Uh, You Filmed What, Terry? Karen Previews Tideland the Movie by Reading Tideland the Novel!

by Karen Gsteiger

Spoilers for the book mean spoilers for the movie...

As you all know by now, I am a whore for all things Gilliam. Before Tideland made its premiere at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, all I knew was that it was about a little girl who retreated from an unhappy home life into a fantastic dream world. Then strange reviews of the film started popping up, reviews that mostly heralded cinematic catastrophe. Uh-oh...

"Way too disturbing for kids and too weird for most grown-ups, 'Tideland' is likely to wash up in boutique distribution where Gilliam's name will pull in only his most devoted fan base." --Leslie Felperin, Variety

"Things culminate with a serious train wreck, and it's hard to think of a more apt description for the entire production...While Gilliam, who frequently invokes Lewis Carroll here, is obviously trying to say something about the survival instincts possessed by a child's boundless imagination, this 'Malice in Wonderland' comes across as off-putting rather than wondrous." --Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter.com

"Gilliam apologists: Get ready for his next failure. Hey, don't feel bad, a few months ago I was right there with you. His movies fail because the studios are out to get him! Or better still...it's that rat bastard God! He has it in for him! Time to face it. A lot of Gilliam's movies fail not because of some outside influence, but because of him." --Joshua Tyler, Cinema Blend

Not that critics always know what they're talking about. I, for example, am religiously devoted to the widely panned Adventures of Baron Munchausen. But in just about every review of Tideland that I have seen, everyone mentions the disturbing nature of the story, which got me curious. So I ordered the book upon which the screenplay is based, Tideland, by Mitch Cullin. And that's what I'm going to serve up for you now. Because who knows when or if we'll ever get to see Tideland the film. Even though the world premiere was in September, at the time of this writing, it has not yet found a U.S. distributor. (Of course, you can make fictionalized snuff films about torture chambers in Slovakia and have no trouble filling up the multiplexes, but I digress.)

Tideland, to be a little more specific, is about a young girl named Jeliza-Rose, who is the daughter of heroin addicts, "Queen Gunhilda" and Noah, a washed-up rock star. As in many families created by terrible parents, Jeliza-Rose mostly plays the adult, dutifully cooking up heroin shots for her parents, avoiding her mother's emotional and physical abuse, and absorbing herself in her own imaginary world. Her only friends are dolls, and when I say "dolls," I'm actually referring to various parts of Barbies that were purchased at a thrift store: "four heads, two arms, one torso, six legs..." In a clever touch, Jeliza-Rose names her doll heads after the type of Barbie they were originally attached to--Fashion Jeans, Cut 'N Style, Magic Curl, and her favorite, Classique. Each doll head, of course, has a unique personality. For example, while describing a game she plays while observing lines of ants on her front porch, Jeliza-Rose informs us, "Now I had a mission. So did Classique. Fashion Jeans and Magic Curl were hostages held by guerrilla forces; their heads sat on nail butts, and the army ants roamed by. It was a desperate situation. But we could only free one, otherwise we might get noticed. Fashion Jeans was the obvious choice. She wasn't a whiney ass, so we'd save her."

After Queen Gunhilda overdoses, Noah takes Jeliza-Rose to his mother's desolate farmhouse in Texas. He overdoses and dies shortly after their arrival, but Jeliza-Rose doesn't seem to understand what has happened, believing that he will eventually come to, as he has done on previous heroin "vacations." She leaves him sitting in his chair, and uh...let's just say, the scene doesn't get any prettier.

While playing by herself in the overgrown fields, Jeliza-Rose encounters a strange woman named Dell and her mentally challenged brother, Dickens. She learns that Dell has a secret connection to Noah and an interest in taxidermy. Meanwhile, Dickens and Jeliza-Rose become playmates, which escalates into a disturbing romantic relationship, considering the fact that she is eleven years old and he is a grown man.

I can see why Terry Gilliam would have been attracted to this material--much of his cinematic career is dedicated to the examination of imagination and fantasy as a form of escape from an oppressive or dangerous reality. Jeliza-Rose's vivid imagination saves her innocence when her situation couldn't possibly be more depressing. However, although I found this book to be an engrossing read, I wouldn't necessarily consider it very cinematic, as not much actually...happens. The story meanders at the beginning; it is strange and dark, perhaps, but not overwhelmingly so, and then you hit Chapter 16, and everything goes completely haywire until you reach an explosive and abrupt end that doesn't resolve much.

For much of the first part of the book, Jeliza-Rose plays pretend while her father decomposes. Much of that element of the book would just make for an unpleasant cinematic experience (especially once Dell gets involved...yeesh), and the increasingly sexual nature of Jeliza-Rose's relationship with Dickens is simply unfilmable. Before you get too concerned, I should point out that it's my understanding that in the movie, Jeliza-Rose and Dickens only kiss. And in the book, their relationship doesn't go too over-the-top, but it is highly inappropriate. Let's just say that in most states, Dickens would be prosecuted for child molestation as opposed to sexual assault. The fact that Jeliza-Rose seemingly isn't very traumatized by this turn in events had me raising an eyebrow.

It's my understanding that this book got a good critical reception, and I can see why. It's well-written and vibrant and certainly very original, and Jeliza-Rose's narration feels authentic. I still would like to see the movie although I'm concerned that Gilliam will let the uglier side of the story override everything (which would be my main criticism of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Gilliam is a much more compelling humanist than cynic. And, of course, the entire picture would rely on the performance delivered by the child portraying Jeliza-Rose, of which I've heard mostly good things. So, Hollywood, let us see this movie! I mean, it can't be worse than Son of the Mask, now can it?