Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(2) (1993) 9-11
Consistent with the corpus of Terry Gilliam's work (e.g., BRAZIL and THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN), THE FISHER KING once again deals with grand themes against the backdrop of an alienating and dehumanizing social environment. The movie begins with Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), the biting, sardonic, and caustic radio "personality," berating his callers and listeners from a small studio somewhere in New York City. Speaking to one of his "fans" named Alan, Jack launches into a lengthy tirade in which he derides "yuppies," declaring that they deserve to die. With another day's job of derision completed, Jack goes home to prepare for his first television appearance, practicing his "presentation of self" by uttering the words "forgive me!" with every possible vocal permutation. This exercise soon proves prophetic, however, when the 11 o'clock news--that bastion of violence and disembodied imagery--reports that Alan (Jack's caller) went on a shooting rampage earlier in the day, killing several people at a trendy New York nightspot frequented by "yuppie" types. Herein lies the fundamental conflict of the movie--Jack's seething guilt for the deaths of those in the club. Three years later, Jack's guilt is exacerbated further when Perry (Robin Williams), the husband of one of the murder victims, saves him from a suicidal plunge into the Hudson. Throughout the rest of the movie, the fateful relationship between Jack and Perry unfolds, providing the springboard for Gilliam's brilliant exploration of such fundamental human problems as sin, repentance, and redemption as well as the search for personal fulfillment.
The focus on the search for personal fulfillment in an increasingly bureaucratized and alienating world is played out through the more basic (and ancient) debate surrounding human motivation. In Jack Lucas, Gilliam gives us a portrait of egoism[End page 9] incarnate--a covetous, self-interested radio "personality" who is perpetually anguished despite his material success. Against this image, Gilliam juxtaposes Perry, the homeless madman--the fool--who finds satisfaction through apparently selfless and noble acts. The Egoism-Altruism dichotomy is made even more explicit as Perry relates the story of "The Fisher King" to Jack. The story concerns a king with visions of glory and fortune who spends a lifetime searching for the sacred Holy Grail, only to find himself emotionally scarred and embittered as he nears the end of his life. At this point, a fool comes along. Finding the king thirsty, the fool offers the king a drink of water. As the king drinks the water from the fool's cup, he finds himself not only emotionally healed but also in possession of that which he had chased for so long--the Holy Grail. Of course, the point of "The Fisher King" story is clear: the single minded pursuit of personal satisfaction (i.e., egoism) is doomed to failure. Only through other pursuits can true happiness be realized.
Given this central theme, THE FISHER KING seems particularly well suited to courses that examine the nature of deviance. Obviously, any course that concerns itself with human behavior must address the basic philosophical question: what motivates people to act as they do? In Jack and Perry, Gilliam provides concrete examples with which to discuss the Egoism-Altruism debate. The questions that the instructor can pull out of this movie to address this issue are manifold. If one assumes an altruistic position, one must ask what forces (e.g., social, structural, economic) are responsible for Jack's abandonment of his basic nature? Conversely, if one adopts the position of psychological egoism, how does one reconcile Perry's apparently selfless behavior with a self-interested human nature? If one responds (as egoists would be inclined to do) that furthering the interests of others increases Perry's own happiness and, therefore, his self-interest, does not the egoist doctrine risk vacuity?
In addition to providing material for discussing the various doctrines regarding human motivation, THE FISHER KING also addresses the Determinist- Indeterminist debate which is another essential issue when examining deviant behavior. Accordingly, notions of free will and responsibility play critical roles in the movie's narrative. For instance, when[End page 10] Perry enters a catatonic state after facing the haunted memory of his wife's sordid death, Jack visits him in the hospital. In an extended soliloquy apparently designed to assuage his feelings of guilt, Jack says, "I don't feel responsible for you. I'm not God... I don't feel guilty. I don't feel sorry for you. It's easy being nuts. Try being me." As an example of the Determinist- Indeterminist theme found throughout the movie, this monologue raises several basic questions. Is Jack responsible for the tragedy at the heart of the movie? What is the connection between guilt and responsibility? Did the killer act of his own free will or were his actions determined by Jack (and by extension the media) and/or mental defect?
In sum, THE FISHER KING does an excellent job of drawing out some basic, and essential, philosophical issues that bear directly on the study of deviance. In addition, the film prompts more obvious, but often neglected, questions about who is deviant and why. Accordingly, the film might be most profitably used at the beginning of a course to introduce and help stimulate thought and discussion regarding some of the basic ideas that will appear throughout the course. Finally, while the movie has much to recommend it for analytical purposes, Gilliam's storytelling ability and eye for stunning visuals should help to captivate the students' attention throughout the course of the movie. In the end, THE FISHER KING is an engaging movie-- intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally. Thus, the film receives a rating of three gavels.
Martin Gottschalk and Gregory J. Howard
State University of New York at Albany
School of Criminal Justice[End page 11]