The Public Burning
A film of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning
Directed by Terry Gilliam

Review by Lucas Klein

Miramax will not present a film directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Based on the book by Robert Coover. Running time: 534 minutes. Rated R (for violence and sexuality). No projected opening at local theaters.

Would there be a better time than now for a film release of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning? With a mentally incompetent president, a conniving VP, and an all-out witch-hunt and suppression in the name of Homeland Security, when else would the public respond better — or worse — to a tale of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s execution, narrated by Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard Nixon? And with its interspersed chapters of comic-book hero Uncle Sam and villain The Shadow, who else would be a better fit for director than a Surrealist expatriate with vast experience in both film adaptation and — as the only American in British Monty Python — cartoon animation?
But Terry Gilliam is not a lucky man. His movie Brazil was lost in post-production for years while the studios tried to strong-arm him into modifying the brilliance of his vision. An overzealous promoter stuffed the filming of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen with so much financial braggadocio that when an under-budgeted Gilliam ran out of money, he was wrongly labeled a big-spender and an unreliable director. And when he tried to capture on celluloid the one novel that has been the pinnacle of adapters’ dreams, his leading man, his Don Quixote, fell ill and was unable to complete shooting.
Now, after the Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style combination of live-action and animation has all been completed, after the set of Times Square circa 1953 — where the Rosenbergs meet their carnival electrocution — has been dismantled, after the actors have pulled up their pants and gone home, the studio says — surprise! — that the film cannot be released. Evidently, the executives are afraid audiences won’t like the implicit criticism of the American government. That they won’t respond to the intellectual weight of Richard Nixon’s interior monologues. That they’ll stay away from the theatres because it’s just too long. That they’ll think this is a kids’ movie because of the cartoons. That they’ll be offended — because cinema must emit wholesome family values — at the Vice President dropping trou and spreading his cheeks to be Uncle Sam’s butt boy.
Of course, this delayed release fits the bill perfectly for The Public Burning. Robert Coover had finished the book in the early seventies, even before Watergate, but no publishing house would take it, for fear of libel suits from the White House. Coover seemed not to mind, as it gave him more time to push the novel further, but even after it was released in 1977, the publishers tried to keep it as quiet as possible. If you haven’t read The Public Burning, hadn’t even heard of it, then perhaps now you know why.
In the end, Gilliam’s The Public Burning would have to be unreleased, just to complete its faithfulness to Coover’s The Public Burning. I managed to see the full nine hour director’s cut on a stack of pirated DVDs bought on a recent trip to China, and I can assure you, the film itself is nearly obsessive in attention to the novel’s detail. While Charlie Kaufman played fast and loose with The Orchid Thief in writing Adaptation, here he has achieved something nearly as radical: he has transformed every word of Coover’s novel into an image, thought, or sound in this supernova of a screenplay. Nothing is left out, from the “Groun’-Hog Hunt” reminder of how the Atomic Spies got fingered to the final Times Square Electrocution Carnival, covering each of the three days preceding the execution, taking Nixon from condemning the commies to jerking off over Ethel’s mugshot. With the Rosenbergs’ Death House letters turned into Marx Bros. shtick, scenes of operatic renditions of Ethel refusing to confess, and re-hashed dialogue to show Eisenhower in direct contact with the accused, no film has yet been made to equal Kaufman’s fidelity to Coover’s writing.
Gilliam is likewise nearly compulsive in matching Coover’s inventiveness. Bill Murray, who began rehearsals immediately after returning from Japan, is sure to transform audience sympathy for the man in Lost in Translation to sympathy for the devil in his performance as Richard Nixon. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has never been more indignantly beautiful than in her role as Ethel Rosenberg. Ed Harris, who moved from playing someone playing God in The Truman Show to giving depth to a schizophrenic hallucination in A Beautiful Mind, is an obvious choice for Eisenhower: after all, what is the military-industrial complex but a Cold War paranoiac’s deity? The control-freak queen of J. Edgar Hoover is cast perfectly with Nathan Lane. John Goodman combines his O Brother, Where Art Thou persona with the voice-over deftness he found in Monsters, Inc. to give weight to animated Uncle Sam. Finally, Gilliam’s best casting surprise is for the Time magazine poetry bits: between chapters of Nixon-stream-of-consciousness and Uncle Sam fighting the Shadow in Coover’s novel are intermittent Dos Passos-style newsreels, replete with snippets from the lines of the Poet Laureate, Time Magazine. For Terry Gilliam, only one man could do the job: former president Jimmy Carter, who reads from the script as if it were his own speech, or even his own poetry.
One day, under perhaps another administration, the pirated DVDs now sold in China will be available for American mass-consumption, putting this film alongside Gilliam’s own Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the Criterion Collection. Then, Terry Gilliam, Charlie Kaufman, and Robert Coover will be able to claim their places as masterminds of narrative art. Until then, we proud few who have seen The Public Burning will have to find other ways to satiate our own private burning.

(Entry by Lucas Klein)