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Saturday 13 April 2013

Cinema on Saturday - Tideland : a quick defence

(Yes, it happened again)

I thought I'd take a short break from writing my Dungeons & Dragons review to talk about a film I saw the other night. Tideland is a 2005 Terry Gilliam film that until Thursday night I had never heard of. Being a fan of most of Terry Gilliam's work I was pleased to discover it and intrigued by the blurb and cover artwork.

First reactions: Tideland is not an easy watch in places. It manages to get under your skin and crawl. It reminded me very strongly of Jan Svankmajer's Alice, which is no surprise as Gilliam himself describes Tideland as "a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Psycho." Perhaps had I known more about the plot of the film I would not have watched it, but I'm glad that I did, because although unsettling in places (and maybe a little too ghoulish) it is a rewarding watch. The performance of Jodelle Ferland is excellent for one so young, which can only be because equally excellent direction. It's no surprise to me that Gilliam understands children as his films have always struck me as being childlike in a way that really remembers what it's like to be a child. 

I later found out that Tideland got quite a hostile critical reaction and has a very low score on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes (26% and 30% respectively). Again, I'm glad I didn't know all this before watching the film, although that partially explains why I'd never heard of it. Not an excuse really, why should we base our film-watching habits on the biased views of critics?

This quick response then is a defence of Gilliam's film from the what I see as the personal disgust most reviewers felt when they should have been critically objective in their analysis. Put simply, the film unsettled them and most people don't like that, so having been given a nasty shock they hit back in the only way they could.

What then is so upsetting about the film to so many people? Typically it is because it is dealing with subjects that most people would rather ignore; drug addiction, child neglect, child abuse, isolation, mental illness, death and decay, and the death of so-called innocence. The last is the most important, and as far as I can see the most ignored. Paradoxically the film is about innocence, the entire film being seen through the narrator's eyes, who is a nine-year old girl called Jeliza-Rose.

The romanticisation of innocence. What is innocence? I think that the majority of people have a distorted view of innocence, particularly when it comes to the representation of innocence in film. So, when I talk about 'the death of so-called innocence' in the film I'm talking about the death of this particular innocence. This distorted innocence comes from, first, a refusal to deal with the lives of children, in a sense, it is a failure to properly remember what childhood was like and replace it with fantastical notions of purity that one is constantly fed from representations of children in fiction. The second place this distorted innocence gains it's history is, no surprise, from a populist description of the Judeo-Christian notion of innocence. In this sense innocence is an absolute freedom from the guilt of sinning, something that only the young can have as they have had no experience of evil.

Tideland instead gives us a more realistic view of childhood innocence (albeit an abnormal childhood). In the film's introduction by Gilliam (an odd step, but probably one necessitated by the panning it received)  he makes a plea for us to forget everything we've learned as adults and to remember the resilience of children. Now, although the first is an impossibility, it is directing us towards something important. Innocence in Gilliam's view is more akin to ignorance or lack of knowledge, in which the gaps are filled by imaginative attempts at description or understanding. Children are natural story-tellers, particularly isolated creative children like Jeliza-Rose. I think people came to this film expecting the same old depictions of whimsy, of fantasy, that did not challenge them but instead confirmed their received views of what childhood innocence constitutes. The idea that children can have naive thoughts about intimacy, expressed through childlike notions of 'marriage' and 'kissing' rather than adult understanding of what that means, true though it may be is repellent to the distorted notion of innocence, because this shows children trying to make sense of the adult world rather than being somehow unconnected to this world we understand. That by creating this false notion of childhood innocence as being utterly unaware of adult notions allows the belief that we can be 'purified from the world' and it's horrors at least for a little time.

Gilliam's second plea, for us to remember the resilience of children, explains why Jeliza-Rose can deal with all the horrible things that happen to her and still carry on. That see can live in a house with her dead father for so long seemingly without concern while her 'adventures' continue is from this childhood innocence that doesn't understand, it is this ignorance that gives her resilience. Although perhaps we could also say that children are more resilient as they have not made decisions on what things are meant to mean, these actions are fluid and can be interpreted in different ways, they are receiving so much information about the adult world that they are not able to make immediate understanding and instead create a story with which to temporarily explain, until they are told about how they should feel.

I'll stop myself there. There's plenty more I could say about the film; beautifully shot prairie vistas, the 'Southern Gothic' characters Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) and Dell (Janet McTeer), cameos by Jennifer Tilly and Jeff Bridges, Gilliam's trademark cinematography, and so forth. Whatever else one might say about the film, it's understanding of what constitutes actual childhood innocence that over-rides the false romanticised ideal of innocence is the film's best achievement and one worth defending.