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May 2, 2007

Pretty Babies, Little Girls And Terry Gilliam's Tideland

tideland.jpgDirectly preceding the feature on the DVD of Tideland is a curious thing: a preface from director Terry Gilliam in which he states to the camera that "Many of you are not going to like this film."

It's not all that uncommon for directors to introduce their films on DVD, but there's something different about this one. It's almost a disclaimer and, indeed, after an initial general admonition to keep an open mind, Gilliam moves into considerably more pointed territory. He notes that the story is told entirely from a child's perspective, that "if it's shocking, it's because it's innocent," and he asks audiences to to remember that

Children are strong. They're resilient. They're designed to survive. When you drop them, they bounce.

I don't know whether or not this proem was attached to release prints of Tideland as well, but regardless, it seems designed as a direct response to a particularly sensitive allegation, best represented in this case by two pieces of rather prickly press. The first is an open correspondence with Gilliam that actress Sarah Polley published in the Toronto Star. [1] Upon learning that Tideland, then in pre-production, would have a nine year old girl as its lead, she sent him a cordial but pointed e-mail, asking him to be more considerate in his treatment of his new ingenue than he had been of her, when she had, at the same age, starred in his The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam was taken aback by the letter; months later, after the film had wrapped, he told her that Jodelle Ferland had a terrific experience on the set. "Then again," he said, "I remember thinking the same thing about you."

The second sore spot is a particular strain of critical response to Tideland, summed up most vehemently by Owen Gleiberman's review in Entertainment Weekly. [2] Hardly a Gilliam fan, it wasn't that he described the film as "gruesomely awful" and graded it an F that cast a grim pallor over the film's reception, but that he cited a "flirtation with pedophilia" among its many offenses - an inaccurate and reactionary criticism that I imagine must have stung quite a bit more than the general bad press Gilliam's grown accustomed to over the years. Words like that hurt.

I missed Tideland during its so-called theatrical run last year (it played locally for all of two days), and finally caught up with it on DVD a few weeks ago. It was interesting enough to watch twice, not good enough to enjoy, confrontational enough to embrace anyway. The tiny budget Gilliam had to work with is masked by his dazzling exterior vistas (Andrew Wyeth springs to mind more than once as the characters run through golden sun-dappled fields towards decrepit country mansions), but his insistent use of what seems to be a single wide-angle lens - always roving, never resting - grows tiresome. The film is also rather aimless, and a wee bit on the lengthy side (as Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni humorously point out on the commentary track). Unadulterated magical-realism works best in smaller doses, especially when it's got such a heavy Southern Gothic glaze on top. At the same time, though the singularity of Gilliam's vision is hard to deny. Tideland is one of those frictive films where every element, no matter how grating, has been purposefully included, to very specific effect, and the perspective he forces the film into is actually quite impressive, especially upon second viewing. This is, on the one hand, a grim and ugly film; on the other, it's a frightening and believable portrait of a little girl going insane.

It's that little girl - beautifully named Jeliza Rose, beautifully played by Jodelle Ferland - who makes the film so galvanizing. Early in the film, she lovingly helps her junkie parents shoot up; when her mother ODs, she and her father run off to his childhood home in West Texas; and when dad follows in mom's footsteps, Jeliza Rose goes right on living with his corpse, swatting away the flies and cuddling on his lap at night. But that's not the troublesome part of the film. What raised the ire of many critics, and what prompted Gleiberman's accusation, is Jeliza-Rose's playfully amorous relationship with a local retarded man named Dickens. This naive, flirtatious romance is laced with the repercussions of child abuse - but is not abusive in and of itself. Mentally, these characters are both children; they're just playing a game, an innocent reflection of something they don't understand. Neither of them actually knows what sex is - but we know, and we perceive that Dickens might be capable of more than he is aware. Thus, for the viewer, these scenes implicitly become a sort of sexualized take on Hitchcock's famous bomb-under-the-table scenario; they are polarized by grown-up expectation, even though, on their own terms, they're harmless. No one's being taken advantage of. It's not a flirtation with pedophilia on anyone's part, least of all Gilliam's.

Gilliam, for his part, was aware of what he was getting into. "I knew full well when we were making it there would be a lot of adults who would really squirm and be very uncomfortable, but that's because of what goes on in their heads, not because of what children are about," he said in an interview with Reuters prior to the film's release. [3] "What's going on is clearly a sexuality that's bubbling under the surface. That's the way children have always been. But somehow we're not allowed to talk about that any more..."

pretty_baby.jpg Which is very true. Putting the words child and sexuality in a sentence together is practically taboo, and to explore them in conjunction is to walk a pretty tempestuous line. This is even more true in the visual arts, where the problem is twofold; the subject matter is controversial enough by itself, but the representation of it is even more troublesome. Artists are charged with protecting their underage subjects, and we trust that they do; but where does one draw the line? Certainly, it's drawn a lot more quickly these days than it was in decades past. Louis Malle's acclaimed Pretty Baby (which Gilliam, intentionally or not, evokes with a shot of Jeliza Rose sitting before a mirror, applying a slash of red lipstick) could never be made today; at the very least, it could not be made with the same level of visual candor that it was in 1978. Does that mean it should never have been made in the first place? Again, it's a bifurcated issue. Children possess sexuality; they have the potential to be sexual beings, and the current tendency to avoid these issues entirely is a societal problem that does more harm than good. That some art attempts to acknowledge this is a positive thing. At the same time, within that acknowledgment, that very same potential must not be exploited, and it's here that the issue becomes almost hopelessly gray. Did Malle exploit Brooke Shields? Do the subjects understand what they are helping to represent? Need they understand? This moral quagmire allows room for Pretty Baby to be regarded as a minor classic, while contemporary artists like Sally Mann and Jock Sturges weather charges of child pornography [4] and, at Sundance this year, the film Hounddog (unseen by me) came to be ubiquitously known as "The Dakota Fanning Rape Movie." [5]

phillips_girlchild.jpgThere's an exhibition running now at the Modern in Fort Worth [6] that deals with the volatility of the unidealized child; its title, not coincidentally, is Pretty Baby (the museum hosted a screening of the film to coincide with the opening). There are two artists in this show whose work, in concert (and in a fine example of curatorial dialectics), distills these issues to their core. The first is Ann Gaskell, whose highly cinematic photography captures in its depiction of children at play a provocative, heightened sense of eroticism. Her work is gorgeous, sumptuous; sometimes frightening, sometimes playful; almost always, it is unsettling. The second, a few galleries down, almost serves as an analysis of this propensity: Richard Phillips' GirlChild depicts a little girl, three or four years old, standing alongside an older version of herself, a teenager on the cusp of womanhood. Both are in a state of suggested undress, and both stare at the viewer with a same vague stare that, were the older girl alone, might be regarded as demure or even sensual. The dynamic between them and the viewer is confrontational; they demand to be regarded in equal measure, on the same ground. This juxtaposition defines, in very clear terms, the intederminate passage which Gaskell exploits so sensationally: the terrifying transition of the child into an adult.

Tideland exists on this same fault line (and, with its lush imagery and nods to Alice In Wonderland, [7] it reflects Gaskell's cinematic influences and fairie tale sensibilites right back at her). As Gilliam suggests, it's innocence unnerves us because of what we're able to bring to it. Interestingly, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, which also features a young girl lost in a real-world fairy tale, drew nary a cry of outrage, even though it ended with the heroine being shot and killed. Death is finite; we have yet to experience it, and so as a narrative device it isn't subjectively applicable in the same way that sex is. At the same time, sex and death are conjoined by our fear of the latter. The advent of the one gives way to the inevitability of the other, and when children display adult traits and engage in adult behavior, they begin, in a sense, to decay. They lose their lustre; our idealized image of them collapses; we begin to see ourselves in them. As any good dramatist knows, there's nothing quite so tragic as a child who grows up.

This is half of the reason why films like Tideland upset people. The other, which ties into Polley's letter, is a legitimate concern for the children in the film. "Like many kids," she wrote of her experience on Baron Munchausen, "I was eager to please and good at adapting to difficult situations, storing them away to unpack later." That 'later' is the wild card that artists should always take into consideration when dealing with difficult material; at the same time, it should not bar them from that material. One hopes and trusts that that Gilliam took Polley's advice to heart, and that he is sincere when he concludes his introduction to the film thusly:

I was sixty four when I made this film. I think I finally discovered the child within me; it turned out to be a little girl.

Within that bittersweet platitude is the same delineation found in Phillips' painting, the same twilight zone of Gaskell's photography, and the key to the film's perspective. Tideland is not a masterpiece, but what it does do masterfully is capture innocence in its natural state: in flux.

[1] Polley's article, including her correspondence with Gilliam, is available for purchase through The Toronto Star, but a full transcript can be read here free of charge.
[4]Mann and Sturges have both made extensive use in their photography of children and adolescents in their natural statee; both have come under fire for it. Sturges was famously arrested in 1990, his studio and work seized. The case was later thrown out.
[5]Child-actor advocate Paul Peterson's essay The 'Rape' Of Dakota Fanning, while grounded in hearsay from the Hounddog set, makes an impassioned argument against employing children for sexual scenes. He draws a valuable comparison between the subtlety and suggestion of Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita and the lack of the same in Adrian Lyne's lurid 1997 remake.
[6]Pretty Baby is on exhibit at the Fort Worth Modern until June 24th. Along with Gaskell and Phillips, featured artists include Loretta Lux, Yoshitomo Nara, Catherinie Opie and Margaret Meehan, among otheres.
[7]Two of Gaskells' series from the late 90s, Wonderland and Override, are loosely based on Lewis Carrol's stories.

Posted by David Lowery at May 2, 2007 8:56 PM


Great piece, David. A couple of other films that come immediately to mind are Volker Schlondorff's THE TIN DRUM (which seems to me a companion to TIDELAND in some ways) and Lucile Hadzihalilovic's INNOCENCE, which is all about the innocence of girlhood and emerging sexuality; A stunning, beautiful fantasia.

We live in a world where the exploration of these ideas in art (hell, even in conversation) is cast in the shadow of ignorance, superstition and the corrupted idealism of 'moral values', none of which pass the laugh test in my opinion. There are artists asking difficult questions as well they should; You can't watch TV for 10 seconds without seeing numerous examples of sexualized children. If its good enough for Madison Ave, shouldn't artists be able to call these ideas into question?

Posted by: Tom at May 7, 2007 1:45 PM

Thanks for reading it, Tom! You know, I keep waiting for a.) Innocence to be released on DVD in the US or b.) my local muti-region DVD retailer to get it. It never made it's way to Texas arthouses during it's limited theatrical run.

"If its good enough for Madison Ave, shouldn't artists be able to call these ideas into question?"

Definitely, and that's a point that I probably should have included. How is it that, when Juicy Couture can market their clothing to five-year old girls and Bratz are well on their way to replacing Barbie, art that deals with the implications of these cultural trends can be condemned? This ignorant double standard is really frustrating.

Posted by: Ghostboy at May 7, 2007 6:55 PM

David, I appreciate your taking this movie seriously and contextualizing it for me a bit. My own receptivity to Gilliam is at a low right now, having revisited Brazil and found it wanting in a big way, and realizing how much trouble I've had with a lot of his films. But this one really struck a nerve when I heard about it because I have two daughters myself. I bristle at the very notion of child exploiation, and I wondered what Gilliam could have been up to in putting this girl through these traumatic situations-- what end would it all serve? But you and Tom are absolutely right-- the way advertising and the media have fucked up a child's own perceptions of how she should look and feel and react to her own image and those of her peers, that's a specious and sickening cultural crime. I encountered Bratz here at my office when my first daughter was about a year old, and I vowed never to allow her or her sister to own or play with any of that crap. If some people have had such a problem with Barbie throughout the years, where is the hue and cry over conditioning little girls to look and behave like Vegas hookers or Vivid models in the name of the almighty dollar? Thanks for a stimulating article, one that has served to make me reconsider my resistance to Tideland and convinced me that it might be worth a go. You're the second person I respect who has told me he thought the movie was considerably better than its reputation. I'll let you know how my viewing goes!

Posted by: Dennis Cozzalio at May 8, 2007 11:15 PM