Cine-East Film Club Presents #50: 1991, The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam)

by George_East on August 17, 2014

Jack Lucas: ‘I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home’

I initially didn’t intend to post a Cine-East film club tribute presentation to Robin Williams.  Much of his film career, so it seemed to me, involved roles of such saccharine vacuity that his life in films was not one I wanted the Cine-East Film Club to celebrate.  I even sent some pretty scathing emails to friends about Williams – a man of obviously immense comic ability, who, wasted it on playing a series of teeth-rottingly sweet zany good guys – particularly during his 1990s film career peak (just think of the unwatchably awful Flubber, Patch Adams and Jakob The Liar to name but three).  The sheer dreadfulness of some of these films made Williams for a long time one of the few actors that would automatically put me off even watching a film.     A talent wasted, not fulfilled.

But the more I thought about it the more unfair I thought I was being.  If I have never been hugely convinced by the desperately middlebrow and worthy Dead Poets Society as a film (it is essentially a bunch of posh kids poncing about), Williams’ performance in it is actually admirably understated and impressive.  Likewise the force-of-nature turn that made him a star in Good Morning Vietnam seems irritating now as a result of seeing it through the prism of those awful later roles.     But I have to confess as a 17 year old, when I first saw it, I loved it.

Like many of my generation I remember with fondness from my childhood his presence as the alien sent in a giant egg to learn the bewildering ways of human beings in Mork and Mindy.   Williams was perfectly cast as the ultimate innocent abroad and his ‘Mork calling Orson’ and ‘Nanu Nanu’ catch phrases became part of daily playground communication for my 9 year old self.   Yet I could hardly write a piece on a Mork and Mindy episode as a Cine-East presentation, not least because other than those famous catchphrases I would struggle now to remember much more than his red outfit and Mindy’s big 1970s hair.

So I then thought that if I did a Cine-East Film Club post dedicated to Robin Williams I would possibly feature a film from his early 2000s renaissance when, seemingly aware of the career dead end he had reached as a result of playing parts like a zany doctor who cured sick children with laughter (yes that was his character in Patch Adams I am sorry to remind you), he began taking far darker roles in films like One Hour Photo or Christopher Nolan’s excellent but relatively neglected, Insomnia.  However, as good as Williams is in those films, it would have been, I think, to miss something of his essence, precisely because those films did play against type.  Maybe I wouldn’t do a tribute post after all – just move right on to the truly great Lauren Bacall  (about whom watch this space) who also died this week (and yes my long promised Alain Resnais tribute post is also in the pipeline).

Then it occurred to me.  The last Robin Williams film I saw at the cinema (for the reasons I set out above he became so offensive to me that I could not even bear to pay to see Good Will Hunting when it came out because he was in it despite its glowing reviews) was the answer.   A film in which the combination of the fantastical imagination of its director, Terry Gilliam,  and Williams’ idiot savant film persona blended perfectly.  That film is The Fisher King and it is this week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation.

The Fisher King is a film about the effect of one tragic incident on the lives of two men.  Jack Lucas (the ever reliable Jeff Bridges) is a successful and egotistical New York talk radio shock jock, whose show consists of humiliating the poor schmucks who call his show (often doing so for no more reason than they are lonely).  Like other fake men of the people (see journo pub bore blowhards like Richard Littlejohn and Rod Liddle, or Jeremy Clarkson),  Jack Lucas likes to set himself up against the suits of the City.  In a conversation with one of his regular callers who had failed to get into some new yuppie bar, Jack tells him that it is ‘either them or us’, spurring the caller into going down to the bar and opening fire on the drinkers, killing 5.

The incident will lead Jack Lucas to have a complete breakdown as a result of feeling responsible for the killings.  He cannot  continue with his show, takes to the bottle and shacks up with video store owner, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl),  On a night when, stinking drunk, he is about to commit suicide by throwing himself into the river he is assaulted by vigilantes ‘cleaning up the city’ who mistake him for one of the homeless who live beneath the bridge.  He is rescued by a group of the homeless led by the irrepressible but utterly delusional Parry (Robin Williams), who takes Jack under his wing and tells him that he is destined to recover the holy grail which he says is located in a billionaire’s house.   We will find out that Parry was a professor of English, specialising in Arthurian literature, until his wife was shot dead, among those killed in the bar.   Parry’s obsession with retrieving the holy grail is intimately connected with  being able to deal with what happened to his wife and move on with his life.

The Fisher King is a film, which captures the harsh realties and huge socio-economic divisions of the US after a decade of regressive policies under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr.    As with the music of the time (see for example  Neil Young‘s Rockin’ In the Free World), even Hollywood films had however blandly begun to engage with the growing issue of homelessness.

Gilliam portrays two worlds. The world of the rich and successful as a world of exclusive hotels, bars, glass towers, sound proofed limos and even castles (the house that the billionaire who Parry thinks has the holy grail live in is a folly designed like a medieval castle).   On the other side of the divide the poor are kept separate and kept out of these spaces.   They are such unpeople that there is no sense that the murderous assaults that both Lucas and Parry will face from vigilantes are anything other than absolutely commonplace – they are not reported, there is no suggestion of protection or even interest from the police after the assaults have taken place.  The hospitals that the poor go to for treatment are straight out of a post-apocalyptic dsytopia (there are nods to Gilliam’s earlier Kafkaesque Brazil in the set design).

Both Jack Lucas and Parry have crossed the line from one world to another.  Lucas was the more successful and has fallen the least far,  into the world of the working poor.  Parry has gone from the world of bourgeois academia to the world of the underclass, living a literally subterranean existence.

The cause is the same – the mass killings at the bar, though again the effect on them is very different.  For Jack Lucas, the feeling of guilt and responsibility has resulted in a self-loathing and inability to function.   He is conscious though of the world he has left behind and wants to find some way back to it.  For Parry though it is far more severe, he has entered a delusional fantasy world, in which he is hunted by a red knight (symbolising his past) and in which the quest for the grail provides his life with meaning, as the truth of what actually happened that night is buried deep in his subconscious.   Parry’s theme tune is ‘I love New York in June’, yet it is a city that killed his wife and which will almost result in his own death – the song is perhaps as much part of his subconscious denial protecting him from the reality of what happened as the quest.

The grail is though manifested not just by a silver cup Parry saw in a photograph in a magazine and which is in the ownership of the billionaire, but also in the shape of his own Guinevere, Lydia (played wonderfully by Amanda Plummer as a woman who makes even Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall look like the model of composure and self-confidence), the clumsy office girl who becomes the object of his admiration from a distance.  It is through successfully matchmaking the pair that Jack thinks he has obtained the redemption he sought and is able to revive his career  – things though are not as simply as this and his guilt cannot be assuaged by a simple act of paying penance, the scars of what happened are far too deeply etched on his psyche.

Although the film’s ending is the one that Hollywood demands in its suggestion that only love can ultimately redeem (for both Lucas and Parry), it is a scene about 20 minutes or so before the end of the film, which has greater resonance now Williams has taken his own life. When Parry is himself attacked by the vigilantes who are hunting down the homeless and he is stabbed, possibly fatally, his reaction is to say to them ‘thank you’.  Sometimes, those words suggest, stuff simply overwhelms and the release of death seems preferable to the pain of continuing.

Robin Williams RIP


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: