The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Musings over a letter from Terry Gilliam

with 12 comments

I got an e-mail from Terry Gilliam this week.

Pretty cool, huh? Can you imagine the surprise? My heart popped. Why was this happening? He is a famous film maker. I’m nobody. I was planning to write a post about his new short film, The Wholly Family, but how did he know?

After enjoying this sweet idea for about a nanosecond I realized that I wasn’t the only receiver of this mail. It had probably been sent out in thousands, if not millions of copies. It was just a marketing device.

If I understood Terry correctly (the letter was signed “Terry” and he’s addressing me “Dear Jessica”, so I suppose that means that we’re friends and it’s okay for me to call him by his first name), he had a suggestion for me. He wanted me to help him to promote his film, which is available as view-on demand by sharing it on Facebook. That would render me 10 percent of whatever profit he made on it, an offer I’m afraid I’ll have to decline; I don’t even have a Facebook page, so this letter was a bit of a waste.

But apart from that I suppose he’s doing the right thing. It’s probably a good idea for a filmmaker of today to engage in viral marketing if you want to stay in business and would prefer to try out your own ideas to work on the fourth sequel in a superhero franchise on decline.

The world is changing. We need to adapt.  Terry realizes this. He’s a modern man; he’s flexible; he grabs the opportunities that arise.

And yet – I can’t completely rid myself of the thought that something is wrong. I can’t shake off the sadness in it.

The icky feeling
Terry Gilliam should be making the next Brazil or 12 Monkeys. He shouldn’t be doing this. It’s like watching the leading violinist of the best symphony orchestra in the world (knowing little of the classical music scene I can’t give you a name but you surely can thing of someone) turning into a street musician, playing for nickels and dimes.

I’m one of those who tossed him a few coins. That’s why I got the letter. I paid a couple of bucks to watch the film online through an offer at the website of The Guardian.

I’m not the only sponsor of Terry’s. He’s got a bigger one as well, in the form of a pasta producer in Italy which  gave him free hands with two minor exceptions as long as they could slap their logo on the film, like any production company.

I suppose that’s a fair deal and while there actually is some pasta appearing in the film, I’d have to struggle hard to say that it’s a sell-out. I’ve seen far worse product placement in ordinary movies.

While Terry is doing the best he can to be cheerful and positive about it, it’s apparent that it’s not what he’d like to do if given the choice. The whole thing feels a bit icky.

Live blogging
The Guardian ran a live blogging event in connection to a Q & A session with Terry. Here’s a sample:

“7.07pm: Peter wonders if this is a route back into conventional film-making. Not really, says Terry, but it seems to be what people want. He doesn’t want to make films for the internet – movies are for the big screen, but that’s the way the world’s going.

7.07pm: Terry’s talking about the Italian premiere of his version of the Damnation of Faust. “Last year was my year of experimentation – short films and operas. I’m trying to work out a career for myself”.

7.09pm: The Wholly Family was a way to work in Naples. The only conditions from the pasta company was that it was set in the city (it is) and nobody dies (they don’t).

Terry says that short films like this are a realistic prospect for him because the middle group – those who don’t want to make blockbusters, but need a mid-range budget to realise their ambitions – are getting squeezed out of modern Hollywood.”

So Terry is making films for the internet when he’d rather make them for the big screen. And similarly I’d prefer to see his films on a big screen sitting in a comfortable armchair to looking at my computer screen, my ears covered with a headset, trying to convince myself that my desktop chair is just as nice (it isn’t). What a world we live in.

What feels even worse (and I’m reluctant to say it since I love some of his previous films so much and really want him to keep doing films): I wasn’t really a fan of this short.

Lagging issues
One reason is that I’m not particularly fond of Italian circus music, masquerade traditions or dream sequences in movies (apart from in Inception) and The Wholly Family has all of this. But even so I might have overcome those aversions and liked it if it wasn’t for one major problem, which had nothing to do with Terry’s quality as a film maker: the film lagged. The staggering movements of the actors made them sometimes look as if they were doing a robot look-a-like peformance in a street. And what was worse: the sound didn’t sync properly with the picture. It was as if the voices and the images were different entities, kept in different layers and it made the whole thing quite unpalatable. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Not being a technician I don’t know who’s to blame. I suppose it could be a problem with my computer or IP, but I wouldn’t think so. I’ve got a high-speed connection and normally I don’t have any trouble watching streaming media.

Terry doesn’t want me to sit in front of a computer watching a staggering film where people aren’t allowed to die because it might look bad for the sponsoring pasta company. He wants the real thing as much as I do. But sadly enough this is the best we can get at this point.

There’s a good reason why nostalgia is the theme of the year at the Oscars. People dream back to a time when a movie was a movie and not a marketing vehicle for pasta to be spread over Facebook.

The toast of this week goes to Terry. For the problems I had I wish this film will be a success. And I wish that you’ll get back to where you belong. In a proper theatre.


Written by Jessica

January 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Posted in The Wholly family

12 Responses

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  1. I hate to be so jaded, but when was a movie just a movie? Plenty of old films had massive marketing campaigns behind them back in the day. In fact, entire theaters would be decorated just to entice movie fans to see a certain film.

    Yes, as movie buffs we like to see films as more than just commercial products being marketed like any other goods out there, but it’s the nature of the beast that financial considerations are a big part of making movies.

    And yes, movie marketing has pervaded society on a level in which it did not before, reaching to us even in the comfort of our homes, but then again, our access to the world now begins in the comfort of our own homes.

    James Blake Ewing

    January 27, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    • Oh yes. You’re obviously right. I AM overly nostalgic, wishing for something that probably never existed more than in our imagination. But it’s Friday night so I feel excused for talking a bit of crap against better knowledge 🙂

      I would prefer though not to trade the grandness of a real theatre with the shitty laggy experience at home by my pc. When did people get afraid of leaving their caves? Is there a poisonous gas out there, some reason for us to take shelter?

      But I’m probably just an old relic, out of touch with the modern times.


      January 27, 2012 at 5:47 pm

  2. Hey Jessica,

    This is pretty cool. I mean, Terry Gilliam’s been acting as long as I’ve been around on this planet, and I still watch the Monty Python stuff that’s older than I am.

    At least it is if you want to let yourself believe it. The form letter has been around for decades now and doesn’t show any signs of going away. Computers and e-mail just make the whole process cheaper and easier, so more organizations are going to use it. I mean if a cat sliding into a box can make it viral on the web, enough to market it to the entire world, then why not try to contact online folk out there and see what it can generate. It’s only a little bit of time, now.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about what it means, just file it away as a little “One of the guys from Monty Python sent me an e-mail!” file. Add just a little bit of your own nostalgia to it, and give yourself a smile.

    I mean, I’ve gotten ‘letters’ from the President of the United States!

    Oddly enough, I think yours is cooler, though.

    My 2 yen,



    January 27, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    • Hehe… Yeah maybe it IS cool even if it’s a mass mail. What the heck, I could as well share it here.
      Here it is. Enjoy!

      “Dear Jessica,

      To all you keen folk who subscribed early to see The Wholly Family and have been in a long, deep sleep since you pushed the button, the time has come to wake up and do so.

      Just go to my website… .. and cough up the cash and start streaming away.

      But, make sure you scrub your face first and get out all those crusty, sleep thingies that glue your eyelashes together in the morning otherwise the film will look like you’re watching it through prison bars.

      However, for those of you who are serious criminals and have been found guilty by a judge or jury, those aren’t your eyelashes. You ARE in prison.

      Like me.

      The gang at Distrify have chained me to my Facebook page in a bizarre attempt to force the entire world to watch The Wholly Family. I’m not sure they have thought this scheme through very carefulleeeeee!! (The sound of 20,000 volts coursing through a human body)
      AAARGH!.. NO!..OK!.. OK!.. … Remember…YOU TOO CAN GET RICH! Just click on the SHARE button on The Wholly Family player and EARN 10% OF EVERYTHING I MAKE! You get rich. I get rich. We all join the 1%. And they’ve promised to unchain me.



      January 27, 2012 at 7:06 pm

  3. I’ll solve the enigma of the violinist for you.

    She – her name is Anne-Sophie Mutter – is not actually part of a symphony orchestra, but a soloist performing with various symphony orchestras around the world. That’s what the best of them do and she is the foremost violinist ever to grace the history of music. She was part of a symphony orchestra once, when starting out in earnest. At the ripe old age of thirteen. At that time, she was part of the premier symphony orchestra in the world, The Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of maestro Herbert von Karajan. However, even at that time, she was a soloist.

    If you haven’t heard her, please do. At least on record. Personally, if I may put in my five cents worth of bragging, I’ve heard and seen her in recitals so many times (I forget how many) that she nowadays greets me after performances in Stockholm and laughingly says: “You are ALWAYS here!” To which I can only reply: “How could I possibly stay away?”

    Here she is:

    And there is no chance whatsoever that she will ever be forced to play for nickels and dimes on the streets. That I gurantee.

    All the best,


    January 30, 2012 at 3:55 am

    • Ah, Ann-Sophie Mutter, even I’ve heard of her! I’m glad to hear she’s doig better than Gilliam financially. 🙂


      January 30, 2012 at 7:27 am

  4. I love Brazil and Twelve Monkeys.

    However, I’ve seen Tideland a few months ago and it was just a plain, bad movie. The brothers Grimm was an OK movie but nothing good.

    So I’m not that surprised that he can’t get a budget to create a full movie. I wish he would make a new Twelve Monkeys but the last three movies he made are against it.


    January 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    • I’m afraid I haven’t watched any of his more recent movies. I just remember him for Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, which I loved. And the things he did for Monty Python of course. Sad to hear that he hasn’t hold up to his previous standard in recent years.


      January 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm

  5. Perhaps the only thing different is that Gillaim is putting his seeling out-angst out there for the whole world to see? I really, really for example want to believe that Shyamalan didn’t have a fire in his belly for The Last Airbender — its was just something that had to be done. And all those actors who in interview after interview tries to sound sincere when they claim that they were hooked by the excellent script of, say, the nth installation of Scary Movie or American Pie. At least Gilliam’s not afraid to admit that he would much rather be doing something else. Still sad, though.


    January 31, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    • Yeah, you’re right. His honesty and transparency in it is quite admirable. In the end filmmaking is like any other business. There are bills to be payed and you need to find someone who is willing to sponsor your filmmaking. Pasta producing money are as valid as any other mooney.

      I still wish he could make real films, films on par with his best work. A beautiful comeback. That would be quite something!


      January 31, 2012 at 12:31 pm

  6. I am, again, behind in my reading. But, speaking of famous violinists playing on street corners, I was reminded of this article: A famous violinist, Joshua Bell, plays incognito on a in a busy subway station.

    Figured you might enjoy that. 🙂

    Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    February 24, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    • Hi Brian! Nice to see you pop in here. My posts aren’t going anywhere so read them whenever you feel like a little drink of mine! The story you linked was wonderful! Thank you!


      February 24, 2012 at 11:08 pm

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