“Did you loose your mind all at once or was it a slow gradual process?”
Before I started living I watched movies: Dorothy opening the black and white door into the color of imagination, boys at a junk yard discussing the evolution of Annette Funicello’s breasts, “the A and the E are starting to bend around the sides” and Tyrone “Clean” Miller listening to a tape from his mother on a naval patrol boat headed towards Cambodia.
In the early 90’s when I first saw Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, tragedy and mental illness seemed like a clever plot device, not something that could actually happen in my own life. Almost twenty-five years later and with its fool now swept away, it seems fitting to rediscover the king and his fool. The characters no longer at a safe distance and perhaps a little too close for comfort.
Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges, seven years before he was “the dude,” sex symbol status still intact) plays a shock jock, complete with annoying sound effects and clever cutting comments, “Ed you’re never going to get this tart to your desert plate,” who thinks he is pretty much the shit. When a regular calls into Jack’s radio station after spotting a beautiful woman at a swanky New York restaurant, Jack reminds him that he will never get the girl. Yuppies are “are evil [. . .] they must be stopped before its too late. It’s us or them.” Jack’s words cause the caller to go on a killing spree inside the restaurant.
Three years later Jack, miserable and broken, hasn’t been able to recover from the incident and is now working at a video store run by his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl, who went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). At one point people were asking Jack to star in movies, now Anne berates him for not being able to sell them. On one particular drunken evening Jack roams the streets of New York, ending the night under the Brooklyn Bridge with cement bricks tied to his feet, ready to end it all. In white knight fashion, a manic homeless man, Perry (Robyn Williams) saves him.
After staying the night with Perry, Jack realizes that Perry’s wife was killed in the restaurant massacre, shot to death as Perry watched. Jack’s only hope now lies in his ability to save this man, not so much for Perry’s sake, but for his, as he is still not able to see beyond his own tragedy—“I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home.” Jack gives Perry money, dresses him in nice clothes and set’s him up with a nice girl, but Jack can’t pay this one off, heartbreak isn’t done with him just yet.
Perry’s tragedy has caused him to suffer from delusions, cognizing a vision of a red fiery knight coming after him. His life is only really livable through the context of a knight’s tale, which he shares with Jack while lying nude in the middle of Central Park:
Jack meets many fools along his wounded path, including a homeless former Cabaret singer played by the marvelous Michael Jeter, “I’m Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Jack – I can’t find my baby!”
As they sit in the waiting room of a mental health facility, Jack holding the singer in his arms asks, “did you loose your mind all at once or was it a slow gradual process?”
“Well, I’m a singer by trade. Summer stock, nightclub reviews that sort of thing. Oh God I absolutely lived for it. Suddenly it hit me, what does all this mean? Plus the fact that I watched all my friends die.”
Were not sure if Jack lost his job or himself first, but it doesn’t really matter because he is here now, with a bleeding Cabaret singer in his arms. Jack is beginning to put the pieces together: life is not a set of constructs forced together by willpower (Snap’s “The Power” plays while Jack is at the peak of his career). We’re not at certain status levels because we worked harder or were smarter than the man offering Welch’s Fruit Snacks on the subway for cash—life broke us and when it gave us lithium we made strychnine.
You can watch The Fisher King over and over because tragedy is comedy and without it we would all be headed towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Perry, who is at the center of the tragedy, makes us all keep laughing and dreaming. Although comatosed by a fantasy world, elements of his previous life continue to live in his subconscious. Before the red knight comes after him he often has visions of his wife dying. Perry recognizes Jack immediately, and he first heard the tale of the Fisher King “at a lecture once.” Jack’s pain is firmly set in reality, everything is against him, especially the patrons at the video store and he has no way of separating his tragedy from the rest of the world– only the fool can cool his throat.
Gillian’s knights journey ends on a fanciful note with colorful watermelon pajamas and Babes on Broadway’s, “How About You?” It had to end this way. We had to see these two men make it out; the agony of the journey was too painful otherwise. The pain had to mean something. Like the actor who portrayed him, Perry was able to create another reality, another life (with a manic set of voices and personalities), in order to escape from his own sadness. In the end Robin Williams was unable to escape the red knight who blazed towards him. The fire was too powerful and threatened to take his bodily capacities.
Don’t worry I am not going to go into a whole Robin Williams thing now, we have had enough. Last week was probably one of the darkest in history. This film, more than any other, showcases the power of moving forward when all we really want to do is end it. We have enough “arty” and European films reminding us that life is shit, this one reminds us that its shitty for a reason—purpose is never found in the comforts of home.
The Fisher King is now streaming on Netflix