Sunday, November 20, 2011

footnote to a reference

In Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995) there is a scene where Bruce Willis awakes in the present (our future) after his second time traveling episode (to 1995) to find the "scientists" who sent him on his way arranged around his bed singing "Blueberry Hill." The scene is referred to by Wikipedia as "a direct homage to the 'Dry Bones' scene in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective."

Scientists sing to Willis.

It strikes me, however, that the scene is more of an homage to Dennis Potter himself (and his work as a whole), a talent who, upon reflection, shares much with Gilliam and surely must have influenced him greatly.

Dennis Potter wrote a sequence of powerful teleplays for British TV, including Pennies from Heaven, Brimstone and Treacle, The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar, and Karaoke. He had a cunning knack for combining powerful drama (often drawn from his own personal experience) with fantasy and humor. A trademark of all his teleplays is the thorough integration of music into the story, often involving lip-synced routines during hallucinatory or revelatory experiences by the primary characters.



In the Wikipedia referenced "Dry Bones" scene, doctors are indeed arranged around a patient (a standin for Potter himself, who also suffered from a debilitating skin condition) experiencing a combination of nervous breakdown and dissociation from reality, much as in the Twelve Monkeys scene. In Twelve Monkeys, however, the song being sung is not "Dem Bones," but "Blueberry Hill," a song referenced by Potter in the later teledrama Lipstick on Your Collar (where the Fats Domino version is lipsunc by a young, debuting Ewan McGregor):



[For completeness' sake, it's worth noting that in Gilliam's scene the doctors actually sing (relatively poorly) the classic tune, while in both Potter scenes, the songs are lipsunc.]

A crucial datum here is the dates: Potter died in 1994, succumbing to pancreatic cancer a mere 9 days after his wife's death from breast cancer. Given that Twelve Monkeys appeared in 1995, it was likely being shot or written in 1994 when Gilliam must have heard of Potter's demise. What better way to memorialize him than to insert scenes (not just the singing itself, but the setup when Willis hears "Blueberry Hill" in 1995) combining Potter's love of period music with his realization of that love through musical numbers?

Most telling of all, however, are the thematic continuities between Gilliam's work and Potter's. Of course, Gilliam is a mature artist in his own right, with a very distinctive style, so it would be a mistake to attribute too much of his voice to the influence of Potter. Nevertheless, there are telling similarities—at the very least, Gilliam must see himself as participating in the same tradition, realizing the same spirit, as Potter.

Most compelling to me is the example of Brazil (1985). Brazil, in both theme and execution, is strikingly Potter-like. Gilliam combined personal experiences of a harrowing sort (albeit with bureaucracy rather than disease) with a passionate love story, all transported to a fantastical setting. He unifies these diverse thematic elements with a compelling musical subtext, in this case the song "Brazil":



Brazil is notable for a) the smooth juxtaposition of humor and horror, and b) the rich inner life of the main character, as illustrated through numerous surreal episodes indicating his dreams / fantasies / imaginations. Both elements are found in all Potter teleplays, yet are (unfortunately) rare in cinema as a whole.

Of course, only Gilliam himself could tell how great Potter's influence, and the exact significance of the telling scene in Twelve Monkeys—what seems clear is that the scene serves as an homage to more of Potter than just The Singing Detective, and that the deep thematic coincidence in the works of Gilliam and Potter deserves further scrutiny.

No comments: