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Gilliam Dissects ‘The Fisher King’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I had three rules in my life when it came to making films:

* "(Make) nobody’s but my own.

* ". . . never work for a major studio . . .

* ". . . never work in America.

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“I have done all three of these things, and it’s called ‘The Fisher King.’ ”

That’s one of the few flippant remarks director Terry Gilliam makes in his informative voice-over discourse for the Criterion Collection laser release ($100) of his richly textured, disturbing and ultimately uplifting contemporary interpretation of the medieval legend surrounding the search for the Holy Grail. The film earned Mercedes Ruehl a best supporting actress Oscar from among its five nominations, including original screenplay (Richard LaGravenese), art direction (Mel Bourne), original score (George Fenton) and best actor (Robin Williams).

Gilliam’s continually fascinating analog audio track, dissecting the film scene by scene--including several deleted from the theatrical release of the film--makes clear the value of Criterion’s series with directors talking about their work as their films are shown.

Just how Gilliam thinks when he works and what he thinks about his work puts to rest endless speculation.

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“Another director wouldn’t have made (“The Fisher King”) any way like I have made it,” Gilliam says. “The same script would have been quite different. I think it would have been a very lightweight, enjoyable, pleasant, jolly, touching, warm piece, and it would have been fine, but it would have lost its darkness--the heights and depths are accentuated by this fairy-tale pattern I have in my head that I imposed upon the film.”

The reward of this two-disc set is in holding Gilliam captive in your living room--listening to him talk about casting, moments of spontaneity (the inspiration for the sparkling Grand Central Station ballroom dancing scene), shots born of necessity (a sequence in the Chinese restaurant) and the meaning of the Holy Grail (“it’s really love, it’s rediscovering humanity and the ability to love”).

Gilliam jokes that all of his films--including “Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life,” “The Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"--could be construed as a search for the Holy Grail. “The difference between this film and the others is that it was primarily about human relationships.” Those relationships, with stellar performances from Ruehl, Williams, Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer and Michael Jeter, play surprisingly well on the small screen in this meticulous transfer.

Letterboxed in its original aspect ratio of 1.85-to-1, the transfer (made from an intermediate positive with two-track magnetic Dolby stereo master) preserves the rich detailing of the sets--the brooding qualities of the city’s underbelly and the sleek coldness of Jeff Bridges’ radio days. There are 55 chapter stops, with Sides 1 and 2 in the extended play (CLV) format and Sides 3 and 4, which includes analysis of key scenes and costume tests, in CAV format.

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Tidal Wave: The first woman director to get the “Criterion treatment” will be Barbra Streisand in a release of “The Prince of Tides” ($100) scheduled to coincide with the July 29 tape release. Like Gilliam, she will offer a scene-by-scene discussion on an analog audio track. Also included will be deleted scenes, makeup tests, production stills and the original script with her notes.


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