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Revisiting two brilliant flops this weekend in Raleigh

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Call it one of those rare coinky-dinks that two Raleigh movie venues will each be playing a film this week from that famed, cursed filmmaker Terry Gilliam.

Yes, I said "cursed." Is there any other auteur with such limitless imagination and an unbelievable flair for bad luck? Many of the films by the former Monty Python's Flying Circus animator have been besieged with conflicts, natural disasters, money troubles and, in the case of his last film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the untimely death of its star, Heath Ledger.

His 1985 film Brazil, which will be playing this Friday at the N.C. Museum of Art (as part of the museum's oh-so-aptly titled "Surrealism in Film" fall series), is considered both his greatest achievement and his most drama-plagued production. Universal, the movie's stateside distributor, didn't know what to make of Gilliam's dystopian satire, set in a bureaucratic, totalitarian society where a low-level government employee (Jonathan Pryce) finds himself becoming a wanted man when he's suspected of conspiring with terrorists. When the bleak, batty movie tested poorly with audiences, the studio recut it, making a 94-minute, happy ending-enhanced version (notoriously dubbed the "Love Conquers All" cut).

Eventually, after Gilliam began screening the film for critics (without the studio's knowledge, mind you), their unanimous praise for the film forced Universal to release his 132-minute version.

Despite the Brazil debacle, Gilliam worked with Universal again. He finally brought Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson's drug-addled, groundbreaking piece of "gonzo journalism," to the big screen in 1998. (The Colony will play it tonight as this month's "Cool Classics" feature.) Unsurprisingly, that project also had its problems. After decades of directors like Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone vowing to make a movie version, with stars like Jack Nicholson, John Malkovich and John Cusack in line to play Thompson stand-in Raoul Duke, Gilliam was brought in when producers had a falling out with the initial director, Alex Cox of Repo Man fame. That Cox retained a screenwriting credit so infuriated Gilliam—who claims nothing Cox wrote is in the film—that he burned his WGA card.

Nevertheless, Gilliam didn't disappoint in creating another busy, undeniably surreal world for Fear and Loathing. Of course, Johnny Depp would end up taking the role of Duke, creating a carbon copy of Thompson down to the bald head, woozy, mumbling mannerisms and cigarette holder clenched in his teeth. (Depp will virtually play Thompson/ Duke again this October in The Rum Diary, a movie based on Thompson's novel about a Duke-like journalist in 1950s Puerto Rico.) Along with faithful attorney Dr. Gonzo (a pot-bellied Benicio del Toro), they take a heavily hedonistic trip—in every sense of the word—to Sin City, consuming every drug they can stomach, and many they can't.

While both Brazil and Fear and Loathing ended up being cult faves rather than box-office hits, these flawed but distinctive films are prime examples of Gilliam's knack for making movies around reluctant protagonists who often step outside reality to envision a more fantastic, more idealistic world. Whether they dream of being a winged avenger, as Sam Lowry does in Brazil, or go on hellacious drug benders to escape the worst of what post-'60s America had to offer, as Raoul Duke does in Fear and Loathing, Gilliam's unlikely heroes are dreamers who continue to hope for a better tomorrow, even when there seems to be no hope in sight.

Of course, you can also say this is what Terry Gilliam continues to do as a filmmaker, keeping the stifling real world at bay so his imagination can roam free.

Indy contributor Laura Boyes curated the North Carolina Museum of Art's fall series, and contributor Zack Smith introduces the Nov. 4 screening of City of Lost Children.

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