In the end, Terry Gilliam will be most remembered for his feature film direction, and perhaps rightly so. From high-profile works of great ambition like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys to his irony-laden fairy tales The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits, and most impressively, his cult-followed satirical feast Brazil, Gilliam has forged a career as noted for its visual power as for its uncompromising intelligence.
But let's step back. Before Hollywood came knocking, Gilliam, as any good pop-culture hound knows, was a Python. The lone American among John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and Terry Jones (even writing the names makes me swoon with nostalgia and reverence), Gilliam co-piloted the BBC-TV sketch-comedy series that single-handedly gave public television its raison d'étre. Monty Python's Flying Circus, which aired from 1969 through the mid-'70s, created an absurdist un-reality that has influenced every smart comedy vehicle since--from Kids in the Hall to SCTV to HBO's brilliant, recent Mr. Show. It launched careers for all of its players (save Graham Chapman, who died early), and it spawned a handful of terribly funny, terribly vulgar Python films, the best of which Gilliam co-directed with Terry Jones: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Even so, a die-hard Flying Circus fan could fail to recognize Gilliam's face--unlike his cohorts' familiar visages--since his Python role was that of animator, not comedian. Perhaps the most distinctive punch of Monty Python came from Gilliam's ever-present sketch segues: brilliant, trippy slices of moving collage art, heavy with visual reference to Dadaist and Surrealist greats like Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and Rene Magritte. Two tiny men wearing suits and bowler hats jump, trampoline-style, on a huge naked woman's bloated stomach. A retarded "free-mason" fails to answer a quiz-show inquiry and gets crushed by a giant hammer. A big, sneaky Victorian house follows a woman around town and finally pounces on her.
His piecemeal--though cohesive--aesthetic was entirely original, and because it was pictures instead of live action, its tone often one-upped the perversity of the actors' skits. Adult animation would never be the same, and Gilliam's inventive approach to it would never find its match on the small screen again. His pioneering instincts were bound to lead to bigger things, and when they did, no one was surprised.
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The festival will pay tribute to Gilliam for this timeless contribution to small-screen art; the highlight of Thursday night's calendar is Gilliam himself, who will accept the Ernie Kovacs award--which he shares this year with fellow animator Robert Smigel--in person. See his face, a rare opportunity beyond his appearance as King Arthur's "faithful assistant Patsy" in Holy Grail, and recall his early, scrappy genius.
And when a giant foot falls from the heavens to squelch someone in the audience, making that familiar fart noise, we'll know whom to thank.
Terry Gilliam will accept the Ernie Kovacs Award on Thursday, March 5, at 9 p.m. in the Electronic Theater.