In so doing, Gilliam ensured that the interview would go viral. There’s nothing folks on Twitter enjoy more than signaling that someone has the wrong beliefs — and that, by virtue of highlighting their awfulness you have the right beliefs — by sharing bad thoughts and saying that they are bad. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’s response to Gilliam saying that he was “tired, as a white male, of being blamed for everything that is wrong with the world” was typical: “If you’re so tired go lie down old man.”
Slay King! Burn that old man to the ground, Paul. Get your 880 retweets and 14.5K likes! That’s what your fans want, and it’s important to give the people what they desire. If you don’t stand up to this menace of someone saying something that flies in the face of conventional progressive wisdom, then who will?
Of course, 880 retweets means untold hundreds of thousands of impressions on Twitter, which in turn means more eyeballs on a story about a movie that can’t afford a traditional publicity campaign and is desperate for PR. TV ads are expensive; radio ads cost money; print ads need to be designed and paid for and placed in papers. But outrage bait? That’s free.
I will grant that it’s aggravating that things have come to this. I, for one, wish we could have a civil discussion about the merits and demerits of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” without getting into a protracted argument about the need to cancel one of the most fascinating directors of the late 20th century who also served as a member of one of the great comedy troupes the postwar era.
It would be nice to discuss the physicality of Adam Driver in his leading role, as he stumbles about the Spanish countryside playing a modern-day Sancho Panza traveling between times and states of consciousness. (Driver has had a pretty amazing year or five, hasn’t he?) One wishes we could really dig into the fact that Gilliam is reteaming with Jonathan Pryce three decades after their seminal work “Brazil” and explore how has age changed the ways in which the two of them view modernity and what is on the horizon. I’d like to learn about some of the structural choices Gilliam made in this film, the coherency of which sometimes comes into question. (As with many such things Gilliam-related, it’s a bit of a mess, this movie.)
Gilliam’s ploy was, nevertheless, savvy. Let’s be honest: He has never quite appealed to mainstream tastes, and the idea of getting regular folks to pay attention to an adaptation of a book most of them skipped reading in high school by a filmmaker whose last real hit came nearly a quarter-century ago (with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), is a heavy lift. Yes, sure: I know lots of people who enjoy “Brazil” and “Time Bandits” and “12 Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing” — you do, too, we’re all aesthetes here.
But aesthetics don’t drive the conversation. Angst does. Angst sells in a very real way. And angst gets eyeballs. Who knows how many sales that converts to — as any advertiser will tell you, eyeballs are nice, but they don’t mean that much if they aren’t attached to a wallet — but you can’t sell something to people if they don’t know the product is there. Heck, it worked on me; he got my four bucks from Amazon for a rental this week, finally. Granted, I’m an easy mark: a Gilliam fan for decades who, nevertheless, had given his latest a pass for a variety of reasons but found time after this rigmarole got underway.
I’m sure I’m not alone. Gilliam’s comments, as incoherent and clumsy as they often were in that interview, served their purpose. He was out doing promotion for his movie. His movie has now earned more free media than every other piece of promotion before it, in all likelihood. All he had to do was rile up the easily riled by tossing off a few semi-controversial thoughts aimed at the intersection of race and class and sexuality.
Terry Gilliam tweaked us for tweets. And we were more than happy to play along.