Divinity on the Upper East Side: Heroic Transformation in The Fisher King

©Tri-Star Pictures

©Tri-Star Pictures

 POLARITY
 

Kurt Vonnegut once gave a delightful lecture on story structure in which he simplified classic plots into basic graphs. Using a blackboard and chalk, Vonnegut draws up a simple set of axis: vertically, he labels “G” for Good Fortune and “I” for Ill Fortune. The horizontal axis is labelled “B” for Beginning, and “E” for—you guessed it—Electricity. The first story shape he charts is called Man in Hole (though, the author points out, “it needn’t be about a man and it needn’t be about somebody getting into a hole”). The protagonist begins slightly above average on the G/I axis, dips down into ill fortune, then climbs back up into good fortune once again. “People love that story! They never get sick of it!” Vonnegut proclaims, before mentioning the story is “not copyrighted.” 

Vonnegut’s Man in Hole curve follows the same basic tenants as Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey, a journey that is rooted in polarity. There are good guys and bad guys, good circumstances and bad circumstances, and the story is what happens between the two poles. There is something in basic human psyche that craves a binary system of classification in our stories. Everything is A, and if it’s not A, it’s B, which is the opposite of A. Simple, right? It’s why a twist as simple as Robin Hood—a hero who breaks the law—has captivated audiences for centuries. A nuanced spectrum of thought, plot and characters, while perhaps more nourishing, is not as immediately satisfying in that sugar cereal kind of way as a simple hero/villain dynamic. In its simplest form, Campbell’s Journey is the Froot Loops of story.

Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King is built around the polarity of its two central characters, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a New York-based, Howard Stern-modeled shock jock whose life is a monument to misanthropic isolation, and Parry (Robin Williams), a deranged homeless man who lives under the Manhattan Bridge, conducting choir practice and questing after the Holy Grail, which he believes to be in a millionaire’s home on the Upper East Side. 

Our first glimpses of Jack are fractured: the back of his head, his mouth, dark sunglasses hiding his eyes. The only constant is his voice, which he uses to taunt and belittle on-air callers. We learn he’s up for the lead in a new sitcom, and he’s considering changing the title of his upcoming biography from “Jack Lucas: The Face Behind the Voice” to “Jack Lucas: The Face and the Voice,” marking a transition he hopes to make from the intangible to the fully realized (though his equivocation of playing a character on a sitcom and being fully realized is terribly ironic). What’s missing in Jack’s life is wholeness and unity. In his luxury apartment, kept high above the city, he watches three images of his face on three tv sets. His girlfriend walks past a spinning glass tchotchke which divides her image, suggesting she’s one of a dozen women. He smears cosmetic mud on his face and dances around his apartment, a kind of grotesque anti-human. Within the first few minutes of the film, Jack has inadvertently inspired a timid caller-in to his show to take a shotgun to a crowded nightclub and unload into the crowd. Jack’s humanity is maintained only by virtue of the fact that he allows the guilt to ruin his life. 

Three years later, Jack meets Parry. While attempting to throw himself into the East River, Jack is set upon by a pair of thugs, paid to force the homeless out of various developing neighborhoods (side note: one of the thugs is played by Dan Futterman, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Capote who would later play Robin Williams’s son in The Birdcage). Parry, dressed in repurposed armor, sets his band of homeless knights against the thugs, rescues Jack and takes him to his home—a crowded boiler room in a dirty basement. Jack has literally hit rock bottom, fallen from his high tower into Parry’s subterranean world.

If Jack is not-human-enough, Parry is all-too-human. He is brimming with untamable song and dance, ungroomed, feeling emotions full and wild. He loves unreservedly and has not one ounce of shame. In the middle of Central Park, he strips nude and drags himself along the grass. “You know why do dogs do this, Jack? Because it feels good!” he laughs.

“You’re out of your mind!” shouts Jack.

“Bingo!” replies Parry, returning to his sensual reverie.

*

The journey to bring these two characters together on screen is every bit as Campbellian as the film itself. Terry Gilliam was still in the aftershocks of the bomb that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a critical flop and a financial disaster. The film’s production woes (Sarah Polley, 9-years-old during filming, recalls the experience as “traumatic,” “physically grueling and unsafe”) far overshadow the final product, which isn’t so much “bad” as it is “...wow.” Munchausen is a sprawling, chaotic stew of liberation which cost Gilliam dearly. The director felt he would never work again.

But if The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was Gilliam’s Belly of the Whale (a scene he included literally in that film), then The Fisher King was his Gift From the Goddess. Two goddesses, in fact: Debra Hill and Lynda Obst, who had a script from Richard LaGravenese based in Arthurian legends and the quest for redemption. Hill and Obst fought tirelessly to secure Gilliam for The Fisher King, but were denied at every turn. The head of Columbia Pictures at the time, Dawn Steel, was Obst’s best friend, and even she told the producers “over my dead body is Terry Gilliam directing Fisher King. He’s out of his fucking mind.” No one believed in their ability to control the director. But Obst and Hill soldiered on, introducing Gilliam to LaGravenese, scouting locations, and begging money from Dawn Steel, who ultimately did not have the stomach to say no to her best friend’s passion project. 

Gilliam, though still headstrong, began to break his own filmmaking rules. He had previously vowed never to work for a major Hollywood studio, and to never work in America. The Fisher King would be the first film he did not have a hand in writing. He reined in Robin Williams’s energy, insisting on wordperfect takes (before then allowing Williams to improvise). He resisted his more lavish directorial impulses, nearly cutting the iconic Grand Central waltz number before being convinced otherwise by Hill and Obst. Gilliam was confronting his shadow self.  

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EQUIVALENCE
 

The confrontation of the Shadow in Jungian psychology is the accepting of the unconscious elements of a person’s psyche. The Shadow is unfamiliar, perhaps undesirable and certainly runs counter to how a person sees themselves. There is “Me” and there is “Not Me,” another trapping of the binary-preferring mind. The process of acknowledging (or not acknowledging) the Shadow is explained in the principle of equivalence; if you see something as your opposite and move towards it with an effort to understand and embrace, Jung says, your psyche grows. If you reject the Shadow, the two aspects become further polarized and violent reactions to the Shadow may occur.

Campbell’s Journey requires this kind of equivalence, a recognizing of polarity in order to achieve transformation in the hero. Many have criticized the last decade of superhero films for having heroes and villains with essentially the same set of abilities; a man in an iron suit fights a different man in a different iron suit. A radiation-injected giant wrestles with a different radiation-injected giant. A man who can shrink fights a man who can also shrink (but who also shoots lasers). These heroes and villains exist at opposite ends of the same plane, which (in theory) make these confrontations thrilling and satisfying. But these kinds of triumphs need to lead towards transformation in the hero or they become hollow. It may be exciting to see one superhuman pound another superhuman into submission, but if the culmination is “now I won’t do those things I wasn’t doing anyway,” a few eyebrows could be raised about the resonance of the message. 

Jack sees Parry as his opposite, and hates him as much as he loves himself. As he rejects Parry more and more forcefully, he is protecting himself more and more passionately. Much of the film, even the more romantic sections in which Jack and his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) attempt to introduce Parry to Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a woman with whom he’s smitten, lack a transformation. These are the efforts of a man who is trying to unmake a situation, rather than confront an ugly, difficult truth head on, and who could blame him? Jack learns that Parry’s wife is one of the victims of the shooting spree for which Jack feels responsible, and his first attempts to right the situation are utterly shallow. “I just wish there was some way I could pay the fine and go home,” he says before giving Parry $70 and trying to call it even. “It’s so awful that everything can be dealt with with money,” says Gilliam on the commentary track. But as $70 cannot cure a broken life, quick and easy solutions cannot make a transformed hero. 

Gilliam was pressured to end the film at a number of big “Hollywood” moments; a smile from the hero, a triumphant musical number, a kiss between Parry and Lydia, but thankfully Gilliam does not let Jack off the hook for the sake of a sugary sweet ending. During filming, Gilliam promised Ruehl that the end of the movie must include a scene in which Jack finally tells Anne that he loves her. It’s a subdued scene (at least until the two lean up against a rack of adult video tapes and are showered in sex), and a necessary one, lack of flash and all. It’s a man who has learned to go outside himself, to give to others what he previously kept for himself. It’s a state of being that cannot happen all at once. You can’t turn generosity on like a faucet. 

Kudos to Gilliam for scaffolding this final scene by weaving many a moment of challenging humanity into the film, and special notice must be given to Michael Jeter whose character—the boldly realized Homeless Cabaret Singer—is integral to these moments. Popping in and out of the film like a burst of neon color, Jeter’s character exists at the fulcrum point of many sets of polarities: he’s exceptionally effeminate while sporting a proud mustache, he is delicately mannered while lying in a pile of mud and horse shit, he wishes he were dead while fondly rhapsodizing life’s pleasures. Jeter’s character was an especial challenge for many audiences at the film’s release; it was widely believed at the height of the crisis that people living with AIDS could not even be touched, and here was a bleeding, dirty, hysterical gay man being held in the arms of the leading man. 

“Did you lose your mind all of a sudden, or was it a slow, gradual process?” asks Jack.

“Well,” replies the nameless character, “I’m a singer by trade. Summer stock, nightclub revues, that kind of thing. And God, I absolutely lived for it. I can do Gypsy—every part. I can do it backwards. But then one night, right in the middle of singing ‘Funny,’ suddenly it hit me: What does all this mean? I mean, that plus the fact that I’ve watched all my friends die.” 

Gilliam styles the scene after Michelangelo’s Pietà, and the director was shocked by audiences’ resistance to the moment. “It was very important that the character of Jack Lucas keep touching people,” he says on the commentary, an important waystation on the road back from his self-imposed isolation.

The process of equivalence need not be a long one, but it is rarely instantaneous. For someone like Jack who is used to instant gratification (the highest praise that the sitcom he’s up for gains is “some of this is pretty funny” and yet he won’t even read the script without an offer), it is easy to get wrong. Gilliam regards the quest for the Holy Grail as a search for love, something all humans engage in, regardless of time period, and through that lens both Parry and Jack have a long way to go. Jack because he hates (and loves) himself too much to love anyone else, and Parry because he suffers massive psychic wounds from the death of his wife. These wounds manifest as a huge and terrifying Red Knight whose pursuit eventually puts Parry in a catatonic coma. No matter how much he may love Lydia, his past will not let him proceed.  

ENTROPY 
 

Along with the principles of polarity and equivalence, the principle of entropy makes up Jung’s view of the psyche. This principle states that the energy of opposites tends to blend over time. In the story cycle, this constitutes the transformation of the hero, the climb back up out of the Hole.

Jack’s attempts to resolve his journey away from isolation and towards fullness of being have so far been misguided. Well-intentioned though they are, he hopes he can help Parry from a distance, turn off the lights and go home once his new friend is fixed. “I hoped that if I helped him meet this girl that things would work out for me,” he tells Anne, but there’s no causality in that series of events. The ultimate reward is the transformation itself.

Jack Lucas has to develop empathy and act out of pure kindness in order to complete his journey. Parry has to overcome the trauma of losing his wife. Jack has to love more and Parry has to love a little less, or at least a little differently. The convergence of the character’s trajectories is signified in the film when they begin to dress in each other’s clothes. There are scenes of Jack stapling up the cuffs of his suit so it’ll fit Parry for his date with Lydia, and in which Jack smears a mud pack on Parry’s face (“Mud? I thought we just washed that off.”), and Jack dresses in Parry’s adventuring gear as he climbs into the building where the Grail is kept. But the clothes aren’t exactly a good fit. Jack ditches Parry’s floppy hat moments into his cat burglar episode. After his blissful date with Lydia, Parry has a vision of the Red Knight that sends him chasing through the streets; his improvised tailoring unravels and the long, flapping sleeves resemble an unfastened straightjacket. You can’t “put on” a transformation.

At the film’s midpoint, Parry tells Jack the story of the Fisher King. It’s a fable, and as such, has a moral. In this version of the fable (and there are many—in an incident of synchronicity, Mercedes Ruehl, who would go on to win an Oscar for this film, had completed her college thesis on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” a take on the Fisher King mythos), the king is wounded as a child, and as he grows older he becomes “sick with experience.” He was promised the Holy Grail in a heavenly vision, but desiring the power that the Grail would bring him, it eluded him all his life. A fool happens on the king and asks him what he needs. The king replies that he needs a drink of water, so the fool grabs the nearest cup and fills it. As the king drinks, he realizes that his wound is healed. “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” the king asks. “I don’t know,” replies the fool. “I only knew that you were thirsty.”

Of course, fables are mutable, but if we take into account Terry Gilliam’s interpretation of the quest for the Holy Grail to be the quest for human love, then the moral reveals itself. Love, decency, and kindness are the paths to divinity. Retrieving the Holy Grail (which turns out to be a little league trophy—symbols are rarely as grand as the meaning behind them) from the Upper East Side home, Jack happens upon the elderly homeowner who has taken too many pills. In a moment that Gilliam calls the crux of the film, Jack—with the exit clear before him—sets off the alarm, putting himself at risk to save the old man. He places the Grail on the chest of the unconscious Parry, the supine knight. Parry’s fingers grasp the cup. His eyes open.

“I was dreaming, Jack,” he says. “I was dreaming that I was married to a beautiful woman...I really miss her, Jack. Is it okay to miss her now?”

*

The film ends with Parry and Jack lying in the middle of the field in Central Park, cloud bursting—that is, concentrating on the sky and trying to blow clouds apart with their minds.

“Am I doing that?” asks Jack as the clouds part to reveal the moon.

“You crazy?” replies Parry. “It’s the wind.”

It’s a scene that Gilliam never thought would make it into the final film—two nude men in Central Park, after all—but he felt Parry’s frank deflating of Jack’s fantastical notions grounded the film in its final moments. Seconds later, the camera pans up to reveal the Manhattan skyline lit up in technicolor fireworks as “The End” is spelled out along the sky. Gilliam’s commentary shows no distinction between the need to ground the film in reality and the need for a bright, flashy, uplifting ending. The Fisher King is a wonderful blending of the realistic and the fantastic, a reminder that the mythic need not be inaccessible, and that the hero need not slay a dragon. That human kindness is transformative, that you can find yourself by moving outside yourself. It’s a story that reveals itself the further you delve, and the more you investigate, the more you find. For all its chaos, Gilliam reveals a purposefulness behind every moment.

“We don’t fuck around,” says the director. “The symbols are there.”

“The symbols are there” is a wonderful lens to view the world through. Though popular throughout our civilization, Vonnegut’s story curves, the author points out, are not meant to signify literal plot points. Literality defeats the purpose. Wherever it begins on the Good Fortune/Ill Fortune axis, the story should end—like a magnificent skyline, drenched in light and color—with Electricity.


Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.