Falling Very Slowly: the Metamodernism of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland

by A.R. Warwick

Spring 2012

Terry Gilliam’s 2005 film Tideland centers on an abandoned child, Jeliza-Rose, and her solitary adventures during one summer in rural Texas. With both veiled and obvious allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the story focuses on the increasingly dark, imaginative fantasy life the child creates with four dismembered Barbie doll heads that she often wears on her fingertips. Mystique, Sateen Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter Gal; the doll heads engage in long conversations with Jeliza-Rose, reflecting different aspects of her psyche, along with acting as her companions even before she is left alone.

In their 2010 essay, “Notes on Modernism,” Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker characterize metamodernism as an oscillation between modernity’s utopian enthusiasm and post-modernity’s critical irony, not as a balance, but like a pendulum where movement too far in one direction results in a pull back toward the other. As such, it is like the oscillations within existence itself, where, as described by Eric Voeglin in “Equivalence of Experience and Symbolization in History”:

Existence has the structure of the In-Between, of Platonic metaxy. And if anything is constant in the history of mankind it is the language of tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfection and imperfection, time and timelessness, between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence; between amor Dei and amor sui, l’ame ouverte and l’ame close. 

At the same time, metamodernism is also a structure of feeling, based in an emotional logic relating, not to a temporal period, but to a shared sensibility. Of late, the sensibility is a neoromanticism, described as an “inclination toward the tragic, the sublime, and the uncanny…aesthetic categories lingering between projection and perception, form and the unformable, coherence and chaos, corruption and innocence.”

Neoromanticism has been a regular feature within Gilliam’s oeuvre, but here manifests in Tideland without the recourse to his traditional use of fantastic imagery. Instead, Gilliam uses the poetics of the beauty and horror of the Kantian sublime to convey his story. The vast Texas prairie and enclosed spaces of violence and horror work in concert with the narrative oscillation between Jeliza-Rose’s innocence and the corruption (both physical and moral) of the people around her. In the DVD version of the film, Gilliam offers an introduction that is both a caveat and a plea. He warns that some will like the film, some will hate it and some will not know what to think. He asks only that they do think and not let “pre-conceived societal notions” close them off to the ideas in the film. Seen entirely through the eyes of a child, the film is “shocking because it is innocent,” and he reminds the audience that children are resilient, and often bounce when you drop them. In reality, he is asking the audience for something much more problematic than looking beyond convention.

Raised by heroin addicts in Los Angeles, Jeliza-Rose looks after her father, Noah, by preparing his heroin injections and her mother by massaging her legs and patiently enduring her verbal and physical abuse. The opening scenes are akin to the stylized nightmare in Oliver Stone’s 1994 Natural Born Killers. Titled “I Love Mallory” the sequence makes a sitcom of the home life of Juliette Lewis’s character. Her father, played brilliantly by Rodney Dangerfield, is a repulsive slob in a stained “wife beater” undershirt who, like Pere Ubu, rains down abuse on his wife and children with an arbitrary evil, punctuated by a manufactured laugh-track. While Gilliam lacks Stone’s postmodern pastiche, Jeliza-Rose’s mother’s methadone overdose is almost comically punctuated by shrieks and vulgar convulsions within the lurid and pathetic glamour of her bedroom of satin sheets and mirrored disco balls.

Jeliza-Rose and Noah flee Los Angeles to Noah’s mother’s home, “What Rocks,” a remote Texas farmhouse. In Los Angeles, Noah was a stabilizing presence in Jeliza-Rose’s life, a man-child whose lap provided safety, even when the owner was on “vacation,” but traveling by bus outside their private, enclosed world, the audience sees him as any other junkie. Noah stumbles around the bus’s interior, swearing and mumbling, as Jeliza-Rose tries to get him under control. The other passengers shrink back in disgust as his behavior escalates when he farts and vomits behind the seats. Jeliza-Rose is only embarrassed when Noah playfully tries to blame his odors on her in front of everyone. The viewer is thus shown two different views of Noah based on those around him, the disgust of his fellow passengers and his child’s tolerance and love of an idealized parent.

Arriving in Texas, they find the farmhouse wrecked and abandoned, but have no choice but to settle in. Their first night there, Noah again goes on “vacation.” As he gives himself the injection his daughter has prepared, Jeliza-Rose excitedly talks to her doll Mystique about exploring their new home, while Noah expresses his own disappointment and disillusionment, saying:

Daddy’s gonna stroll down that far subterranean shore, all littered with the flotsam of hopes and dreams. Relics of ancient times. Lonely cenotaphs. Standing along that melancholy tideland. 

Later that night Noah dies from a heroin overdose. For much of the rest of the film, Noah’s corpse remains seated upright in a living room chair with sunglasses covering his eyes. As her father slowly begins to decompose, Jeliza-Rose doesn’t readily acknowledge his death because she has grown accustomed to him being unconscious for long periods of time. She continues to crawl into his lap and swats flies from his body, telling him that he’d better not try to blame the stench of his decay on her. She begins to retreat deeper and deeper into her own mind, exploring the tall grass around the farmhouse, relying on her doll heads for friendship.

The decay and corruption inside “What Rocks” huddles within vast fields of golden grass, swaying in waves pushed by the wind under a bright azure sky. A combination of the intense hues of van Gogh and the desolation of Andrew Wyeth, the Texas prairie is the field upon which Jeliza-Rose constructs her fantasy life. Eventually she encounters and befriends her neighbors, a mentally impaired young man called Dickens and his older sister, Dell, who is blind in one eye from a bee sting.

Dell is the second unpredictably abusive woman who welcomes and rejects Jeliza-Rose based on perceived sins and slights. She was in love with Noah before he left and goes so far as to embalm Noah’s body (which Dell and Dickens did to their own dead mother). She demands that Jeliza-Rose sacrifice something into her father’s carcass, so the girl places two of her doll heads inside before the body is sealed up. Described as being “like a burrito,” the preserved Noah fails to provide the comfort of the corruptible man, especially with her dolls speaking to her from the empty space within, and Jeliza-Rose begins to seek male affection in the relationship between her and Dickens.

Though mentally disabled, Dickens is aware of the dangerous path Jeliza-Rose is unwittingly pulling him down, since it is revealed that her own grandmother sexually abused him. Their relationship also drives a wedge between Dickens’ relationship with Dell and her worship of their preserved mother. In many ways, this is the most terrifying part of the film, as Jeliza-Rose’s innocent beauty and affection moves them toward an increasingly physical relationship at the risk of her complete corruption.

Throughout the film the audience is presented with the horrors of Jeliza-Rose’s life. She is born addicted to heroin, raised by junky parents, abandoned by what was likely her father’s suicide, abused and possibly moving toward a sexualized relationship with a mentally-disabled adult who was himself a victim of sexual abuse. What Gilliam asked of the audience in his DVD introduction moves far beyond not allowing “pre-conceived societal notions” to close them off to the film. He is asking his audience to move beyond widely held moral convictions, to stifle the outrage that arises when these convictions are violated. In her 2010 study “The Psychology of Moral Conviction” Linda Skitka characterizes moral convictions as based in fundamental beliefs in right and wrong, and finds that those who hold them cannot tolerate their violation or the people who do so. Thus the most glaring oscillation of Tideland is not between corruption and innocence, but between outrage and art.