For my second film in the interrupted series, I chose a sentimental favorite, Terry Gilliam‘s 1991 feature The Fisher King.

Of course, there was a short I just had to show at some point, and I decided that the time was now.  The short is a Rick and Morty sketch wherein the characters read out a real life court transcript that has to be heard to be believed – at least those parts of the performance that CAN be heard for not being bleeped out.  Not for the kids.

So yeah, that really happened.  Now that we’ve got the levity out of the way, let’s hit the film.

Perhaps halfway through the film, while he and Jack are “cloudbusting” in Central Park, Parry (Robin Williams), a former professor of literature who is suffering from crippling PTSD three years after the murder of his wife has a moment of lucidity and recounts the haunting story of the Fisher King, a story whose origin he does not recall is from his own former studies.  It is well worth reprinting the story in full:

It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the holy grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, “You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.” But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded. Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat”. So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the holy grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”

This, of course, is also the story of the film.

Jack Lucas is our boy-king, and as the film opens he is a fantastically successful shock jock on New York City morning radio.  He has the world at his feet, and he’s just about to audition for a sitcom role essentially written for him where he effectively would play himself.  The role is his, his future has no more ceiling than the sound studio he works in.  But his abrasive on-air comments to an unstable listener set that listener off on a murderous shotgun rampage at a local trendy restaurant, and everything comes tumbling down.

Unable to even face work, Jack retreats into a life of depression and alcoholism, and three years later we find him in a mooching and strained relationship with a video store owner named Anne, living with her above her shop, occasionally working the counter, and constantly confronted with the popular success of the sitcom he was never fit to star in.

On a late-night round-the-city bender he finally decides on suicide, having gone so far as to strap concrete blocks to his feet and poise above the dark and dingy Hudson, but his plan is thwarted by two vigilantes out to terrorize the homeless.   Drunk and still tied to the cinder blocks Jack is unable to escape, and they beat him and douse him with gasoline intending to set him alight when he is rescued by a group of the very homeless the vigilantes are after, led by the aforementioned Parry.  Jack finally awakes from his drunken stupor in a basement boiler room occupied by Parry, where he finds his rescuer to be a crazy man who talks to invisible floating fairies and who has a fixation on the Holy Grail and is haunted by a hallucinatory Red Knight (which confronts him any time he even comes close to thinking about the tragedy that has befallen him).

Jack would probably have been done with Parry there and then, but on his way out of the boiler room he is confronted by the building’s super who admonishes him as Parry is only allowed to live there under the condition of no visitors.  As the super unfolds Parry’s story Jack comes to the realization that Parry’s condition is a direct result of the tragedy he feels responsible for, throwing his already suicidal life into even more crisis.  “I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home,” he says, and in fact he tries this very thing.  He finds Parry downtown and gives him the kingly sum of $70, which Parry blithely accepts and then immediately passes on to another homeless man.  Jack is incensed, but Parry ignores him, focused as he is on following his obsession – an awkward young woman named Lydia from a publishing house on her lunch break.

Jack decides on the unusual (and seemingly impossible) task of setting up this homeless man with this shy introvert.  With Anne’s help he is eventually able (through the contrivance of Lydia winning a “contest” for a free membership at the video store) to arrange an apparently impromptu dinner out for the four of them, with Parry posing as a store employee.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two quickly hit it off, and after Jack and Anne break off, Parry accompanies her home.  She worries that he is going to want to come up to her apartment for a one night stand, but he insists that such was never his intention and confesses his long-time stalking…which, given that nobody seems to think she is special, is oddly acceptable to her.  They share an very brief kiss and she goes up.  But his past refusing to give up so easily, the Red Knight confronts Parry on the street and this time he is unable to escape – Parry ends up in a catatonic state in a shoddy mental hospital.

Jack, on the other hand, now feels that his penance is done.  He decides to call his agent and begin working again, and to leave Anne, whom he feels he has only been using as an emotional crutch.  Without even a montage we find Jack back on the air, full of pride and no better than his former self.  One day while on his way with his agent to a pitch for his own sitcom, he is approached by a homeless friend of Parry’s, who recognizes him.  He shoves the man off pretending not to recognize him, but it begins to eat at him.  When the pitch man begins explaining the premise of the show (street-smart homeless people who are happy to be destitute) Jack’s conscience gets the better of him.  He seeks out Parry, and finds him at the mental hospital where he learns that Parry is in a catatonia he may never come out of, and that Lydia has been taking care of him the best she can.  Reluctantly, Jack decides to do the only thing he can think of – to take over his quest for the Holy Grail, which from a photo in an architectural magazine Parry believes is located in a castle-shaped mansion in Manhattan.  Using grappling hooks and arrows Jack scales the walls and pilfers the “grail” which of course turns out to be a cheap trophy.  (Incidentally, he also finds the owner of the house having just intentionally overdosed on sleeping pills, and by tripping the alarm when he leaves, the man is saved by the responding authorities.)

Jack returns to the hospital and places the grail in Parry’s hands and collapses across him.  After a cutaway, Parry’s hands begin to move and caress the grail, and he awakes.  “I was dreaming, Jack. I was dreaming that I was married to a beautiful woman… you were in it, too,” he says. “I really miss her, Jack. Is it okay to miss her now?”  Still facing away from Parry, a single tear runs down Jack’s face.

And then the whole thing wraps up happily, including Jack returning to Anne, and we fade out on Jack and Parry cloudbusting together once again.  The end.

Naturally, the story of the Fisher King (which for the film is modified a bit from any version I’ve seen reported) is a synecdoche for the film, but I think that with the appearance of the grail bringing Parry out of his catatonia, there is a big temptation to think that we have had a role reversal here.  We haven’t.  Jack remains in the role of the King, and Parry remains in the role of the fool.  It was always Jack who had the world at his feet, and who needed to be healed of the grievous wound that was a result of his own pride.  And it is always Jack’s efforts to heal himself that fall short.  Charity (in the form of money or assistance in love) doesn’t save him, a return to his career doesn’t save him, and it is only the truly selfless (and seemingly hopeless) act of doing something for Parry’s sake rather than his own that does the trick.  That this selfless act involves retrieving a “grail” is a misdirect in a way – it was Parry who led him to it in the first place, Jack would never have known where either the grail or the selfless act was on his own.  As an interesting note, “Parry” is not the character’s actual name, at least not before the tragedy.  It’s a name that he adopted as he sunk into his grail fantasy.  And of course, “Parry” must be intended to be a short form of Parsival (often Perceval), one of the original Knights of the Round Table (in later legend usually replaced by Lancelot) and one who in several legends is tasked with retrieving the grail to heal the Fisher King.  The fool would appear to be Parry’s own insertion into the legend, one that shows his fleeting understanding of the real situation.  In truth, there are four or five brief moments of lucidity peppered throughout the film where Parry lets on that he subconsciously knows exactly who Jack is and how they are bound together.  And despite Jack’s role in his tragedy, I believe that Parry is far more sincere in his desire to rescue Jack than Jack is sincere in his complementary task, at least until the end when the sincerity itself is the grail