Salute Your Shorts: Terry Gilliam's "Crimson Permanent Assurance"

Movies Features Terry Gilliam
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Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Unlike most of the shorts that get covered in this column, Terry Gilliam’s “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” is something fans of the director are likely to have seen before without digging deep into film archives or rooting around youtube in the hopes that someone has uploaded them. It’s easy to find, right in front of nearly every release—both theatrical and home—for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

That in itself, though, makes the short pretty unique. Its place in the movie reflects an odd juncture in Terry Gilliam’s career. After years spent animating for first Do Not Adjust Your Set and then Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Gilliam had transitioned away from the form in favor of live-action. His method of animation is impressive in how it allowed a single person to do so much, but even so, it still required countless hours spent alone drawing and moving objects frame by frame.

When the Monty Python TV show ended and the troupe turned towards feature filmmaking with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam joined the group’s other Terry (Jones) in directorial duties. By all accounts, this wasn’t a particularly enjoyable enterprise for Gilliam, Jones, or the rest of the group. Gilliam’s focus on visuals rather than performance irked the rest of the cast, who on the whole felt that Jones’ sensibility led to more humor—even if he wasn’t as rich in the details.

Jones directed the Pythons’ other features solo, but the venture gave Gilliam the opportunity to head up several other projects. These two early pictures were Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, which seem more like a form of journeyman training for Gilliam than accomplished features. Jabberwocky largely fails as a comedy and has an uneven grasp of narrative, dragging along slowly to a ramshackle plot. Its visuals are as baroque as later Gilliam, but not as detailed, leading to a far more low-rent look than anything he’d do later. The movie suffers not just in comparison with the similar Grail, but also with later Gilliam, which frequently took on similar themes but without so much plodding and hand-holding.

Time Bandits was more successful, but was still working on the kinks in Gilliam’s style. The movie exhibited a continued reliance on Gilliam’s Python friends for much of its comedy, and its episodic plot works only because it’s a children’s movie. The seams in Time Bandits show, and while it’s by no means a bad movie, its ambition oversteps Gilliam’s ability at the time. Still, it featured some of the first truly Gilliam-feeling scenes, in particular when a horse bursts through its protagonist Kevin’s door. Much else in it has aged poorly, but the invasion of fantasy into reality has become a staple for what Gilliam would become.

Four years after Time Bandits, Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil was finally released in more or less its creator’s desired form. From there on out, Gilliam’s vision rarely faltered (The Brothers Grimm being his only feature that feels compromised) and despite his difficulties making the movies he wants to, Gilliam’s voice is still unique, even if it can at times be unique in a bad way.

The jump between Time Bandits and Brazil is immense, but the transitional picture “Crimson Permanent Assurance” helps make sense of it. Originally conceptualized as a short animated sketch that would be used late in The Meaning of Life, the sketch grew into live action because Gilliam, with two films now under his belt, wasn’t going to spend the time to do animation, and it grew to 16-minutes long because, according to Gilliam, no one told him to stop.

“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” is slapped onto the front of Meaning of Life with a note explaining that it is the “short-feature presentation.” It then begins in earnest, explaining that due to its dire financial situation, the Permanent Assurance Company has been taken over by the Very Big Corporation of America. Working conditions have become bleak, which is conceptualized in a particularly Gilliam-esque touch in a fantasy sequence where the company’s employees row oars as slaves to their new corporate masters’ drums. When one of them is fired, the employees stage a revolt and force their bosses into a safe or off a plank reaching out from their building’s window. At this point, the employees convert their office building into a pirate ship and head West, attacking the Very Big Corporation of America in its own building and soon afterwards wreck havoc on various other American corporations before suddenly falling off the edge of the world.

With “Crimson Permanent Assurance,” Gilliam finally directed contemporary adults and their plight, rather than children or fantasy settings. Strangely, though, this seemed to make him less stylistically restrained than before. The short features several ambitious long takes, one of which pre-figures the signature shot from Brazil, and his assurance in moving the camera seems to have grown ten-fold from Time Bandits. Rather than following his material around with the camera, Gilliam instead seems to choreograph the action to the camera and with this creates a much more realistic world, even with its focus on an elderly group of accountants/pirates travelling in a surprisingly seaworthy office building.

Added to the bold camera moves is a willingness to experiment with lenses, particularly with wide angle shots that would feature prominently through the rest of his career. While Gilliam had certainly used these before, now they’re used not for emphasis but rather as a stylistic element of their own. Again, how Gilliam chooses his lenses and framings doesn’t seem motivated by the material he’s given, but rather he seems to adjust the material to reflect his stylistic choices.

Perhaps it’s the influence of the Pythons and their emphasis on written material and performance that caused Gilliam’s early films to be so restrained. Gilliam’s work on production was rarely less than exceptional, but his first two features don’t look unique in any of their other aspects. Seemingly as a contrast to Jones’ (and with it the Pythons’) more traditional directing throughout the rest of the feature, in “Crimson Permanent Assurance” Gilliam is finally willing to go all out and stake out his own grounds as a filmmaker. From this point forward his stamp on films was as much the way he moved the camera (and its lens) as it was what he put in front of it.

The uniquely Gilliam synthesis of content and form is much of why the short remains a landmark for its director, but what stuck with me the first time I watched The Meaning of Life wasn’t its content so much as the way it latched onto the feature. Its tone, while funny in its own way, is nothing like the Pythons to the point that I thought I must have put in the wrong movie—a tribute to how far Gilliam finally took things. Refusing to use the same cast or crew as the rest of the movie, the short sticks its ground as unique despite being nominally part of a whole.

Even whether or not “Crimson Permanent Assurance” is in fact a short film is hard to grasp. It certainly stands on its own, but the short’s full-blown effect is reliant upon usurping the main feature in a way that is, as far as I’m aware, completely unique in the history of film. Not only that, but the short actually “attacks” the longer film later on when, midway through the fifth act, it reappears with Python cast members pondering both the meaning of life and how people aren’t wearing enough hats these days. The companion portion of the film is strange in its own way, acting as yet another unique meta-textual joke.

Because of this, “Crimson Permanent Assurance” ends up as both the defining moment when Gilliam stepped into his own apart from the Pythons, as well as an elaborate Python joke contained within one of their features…if that makes any sense. Whatever else it may be, it’s definitely worth watching.