Over the past thirty years, by my account, America has become one very large nanny state. At the risk of turning this into a “when I was a kid” rant, I have vivid memories of riding in the front seat of a car with my grandfather, child seat nowhere to be found. Also absent were helmets of any type. Our neighborhood playground was lined with gravel and broken concrete. Iron rebar poked out through the sides of some of the constructions, and yet I don’t remember anyone losing an eye, no matter how much fun was had. And while the Atlanta Child Murderer and Green River Killer had made all of our parents stress “don’t talk to strangers” a little more often, I don’t recall any of our parents panicking, restricting, sealing us in Gloopstick or waling to the government that we must “be protected”. Protection was what the local police were for. And if we were injured on someone’s property, it was because we were trespassing, not because the property was unsafe. Lawsuits, back then, were for rich people. (And if you spilled a cup of coffee in your lap, you were an idiot, not the victim of corporate negligence.) The Helen Lovejoys of our mixed German-Irish-Italian-Polish communities often had their shrieks of “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” shouted down and were told to mind their own business. Especially when those Helen Lovejoys were childless to begin with.
Yet I’m ashamed to see that even the underprotected of my generation have grown up into helicopter parents, demanding that their children be placed under institutional law, to be protected from harm of any kind but especially the evils of cinematic nudity and video game violence. The arguments can be and are made that the world is much more dangerous now, what with all those pedophiles lurking on the internet and those pesky illegal aliens sneaking across our boarders to exchange their children for ours like little brown changelings. The call for governmental interference into the child-rearing world seems to signal an extreme lack of confidence in personal parenting skills. Even worse is that once one becomes a parent, they seem to forget that, despite lacking all of these safety measures, we somehow managed to survive our own childhoods fairly well, if not completely intact.
Maybe we didn’t have easy access to pornography of any type, that just meant we had to work harder to find it. Our slasher movies were omnipresent and extremely violent. In the ‘70s, bared bodies could be found as often on PBS as they could on HBO or “Skinemax”, and yet none of our heads exploded, Scanners-style by exposure to any of these elements. Profanity assaulted our ears constantly—at first, something to be giggled at during Sam Kinnison routines, later to be boldly exclaimed on our own, on the playground, as a rite of passage. If our parents didn’t want us to watch a certain movie, we either didn’t see it, or we watched it at a more permissive parents’ house. And we survived because children are resilient. We survived divorce, we survived older sibling overdose, we survived gang war, we survived whole milk, fried foods and Red Dye #5. And as children, we tended to react overly emotionally at the moment. We were quick to anger and quick to tears. But we were also quick to adapting. This is what kids did. This is, believe it or not, what they still do. Human children are made of vulcanized rubber. They’re sticky, smart-assed little punks with the survival rate of Matchbox cars. It takes a lot to destroy them.
In Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, nine-year-old Jeliza-Rose is the daughter of a pair of heroin addicts, and cooking their fixes is part of her everyday routine, just one of her household chores. Her father Noah, an aging rock musician, doesn’t make responsibility a high priority and he sees Jeliza as more a buddy than a daughter. When her delirious mother ODs, she and Noah pack up and move back to his ramshackle childhood home in Texas. The rotting farmhouse, nicknamed “What Rocks”, literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by high seas of brown grass, becomes Jeliza-Rose’s new world. Her only companions are disembodied dolls heads she wears on her fingers. They’re her lookouts, her safekeepers and sentries, and each of the four—Mustique, Sateen Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter Gal—are each aspects of her still-developing psyche. After exploring her new home and gets accustomed to the strange newness, she cooks up a fix for Noah and goes to sleep in his arms. During the night, he dies.
At first, she barely notices. A hardcore junkie, Noah spends a lot of his time in unconscious or near-conscious states. But as the body bloats, tongue turning purple and beard attracting flies, Jeliza—who already has a morbid fascination with death—transforms her father into a new imaginary friend, dressing him in wigs and make-up. Without a parent to take care of, Jeliza-Rose is free to do whatever she wants. But there in the middle of the Texas prairie, there’s really nothing to do. Her daydreams increase their output. The rolling sea of wheat grass becomes the entry to an underwater world, where What Rocks and its contents float lazily. She thrills to the twice-daily passenger train rocketing past the house, sitting in relative safety in the remains of a destroyed school bus, shrieking in delight as the creature rocks and shakes the world around her.
During one of her reveries, she meets her neighbors: the half-blind “witch” Dell, and her twenty-something brother Dickens, the mentally handicapped and partially lobotomized in an attempt to cure his epilepsy. They live in their own deteriorating house, a few miles from What Rocks. These two gradually become Jeliza-Rose’s new family, but the roles start shifting almost immediately. When she learns that Dell had a teenage romance with Noah, she first looks at the woman as a surrogate mother, and then a strict rival for Dickens’ affections. Teetering on the precipice of pubescence, Jeliza-Rose’s innocent curiosity makes her a young predator, disturbing Dickens’ imbalance even further. Even when the skilled taxidermist Dell tans and stuffs Noah’s body, laying him lovingly in Jeliza’s bed, Jeliza can’t help but resent Dell, especially her dominance over Dickens. But these flashes of anger and jealousy rarely last long before she and Dickens are off on some new adventure in the high grass, completely unaware of the startling right turn her young life is speeding towards.
Adapted from the novel by Mitch Cullin with the lowest budget he’s had in decades, Gilliam directs Tideland with a sure hand and his camera delights in creating Jeliza-Rose’s imaginary worlds of talking doll heads. He walks along the edge of exploitation, keeping viewers on edge, realizing that Jeliza-Rose could be in real danger—of starvation, certainly, but also of loss of innocence, should Dickens’ body overtake his childish mind and yield to Jeliza’s immature affections. Gilliam keeps the tension mounted, even when squirrels talk, even when Jeliza’s “Glitter Gal” voice comes from Glitter Gal’s head and not Jeliza’s.
But what we never see is a child in distress. The fleeting moments of anger or grief flash quickly and depart once she’s distracted by something else. Real emotions flare as often as her frequent soap opera melodrama, wrist to forehead as she swoons at some newly imagined catastrophe (as when she bites her lip, drawing blood—at the sight of the crimson, she flings herself backwards in despair that she’s “dying! Oh no!”). Running out of peanut butter is more of a calamity to her (though more than she’s aware) than the idea of placing her remaining “friends” inside daddy’s taxidermied chest cavity. And the more we learn about Dickens’ unpredictable notions—it was he who created Jeliza’s schoolbus fort by driving it in front of the train—the “Monster Shark”—years before, injuring himself and many others. But because Jeliza never believes herself in danger, our tension increases. Even worse are the images of Jeliza dressing in wigs and make-up, appearing to be very much older than she is—well, even, of age—that further adds to our discomfort. But these are all our hang-ups. This is the baggage we brought to the movie. And, by presenting us with horror tropes outside of the horror genre (the disfigured sister, the gothic house, the dead, stuffed father), the movie has every intention of rummaging through our baggage until it finds what it’s looking for.
And it’s this baggage that’s led to the critical disdain of this movie since its release. Despite winning awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival following a lukewarm response at the Toronto International, Tideland has seen its share of walk-outs from critics as well as accusations of exploitation and “ugliness”. By his own admission, Tideland was one of the easiest productions he’d ever undertaken, only to see all his hardwork shattered by poor distribution (whereas, in the past, his movies suffer severe producer interference prior to apathetic distribution). What many viewers seem to focus on is the danger that surrounds Jeliza-Rose. So wonderful is Jodelle Ferland as Jeliza that one can’t help but want to protect her and play with her, to give her the love she’s so desperate for, and we ignore the more negative aspects of her juvenilia: her pettiness towards not only her neighbors, but to her doll-head companions; her manipulation of Dickens prior to her flickering moments of sexual awakening; her aggravating penchant towards distraction—everything that makes her a child. But Tideland brings the Helen Lovejoy out of the best of us. When Jeliza and Dickens share innocent kisses, our psyches scream out “Protect her!” For surely she’ll shatter. Tideland does not make light of pedophilia or, really, even flirt with it. It’s what our baggage turns those innocent playdates into. Dickens is, obviously, much older than she, but in terms of intellectual and emotional maturity, she’s the elder. As Gilliam says on his commentary with screenwriter Tony Grisoni, “Jeliza is the predator here.” But by focusing on the danger, the viewer misses out on all the magic and wonder that is central to all Terry Gilliam films and Tideland in particular. The man who brought us the grim whimsy of Brazil and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus takes our hands and places us fully into the dizzying daffy world of an imaginative and lonely nine-year-old little girl. Jeliza never pities herself so neither should we. She doesn’t need protecting. She needs love. And food. Then all will be okay again.
Fortunately for those who can leave baggage in the lobby, Tideland is still available as a 2-disc DVD set from ThinkFilm, complete with Gilliam’s giggling commentary and a whole disc of documentary footage and deleted scenes. Give it a shot and let the movie come to you. If you come off too old or too worried, you’re only going to scare it off.