In Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, the setting is the traumatized big city (as it is in Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times). In the picture’s Manhattan, which is unbalanced system-wide, people suffer from the woes of modern urban life that move liberals: homelessness, youth violence, armed attacks on public places, AIDS, substance abuse, alienation and loneliness, a spreading income gap which leaves the professional class indifferent to the poverty of the masses below them, and the down-spiraling unwholesomeness of a society that takes less and less care of the mad, the helpless, the sick. (Race relations and institutional corruption are the major omissions.) But though the premise is that we live in a liberal dystopia, the movie saves itself by not phrasing its comic solution in terms of actual policies.
In Modern Times Chaplin transforms the social disruptions of the Great Depression with slapstick. The Tramp and the Gamin survive mishaps conceived of interchangeably as socially symptomatic and merely physical. For example, the factory worker’s breakdown due to numbingly repetitive overwork on a conveyor belt expresses itself as a twitch in the wrists and then a mania for repeating this movement, on a co-worker’s nose and nipples, on the buttons of women’s dresses. The kind of aggression typical of Chaplin in his early short films now results from his condition as an exploited prole, but is still played out in star-comic slapstick turns. The social perception and comic ingenuity come together, and in a straightforward way the survival of the Tramp and the Gamin makes the collapse around them seem survivable. Chaplin combines their overcoming adversity with the pleasure the audience experienced watching his comedy, buoying his viewers for the deluge they knew was waiting for them outside the theater.
The Fisher King has a fair share of slapstick but the script makes a bigger leap to what is for us now a stranger form: medieval romance. (It’s a different genre from comedy, but there can be a lot of overlap, in the incidents themselves, and particularly in the movement toward regeneration.) The vignette of the Fisher King comes from the stories of Parsifal (Perceval in French), the noble bumpkin who abandons his mother to follow his ineluctable destiny as a knight errant. The screenwriter Richard LaGravenese got the story from He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, Robert A. Johnson’s pop-Jungian explication of it, 1 and the version that one of the characters relates in the script feels pre-interpreted. The Fisher King proceeds from Johnson’s generalization about the myth, "[A boy’s] first contact with what will be redemption for him later in his life is a wounding," 2 however Johnson includes a detailed enough outline of Chrétien de Troyes’s late 12th-century literary version of the story that LaGravenese was able to produce a script that follows its own bent while clearly belonging to the Grail tradition. 3 And Gilliam, a former member of the Monty Python troupe who co-wrote and co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and who on his own co-wrote and directed Jabberwocky, is clearly familiar with the Parsifal legends 4 and directs the story in the spirit of the medieval texts.
In the key episode of the legend, Parsifal is looking for a river crossing and sees two men in a boat. One of them, who is fishing, tells him there isn’t a ford but that he may stay at the man’s own dwelling nearby. It turns out to be a castle, and when Parsifal is entertained that night he finds that the fisherman is king of the castle, who is suffering from a wound that won’t heal (a wound through his thighs in Chrétien, but through his scrotum in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century German version Parzival, adapted from Chrétien’s). Parsifal, the overeager boy-hero, has got his spiritual and chivalric education as he can. Having been told as a general precept to hold his tongue unless speech is required, he fails to ask the king about the spear and grail carried in procession through the hall. They turn out to be the spear with which Longinus pierced Christ’s side on the cross, and the Holy Grail (the nature of which is unclear, but which modern tradition has accepted as Christ’s cup from the Last Supper), and Parsifal’s passivity on this occasion, when simply to have asked these questions would have healed the king, named Anfortas and called the Fisher King, turns out to be a sin beyond easy redemption.
In the movie the characters act out a modern parallel to the story. Robin Williams plays Parry, a homeless psychotic who was a happily married schoolteacher until a gunman, "inspired" by the taunting of a cynical, hostile radio DJ, walked into an upscale bar, where Parry and his wife were drinking, and opened fire, splattering her brains on his face. Jeff Bridges plays Jack the DJ who falls from his celebrity penthouse life into alcoholic despair when he hears on TV about the rampage he indirectly caused. Jack meets Parry when Parry saves him from being immolated by teen thugs who don’t like all the homeless bums in their neighborhood. Parry sees himself as a knight performing good deeds while waiting for the arrival of the one who will secure the Holy Grail, in this case a loving cup that Parry saw in a photo of an aged tycoon’s apartment in an architectural magazine.
The literary parallels radiate in several directions. Parry is named for Parsifal, and appears in something of the hero’s early guise as a socially unintegratable fool. But Parry is also a holy fool who is too good for this world, as opposed to Parsifal who is at first too much a part of this world, especially in an episode in which he kisses a married woman by force and takes her ring as a token, imagining that he is following the patterns of courtly love. In the movie Parry is most overwhelmed by hallucinations of a red knight on a fire-breathing charger who chases him through the streets of New York. In both the French and German versions Parisfal’s armor is red, won in his first joust from the only man he kills. (In Wolfram, this encounter, too, was a sin for the hero to engage in.) So in terms of the Grail tradition, Parry’s horrific vision here complicates his status as victim, leaving the way open to the suggestion that in his former life he was wrong not to ask questions about what he was witnessing in the world around him. This ties in to LaGravenese’s understanding of the wound that won’t heal as a moral-psychic wound in all men, which can be healed only by dedication to something beyond the material. 5 The Red Knight is finally too much for Parry; these visions bring on seizures and a coma, which transforms Parry into the Fisher King.
Parry was apparently happy in his previous life but nothing suggests he was as imaginative or as fully human as he is now. We don’t know that he was as nasty as Jack, but he seems to have been a yuppie and thus a potential target of Jack’s (unopposed) barbs at the beginning of the movie: "They’re not human. They can’t feel love. They can only negotiate love moments." (As a hip New York DJ, Jack has the money and high-end taste of a yuppie but, as a media celebrity, he doesn’t have to commit to any values or way of life. He can imagine himself looking down on it all. 6 ) Now, however, Parry can’t even conceive of Jack’s shallowness when Jack makes his first clumsy stab at redemption by giving Parry money. Parry sees the thought behind the ill-conceived gesture and can’t help telling the world, to Jack’s mortification, how much he loves the guy.
For his part, Jack wants to help Parry only when he finds out Parry was a victim of the gunman Jack catalyzed over the radio; Jack senses he’s been given a chance to make up for his sins. Even so he resists the idea because Parry is patently crazy. Parry can barely tell Jack about his quest for the Holy Grail because of interruptions by fat, winged fairies only he can see. He keeps them at bay with aerosol repellent while he tries to get the story out. (But he needs a mental carburetor--in this first encounter he runs after the fairies and Jack escapes.) However, Parry sees more in common between himself and Jack than Jack does. For instance, he keeps asking Jack whom he’s talking to when Jack speaks at full voice to his conscience, "Is this what you want me to do?" Jack’s mental sky is as populated as Parry’s, even if not by critters responsive to aerosol. Of course, we hadn’t noticed the strangeness of Jack’s addresses to the air because we’re more likely do the same thing, and it’s that bump delivered to our self-awareness that makes us accept the bond between Parry and Jack. We’ve fantasized about falling like Jack, i.e., losing our sense of vocation and hence our jobs, and that’s the bridge to being able to imagine falling as far as Parry, i.e., losing our minds. And Jack’s desire to assuage his guilt the easy way, with cash, suggests that he is another spiritually inert man who fails to ask the question when it could do most good. Then through Parry’s insistence and reliance he also becomes the knight who has to undertake the perilous adventure to heal the Fisher King. And inasmuch as Parry leads Jack onto the correct path, he functions as Parsifal’s wise counselor as well.
Gilliam in the Spirit
These literary parallels are less iffy than the prospect of yuppie redemption in the face of not easily resolved social ills might make you fear. So, despite its unusual, and recherché-sounding, literary means, The Fisher King was a big hit because it doesn’t feel "literary," in the way movie audiences think of that term (Merchant-yawn-Ivory). The Fisher King isn’t bookish, which, paradoxically, is one of the things it has in common with Wolfram’s Parzival. Wolfram’s retelling is amazingly rambunctious, not at all like Wagner’s hieratic, orthodox, solemn adaptation of it. 7 Rather, Wolfram’s Parzival is a bundle of violent adventures, burlesque scenes, descriptions of material splendor, sex adventures, and pious moments, stylistically disparate in the medieval way, which makes the work overall baggy and thus, from one perspective, more lifelike than works of stylistically unified realism. Wolfram doesn’t hesitate to make Parzival’s callowness laugh-out-loud funny. And a scene such as Gawan’s battle with a lion, in which we read,
Gawan prevented [the lion] from tearing his shield from his grasp by hewing off its leg at a stroke, with the result that the lion was now prancing on three legs, leaving the paw of the fourth wedged in the shield. The beast’s blood gushed out so copiously, spreading this way and that, that Gawan could not take a firm stance. Time and time again did the lion leap at the stranger and bare its fangs with many a snort. 8
makes it seem as if the romance of the Fisher King were inevitable material for Terry Gilliam, co-creator of the "invincible" Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Luckily, this was one of the occasions when American audiences could adjust to a movie that’s artificial to the point of silliness. It’s a relief to be spared the kind of pat melodramatic solution to urban problems that more overtly political movies ask us, in the Capra manner, to accept as plausible and complete solutions (forming a citizen’s committee, winning a lawsuit against a corporation, ousting the corrupt politician who’s the cause of it all). Like medieval romance, Gilliam’s movie respects dramatic fantasy just as it should be respected, as the stylized representation of human urges. And the two levels--the social ills of the city and the comic stylization of people suffering from them--work together, just as they did in Modern Times and in Cesare Zavattini and Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan.
In the case of The Fisher King, a romance shot in the hyper-realistic big city, the archaic-but-persistent genre enables LaGravenese and Gilliam to dramatize the need for redemption in freely-conceived episodes. (Romance offers superhero comic book series the same freedom of a timeless sequence of relatively interchangeable narrative units). As Tom Shippey pointed out in his review of The Fisher King, "[R]omances ride plot dislocations far better than novels." 9 This freedom permits the script to develop both action-oriented and amorous throughlines, which is to say that both heroes have their damsels.
The Ladies: Mercedes Ruehl
The drunken, fallen Jack lands in the apartment of Anne Napolitano (Mercedes Ruehl), a former beautician who now operates a video store that she lives above. Anne has the tacky lower-middle-class clothes and accent of Ruehl’s character in Married to the Mob but she’s more powerful, the kind of tree that can embed its roots in the earth under the city sidewalks. Early on we see her and Jack watching a TV sit-com that Jack had auditioned for before his fall. (He was to play a character whose sure-fire laugh line is the thematic "Forgiiiiiiiiive me!") Anne laughs at the show without thinking about it, while Jack sneers at it, and at her, almost comforted that his disdainful view of American culture is being confirmed. (It’s this view that got him into trouble in the first place. Like most miserable people he doesn’t realize that his attitude keeps deepening the rut beneath him.) Anne wants Jack to be less complicated, less unhappy, and the trick of the movie is that Ruehl makes her a true antidote to the arid, self-indulgent cynicism of Jack’s life before he met her.
Anne stands tall in the movie because she is by nature attuned to popular impulses and tastes. Even laughing at her sexy leopard-skin get-ups or her phrasing doesn’t diminish her because the idea of the movie is that people need to be simpler, more foolish, very much in line with the adoption of a knuckleheaded boy hero in Parzival. Anne, modeled by LaGravenese on a woman who reminded him of his own Italian mother and aunts, 10 is as simple as Parry, but Ruehl is very tall and very tough. She fuses her own theatrical experience with Anne’s city-girl armor, so that when Jack fails to appreciate her in time you trust that she’ll survive the blow.
Parry’s consort is a woman in distress who, unknowingly, enables him to focus when indulging his romantic fantasies about her from a distance. Lydia (Amanda Plummer) is a shy, lonely worker bee in the accounting department of a publisher of bodice-rippers. (Lydia lives the kind of solitary, uneventful life in the city that must contribute to making Harlequins such a popular form of literary romance among women.) Parry waits outside her building every day at lunch and watches her get caught in the revolving door, knock over a rack of books, drop Chinese dumplings in her lap, and then trudge back to her cubicle. She’s a klutz, but when Parry follows her through Grand Central Station, he sees a mirrored disco ball radiating onto the crowd of commuters who begin waltzing as she picks her way through them.
Jack finally starts on the path to redemption by getting Lydia down to Anne’s store so she can meet Parry. After a certain amount of fumbling Lydia ends up in Anne’s apartment having her nails done and drunkenly revealing her loneliness to Anne, who gives her some no-nonsense advice. This chat between the two women (and between these two experienced stage actresses, the best prickly odd coupling of this kind since Julie Harris and Claire Bloom in Robert Wise’s 1963 The Haunting) is the finest dialogue scene in the movie. The pathos of Lydia’s lament for never having gone through a dating phase is lightened by Anne’s hilarious, confidential response: "It’s a disgusting process. You haven’t missed a thing."
The sequence keeps climbing until the two couples eat in a Chinese restaurant where Lydia is her usual clumsy self and Parry keeps duplicating her mishaps, either so she won’t feel bad or out of sympathetic nervousness. The actors obviously love these takes and Gilliam cleverly wipes from one to the next, knowing that with moviegoers’ cognitive shorthand we can enjoy the slapstick without further exposition. (A miraculous example of making a virtue of necessity: the restaurant scene had to be shot in one night when rain canceled an outdoor shoot. Put on film without rehearsals, the business was ad-libbed and shot with no real coverage. 11 ) Gilliam also knows that everything from Lydia’s coming to the video store through the Chinese restaurant forms the centerpiece of the movie. There’s nothing else really like it--it’s almost all eccentric bits and yet they dovetail with marvelous improbability. You readily accommodate the groundshifts as the movie goes from slapstick to romantic comedy to edgy girl talk back to slapstick and then tapers off with a self-consciously beautiful shot tracking away from the four principals over the restaurant’s reflective glass-topped tables as Parry sings a quiet little rendition of Groucho’s "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" in honor of his beloved.
Ruehl is a woman to contend with, but Plummer is a unique adept in her own spooked vein. Gawky enough for the slapstick but also feathery in her agony at being unloved, she pulls off the movie’s most explicit pathos, in a speech in which she recounts how a goodnight kiss always leads to sex and then to the drawn-out daily misery of longing for a second date which never arrives. (It’s the best enactment I’ve seen of the overly wary person’s paralyzing tendency to regret the future.) Plummer looks emotionally squashed, and yet she floats, just as the embodiment of Parry’s dream of romance should.
Rising and Falling
Bringing Parry and Lydia together relieves Jack’s conscience and thus enables him to resume his career, which, however, pushes him farther away from redemption. There’s an irony in the movie about Jack’s rising and falling. When he climbs back to his old life as a DJ he’s back in his tower penthouse but he’s sunk lower because now when he ignores a desperate man on the street he’s ignoring someone he actually knows. So he has to fall back down to Parry’s level, and Anne’s, to rise, which he can do only by giving in to Parry’s craziest bug: the quest for the loving cup he saw in the magazine. As a result, the movie covers some ground more than once, but it’s so enjoyable from moment to moment it seems more an advantage than a complaint.
It gets away with other sins as well. You could easily think it too popping lively. It’s extremely inventive in a wide range of comic styles, which is a plus, but in Gilliam this comes with the propensity to always be "on." (Gilliam was a self-proclaimed Jerry Lewis fan as a child before discovering English comedies in college. 12 ) In fact, with its push-push-push it’s probably the most consistently hyper comedy that gives such complex pleasure. It also has Gilliam’s signature visual intensity, despite the fact that it was the first movie for which he didn’t prepare storyboards beforehand. 13 In his mind every shot seems to call for a wide-angle lens, in order to get large tracts of the settings into frame with the characters crammed in edge to edge. (Before Monty Python he worked as a cartoonist, as an illustrator for magazines and ad agencies, and as an animator.) So the picture is simultaneously spectacular and intimate, which makes sense since it’s about the lives of individuals in the big city, but it borders on visual monotony. Still, it’s not as manically stylized as Gilliam’s other pictures, especially Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Anne, for instance, is recognizably human, even if on a big scale. Ruehl’s performance in particular had to be as modulated as it is or our proximity to her intense character would have thrown us out of the movie if not the theater.
In addition, Jeff Bridges is probably miscast. His greatest talent lies in easy transparency. After a young manhood on screen in which his characters expressed themselves best in motion, he’s become a very settled actor, which was great for American Heart, but not when a role has required more pressure, such as his boy’s-school Ahab in White Squall. Jack’s thrashing about seems like acting in Bridges and he’s a bit too stolid to be believable as a man who would pursue absolution so actively. When he’s exasperated by the spiritual heroism required of him he reads physically as all too likely to blow it off. And I’m not sure he’s capable of the wildness that Parry supposedly brings out of him, which was also his problem in Fearless. He’s not one to dance on the ledge of a skyscraper any more than he is one to scamper nude in Central Park at night.
Bridges does glower well, a skill we first discovered in Jagged Edge and which he was able to inflect as a romantic remoteness in The Fabulous Baker Boys. This glowering is important because Jack’s feelings are all impacted and his skin seems to darken when he doesn’t like what’s coming over him. But Bridges can’t glower, be fatuous, become confused, gnaw at himself, make spiritual false starts--and make me laugh. Sean Penn did in Sweet and Lowdown; it is possible. But Jack’s story works structurally and Bridges is never phony.
In any case, the movie is conceived and paced so that even this central miscasting can’t stop its progression. Though Bridges’s role is the largest in terms of screen time, no one is asked to carry the movie because Gilliam’s direction of the actors feels unrestricted here, varied according to the occasion, quite different from his trademark visual stamp. Tom Waits has a low-keyed bit as a legless beggar, while Michael Jeter comes on as a cabaret singer with an unnamed AIDS-like disease and jolts the audience with a berserk Ethel Merman imitation. (The fact that he has a caterpillar moustache sets the key for his number.) Both co-exist in the movie with Kathy Najimy’s scramble-eyed bit as a confused video customer the way otherwise incompatible strangers co-exist in the city and give it its composite character.
"The Odd, Weird Stuff"
LaGravenese has said that the first thing Gilliam did "was make me put back everything that my first development process had made me take out, which was great--a lot of the odd, weird stuff." 14 LaGravenese’s comments about the writing of the script (which began as something more like Rain Man) are at times painful, for example, "[P]erhaps insane people have a better handle on true reality than us so-called sane ones." 15 But the script shows almost no signs of this kind of banality. It seems to benefit, rather, from the author’s experience writing monologues and selling them to fellow acting students. 16 All the characters contribute to the mix but their distinctness never cooks down. The mark of the movie is that Gilliam doesn’t try to make all the weird stuff uniform in style and so pulls off something very difficult, the confluence of styles that don’t seem to belong together. Jack’s scenes with Anne in her apartment have the pungency and specificity of naturalism while his scenes with Parry have the boundlessness and lift of romance. (Anne is Jack’s grounding and Parry points him toward the sky.) In Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast Josette Day’s scenes with her family were squawkily peasantly while her scenes with the Beast were lush and lyrical, but the styles were strictly segregated. The Fisher King makes similarly divergent styles double date and in a popular format that conceals the difficulty.
Robin Williams: Unashamed Contact
In this way the capaciousness of romance as a formal matter is just right for the content. The movie wants us to find a spiritual meaning in the assortedness of life in big cities. It tries by its own artistic means to make us unable to block out what’s going on around us with all those people we don’t know. And this is where Robin Williams becomes so important. Parry’s dementia allows Williams to be brilliantly flaky, using his split-second shifts of attention to show us how life has fractured Parry’s consciousness. But life has also fractured the filters we think of as essential to survival in the city. Gilliam’s pictures (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, 12 Monkeys) have often featured a bleak comic awareness of the machinery of human corruption. And in interviews during the shooting of The Fisher King he expressed his ambivalence toward New York in those terms: "It reduces people to cogs in the machine or molecules within a system...." 17 (Jack’s post-counterculture cynicism about yuppies surely resembles Gilliam’s own.) But in the movie itself Gilliam lets LaGravenese’s script assuage his pessimism, in favor of Williams’s unashamed contact with the audience, all those strangers out there.
Romance: Transcendent Patterns in Chaos
As Parry, Williams is unthreateningly elfin in affect but more hobbitty in motion. A bum squatting in a basement, he could as believably live in a tree stump or under a toadstool. He comes across as a chortling fairytale creature superenergized by the magical possibilities of a medieval story retold in a modern setting. The pathos is provided by the fact that we don’t believe in magical possibilities anymore, and Williams acknowledges Parry’s pain without its having to come to consciousness, without wringing it: it’s behind the inspired, too-bright eyes. We get the charmed comedy but also a sense of what we get out of romance, a genre that suggests an alternative to brute submission to harrowing existence, even if only a conceptual alternative, one that indicates a transcendent pattern in what feels like chaos when it’s happening to us.
Unlike Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky, The Fisher King doesn’t use anachronism to generate purely opportunistic festive comedy. The comedy of those earlier movies has a lot in common with the comedy the Marx Brothers got out of putting themselves in a college setting, for instance. But with Robin Williams The Fisher King has a real actor playing the man oddly trying to live out a romance quest in Manhattan. He can function inimitably as a verbal-physical sparkplug in a free-for-all comedy, like a hybrid of Groucho and Harpo, or like Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and John Cleese at their battiest in the Monty Python movies, but he can also put over the script’s more emotionally sustained comedy. The movie is not just a holiday but something you take back to where you live.
Williams as Parry thus becomes the spirit of irrational hope, the faith that things can be made better. And you can let it work for you even though you sense that the well-meaning liberal moviemakers wouldn’t acknowledge the extent to which business prosperity, i.e., more yuppiedom, has made New York a less broken-down city than ever. 18 You can let it go because the movie doesn’t proffer a specific answer, in the manner of medieval Christian allegory, or urban-ills melodramas. Instead it makes almost-overwhelming alertness to what’s going on around you a comic pleasure. It trusts you to do the best with it that you can.
- LaGravenese got the story: LaGravenese 124. (return to text)
- first contact: Johnson 4. (return to text)
- Chrétien de Troyes: The version I read was translated by R.S. Loomis and published in the collection Medieval Romances 3-87. (return to text)
- clearly familiar: See Gilliam’s comments at LaGravenese 157. (return to text)
- LaGravenese’s understanding: LaGravenese 124. (return to text)
- looking down: Counterculture-era media figures have at times been shockingly unself-conscious in their condescension to the way the rest of us get through life. Think of Jackson Browne’s lyrics to "The Pretender": "I’m going to rent myself a house/ In the shade of the freeway/ I’m going to pack my lunch in the morning/ And go to work each day/ And when the evening rolls around/ I’ll go on home and lay my body down/ And when the morning light comes streaming in/ I’ll get up and do it again/ Amen." Lyrics posted at http://www.empirezine.com/spotlight/jackson/pretend.htm. (return to text)
- Wagner’s … adaptation: Wagner was in a corner because he’d already used Parzifal’s character as Wolfram portrayed it for his Siegfried. And besides, when a decadent artist finds his receptive machinery winding down with age, a transition from delirium to renunciation may be in order. At the same time, Wagner was never attuned to Wolfram’s jovial, dashing persona, to judge from the mournful character he gave him in Tannhäuser. (return to text)
- Gawan prevented: Wolfram 288. (return to text)
- Tom Shippey: 17. (return to text)
- modeled: LaGravenese 129. (return to text)
- shot in one night: Gilliam 204-5. (return to text)
- Jerry Lewis fan: Gilliam 16, 17. (return to text)
- storyboards: Gilliam 203. (return to text)
- the first thing Gilliam did: Morgan. (return to text)
- [P]erhaps insane people: LaGravenese 125. (return to text)
- writing monologues: LaGravenese 123. (return to text)
- It reduces people: LaGravenese 168. (return to text)
- well-meaning liberal moviemakers: To his credit, Gilliam has admitted that hiring actual homeless men to play small roles as homeless men "didn’t work out." They "just fell asleep on us, or they would wander off and not be there when we needed them. In the end, we had to hire extras to be homeless people. There are no simple stories about the homeless..." (Gilliam 210-11). (return to text)