Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Making the Myth True: The Fisher King on Criterion

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King.

Around the turn of the millennium, the director Terry Gilliam struggled to bring an updated Don Quixote to the screen; the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) chronicles the breakdown of the project after bad weather and the illness of his Quixote, the French actor Jean Rochefort, threw it into financing hell. When he finally released a version of it called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2018, he’d lost the momentum. Really, though, he’d already made his Don Quixote, back in 1991. In his best movie, The Fisher King, written by Richard LaGravenese, two men strangely bonded by a tragedy heal each other through a crackpot mission to locate the Holy Grail, devised by one of them, a schizophrenic (Robin Williams) who used to be a Hunter College English professor named Henry Sagan, and carried through by the other, a one-time radio talk host named Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) whose life has become meaningless. The tragedy is a mass shooting at a popular bar called Babbitt’s perpetrated by a lunatic who has received encouragement for his paranoia by Jack, whose favorite targets is the yuppies who frequent Babbitt’s. Jack’s spleen isn’t real; his diatribes are cynical inventions to entertain his listeners and fuel his career. Until the killer strikes, it never occurs to him that there might be consequences to his habit of revving them up. Afterwards, shattered by what he’s brought into being, Jack goes into retreat, drinking and hiding from the world while his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) shelters him and lets him help her manage the video shop below her apartment.

His guilt has made him emotionally inaccessible and it’s eating him up. He considers throwing himself in the East River. Instead he’s attacked on the Manhattan Bridge by a gang of youths on what used to be called a wilding spree. The man who saves his life is Sagan, whose wife was shot before his eyes at Babbitt’s and who hasn’t recovered from the trauma. Now he calls himself Parry and camps, through the generosity of the super, in the boiler room of his old apartment building. A self-appointed mayor of New York’s homeless, Parry sees himself as a crusading knight – his adopted name is short for Parsifal, the mythic seeker of the Grail – but he needs someone else to complete his mission for him because the fiery, terrifying Red Knight, an emanation of his grief and survivor’s guilt, crosses his path whenever things seem as if they’re going well for him. When Jack learns from the super that Parry was a psychological casualty of the Babbitt’s slaughter, he takes a shot in the dark, hoping that maybe helping Parry in some way will loosen his own burden. He tries to give him money, but Parry just hands it off to his homeless friends. He tries, with Anne’s help, to play matchmaker, arranging a date for Parry with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), the object of his romantic fantasies. But the moment she reciprocates his affections, the Red Knight reappears and the wilding kids beat him nearly to death; he winds up comatose in the hospital. So Jack takes on his mission to steal the Grail, which is in reality a childhood trophy in the mansion of a reclusive millionaire. He even dresses for the part of a knight from the Middle Ages (and the mansion is appropriately neo-Medieval in style).

The new Criterion release of The Fisher King – which includes both a Blu-ray and a 4K UHD restoration, in addition to audio commentary by Gilliam and interviews with him, LaGravenese and the four stars (the interview with Williams is from 2006) – does honor to the director’s extraordinary work and to that of his collaborators, the cinematographer Roger Pratt and the production designer Mel Bourne. Gilliam is an expressionist, but in the final act of the film his style migrates to magical realism. The images are spectacular, especially in the scenes where Parry’s delusions take over the screen; in one, his romantic vision of Lydia transforms Grand Central Station into a ballroom peopled with waltzing couples.

Lydia and Parry are as cockeyed a pair of lovers movies have ever afforded us. She’s cursed with chronic clumsiness – when she walks down the street, wind-blown newspapers stick to her shoes; she gets caught in revolving doors; she knocks over racks of videotapes in Anne’s store; and when Anne and Jack pick a Chinese restaurant for their double date with her and Parry, the chopsticks Lydia insists on using conspire against her. But as Plummer plays her – and as we see her through Parry’s besotted eyes – Lydia’s fumbling is misplaced comic grace, like Chaplin’s. This section of the movie is transcendent romantic comedy. The Fisher King is often very funny. The homeless and later the other patients in the hospital where Parry lies in his coma form a comic chorus whom Parry and then Jack – once he has accepted that salvation can only come from putting himself in the shoes of his debilitated friend – lead in renditions of the wonderful Burton Lane-Ralph Freed song “How About You?,” a paean to the delights of sharing the things we love with those we care about. (The song was written for the 1941 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical Babes on Broadway; over the end credits of The Fisher King we hear the Harry Nilsson cover.) The parade of the Manhattan disadvantaged includes Tom Waits as a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet who characterizes himself as a moral traffic cop, reasoning that people who might be moved to acts of violence out of desperation reconsider when they see him and realize how lucky they are by comparison. It also includes the late Michael Jeter in a brilliantly over-the-top small performance as a cabaret performer who has been driven to the brink of insanity by watching his friends die of AIDS. When Jack dreams up the idea of roping Lydia in by promising her a free membership to Anne’s video store, he sends Jeter to her workplace in hot pants and mesh stockings and a boa to deliver a singing telegram to the music of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy. There’s one more show-music highlight: at the Chinese restaurant, Parry serenades his beloved with a rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” originally sung by Groucho Marx in At the Circus. This vaudevillian underlayer is one of the movie’s many pleasures.

Good acting isn’t hard to find, but a quartet of performances of this caliber in the same picture is very rare. Williams did the best work of his career in The Fisher King, and though it’s more challenging to pick a champion among Jeff Bridges’s contributions, I think this may be his finest as well. Plummer is exquisite, and Ruehl is a life force. Finally exasperated over Jack’s inability to return the love she hands out with such easy generosity, Anne throws him out, but behind her anger and indignation you can see a tiny scrap of hope in her eyes that at the eleventh hour something of warmth will make its way through his bitterness and self-hatred and fierce emotional restraint.

The Fisher King came out around the same time as a handful of fatuous, didactic melodramas about spoiled, self-involved men who learn humanity as a result of unexpected physical obstacles. But Gilliam’s movie isn’t like The Doctor (with William Hurt) or Regarding Henry (with Harrison Ford): Jack Lucas earns his redemption. And LaGravenese’s screenplay is beautifully worked out. It’s Parry who teaches Jack the story of the fisher king, which was the subject of Henry Sagan’s dissertation. A boy king is visited by a holy vision, but his greed for power – his hubris – causes him to bypass the Grail; only an act of kindness and unselfishness brings the sacred object back. It’s a story about greed and ego, loss and pain and an ultimate salvation, and it’s the perfect symbol for what happens to Jack in The Fisher King.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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