literary studies comparing Sanskrit with Graeco-Roman languages and literature. Great similarities were found, arising from a language and culture now called Proto-Indo-European, attributed to the Indo-Aryans who spread out from the Caucasus 3500 years ago. Those who went south to Persia influenced Zoroastrianism, and those who pushed further east to India left the Hindu holy texts called the Puranas, the most famous of which is the Rig Veda.

The movement started by Jones caught the attention of the young, nationalistic Grimm brothers, who catalogued local myth and legend, hoping to establish German origins for the Aryans (nobody had yet added the Indo). No doubt they would have been horrified to see what Hitler did with the terminology and the concept, but their hopes, geographically incorrect as it happened, were kidnapped and warped by the Nazis and finally died on the gallows of Nuremburg. This fascinating tale is told masterfully by Mr John Keay, in India Discovered, and it has almost nothing to do with Mr Gilliam's film.

Grimm Fantasy
In the film, The Brothers Grimm, we meet Jacob and Wilhelm (Heath Ledger and Matt Damon) leading a troupe of con men through German backwater towns. Bookish Jacob uncovers regional folk-tales, then visits the places of origin where the dashing and cynical Wilhelm fakes spectral appearances. As Napoleonic "ghostbusters", they rescue the terrified rustics, but for a fee, while hot on their heels come the French forces occupying much of Germany. Cornered in a wretched village where eleven young girls have allegedly gone missing, and in order to avoid being executed by the French administrator for concocting the story, they promise to go into the forest to find the girls. With help from the woodcutter's daughter (Lena Headley), they find an ancient tower wherein resides a shrivelled Thuringian princess who, granted her wish for immortality, forgot to ask also for eternal youth. Aged to monstrosity over centuries, she periodically kills a dozen young women to temporarily freshen up her appearance.

Mr Gilliam lands us precisely on the tectonic fault where an old world of superstition collides with modernity. The villagers are unwashed savages: lantern-jawed, beetle-browed, pig-ignorant and easy meat for any implausible supernatural explanation. Meanwhile the invaders, trying hard to force progress onto the backward, keep their side up as they dine on linen and wear proper wigs and lace amid the squalour. But beyond them lies the wilderness at the edge of town, where every foot of forest floor seethes with beetles and other unsavoury insects; where the trees move behind you, creeping on roots that resemble the legs of tarantulas; where furtive vines grab at you as you pass. It is fearsome, ugly and creepy: not the cuddly National Geographic, anthropomorphised rainforest; not the fuzzy-bunny environmentalist idyll; not the usual bucolic bullshit. Here is the stage on which the dark Past and the modernist Future meet to fight it out, and the prize is the village and, by implication, our world beyond.

But peer through the cracks in the 18th Century Enlightenment veneer, for beneath the posh and periwigged dinner party, down in the cellar, a string quartet plays furiously to drown out the screams of the tortured. The prisoners have no valuable information: they are tortured to recant bits of magic seen with their own eyes. They are tortured merely for modernist ideological consistency. The unwashed villagers might burn a witch now and again, but these dandified Enlightenment ideologues are prepared to torture and kill tens, dozens, even thousands. We have seen this in Soviet so-called psychiatric hospitals, where disagreeing with the state ideology was clear proof of insanity, and so political prisoners were shot full of drugs until their minds died. We see the same phenomenon in modern England and America, where "thought crime" is now a reality and where free speech is now an offence.

Rationalist Horror
Mr Gilliam has shown us another facet in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), positioned firmly within the Enlightenment, amid the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the guillotine and the Reign of Terror. There, a handful of actors struggle amid attacking armies (Turks) outside the gates, and ideologically-driven mass murder within. Similarly, his black comedy Brazil (1985) resembles Orwell's 1984, but set in England had Clement Attlee's government remained in power for forty years. It is an outwardly cozy and incompetent world of Bakelite wirelesses, cardigans and chipped tea mugs obscuring faceless torturers in the Ministry of Information Retrieval.

This is not some romanticised twaddle idolising the past, nor is it the pointless equivalent, claiming that madness or make-believe is better than reality. Instead, mankind's very real and innate propensity for cruelty and evil does less damage in a world of faith and belief, no matter how silly or illogical, than in a materialist world where man is the master and measure of all. He is right of course, because no Inquisition, no matter how wicked, slaughtered as many innocents as did 20th Century ideology. Count the kulaks, Chinese and other citizens killed by their own communist governments from 1917 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it comes to around 4,000 a day: the equivalent of one 9/11 attack a day for more than 70 years.

The Enlightenment, Mr Gilliam keeps telling us, was a wrong turn. When Newton, Locke, Berkeley and Hume killed belief by turning God into a clockwork toy, Man became the measure of everything. Belief was deemed backward and thus suppressed, while utilitarianism justified any action. Winning any theoretical, ideological argument gave you the right to send your enemies to the gas chambers, because, without anything greater than Man, mercy is unscientific and a sign of weakness. Ergo Marx and Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Ergo the great horrors of Buchenwald or the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and the smaller kindred horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Ergo Mr Blair's cherished secret trials and Mr Bush's torture centres now franchised around the world.

In The Brothers Grimm, the French administrator tortures Wilhelm with his sword rather than killing him straight away, merely for the sake of dominance, just as Americans keep their political prisoners for years, torturing them long after they divulged whatever could have been thumbscrewed out of them. Another core metaphor comes from the magic mirror, wherein the wizened princess looks young and luscious. The mirror shows us not what is, but that which we wish to see: it is the ideological vehicle of self-delusion. It is Thomas Jefferson, ruminating on the theoretical rights of man while refusing to free his real-life slaves, even in his will. It is our smug, cruel so-called neoconservatives, post-modern Stalinists happy to slaughter tens of thousands of innocents for the dream of turning their countries into the pat little Western democracies that look so good on paper, or in the magic mirror called Fox Television. It is clear in almost every utterance of this Labour Government that they, and we who keep electing them, prefer theory to reality. Life is so much neater and prettier in theory.

None Dare Call it Reason
In 1971, Professor Duncan Williams' Trousered Apes was The Telegraph's book of the year. Forgotten now, it identified structural flaws in Romantic Art, the handmaiden of the Age of Enlightenment. Predicated on historicist Enlightenment notions of supposedly inevitable progress, Romantic art, still the dominant aesthetic theory, insists on two things in endless progression: innovation and personalisation. Yes, it gave us the Impressionists, but driven by an ideological notion of progress in the arts, it leads inexorably to that berk, Christo, wrapping cliffs in cellophane, or to modern poets self-obsessed to the point of incomprehensibility. Tom Wolfe also dissected the aesthetic crack up of ideologically driven painting (The Painted Word, 1976) and architecture (From the Bauhaus to Our House, 1982). Our ancient ways maybe slowed down material progress, but in life as well as art, they kept ideology from driving us over the cliff in the false pursuit of logic, efficiency and social science.

Nixon said that we are all Keynsians now, but even more, we are all ideologues. Western governments defeated the Soviet Union in order to become more Soviet by the month. Ideological tyrants now protect us from fashionable worries such as passive smoking while the rights of assembly, speech and even free thought are frankly over. Britain's brain-dead intellectuals, unconcerned about the demise of trial by jury, wage vicious little cultural wars against anyone's religion, praising any society poodle with the false bravery to ridicule Islam or Sikhism or Christianity. The older world of superstition and religious belief, cruel but still somehow more benign than our brave new world, is crushed beneath materialist jackboots. Yet it is never so for long, and Mr Gilliam knows it. Human nature never changes, nor does our need for belief. The psyche is the forest: unsettling, even creepy, but as long-lived as mankind.

Angelika, the woodcutter's daughter, tells the Grimm brothers how the ancient Thuringian monarchs built an empire that is now an overgrown ruin. They cut down all the trees in the dark wood, she explained, adding "but the forest came back". Of course it did, dear girl. The forest always comes back. Never benign, and never as comforting as ideological make-believe, the forest always comes back. Look out your window: vines have already begun to crack the façade.
© S J Masty 2005

S J Masty advises foreign governments on strategic communications.

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Some of this is reasonable enough, but much of it is both hysterical and confused.

Terry Gilliam, who, by the way, is an American citizen born in Minneapolis not a Briton as stated -

- could hardly be a "Tory" as that is a term with a particular historical meaning rooted in time and place. We know what Johnson meant when he said of Hume "He is only a Tory by accident". Johnson wasn't referring to a conservative point of view still less to any abstract doctrines but to particular loyalties to the established church and the monarchy of England.

If what is meant is that Gilliam has a counter-Enlightenment message, then that's not clear either - not even from the author's own account.

As for the hysteria, what is one to make of comments such as this?

"Western governments defeated the Soviet Union in order to become more Soviet by the month."

What is the significance of "in order to" here? And the claim itself is absurd - somehow a moral equivalance is being drawn between phenomena such as anti-smoking legislation and mass murder and starvation. One doesn't have to approve of the former to see that it is not on a par with the latter. I think the statement is both deeply unpleasant and trivializing.

Then there's this:

"Britain's brain-dead intellectuals, unconcerned about the demise of trial by jury, wage vicious little cultural wars against anyone's religion, praising any society poodle with the false bravery to ridicule Islam or Sikhism or Christianity."

I don't think there is the slightest evidence for this statement. Also, one has to wonder, for a second time, at a man so determined to find moral equivalance where there is none as to grasp at the abstract term "religion" in order to gloss over the important differences between the three religions cited. Moreover, ridiculing Christianity takes no bravery at all; ridiculing Islam takes a considerable amount as Theo van Gogh and the case of the Danish cartoonists illustrate.

But here is where the columnist finally touches bottom:

"It is our smug, cruel so-called neoconservatives, post-modern Stalinists happy to slaughter tens of thousands of innocents for the dream of turning their countries into the pat little Western democracies that look so good on paper, or in the magic mirror called Fox Television."

Leaving aside the fable of the "tens of thousands of innocents", presumably the columnist's purpose is to make us forget what Saddam's rule was like and what "Stalinist" as an adjective might actually mean:

According to a poll conducted for that notoriously neo-conservative organization the BBC, only 10% of Iraqi's see the removal of coalition forces as a priority:

So, presumably, Mr Masty would like to discount the Iraqis' views as well. Anything, I suppose, to support whatever view of events is necessary to satisfy an emotional need to throw verbal dung at the US and secondarily the UK.

Posted by: Damian at December 14, 2005 12:24 PM

Does the S in SAU stand for schizophrenic?
Think tanks generally have a mission, an identity, a defined objective - what then of the Social Affairs Unit? It published some very good material - but it does not seem to be consistent. They publish two books on neoconservatism and then put up this on their site - one of the most intemperate attacks on neocons that I have read. Quite an achievement - Masty - to turn a review of a Terry Gilliam film into an anti-neo con rant.

I suppose we have to accept that the SAU is telling the truth when it says it does not dictate a line to its reviewers.

Posted by: David at December 14, 2005 02:38 PM

For Mr Damian's benefit, the normally rather conservative magazine, Foreign Affairs, notes in the current issue that the invasion of Iraq has killed more Iraqis than people have been killed by terrorism worldwide, for as long as records have been kept. Tens of thousands are no exaggeration. As for difficulties in perceiving the ways in which ideologically driven societies come to resemble one another, one can only recall S T Coleridge, who somewhere writes that 'most men are like bats and but feel the spirit of the age through its reflections and refractions.'

Posted by: s masty at December 14, 2005 08:03 PM

"Does the S in SAU stand for schizophrenic?"

Not if you know what schizophrenic actually means. What is the problem with having a broad church approach to conservatism? Consistency, aside from being the hobgoblin of weak minds, is a rather boring exercise. Personally I rather enjoy Mr Masty and others' scepticism about the neocon project - a bracing antidote to the cheery, blithe optimism of so many proponents of the neocon, activist world view.

After all, the neocons are well able to dish it out, so one would like to think they can take it.

Posted by: jim mcqueen at December 14, 2005 10:39 PM
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