Sometimes we get lost in the delirium of a movie, which makes it difficult to judge it for what it is...
I was such a fan of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen when it was first released that I was surprised to find that no one had already chosen it when Patrick asked what we wanted to write about for “1988 Week,” leading up to F This Movie Fest this Saturday. I considered myself lucky to have claimed the movie for myself. Then I watched it for the first time in over twenty years.
“The Goonies Derivation” does not begin to describe the vast schism I discovered between my memories of this film and the film itself. I remember loving it. I remember thinking more children’s films should try to be just like it. What drug was I on... and what on earth was I thinking?Monty Python & the Holy Grail at a local theater and loved it so much that I went back a few days later with my family’s Instamatic camera and took pictures of the movie screen as the film played.
In the wake of one of Python’s many fallow periods, we had Terry Gilliam making these strange, quirky films (Time Bandits, Brazil, Munchausen, The Fisher King) that usually featured one or two Pythons in the cast, much of the same humor, and a constant theme of art and fancy versus facts and science. As a naïve child, I always sided with Gilliam’s “tilting at windmills” stance against technology, bureaucracy, and boredom. Today, I’m afraid that COVID-19 and the resulting pandemic quarantine has changed my mind and soured me to Gilliam’s message. Revisiting Munchausen saw me siding with all the studio heads who ever went against Gilliam: cancelling financing at the ninth hour, robbing him of final cut, or shutting his productions down completely. What if Gilliam is a fanciful, impossible, grinning asshole-ish demon?
BUT FIRST, THE FILM: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a mess. Sloppily written, directed, acted, and edited, it is a messy film that invites the viewer to excuse its basic technical ineptitude because a) it is very beautiful to look at and b) said viewer is assumed to share the film’s wistful worldview. Many individual shots look like the actors were not told that the cameras were rolling when some particularly horrific explosion or deluge of water or choking smokescreen or other special effect was unleashed, perhaps to capture the actors’ “real” response to the bullshittery breaking loose around them. Shots don’t match from cut to cut, both the 180-degree rule and the 30-degree rule are blithely thrown out the window, and establishing shots are never guaranteed. (To be fair, director Gilliam may have done these things on purpose to increase the viewer’s sense of chaos and disorientation, as Oliver Stone did in the jungle sequences in Platoon.) As much as I am a fan of practical effects, the miniatures in Munchausen do not blend in seamlessly with the rest of the footage and call attention to themselves. Every shot is so cram-jammed with ART, so stuffed with STUFF, you eventually just want to scream, “STOP IT ALREADY.”
This is a movie where everybody yells all the time.
Some things work. Sarah Polley gives one of the strongest child performances I’ve ever seen in any movie. Eric Idle gets by on his charm alone. John Neville is wonderfully cast as the title character and, despite pulling off the challenge of playing Munchausen at five different ages, is ultimately done in by all the fuss and feathers going on around him. Gilliam surrounds Neville with such endless nonsense that it’s difficult to focus on his wonderful performance... or anything in this busy-busy-busy film.?
It was the film’s ultimate message of fancy and imagination triumphing over science and statistics that really did me in at my most recent viewing. In my younger years as a reader and teacher, I was certainly open to naïve notion that somehow playfulness and nonsense were under unfair attack by reality and physics because it’s such a romantic, smug, and superior position to take.
COVID and our current political situation turned me around. Hoo-boy, does this movie carry a mixed message for filmgoers in 2021! Currently, I believe the biggest proponents of “imaginative and wishful thinking” are presenting a real danger to the rest of us. From conspiracy theories spread on Facebook; to a version of the news that is patently NOT the news on ironically named Fox NEWS and NEWSmax; to Q-Anon and other fairy tales; to the dangerous lie believed by over 50% of Conservatives that the most recent Presidential election was stolen, in spite of the fact that was certified by multiple objective sources to be among the most secure in our history. The California wildfires were exacerbated by the climate crisis, not space lasers. Repeat: CLIMATE CHANGE IS MORE REAL THAN SPACE LASERS.
Though they are portrayed as the villains in Munchausen, I now side with science, reason, technology, and facts. When it comes to COVID, I would like the truth please, the real numbers of the infected and the dead, and a real vaccine too. And the sooner the better. I will not demonize science, I will not doubt experts beyond my mild healthy skepticism, and I will not accept truths just because “my team” demands it. I sometimes think there are individuals in this country who reject all experts because they are subconsciously aware of how inferior their intellects are compared to those of experts! I like fiction and fancy as much as the next guy, but I need to live in a real world where we all must face real problems together. I am now highly suspicious of any Munchausen who creates his own reality.
Fuck you, Munchausen... and the imaginary horse you rode in on.