Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. The Fisher King d. Terry Gilliam Spine: #764 Blu-ray Release Date: June 23, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
It’s always wonderful to see The Criterion Collection regain the rights to distribute a film that once graced their list (or, depending on your perspective, that was once graced by their list), particularly when that out-of-print Criterion edition contained some special supplements. This past month, The Criterion Collection brought out a title they once had in print on LaserDisc back in the 1990s: Terry Gilliam’s urban chivalric romance The Fisher King (1991).
Though I like Terry Gilliam’s films, in large part due to the strange imagination that is on display, I had never seen The Fisher King until I watched this edition. This was Gilliam’s first film in which he wasn’t involved in the screenplay, and I was worried that I’d resent a Gilliam film shot in New York City rather than on some dreamscape of the mind, especially given rumors that Gilliam was more or less pushed into this project as penance for the financial failures of his past. I went into this curious to see what he’d do, whether he could pull it off, and I was surprised to find the harsh streets of New York suffused in glorious psychological imagery.
The film is a contemporary interpretation of the myth of the Arthurian legend the Fisher King, a nobleman who was charged with keeping the Holy Grail. Wounded and impotent, the Fisher King must wait for someone to come along and help. He’s called the Fisher King because all he can do is sit along his river and fish while he waits, his kingdom dying around him.
When the film begins we meet a shock-jock named Jack Lucas, played by Jeff Bridges, a role Bridges didn’t think he was cut out for according to Gilliam. But from the first scene, where we watch Jack at work, we recognize the selfish, vain person we are seeing . . . in the not-so-subtly lit studio.
Jack’s sense of superiority is about to take a dive, though, when a caller takes some of Jack’s comments as a call commit a mass murder. Three years pass, and we next see Jack working at the video store ran by his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl, in an Oscar-winning role). Jack is melancholy and suicidal, though still quite selfish, unable to see the pain in those around him.
One night when he looks to be seconds away from suicide, Jack is attacked by some kids who say they are tired of seeing people like him. They’ve mistaken him for a homeless person and are actually preparing to set fire to him when he is saved by a cavalry of homeless, led by Parry, played by Robin Williams, who gives Parry a twinkle of love and a well of pain.
Jack soon learns that this crazy man who saved him was once an esteemed professor named Henry Sagan. Sagan’s wife was a victim of the mass murder that Jack’s errant comments instigated. Since that terrible night, Parry has been battling with a demon, seemingly bathed in blood and dressed in viscera, on a horse.
Parry says he’s on a quest to get back the Holy Grail, which is locked up in a fortress-like residence in Manhattan. He realizes he cannot get it on his own, but he wants Jack to help. He thinks Jack is the chosen one.
Many talk about The Fisher King in terms of redemption. Jack is obviously a lost soul when the film starts. What I enjoyed so much about the film, though was that redemption does not come due to suffering (even after his three years of suffering Jack is not really a better person) or random acts of selfish benevolence (Jack wants to help Parry, but mostly just so he can stop feeling guilty). It seems that what can transfigure a lost soul is consistent acts of selflessness, brought about due to genuine love and not due to some project. It’s a message that plays out well in the film that, though sometimes quite fanciful and glorious, tries to look at the people all around that we choose not to see.
On that last note, for me the best part of the film is Michael Jeter’s homeless, gay cabaret singer. Jack first meets Jeter’s character in a hospital, and Jeter’s lines about losing his friends are touching and sincere, a nice reminder of where things stood in the early 1990s and what still needs to be done today. And Jeter’s show-stopping musical number even, for me, eclipses Robin William’s dance around Central Park — he’s wonderful, and it’s painful to see how in the film he continues to get mistreated by Jack, the knight who’s apparently been chosen to heal the Fisher King and, with him, the kingdom.
The disc comes with a treasure-trove of supplements that dig nicely into the film’s production.
- Even not having seen the film, I’d still heard from plenty of fans that the Criterion LaserDisc had a wonderful audio commentary from Gilliam. It’s great news that the new edition contains that valuable commentary track, in which Gilliam shares his own reluctance to do The Fisher King: it wasn’t his script, it was a for-hire studio film, and it was in the United States (my own reluctance to watch, I see). But he explains why he took it on — he kind of had to prove himself — and how he fell in love with it. He praises the cast and sounds genuine, and I think they deserve it. Gilliam is quite a good talker, making the track charming and insightful, a definite perk of this edition.
- Digging further into the film’s production, though from today’s vantage point, the disc features an hour-long series of new interviews separated into two parts: 1) The Fool and the Wounded King, with Gilliam, producer Lynda Obst, screenwriter Richard La Gravenese, and 2) The Real and the Fantastical, with actors Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, and Mercedes Ruehl. These interviews show a bit of the history from before the film was made — it doesn’t sound like it was easy to get into production and it’s fun to hear who else was considered for the roles (Richard Pryor? Billy Crystal? James Cameron to direct? Completely different films).
- Jeff’s Tale: This is a 12-minute video essay showcasing Jeff Bridge’s on-set photographs while he talks about what’s going on in them. He seems to have loved the people involved as well.
- Jeff and Jack: This is a 22-minute feature on how Bridges prepared to be a shock jock, again something he wasn’t entirely comfortable doing.
- Robin’s Tale: Fortunately, we also have a 20-minute interview (followed by some outtakes) with Robin Williams from 2006. He seems to have loved this project as well, and he tells some stories filled with his humor.
- Also brought over from the LaserDisc and not too common on most of today’s Criterion releases: six deleted scenes, costume tests, and several trailers.
- The disc comes with an accordion-style fold-out insert with an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri.