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The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

posted by Mel. on 4/30/01

The eighties were a good time to be on the imagination bandwagon. Although the comparison was left mostly to film scholars and celluloid pundits, it really was the second coming of the fifties science fiction renaissance. Twenty years of fringe existence came to an imploding end on the shoulders of imagineer directors like Spielberg and Lucas, hungry young geeks who had the frame of vision to import their black and white inspiration into a more contemporary setting. Simply rehashing old concepts wouldn't do, and this is where studios had failed in their bid to trailblaze before the Star Wars revelation--audiences no longer wanted a cowboy doing the same tired tricks, an alien invasion story. They'd been jaded. Dust was collecting. And on the precipice of creative disaster, a bold new mode of inventive thinking became the industry standard: the pastiche' effect.

A union of edgy vision and time-scarred cinematic traditions, bolstered by something called special effects. The films that Lucas and his contemporaries brought blazing out of the projector were what Hollywood needed to light its rut to a new era of blockbuster marketing and maneuvering. They were loud, they were bold, they divided the classical fans of bygone dramatic cinema and packed the kids in wall-to-wall. They raised the curtain on everything that Hollywood has degenerated into, and in a roundabout way, it's their influence that will eventually lead the trends back into simplicity and stories about the human machine. The entire Dream Factory can't run in redline and excess of big things blowing up forever, despite what they'd like to think---when the big fucking firecracker does wind down, it'll be back to the launching pad. Primed for another trip into a time when the entire normal world wanted to be like the geek nation, when our joys were joys for the general gender.

And personally, I'm not looking very forward to it.

Because really and truly, it's the public's fickle response to radical thinking and execution in movies that makes the overlooked gems such an incredible delight. Movies aren't personal things by nature: anyone in the midst of the starmaker and starfucker battlefield can tell you that Hollywood has always been a numbers game. It's about appealing to the demographics and stuffing the seats and faces like sardines--popcorn and total brain backwash, no questions asked and no need to turn off the cellular phones. And while there's something to be said for the paranoid thrill of sitting in a sweaty cineplex hotbox with half-a-thousand other obnoxious, carbon-spewing life forms on premiere night for the new Bruckheimer flick, it can't compare. It can't take you back. And it sure as shit can't make you feel, that for one fleeting moment, that somebody out there is creating from the heart and speaking your language.

For all intents and purposes, the sci-fi revolution has died. The troops have gone home, the flat-busted fanboys who helmed those upstart concepts are driving Beamers and doing effects for Don Simpson. The entire world was prepared to take a trip on the time machine when The Phantom Menace finally came to fruition, then sagged in unison when it failed to deliver anything more than loud entertainment. Anyone other than Lucas is fucked standing the moment they pitch something about "aliens and intergalactic warfare"--aside from proven properties, there isn't much stirring beneath the waves. The adventure's been edited over with sixteen layers of gradient CGI warplanes exploding into your retinas, supplanting the need for that once-vaunted imagination, the sheer balls it took to take your story and run with it. It's out of the top position in the box office, and things couldn't be better.

In any blistering revelation of culture, there are those who adapt to the demand and supply. The minnows who join the current. The players. They're capable of amazing things in a context, but aren't going to be wearing the same set of shades the next time you see them--fodder for the hungry mind and the shelf at the local mom and pop video junkstore.

And then, there's the real deal. The creators. The innovators. The bastards who were doing the exact same shit right beneath the scope of national recognition, who are content to just seize the fucking day for whatever it's worth, and go right back to what they were doing when the smoke fades. A little piece of zeitgeist amidst the usual creative struggle--unfettered by success, unfettered by failure, answering to their own expectations and pissing off studio heads every step of the way.

On this theme, Terry Gilliam can best be summed up with a quote he penned during an interview concerning the impending release of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas production, which was opening against Tristar's bloated Godzilla money machine:

"Walkouts are very important. I can't be sure that I've done my job until the actual screening. One or two is all right, but when we get to that vicinity of ten, I am fully reassured. Fear and Loathing had twelve in the first hour and a half."

Thank You, Roger Ebert

Gilliam is not a man of material means. Despite where the public has chosen to appreciate him--from the Fisher King and his Monty Python contributions--and utterly despised his name--Fear and Loathing's nose-dive from sixth place to unlisted on the box office charts in the span of two weeks comes to mind--he has never faltered in his inquiries into his own artistic fury. Terry Gilliam does whatever the fuck it is that Terry Gilliam set out to do, and in doing so, has become the most underappreciated director and celluloid genius of the last half-century. Gilliam is one of the last great storytellers of his era; outlasting Polanski's age, Lucas's transition from firebrand to father figure, and Speilberg's Dreamworks chapter. While that cadre of Tinsel Town deities will always impress with their work, Gilliam has never been compromised by the whole major studio grooming trip. He's just been his own son of a bitch through the entire thirty years--rebel, loudmouth, visionary.

Three of Terry's best works fit into a sort of impromptu trilogy, outlining the influence of fantasy on the human condition through youth, middle age, and the golden years. Time Bandits introduced what would become Gilliam's cinematic staples: a troupe of utterly flawed and odd heroes waging war against the forces of normalcy and absolute evil. Brazil followed as one of Gilliam's more universally acclaimed films--laying in the punches with a story set in an Orwellian future, it also had the benefit of a more Americanized cast to sell on the audiences. Despite the shower of accolades, Gilliam was back to his old tricks some four years later, when he unleashed The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on the world--a bizarre tale about an obscure German folk hero, and possibly one of the best movies you've never seen.

As with the mannerisms of the man himself, Gilliam's movies take on an unrepentant beauty in the early going. You know that you're in for a treat from the first few minutes of Baron Munchausen: thousands of Turkish soldiers bombarding the walls of an unnamed European city with cannonballs and bodies flying, against the inset introduction of "The 18th Century: The Age of Reason".

A moment later, the inset changes. Against the belching of smoke, fire, bullets, debris, and the carnage of man's suffering, it simply reads... "Wednesday". And so it begins.

In an effort to distract the citizenry from the horrors of the impending Turkish invasion, the local theater troupe has appropriated itself into a production of "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen", a play outlining the amazing adventures of the principle character and his manservants. Within moments, the entire show has been crashed and ruined by a decrepit lunatic claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen--although the general disgust shown to this rhetoric by the adults is understandable, young Sally Salt is intrigued enough to tag along in the old man's wake. No time is wasted in reinforcing her curiosity; within moments, she's chased off the grim reaper and stood by in slack-jawed shock as this Munchausen rides a mortar shell through the midnight sky, then catches a cannonball in a returning trajectory.

Desperate for any sort of aid in their bleakest hour, the citizens of the doomed city manage to convince Munchausen, be he the genuine article or not, to be their champion against the Turkish battalions. With Sally riding shotgun, the Baron sets off to collect the members of his scattered gang: Berthold, who can outrun the wind itself and must wear heavy leg irons at all times to keep his powerful legs under control; Adolphus, whose superhuman eyesight affords him incredible abilities with a rifle; Albrecht, a mountain of a man whose ability to lift the entire treasury of the Turkish Empire may or may not have led to the current military conflict depending on who you believe; and lastly, Gustavus, whose incredible hearing is overshadowed by his ability to level entire armies with a well-placed breath.

Mel and Jenkies at Home.

Munchausen's quest is aptly titled. An adventure in every sense of the word, the Baron and his young tagalong ride an airship to the moon, plummet to the core of a volcano, sink into the belly of a monstrous fish and still manage to save the day--all brought to life in Gilliam's utterly indomitable style and scathing wit. No mistake can be made despite the epic scope and then-inflated budget of the picture.. despite all the goodies at his fingertips, Gilliam never lets the visual grandeur overshadow the strength of the fantastic narrative, no matter how incredible the locale'. Constructed before the advent of computer animation, the effect elements of the film are nothing short of artwork. Gilliam pulls off some impossible shots amidst some amicably cheesy effects, and ensures that every frame of film is packed with as much organic life as possible. From the shredded tatters of the town under siege to the tip of the moon, from the coolest Angel of Death ever captured on the oversized screen (Barely edging Top Hat from Lance Mungia's Six-String Samurai) to the emergence of Venus on a half-open shell, no drop of brilliance goes unsqueezed into the proceedings.


As ingenious as Gilliam's mechanics are, he also knows the strength of any story worth telling relies on the players. As with his other works, this motley crew pops on every applicable cylinder. John Neville, a name of the British and Canadian stage, cranks out an inspired performance in the title role. His Munchausen makes the effortless transition between dashing gentleman and cantankerous old bastard without ever losing firm grip of the Baron's utter disregard for the rules and regulations of reality--he's a man out of any sort of logic, and Neville's characterization is worthy of building a movie of this magnitude on. Jonathan Pryce paints up the evil side of things as the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, a self-professed man of science and reason whose utter disdain for Munchausen's antics is tangible with every word mangled by an unidentifiable accent. Sarah Polley, the little girl who grew into young disillusioned Hollywood, has enough tenacity to pull Sally's role out of the realm of kiddy obnoxiousness. Eric Idle also pitches in some fine comic timing as Berthold, and by far makes the most memorable impression of Munchausen's manservants. The late, great Oliver Reed also devours some of the flick's best lines as the forge god Vulcan, here a lovestruck hothead who can't overcome an impasse with his union of cycloptic employees. Robin Williams also ravages an otherwise downplayed role as the King of the Moon, not only blowing up the role to scene-stealing proportions, but also reminding us all when his kinetic comedy was crisp... before the Millennium Man fall.

If he really knew everything, then he never would have made "What Dreams May Come"

As with anything worth falling in love with, the Adventures of Baron Munchausen isn't for everyone. The frenetic visuals and gonzo story details are enough to send any IKEA-shopping motherfucker scrambling for safety, but that's exactly why this movie is required viewing for any lunatic fringe geek: in a society where everything's tailored to the masses, it's nice to have something weird enough to call your own. Munchausen is sheer bliss for anyone scratching a pencil tip to paper, banging out a script on a weary keyboard or creating something from the heart in obscurity. Just push play, and let the creation do the talking.


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